Volatile Spectrum: A Moving Threat and Opportunity

by Daniel Mandell | 08/30/2013

The proliferation of connected devices has stretched wireless wavelengths to physical limits. Several networking protocols such as 3G, 4G LTE, WiFi, WiMax, and Zigbee all compete for wireless spectrum across the world to connect a near-endless array of industry devices and applications. New spectrum cannot be created, and crowded networks hinder not only backend communications and networking infrastructures, but can also negatively impact end user experiences with respect to coverage, quality, and reliability. The redistribution of wireless spectrum to accommodate the increasing number of internet-connected devices will profoundly impact embedded designs in a variety of ways. OEMs and system designers must continually reevaluate embedded networking hardware to maximize application efficiency at the lowest cost.

Wavelength redistribution and spectrum auctions are taking place across the world in areas such as the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, India, and the United Kingdom. Much of what is being repurposed is spectrum for older communications technologies such as 2G and analog TV broadcasting. Wireless spectrum is managed in each country either directly by the government or by an appointed regulatory body such as the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) or the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Obtaining a license to access a portion of spectrum band is a lengthy process taking some device manufacturers years to complete.

Embedded designs are vulnerable to shifts in wireless spectrum use, but can also benefit from new and/or stronger networks. An obvious threat would be the elimination of a network protocol a device relies on for some, if not all, data functions. For instance, a Zigbee-enabled thermostat for home-area-networks in Europe is a risky proposition considering the region’s heavy reliance and continued investments towards WiFi networking. Conversely, newly available 4G networks in areas such as India or Taiwan enable high-bandwidth applications such as video monitoring, premium content delivery, and big data analysis.

Software for intelligent switching of radio frequencies (i.e. software defined radio) will not be standardized, much less broadly adopted, anytime soon. Instead, manufacturers can currently broaden product lines with different connectivity protocols (i.e. 3G and 4G phones) or stack wireless support to create a flexible multimode device suitable for multiple end markets. OEMs and system designers will need to monitor the dynamic competitive wireless landscapes of their target geographies to embed the most useful and efficient communication within their devices.