Sunday, April 19, 2015

Much Ado About Spectrum Crunch

After decades of growing access to the Internet, faster speeds and more bandwidth, and all the new technologies that come with that -- a tech boom that has spanned many of our entire lives, we're about to run into a pretty sturdy ceiling on this thing.
- Extra Credits, "Spectrum Crunch" (June 14, 2012)

"Right now, we have a 15-to-20 year backlog of new technologies and architectures ... which can take us a long way into the future."
- David Tennenhouse, VP of Technology Policy at Microsoft, quoted in the MIT Technology Review (November 26, 2012)

Let's start out by saying that I'm a fan of the folks at Extra Credits. They generally do a good job of covering topics of interest to the gaming community, and sometimes come up with absolutely amazing episodes that expand the sum of human knowledge -- their take-down of the game "Call of Juarez: the Cartel" pointed out both how lazily designed the game was as well as highlighting that the game both trivializes and misleads about a major source of tragedy -- the drug war between Mexican cartels and the Mexican government.

With that said, the Extra Credits folks, particularly the guy who does the major share of the writing and comes up with many of the topics, James Portnow, doesn't always get his bat on the ball, so to speak, and has some blind spots that he, to his credit, seems to be trying to work on. One of his biggest blind spots is that James isn't a technologist, he's a game designer, so while the episode on spectrum crunch listed in the opening quote looked well-researched on first viewing, it's quickly clear that a lot of what is being cited is simply releases from other folks commenting on the issue, much of which is done without bothering to analyze whether the information is wholly accurate** or whether the reason the information is being released has some ulterior purpose.

** - Best example: the video notes that, according to the FCC, the 'average iPad' uses 122 times the spectrum of an old-style, pre-smart-phone era cellular phone. I'm not sure how the FCC is defining 'average', though, because a significant portion of iPads, perhaps even a majority, use exactly zero cellular bandwidth, because they don't have a cellular modem (it's hard to tell because Apple doesn't provide a breakdown of iPads sold by type -- they've only released total sales by quarter -- but since the models with the cell modem are more expensive, and since they also need to have their 'wireless plan' turned on for the cell modem to be usable, it's probably a more accurate statement to say that a majority of iPads, even a majority of iPads with cell modems in them, use very little if any cellular bandwidth in any given month). According to Cisco Systems, 'mobile connected tablets' (which includes both iPads and Android tablets) consumed just over 2 gigabytes of mobile data per month in 2014. (With over 100 million iPads sold since the start of 2013 through the middle of 2014, this means that the 'average' iPad is using about 20 kilobytes of cellular bandwidth, defined as mean usage. This is pretty clearly not what the FCC is talking about when they talk about the 'average' iPad.) This total is pretty big compared to total bandwidth used by smartphones (which averaged 819 megabytes of mobile data per month during the same time period), but it's just a bit less than that used by cell-equipped laptops (which consumed 2.6 gigabytes of data per month).

This is how you publish an episode about 'hey, there's this big problem coming that's going to have a major impact on gaming', and less than 6 months later find an article published by MIT that basically says 'yeah, it's something to keep an eye on, but nothing to really worry about'.

So what is 'spectrum crunch'? That's the name given to a potential crisis deriving from a basic scientific understanding: that information broadcast through the air can only be done through certain frequencies (mostly in the radio portion of the electomagnetic spectrum, as infrared and visible light tend to be blocked by most physical objects, and ultraviolet and higher frequencies tend to be dangerous and/or lethal), and the number of usable frequencies is finite, because frequencies can't be infinitely sub-divided.

So how did the Extra Credits folks end up falling for the hype? And how do I know it's mostly hype? Well, consider the following:

'Spectrum Crunch' will always manifest as a local, not a global, problem

The presentation of spectrum crunch as a problem always seems to presume that it's a problem that's going to affect everyone -- everyone in the US, everyone in the world, what-have-you. But radio transmission really only ever takes place over a limited region -- that's why you can have one radio station broadcasting on one frequency in Minneapolis, for example, and another broadcasting on the exact same frequency in Madison, because the reach of those broadcasters is such that the station in Minneapolis isn't going to have any significant impact on the signal from Madison and vice versa (the possible exception being the very small area on a direct line between the broadcast towers and exactly half-way between them).

What this means is that while New York City is already suffering to some degree from spectrum crunch (go read reviews of the various wireless companies as listed online by folks who live and work in Manhattan for an example), folks in, say, Bozeman, Montana aren't going to feel the crunch for quite some time, if ever. This is small comfort to folks who live in New York City, but it's good news for the rest of us, because we can get a feel for just how significant the issue is becoming by watching how it's being handled in places like NYC and Los Angeles -- if enough technological work-arounds and new technology tricks are introduced to defer problems with spectrum crunch in NYC, then Minneapolis isn't going to notice any problems with spectrum crunch over that same time period.

