Realizing the Vision of Everywhere, Anytime Communication

Posted by Dan Reed
Corporate Vice President, Technology Strategy and Policy & Extreme Computing Group

Mobile and intelligent devices have become essential everyday tools in most of our lives as evidenced by the nearly 5 billion active cell phones in the world today and the rapidly emerging Internet of Things.

For many of us, it’s hard to remember a time when we couldn’t immediately respond to a time-sensitive e-mail,  access the latest video from a smartphone or connect our phones to our cars or other devices. However, the reality is that this seemingly seamless functionality comes at a cost. Every new download, upload or connection adds strain on a wireless communications network which is based on usable radio spectrum. That spectrum is intrinsically limited by the laws of physics and practical economics.

This week, in an effort to address the limitations of the current approach to managing wireless spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission will obtain comments in response to its Notice of Inquiry on dynamic radio spectrum access. We strongly support the FCC’s commitment to exploring more intensive and efficient use of the nation’s radio spectrum. It’s critical that we transform how spectrum is managed to accommodate the explosive growth in wireless data traffic that we’re experiencing today and that we anticipate will grow exponentially tomorrow (see chart).

Projected wireless data traffic growth through 2014 (source: FCC).

In support of the FCC’s efforts, Microsoft submitted comments highlighting our belief that the FCC must consider not only reallocation of spectrum for licensed use but also innovative technologies – such as dynamic spectrum access – that can make higher and better use of limited spectrum.

The Notice of Inquiry period builds on the FCC’s ruling in September, when the commission unanimously voted to finalize rules enabling the use of TV white spaces for wireless broadband connectivity. We applaud the FCC’s Inquiry, as it has the potential to allow more consumers to have broadband access and spur the kind of growth and innovation in wireless technologies that leads to true everywhere, anytime communication.

Microsoft has spent many years investigating new technologies that can increase productive use of spectrum, and we are committed to fostering the needed regulatory shifts that will make more underutilized spectrum available. Our ongoing “WhiteFi” trial project on our Redmond, Wash. campus was one of the first white spaces-based networks to use an experimental license from the FCC and covers the nearly 600-acre campus.

In addition to our comments, Microsoft Research sponsored a paper written by a leading academic researcher, Professor Dirk Grunwald of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Professor Grunwald’s paper expands upon the FCC’s developing belief that regulatory policies will need to promote greater spectrum efficiency through the use of new radio technologies.

He argues that the best targets for novel spectrum management techniques are underutilized spectrum bands (such as TV white spaces) that abut current unlicensed allocations. He also provides several examples of other spectrum bands that the FCC could open up for secondary uses—such as the 3550 to 3650 megahertz band because of its proximity to the lightly licensed 3650 to 3700 megahertz band.

As Professor Grunwald argues, “Revolutionizing the way that spectrum is managed is essential to meeting the future need for high-speed wireless broadband and enabling new wireless applications. This will entail adopting policies and technologies that allocate spectrum at different times, locations, and frequencies more efficiently.”

It’s important to note that the challenge of effective spectrum allocation is not specific to the U.S. market. It is an issue that affects our global economy and interactions. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, Switzerland about the growing global strain on available spectrum, where there were thoughtful ideas and exchanges on the shared problems of spectrum management. In speaking with others in industry, it is clear we all see the challenges ahead, although our proposed solutions may differ.

It’s critical that policymakers around the world recognize this dilemma and pursue nimble and efficient approaches to the developing spectrum crisis. Real-time spectrum access is key, as is allowing access to more spectrum using a mix of spectrum allocations, enabling complementary shorter-range and wide-area networks and increasing reliance on automated solutions. Adopting these advances will enhance the user experience by enabling literally billions of new devices as they go live over the course of the next decade on the Internet of Things.

In many countries, including the United Kingdom, Finland and Japan, researchers are developing trial technologies that explore how to facilitate more dynamic spectrum sharing. These include cognitive radios, online databases that automate spectrum allocation and data networks that can dynamically modulate their transmission power.

Everywhere, anytime communication is a notable result of recent computing advances, but it’s dependent upon available bandwidth, and that bandwidth is finite. Spectrum is, in many ways,  like a natural resource that has to be managed judiciously, especially if we are to continue to advance the digital economy and leverage technology to drive innovation—to create new services, new business models, new ways of communicating and living for the betterment of society.