Spectrum – Is it all about access?

By | May 13, 2018

Spectrum access rights, to a spectrum frequency band, have traditionally been allocated to certain industry sector users by the ITU and in turn licensed by national regulators, typically on an exclusive rights basis. Recently, we have also seen a significant growth in the open “unlicensed” spectrum ranges, such as Wi-Fi where access is given by allowing “sharing” or operators’ use on non-exclusive basis.

The access issue is fundamental to us, as individuals, to businesses, and indeed to the ways modern societies function. It is even more clear to those of us who might have experienced the situation where “access is denied” in one shape or form or has been prevented. We become the real and metaphorical fighters for what one could loosely call “open access”.

Thinking back over the past 100 years, spectrum access issues are not much different from those researched and implemented by various access pricing regimes, including so called free services and, for example, network wholesale access in telecommunications, sharing the internet and in many other network industries such as utilities, logistics and transport, and even education. It is generally accepted that wider access to all or any different global networks contributes to prosperity of a nation.

Governments usually decide who is going to have the control of the assets in question, who sets the price, and what type of access to research facilities/activities can benefit the wider public – such as today in the growing development of the space industry. It is Governments and in turn regulators who hold the reins in the release of new spectrum band rights. What is usually subject to litigation and extended debates, is the extent to which and where that access should take place (e.g. poor geographic local coverage problems).

Spectrum, or more precisely wider access to it and cheaper spectrum, and the basis upon which others can make use of it, will shape the future of communication industry and many related industries. The reluctance of policy makers in opening the wider access to available and cheaper spectrum seems to be driven in part by fear of disrupting the “status quo” and difficulties in anticipating some significant market changes that are likely to follow. New network investments will be required by mobile operators for both spectrum and network infrastructure and this will have some significant cost implications.

Spectrum is the foundation but obviously, there is considerable research work being undertaken by different (mainly academic) institutions such as in space, health and transport. What appears currently not to be very clear is how this work can be used for the benefit of the wider public – some may call it “retail” markets, namely who is the customer? The problems are compounded by the general lack of transparency of industry cost structures, hindering potential market entrants from evaluating business potential.

Where are the profits?

So far most firms that might be interested in using spectrum (or access, such as the space industry) cannot easily see their way to profitability and those that do often tend to rely heavily on public funding. Government handouts rarely work for business success and “access” to financial markets is often expensive particularly for smaller players.

The current high level of uncertainty and general business reluctance to engage in what is perceived to be more high risk industries, may relate to their inability to evaluate any future business potential.

Our thinking needs to change and a new vision of opportunities for profitable investments needs to be articulated by those in the position of power. This will also require new thinking on measurement of business transactions and commercial risks. More open access for radio spectrum should mean the opportunity for many more businesses to deliver the products and services for us all.

And this is precisely where policy makers should make the greatest impact without which we will continue discussing the pros and cons of last decade’s technologies and bemoan the successes of different, more knowledge driven regimes.

by Anna Coast and Bob Franklin