As others have pointed out recently, the supposed spectrum crunch is really more of an infrastructure crunch, because if wireless data traffic is going to grow by 10 or 20 times, how can 20% more spectrum possibly solve that problem?
Its therefore pretty instructive to look at the CTIA’s own figures, which curiously enough simply trumpet the cumulative capex invested by US wireless operators since the 1980s. When you think about it, that’s a bizarre statistic, since cumulative capex will always go up each year, however much wireless operators invest in their networks. Of course, if you actually look at the annual capex you see a very different picture, and indeed in absolute terms network investment has fallen quite sharply since 2004, and only rebounded partially in 2010 and 2011, despite much trumpeted LTE rollouts by Verizon, AT&T and others.
As a percentage of revenues, capex has fallen even further, and has roughly halved in the last decade. At this point, if I was using the tortured logic (and ludicrously hyped sound bites) of spectrum crisis adherents, I should probably conclude that on current trends we will run out of capex by the end of the decade, as capex falls to zero percent of revenues. On the other hand, if I was arguing the carriers’ point of view, I could conclude that because the GDP contribution of the wireless industry increased from $92B in 2004 to $146.2B per year by mid 2011, while capex fell from 27% to 15% of revenues, each 1% decline in capex as a percentage of revenues should be expected to increase GDP by $4.3B. As a result, if wireless carriers stopped all capex completely, it would increase GDP by $65B!
More rationally, while reductions in operator capex in recent years may have been good for their investors in the short term (and indeed carriers would perhaps view it as necessary because their revenue growth has slowed), these figures clearly demonstrate that there is considerable scope to address growth in data usage (assuming the traffic is valuable enough that customers will pay more for it) simply by modestly increasing capex to a level that would fall well within historical norms. Indeed, even though annual capex in 2011 only increased (in absolute dollars) by 1.7% over 2010, operators added over 30,000 cell sites, an all time record, which increased the total number of cellsites in the US by 12%. Given that the FCC’s own (discredited) model suggested that the purported spectrum “deficit” would vanish with this rate of cellsite growth, it seems we are already well on the way to mitigating any potential spectrum crisis.