CTIA 2012 preview: Expect lots of spectrum talk

CTIA CEO Largent says carriers will continue to make their pleas for more spectrum heard

In case you haven't heard yet, the nation's wireless carriers want more spectrum.

Because even though Congress authorized a fresh batch of spectrum auctions in the coming years, carriers say they'll need even more to meet the mobile data demands of users streaming high-definition video and other bandwidth-intensive content over their newly launched LTE networks. So when you head to CTIA in New Orleans starting on May 8 this year, you can expect to hear a lot about ways to free up more spectrum for mobile data use.

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"You're going to be hearing more from carriers about the things they can do with more spectrum," says Steve Largent, the president and CEO of CTIA. "We are falling behind because other countries are rolling out new spectrum for their wireless carriers and we don't want to fall behind."

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has projected that growth in wireless data demand will lead to a "spectrum deficit" of 275MHz if no new spectrum is released by 2014. There is currently 547MHz of spectrum available for dual use in mobile voice and data services. With this in mind, the FCC has set a goal to make 300MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband use over the next five years with the eventual goal of freeing up 500MHz of spectrum by the end of 2020. The newly authorized spectrum auctions, which will let broadcasters voluntarily put pieces of spectrum up for sale, is projected to add about 120MHz of new spectrum for wireless broadband use, so it's clear that the FCC and CTIA have a long way to go to meet their goals.

Largent says the industry is trying to lobby the government to auction off spectrum that it is currently sitting on, starting with a 25MHz tranche of spectrum in the range of 1755MHz to 1780MHz. Largent notes that the government also has spectrum spanning from 1780MHz through 1850MHz and 2155MHz through 2180MHz that could be used for mobile broadband if the government chose to auction it off.

The search for more spectrum has become more challenging ever since the 2008 auction of spectrum on the 700MHz band, where both Verizon and AT&T won rights to prime blocks of wireless real estate by bidding a combined $16 billion. Earlier this year the FCC axed a plan by LightSquared to build and operate an LTE network on the 1.6GHz satellite band after a report released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that LightSquared couldn't operate its network without critically interfering with GPS services that rely on the same spectrum. Largent says that he's disappointed that LightSquared couldn't get permission to build its network, but he adds that CTIA is working on engineering fixes to antennae to make sure that future upstart companies will be able to build LTE networks that don't interfere with other networks on adjacent spectrum.

"Part of what we're looking at is how to address the receiver performance issue that prevented them from coming to market," says Chris Guttman-McCabe, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs. "We need to make sure that if an entity is using a band of spectrum that they're only encumbering that spectrum and aren't running into any other networks' bands."

In the meantime, you can expect to hear plenty of talk from the incumbent carriers at CTIA this year about how much duress their networks will come under without fresh spectrum, especially during a carrier roundtable where the CEOs of all four major wireless companies - Sprint's Dan Hesse, AT&T's Ralph de la Vega, Verizon's Dan Mead and T-Mobile's Philipp Humm - will talk shop with CNBC's Jim Cramer. CTIA is slated to take place at the Ernest N. Moral Convention Center in New Orleans from May 8-10.

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