IoT, the Frequency Spectrum, and Increasing Resource Demands

Published: May 31, 2019

e-GovernmentFCCInformation Technology

Less-expensive technologies have boosted the Internet of Things market and the massive growth of IoT is driving concerns about space on the Frequency Spectrum.

The space on the Frequency Spectrum is a limited resource, and at the current pace of advancing IT and the Internet of Things (IoT), the demand for spectrum space is on course to outgrow the supply. While not as vital to sustaining life as water and rainforests, if the demand for space becomes greater than the supply, many lives will be adversely affected.

Connections to IoT

In recent years, technology, such as smartphones and other innovative devices, have become less expensive, which puts them in the hands of more people. To date, 5 billion people globally are estimated to have mobile devices, according to Pew Research Center, and half of those devices are smartphones. More astonishingly, in countries with advanced economies, ownership rates can top 90 percent. In South Korea, 95 percent of the citizens have smartphones and 88 percent in Israel.

The main purpose for smartphone and other high-bandwidth devices is connecting to the Internet via the Frequency Spectrum. Unlike in past generations, people are constantly transmitting mobile voice and data through invisible networks. They connect to nearby Wifi networks to access the Internet wirelessly, listen to music through Bluetooth headphones, track their fitness levels on wrist bands, and watch their kids sleep soundly in another room.

All of these technologies are considered a part of the IoT. IoT generally refers to connected devices, or “things,” that use a network to communicate with one another and process data. IoT are connected through wireless networks, such as Wide Area Networks, Local Area Networks, and personal networks.

With the growth of the IoT market, the demand for the Spectrum space has increased and is pushing the Spectrum to full tilt. It’s estimated that, in 2013, more than 9 billion devices globally were connected to the Internet, and the number is likely to increase to more than 50 billion as soon as 2022, according to reports.

The economic market is driving toward huge growth. The global IoT market is expected to grow from $151 billion in 2018 to $1.567 trillion by 2025. The worldwide technology spending on IoT is expected to attain a compound annual growth rate of 13.6% over the 2017-2022 forecast period.

Tracking IoT on the Frequency Spectrum

In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission’s own technical advisors and other experts told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that one identified risk to effective spectrum management is the rapid, unexpected growth in both high-bandwidth devices and unlicensed spectrum. The boom in recent years of these smartphones devices and the ability to connect wirelessly to the Internet overwhelmed wireless networks. It forced officials to move quickly to match the new needs.

The demand for spectrum space is pushing the U.S. Government and other nations to track the increasing use of the bandwidth in the space available. Experts say a failure to develop preparation strategies for constantly changing needs could weaken the IoT growth and the IT industry in the United States.

Spectrum Waves

GAO officials have recommended the FCC track the growth in high-bandwidth IoT devices, such as video-streaming devices and optical sensors, in order to be prepared for what’s to come in the next few years.

However, the FCC “lacks an early warning system for high-risk sectors,” GAO warned in 2018. “Rapid, unexpected growth in these IoT sectors could lead to spectrum congestion and interference that could slow or halt the economic growth associated with IoT until FCC can make additional spectrum available.”

In response, Julius Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the FCC, told GAO that the best approach is to monitor the growth of overall traffic statistics and forecasts by various organizations.

“The FCC’s strategy has been to provide flexibility in the use of exiting spectrum bands and continue to add to the supply of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum,” he wrote.

In March 2019, CNET reported that the FCC opened the experimental spectrum licenses for the 6G, when U.S. wireless operators were starting to provide 5G service.

"This will give innovators strong incentives to develop new technologies using these airwaves while also protecting existing uses," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

World Outlook Other countries have taken a various approach to encourage innovations.

Congressional Call to Action

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation related to the Frequency Spectrum use and IoT. Three senators reintroduced the DIGIT Act of 2019 (S. 1611) on May 22, 2019. The bill directs the FCC to complete a report assessing spectrum needs required to support the IoT. It also requires a working group of Federal entities and private-sector stakeholders to provide Congress with recommendations on how to encourage the growth of IoT technologies.

“With this bill, we can continue to foster innovative solutions that deliver economic and societal benefits across many different sectors – from transportation to agriculture,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska).

The bill was sponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (D-Colorado), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), which are members of the Senate IoT Working Group.

“As connected technology continues to evolve, it’s critical that Congress update federal policy to keep pace with innovation in order to keep America competitive,” Gardner said.

In the previous Congress, the Senate passed the measure by voice vote. The House, however, didn’t take up the legislation and let the companion legislation sit in committee.

Other bills in the House and Senate require studies on the state of the IoT market and duplicative uses in Federal agencies, improving IoT cybersecurity, and finding supply-chain vulnerabilities related to China.

As demands become apparent in everyday lives, vigilance and communication by industry and trade groups to government leaders is the key to saving this limited natural resource.