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Wireless spectrum crunch is on its way: CSIRO

The growing pace of wireless communication demand could lead to a bandwidth 'spectrum crunch' within the next six years, according to the CSIRO.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The demand for wireless communications in Australia is on track to reach 'peak data', outstripping the available radio frequency bandwidth spectrum by 2020, according to a report published by the CSIRO.

The white paper, A World Without Wires, suggests that a growing number of cities worldwide, including Australia's capital cities, have already experienced or will soon face the prospect of 'wireless crunches', where user demand for data outstrips the spectrum bands and bandwidth available on current network infrastructure.

According to the report, bottlenecks in the network, particularly in the juncture of backhaul systems, need to be resolved if wireless communication is to be sustainable for the longer term.

"Today's technologies and infrastructure will be hard pressed to support further increases in demand — both in terms of speed and volume for wireless data and services over the short term, let alone the decades yet to follow," the report said.

"The data rates that people now expect from their mobile services are about a hundred times the amount we thought possible only two decades ago," said Dr. Ian Oppermann, the CSIRO's director of digital productivity and services flagship research initiative.

"Currently the useable spectrum is divided up and allocated to various uses, such as TV/radio broadcast, emergency services, and mobile phone communications," he said. "In the future, how spectrum is allocated may change and we can expect innovation to find new ways to make it more efficient but the underlying position is that spectrum is an increasingly rare resource."

The report highlights findings by the Australian Communications and Media Authority suggesting that spectrum demand will have almost tripled by 2020.

"Existing infrastructure will need to rapidly expand its currently available capacity if it's to meet this demand," said Oppermann. "With more and more essential services, including medical, education and government services, being delivered digitally and on mobile devices, finding a solution to 'peak data' will become ever more important into the future."

According to the white paper, remedies to the wireless spectrum squeeze utilising existing technologies — including the offloading of data loads to WiFi networks when available — are stop-gap measures at best.

"It will be increasingly challenging ... for these incremental boosts to existing technologies' efficiency to keep up with the accelerating pace of demand," the report said.

The report suggests that, Australia, with its large geographic distances, is particularly susceptible to the wireless crunch, and tackling Australia's rural 'digital divide' will require a mix of technologies that can make more efficient use of the available spectrum.

The CSIRO recommends at least a few strategies to counter the effects of increasing spectrum demand, suggesting that a dedicated spectrum for TV and telephony services will become a thing of the past and will likely be repurposed for the internet.

"There are three ways we can overcome this crunch: we can squeeze more data into the spectrum we currently use, contract the size of cells, or open up higher frequencies for allocation," said Rowan Gilmore, CEO of EM Solutions, in the report.

Gilmore said that each approach has its challenges, but that the technology to overcome the spectrum crunch is well on its way.

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