Is the Wireless Spectrum Becoming Too Crowded?

It’s commonly assumed that the internet has unlimited scale and scope, but our existing technological infrastructure occupies a limited volume of bandwidth. Many people fail to realize that the wireless internet is becoming increasingly congested with each new Internet of Things-enabled machine and every new wireless entertainment device.

Crowded House

Despite the global adoption of wireless standards like IEEE802.11, our established infrastructure wasn’t intended to cope with the meteoric growth in devices that would attempt to communicate with each other.

Another little-known fact is that wireless signals begin to degrade when they are competing against other devices for the same bandwidth space. That’s perhaps unsurprising when you consider that 1.4 billion smartphones were sold in 2015 alone, and every device is operating across a finite wireless spectrum. With tablets also operating on similar frequencies, and everything from cars to fridges now capable of streaming data online, there is an inexorable slowdown in transfer speeds. Research has indicated over two thirds of residential wifi problems are caused by domestic devices like microwaves or cordless headphones.

Frequency Bands Consumed By Wireless Demand

This wouldn’t be such a problem if wireless demand was evenly spaced across the GHz frequencies. However, there is insatiable demand for certain frequency bands, while others are barely used. The 2.4GHz band is particularly pressurized, leading some observers to suggest it may become unusable by priority systems that simply can’t afford signal loss. One recent investigation uncovered a UK intensive care hospital where a staff communications system kept failing due to patients innocently watching streamed entertainment from their hospital beds. Because the 2.4GHz frequency is unlicensed, there is effectively no way to regulate the number of local devices attempting to communicate across this overcrowded and unmanaged spectrum. No wonder baby monitors are known in the industry as ‘RF jammers’, causing packet loss and interference to other devices.

Do We Need Government Regulation?

It would be unfair to say our governments haven’t tried to address this issue, but their response has been inadequate. Despite receiving $60 billion from the sale of cellular spectrum space over the last twenty years, the US Government has largely left mobile phone operators to manage bandwidth demand, such as introducing new base stations in high-traffic areas. The proliferation of these picocells has failed to provide sufficient backup for the main mast towers, and in some cases it has caused conflict with these larger signal providers. The result can be phone calls that don’t connect or unexpected packet loss leading to interrupted data files. If you’re binge-watching ‘The Walking Dead’ on Amazon Prime, that’s not such a big deal. If you’re trying to call an ambulance, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

Expansion Is the Future

While academic research is focusing on identifying (and exploiting) gaps in the existing spectrum, or accelerating data transfer speeds to relieve congestion, the future of wireless communications will inevitably involve expansion. Although it’s still at the developmental stage, it’s anticipated that 5G will rely on what is known as a Massive Dense Network (MDN). Rather than the current system of triangulation, MDN would use dozens of antennas across each square mile to ensure an always-on signal.

The adoption of radio spectrums above the 6GHz frequency will also open up far more bandwidth, adding extra lanes to the information superhighway. Many future IoT devices will demand a stable (and consistently rapid) connection speed, so the combination of greater infrastructure and extra bandwidth should help to ensure tomorrow’s wireless devices don’t suffer today’s dropouts and degradation.

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