ITU wants government help to avoid mobile bottleneck

It's not enough for operators to deploy femtocells or LTE, says this UN agency: government intervention is needed

Whitespace devices, LTE, femtocells, automatic Wi-Fi handover, optimized backhaul networks: wireless operators are already deploying a wide range of techniques to speed the flow of data to our smartphones, and equipment manufacturers are demonstrating many more at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.

But all this will still not be enough to ensure the data continues to flow, as the number of smartphones rises from 500 million to almost two billion by 2015, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency.

The ITU wants governments to take action now, licensing additional spectrum for mobile communications networks and making it easier for operators of fixed networks to roll out the fiber links that mobile operators need to connect the growing number of mobile base stations.

"Mobile operators have been investing billions to upgrade and improve the capacity and performance of their networks, but in some high-usage cities, such as San Francisco, New York and London, we are still seeing users frustrated by chronic problems of network unavailability," ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré warned Friday.

Whether more government intervention will help is debatable: for the high-usage cities Touré cites, governments are already well ahead of the pack.

One of the strategies he suggests, forcing TV broadcasters to switch to more efficient digital transmitters, freeing up spectrum for other uses, has already been adopted in the U.S. and the U.K. In 2008, the U.S. government auctioned off former analog TV spectrum in the 700MHz band, and Verizon Wireless has already begun offering its LTE (Long-Term Evolution) mobile broadband service in New York, San Francisco and other cities.

The U.K. too has switched off analog TV transmitters (France will follow suit this year) and is rolling out fiber connections to the home: as many as 600,000 U.K. homes could be connected to fiber by the end of this year.

While analog TV spectrum was an easy target, other frequencies could be freed up for mobile communications. For it to be cost-effective to mass produce mobile phones and modems, though, the same frequencies need to be available across continents. Such availability is decided at the World Radiocommunication Conference, a three-week-long intergovernmental event organized by the ITU every three to four years. The last WRC ended Nov. 16, 2007: The next will begin on Jan. 23, 2012, in Geneva, and mobile operators will no doubt be keeping a very close eye on discussions.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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