The wireless industry has reached the limits of what it can do to use radio spectrum more efficiently and needs to move on to making networks more dense through tools such as femtocells, the cofounder and the current CEO of Qualcomm said Thursday.
Appearing together on the main stage of the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment show in Qualcomm's hometown of San Diego, cofounder Irwin Jacobs and son Paul Jacobs, the current chairman and CEO, reflected on the emergence of the wireless industry and shared their thoughts on some current issues.
Both said the quest for more efficient use of available spectrum, one in which Qualcomm has been intimately involved since it pioneered CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) technology in the late 1980s, is effectively over.
"We are getting to the point where, in the lab, we've sort of done what we know how to do to optimize any given radio link," Paul Jacobs said in answer to a question from CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent, who moderated the conversation. "We have to use different tricks now," Jacobs said.
Using more cells that each cover a smaller area, such as a home or campus, will be an important tool for getting more usable capacity out of the same amount of spectrum, he said. Carriers are beginning to introduce the smallest type of cell, the femtocell, for sale to subscribers.
"We think we can get maybe eight to 10 times improvement in user experience by building out dense networks and managing the interference between the macro network and the femto network," Jacobs said.
The shortage of spectrum has emerged as a hot topic, with the CTIA asking the FCC to find 800 MHz of additional mobile data spectrum and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski declaring a looming spectrum crisis at the CTIA show on Wednesday.
The younger Jacobs also suggested the coming crunch in wireless capacity will force mobile operators to differentiate among heavier and lighter users of data. He voiced caution about calls for net neutrality regulations.
"I don't necessarily believe that you ought to go down and say, 'This service is OK and that service isn't.' Maybe that's too intrusive. But certainly you can go in and shape traffic," Jacobs said.
One problem in the current debate over net neutrality is that some of those involved in it -- including some regulators and lawmakers -- don't know how expensive bandwidth is, he said.
"The more radical notion of net neutrality came about because the Internet bubble funded a lot of investment in dark fiber, so people believe on the fixed Internet that the incremental bits are free," Jacobs said. Now that this "dark" or unused fiber is running out, it's getting more expensive to add bandwidth.
The cost problem is worst of all on wireless networks, he said. To manage that, he expects carriers to engage in some form of traffic shaping.
The Jacobses are probably right about spectrum efficiency, said analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates.
"Technology alone won't get us out of the looming problem we've got," Gold said. Femtocells are one possible solution, but if everyone uses femtocells that can carry data, that will put a lot more traffic on DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem networks, he said. The networks behind those wired services, both of which use shared capacity at some point behind the customer's modem, are already strained in some cases, Gold said.