Wireless capacity: are we going to hit the wall?

Last week we talked about the “coming of 5G” wireless telecommunications service and the load it will put on the system that moves voice, data and other signals around the globe. Will the astounding growth of wireless devices and the burgeoning Internet of Things push us to the point where we hit the wall, literally chew up all of the available spectrum capacity of frequencies used for wireless telecommunications? If so, the performance of wireless equipment, including boating electronics, could be seriously impacted.

A large portion of the wireless communications industry thinks a spectrum crunch is likely and is scrambling to come up with solutions. At the same time many technical experts disagree, arguing that it’s not a problem—certainly not one of crisis proportions. This week and next we take a closer look.


By Ev Collier

The spectrum consists of all types of electromagnetic radiated energy that travels in space and spreads out as it goes.  Light that comes from a lamp and radio waves from a radio station are just two flavors of electromagnetic radiation. The other types of electromagnetic radiation that make up the electromagnetic spectrum are microwaves, infrared light, ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma-rays. Add to that all of the wireless devices that use the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit and receive data and the spectrum is becoming so loaded with data, voice, video from phones, radios, airport beacons, radar and navigation signals that there is concern that our communications networks could fail.  The results could include dropped calls, slowed data exchange speeds and increasing costs.  In fact, in London during the 2012 Olympic Games Britain’s Office of Communication had to borrow part of the military spectrum to ensure that audio, visual and sensor feeds didn’t fail altogether.

When the spectrum was first divided up, frequency bands were allotted to various user groups.  The authorities tended to treat the spectrum as an unlimited resource.  Bands of frequencies were allocated for broadcast radio and television, navigation, astronomy, maritime, aeronautics, military and many others.  The problem comes about because certain of these areas grew much faster than others.  Cellphones are a great example. 

This area is growing much more rapidly than anyone expected both in the number of users and the types of services provided, not just voice, but text messaging, images and streaming video traffic.  Cell service providers are already employing various traffic management schemes to ensure service including limiting the maximum download speeds (called throttling), and prioritizing certain types of use—voice over data or video, etc.  And this does not include the anticipated impact of 5G.

There are the rapidly expanding Internet of Things (IoT) in all of its various forms, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT), the Internet of Ocean Things, (IoOT), the Internet of Underwater Things (IoUT), and, of course, the inevitable Internet of Everything (IoET). These are expected to put an enormous strain on the available unlicensed spectrum.  And this is not to mention the plain old growth in all other wireless services, such as satellite, radar, driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles of all types.  I think it’s fair to say that a spectrum capacity insufficient to support the rapid growth of these areas is something to be concerned about.


Looking at solutions

But what about those who disagree, at least with the “crisis” nature of the problem.  These wireless technology experts are optimistic about the number and variety of available solutions.  Their reluctance to buy into the “crisis” characterization is expressed in trade publication articles with titles like: The Spectrum Crunch That Wasn’t,”  “AT&T Admits There’s No Spectrum Crisis,” and FCC: Fear the Spectrum Crunch That Doesn’t Exist.”  

Frequency reallocation. Some have suggested that the problem is not so much a spectrum capacity crisis as it is inefficiency in spectrum allocation.  Joe Hersey is former head of the US Coast Guard’s Spectrum Management Division, which is responsible for maritime safety telecommunication policy as well as for radio frequencies within the Coast Guard.

“There may be some truth to that, although I believe it also to be an exaggeration,” Hersey says. “The government has discovered that significant revenue could be obtained by auctioning spectrum, which is politically preferable than raising taxes.”  

The Federal Communications Commission had recognized the problem in its National Broadband Plan (2010) and planned to add some 500 MHz.  That would nearly double the amount of spectrum currently available.  They’d accomplish this through spectrum voluntarily given up by owners in return for a share of the proceeds and by freeing up underutilized government spectrum and reallocating it for commercial mobile broadband use.

However, as of December 2017, only about 50 MHz of the targeted 500 MHz had been acquired.  So, it would appear that there is more to the solution than the mere reallocation of existing but underused spectrum.

The folks in academia and others in the technological community agree that the entire spectrum system is managed inefficiently, but tend to view the solution as a bit more complex than simply reallocating spectrum.  They point out that the sharing of existing wireless frequencies more widely and more efficiently rather than parceling each band out to a limited set of users could increase capacity by a factor of thousands.  They cite unused spectrum as an example.  Many sections of the airwaves that are reserved for TV stations and federal agencies go unused.  That’s partly because some areas only have a few local TV stations and no need for the remaining spectrum set aside for that area.  And, in the case of military weapon systems some use a lot of spectrum in one geographic locale but little or none in another.

Maritime comes up short on broadband

According to Hersey, “The maritime community can also benefit from spectrum sharing, and not just by improved smartphone capacity near cell towers ashore.  There is no broadband spectrum allocated to maritime.  Ships are now able to obtain broadband service far offshore through VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) services such as KVH and Inmarsat. VSAT systems use spectrum primarily allocated to the fixed satellite service, which uses land-based earth stations exclusively.”


Next week: Technology to the rescue


About the author

Ev Collier is an electrical engineer, an avid cruising sailor and amateur boat builder. He was most recently director of technology for the Precision Materials Group at GTE. Collier is a member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, the American Boat & Yacht Council and National Association of Corrosion Engineers, and the author of The Boatowner’s Guide to Corrosion.


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Comments | Leave a Comment
Page 1 of 3 ( 11 comments)

Hard-Over with Brushed APilot Pump:(12/18/2017 5:37:05 PM) "Jim.
What do you mean by ...."Garmin GHP 20 with SmartPump...Because it is a brushless system, it is fail-safe and won’t execute a hard-over turn the way a brushed pump can."

Thanks for the note. Since the description came from Garmin I contacted the company for an explanation. Here's what one of their engineers told me:

On brushed DC actuators, a single-point failure in the drive circuit (shorted wire or blown component inside the controller) could cause the motor to run full speed in one direction and take the rudder all the way to one rail. A brushless actuator relies on timing-controlled commutation, so a short or component fail would cause the actuator to stop moving rather than moving at full speed.

Hope this helps,

trawlerdeejay:(10/13/2017 3:46:51 PM) "Excellent article. I had no idea what the differences were between o183 and 2000, Thank you so much."
Darryl:(3/27/2017 10:17:15 PM) "Putting the MSRP with each unit reviewed would have been helpful. If each unit was actually tested, the reports on each unit would have been helpful too.

Thanks Darryl---we generally don't mention prices due to confusion over so many variations---MSRP (mfg. suggested retail price), MAP (min. advertised price), MRP (min. resale price) and then there are internet prices on some websites that go their own way. But your point is well taken--buyers need to know if something is in their price range. We'll work on it.
There is independent testing of some of these products on sites like panbo.com but the information we receive from manufacturers rarely cites the results of any shootouts they may conduct against the competition's products. "
Laurie Seibert:(2/16/2017 2:00:20 AM) "Thanks EV Collier for sharing this informative blog. It is important to know the causes of EMI filters. We use these parts in our daily life in the electronic products so we should know that what are the causes are cures of EMI Filters.

Great job and keep updating!

Laurie Seibert
Yes:(2/10/2017 7:22:40 AM) "EMI/RFI filter causes and cure. There are very few people who share such information with everyone. I was looking to read such informative blog!

Great job!

Lisa Wilson
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