Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) | Wireless Industry Disruption
Dr. Evangelo Damigos; PhD | Head of Digital Futures Research Desk
- Connected Intelligence
- Sustainable Growth and Tech Trends
- Emerging Technologies
Publication | Update: Sep 2020
Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) radio technology promises to increase spectrum sharing and thus help overcome the lack of available spectrum for new communication services. Currently, spectrum sharing is limited to simple approaches such as low-power unlicensed devices.
Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA) is a policy which provides the capability to share the wireless channel to the unlicensed users (i.e. Secondary Users) along with licensed users (Primary Users) in an opportunistic manner, resulting in high spectrum utilization.
DSA is feasible because of advances in radio and networking technologies that make it possible to share spectrum dynamically in all possible dimensions—i.e., across frequencies, time, location, users, uses, and networks. Realizing the full potential of this shift to Dynamic Spectrum Sharing will require the co-evolution of wireless technologies, markets, and regulatory policies.
Potential Airbnb/Uber Style Disruption in the $ 1 Trillion Wireless Industry
According to Dalibor Vavruska, Citi’s Global Head of Digital Connectivity Strategy, innovative technologies like those used by Airbnb and Uber address some of the security and reliability challenges and in turn are able to disrupt the licensed businesses model, possibly making it obsolete. Interference, and hence security and reliability, in wireless communications depend on a range of factors including the power and density of transmitters, frequency bands, landscape, and the design of buildings. Dynamic Spectrum Access (DSA), also known as Dynamic Spectrum Management (DSM), is a technology-empowered framework with the potential to address these complex factors. It allows multiple users to share a particular country-wide spectrum band, ideally in a secure and reliable way. This boosts the efficiency of spectrum utilization and opens wireless opportunities to larger number of players, possibly similar to Airbnb property owners and Uber drivers.
The Citi GPS report, “Is the wireless industry facing disruption?: South Africa, 5G, DSA and DIGITECCS,” that inspired debate about wireless, highlighted three key opportunities for wireless expansion: (1) uncovered areas, (2) areas with low-quality coverage, and (3) the use of small cells for industrial innovation.
Questions about whether spectrum and networks should be shared, and to what degree, remain relevant, especially since wireless growth is becoming scarcer and 5G/IoT is prompting the need for a policy re-think.
DSA is a technology-empowered framework designed to address these challenges by using innovative ways of sharing spectrum bands among multiple users, based on technologies such as software, game theory, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI).
DSA may offer the following capabilities:
Dynamic spectrum re-allocation between users: Spectrum in specific locations and time points can be flexibly allocated using a tiered system where ‘spectrum holders’ are assigned priorities as opposed to exclusivity to use spectrum. Spectrum can be flexibly reallocated to a diverse set of entities, which avoid collision by knowing each other’s needs and flexibly managing channels (cognitive radio) and transmission power.
Use of imperfect (not entirely interference-clean) spectrum channels:
Software-based technologies exist, which could increase reliability and data throughput of imperfect channels by mitigating interference-related imperfections. These technologies are well known to the telecom industry, because they are widely used to prop up performance of copper-based fixed line channels, e.g., vectoring and G.fast. In theory, similar solutions could be deployed in wireless as well.
DSA can strengthen momentum behind regional, community, municipal, and corporate wireless networks, which have so far been operated on unlicensed WiFi spectrum. This may disrupt the wireless industry in the following ways:
Creation of a shared wireless economy: Technological progress has led to the emergence of shared economies in areas such as accommodation and transportation. By making spectrum more widely available, DSA could fragment the wireless market and possibly lead to similar opportunities. This could create shared economies with multiple providers of connectivity (accessing spectrum through DSA and connecting radio antennas, for example, to national fiber networks, similar to the use of public roads by Uber cars or water supply in Airbnb properties) and multiple users (e.g., people with devices, which allow connecting to such networks). The phenomenon of small localized networks is not new in telecoms; examples range from metropolitan WiFi to local fiber networks. DSA could, however, give these networks key attributes that they have been missing so far: spectrum, and subsequently compatibility with the mainstream wireless technology such as 4G and 5G.
Changes in regulation to limit availability of nationwide exclusive spectrum: DSA opportunities raise two crucial questions for the policymakers.
(a) Should low-frequency bands occupied by non-telecom users such as TV also be made available on a DSA-shared basis?
(b) Should frequency bands, particularly those above 3.5GHz where blanket nationwide coverage is impractical, be allocated on a DSA-priority basis instead of an exclusivity basis?
If the DSA technology proves reliable, it would be hard to argue against these suggestions. However, if these concepts are adopted, the wireless industry may over time lose its privilege to use crucial spectrum exclusively, i.e., it may no longer be able to prevent disruption by withholding access to spectrum from potential disruptors.
Creation of an alternative model for 5G small-cell deployments: Wireless operators usually see 5G/IoT small cells (operator-controlled low-powered mobile base stations) as their crucial growth opportunity. We see commercial small-cell opportunities first emerging in industrial innovation (e.g., coverage of production plants) and services (e.g., coverage of airports, hotels, entertainment parks, etc.) Purpose-built networks accessing spectrum via DSA (as opposed to parallel competing networks using exclusive countrywide spectrum) would seem sensible in many cases. These networks may be built by industrial or service companies, tech companies, and small/medium enterprises as a 4G/5G-compatible upgrade of WiFi-based solutions. Even though owners of such networks may have to respect priority rights of other users to their spectrum, in practice this constraint may be manageable, because we are often talking about short-range indoor installations. Priority users may often not even have physical access to these indoor areas. In an extreme case, the wireless market may re-shape toward territorially fragmented, localized high-capacity networks with relatively high efficiency of spectrum utilization under DSA. Meanwhile, nationwide coverage, for example for voice, Internet access, and secured data services, may eventually lean toward a public service using nationwide spectrum.
Dilution of some of the unique skills of wireless operators: Good wireless operators usually stand out in two areas: (a) their ability to acquire spectrum so that the benefits of owning it outweigh its costs and related obligations as much as possible and (b) their ability to build networks, i.e., add sites at the right pace and to the right locations to maximize returns. DSA may bring more transparency and fragmentation to the spectrum markets and hence reduce potential advantages of specific operators. Moreover, it is possible that the tech industry may gain quality big-data on subscriber locations, geographies etc., which together with AI may allow it to develop ‘network planning skills’ and similar to Airbnb or Uber ‘manage’ networks with capacity provided by a large number of smaller entities.
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