IoB Insiders: Shared spectrum – the age of exclusivity is over
IoB Insiders: The certain uncertainties of 5G

IoB Insiders: Shared spectrum – the age of exclusivity is over

IoB Insiders Adam Leach, director of R&D at domain registry Nominet, addresses how increasing IP traffic from Internet of Things (IoT) devices will affect the current spectrum model.

Imagine if air traffic control didn’t exist; each airline owned a portion of air space that was theirs alone to fly through, or not. In such a world of exclusivity, air travel would be slower, more complicated, less efficient and more expensive, with air space left vacant while some passengers remain stranded.

It sounds nonsensical, yet this is currently happening with radio spectrum, resulting in the same limitations and problems. Exclusive spectrum rights see large telecommunications operators able to effectively control where internet is enabled, based on business strategies, leaving areas of spectrum underutilized, while other areas go without a reliable broadband connection.

The aviation industry recognizes that sharing air space is necessary to maximize available resources and provide reliable services to passengers, not to mention cope with high demand. There are almost one million passengers in the air at any one time; a feat only possible with a flexible, shared strategy for air space. If the same equitable approach could be applied to radio spectrum, the benefits would be equally far-reaching.

As an increasing amount of internet traffic goes wireless – two-thirds of total IP traffic will be from wireless devices and smartphones by 2020 – so must the spectrum model evolve to make best use of a limited resource and ensure the full potential of new technologies, such as IoT, can be realized. With 50 billion devices expected to be connected to the internet by 2020, the spectrum model needs to be one that best serves users and supports the growth.

Related: How will Vodafone’s NB-IoT network affect IoT device manufacturers?

Part of the problem is the focus on faster internet speeds – a promise offered by the still largely-unknown 5G network – when the more pressing need is for reliability and consistency. Professor William Webb, an academic and former director of Ofcom, has warned that the current vision of 5G is “flawed” as “speed of data connection is now becoming more important than consistency.” This comes at a time when reliability is crucial, when many aspects of our daily lives rely on internet-connected devices.

A new spectrum model will also address some of the current infrastructure issues evident by the failure of 4G to deliver on its promises. A recent, critical report from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) found that the UK is 54th in the world in regards to 4G service, with users only accessing it 53% of the time.

“The UK is languishing in the digital slow lane,” said the NIC chair Lord Andrew Adonis. “This isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce.”

The report explicitly warned that “allocation of nationwide spectrum allowances could leave large areas of the UK fallow”, calling for Ofcom to review new options to “maximize access to the radio spectrum.”

One solution is dynamic spectrum management, which Nominet is exploring using a TV white space (TVWS) database that utilizes spectrum left vacant after the digital TV switchover. Our TVWS expertise has enabled us, with Broadway Partners, to roll out the first commercial broadband of its kind in Europe on the remote Scottish island of Arran, where residents and visitors have struggled with poor connections. We are also working with Microsoft to use our TVWS database to boost connectivity in Africa.

Related: IoB Insiders: What jobs do we want IoT to do?

These are just two examples of how a flexible approach to spectrum can meet the challenges of internet connectivity and enable more people to get online. In this modern age, it is easy to forget that many households across the UK are still without fast broadband connections – or without internet access at all. According to the Office for National Statistics, 11 percent of the country’s households don’t have internet connections – approximately 2.9 million households. Dynamic use of spectrum will help better serve those who go without and lessen the digital divide within the UK.

A new spectrum-sharing model will also prove vital for economic development as IoT becomes increasingly integral to businesses. As IoT technology develops, more industries will use devices within their operations – from manufacturing businesses to health care services – and these will require consistent, reliable and high quality data connections that are secure and meet strict internal regulations.

Analyst Dean Bubley of Disruptive Wireless is vocal on this topic, suggesting that “if industry and society are to benefit from Industrial IoT, automation, smart systems using AI, and a whole host of other innovations”, the “best way to deliver this is via shared-spectrum models.”

Most importantly, we have to recognize that there are many unknowns in the future of the internet. A flexible approach to spectrum is vital in an environment of evolving, emerging technologies where the next innovation is impossible to predict, and yet must be catered for to benefit industry and the wider society.

Spectrum regulation needs to be able to adjust and support changing technologies or else become the cause of inefficiency, inconsistency and potential harm. The age of exclusivity is over, and change is non-negotiable.

By Adam Leach, Director of Research and Development at Nominet

Related: US Department of Commerce wants change in policy towards IoT