This also suggests that spectrum crunch may have some positive effects -- for instance, a 'mobile office' isn't really useful if you don't have enough spectrum to be able to run your mobile office. But as markets evolve to the point where you don't need to have your office in the same geographic location as your customers, people will be motivated to move away from the spectrum-crowded huge cities out to less populated cities and even into rural areas being served by wireless network services. This distributed spectrum usage then creates more distributed use of other resources as well.

There are technological work-arounds already in place

The MIT Technology Review article cited in the opening quotes starts out by asking the reader to imagine a stadium, filled with sports fans or concert fans, all using their phones to send data to their friends. What do you suppose the impact is on the local wireless spectrum around the stadium?

The surprising answer is 'none'. Strategically placed through the stadium are a number of small boxes that contain wireless receivers connected to routers. Those receivers pretend to be cell phone towers so that phones will connect to them (since they are closer and thus have a stronger signal), but those receivers then route the traffic they receive onto a wired Internet connection out of the stadium and onto the global web. As long as the folks installing the receivers put enough of them in the stadium to cover the maximum possible bandwidth usage by people inside the stadium, the folks there won't even notice (except maybe once in a while if enough people connected to the same receiver try sending/receiving information at the same time).

You can do something similar for your own bandwidth -- for instance, if you live in a large apartment complex, you'll be better off connecting your phone to your own wi-fi network than using the cell network. Not only will you save on cell data charges, but by not sending your traffic over the cell network, you're not contributing to a local spectrum crunch.

This kind of off-loading is becoming increasingly common, by the way -- the same Cisco article linked above notes that 2.2 exabytes of mobile traffic was off-loaded into wired networks each month in 2014, which is over a billion times as much traffic as was generated by tablets.

Future technological advances are already on the way

In what might count as ironic, one of the reasons that cell carriers seem so excited to roll out higher speed networks is that, in doing so, they defer spectrum crunch.

How? Well, consider that most Internet usage doesn't require a continuous connection. Sending e-mail, loading up photos to Snapchat, updating your status on Facebook, those things require a connection to send the information, and then the connection is no longer needed. The faster you're able to complete your task, the sooner your connection is off the network, and the sooner that bandwidth is available for someone else to use.

The one area where I will concede that the Extra Credits folks have a good point to make is that gaming is one of the few online applications that does require a continuous connection -- the example games listed in the YouTube video linked above would require continuous connections, and thus wouldn't be affected by improving speed (if anything, better speed might convince game developers to increase data transfer for the game, since the faster network can ostensibly 'handle it'). So there is a possibility that, if the spectrum crunch does become less and less able to be mitigated with technology work-arounds, local governments might start imposing usage limits on cellular network use that would have a huge impact on gaming. But that just segues into the last point...

The 'spectrum crunch' is as much a political issue as a technological one

The radio spectrum is presumed to be 'owned by the public', which is why the federal government licenses its use. The Federal Communications Commission does this, along with other duties, on behalf of the public. You may have most recently heard of the FCC with respect to the rules they passed in support of so-called 'net neutrality', but that's just a small part of their overall responsibilities.

However, it should be noted that the Commissioner of the FCC, the one who issued the report that made 'spectrum crunch' into a thing, was Julius Genachowski, who had worked mainly as an attorney prior to his appointment to the FCC. He had worked as a Chief of Business Operations for a technology company and also co-founded another, but his background wasn't in technology, it was in law and business. Likewise, the current Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, was previously head of the National Cable Television Association, head of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, and CEO of a private investment firm. In fact, it's hard to find anybody with a chairpersonship in the FCC who actually has a technology background -- one commissioner actually lists in his bio that his "focus is on creating a regulatory environment in which competition and innovation will flourish, thus benefitting American consumers. He believes that it is vital for the FCC to adopt policies that will give private firms the strongest incentive to raise and invest capital; to develop new products and services; and to compete in established and new markets."

It is therefore telling that the FCC's published advice on the 'spectrum crunch' issue is largely to make more spectrum available to wireless broadband providers.

It is true that, as noted in the MIT article, the federal government has had a very low-tech approach to licensing the radio spectrum, especially for military use -- it's noted that the government has licensed specific frequencies for military use across the country, even where the military requirements for such use occur only in a few specific areas. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that increased licensing is just as much a stop-gap measure as technological work-arounds are -- eventually you'll run out of extra spectrum to license. The real kicker is that wireless providers have already paid billions of dollars in auctions for parts of the spectrum, and are clearly hoping that having political allies in Washington will allow them to get additional spectrum for much less cost.

In other words, business as usual for major corporations in the US. It might have been nice if some of the comments used in the Extra Credits video had been analyzed to realize just how self-serving they were, in an attempt to make the issue seem much more of a crisis than it really is.

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