Spectrum: What is it and why does it matter?

There has been a lot of buzz in the news lately concerning spectrum. In this post, we offer a definition and some cultural context to help you understand what the debate is about, and how it may affect you and your mission. We’ll start with some basic terminology:



Technically speaking, the definition for bandwidth is the range between the lowest and highest frequencies in a continuous set of frequencies. A more tangible way to imagine bandwidth is to think of it as a pipe through which data travels. The wider the pipe is, the more data can flow through it.

With the recent explosion of mobile technology, the demand for higher bandwidth has increased exponentially. This is because smartphones use up to 24 times as much data as regular phones, tablets up to 122 times as much. To service these devices, the provider must be able to offer more bandwidth, or, a bigger pipe. And by 2015, data traffic is projected to be some twenty times higher than it is today.



This term refers to the entire range of broadcast frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. This is broken down into radio waves, microwaves and so on, which are measured in Hertz (Hz).  Spectrum is the foundation on which a wireless network is built, and the lifeblood of the industry.

The increased demand for higher bandwidth means internet service providers need more spectrum to support more mobile devices. In fact, within three years of the introduction of the iPhone, AT&T’s data traffic increased 20,000% – and it’s definitely not slowing down.

Spectrum is like any other natural resource: we have a finite amount and cannot create more. When it becomes scarce, we must seek alternatives or find a more efficient way to use it. The U.S. government has researched the issue and launched  strategies to increase access to the available spectrum. Communication giants like Verizon, AT&T and Clearwire are in the middle of a series of acquisitions and mergers that began half a decade ago in order to procure more spectrum for their customers.


Why Spectrum Matters to You

You have likely already seen some of the impacts of the spectrum crunch. It’s why many providers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile have eliminated “unlimited” data plans. Or, even if “unlimited data” is offered, a closer look at the fine print reveals that your speeds will be throttled after you reach a certain data threshold.

Additionally, your mobile device likely has a setting that encourages “WiFi-offloading,” which encourages you to switch to available an available Wi-Fi network to transfer data use off of your service provider’s network.

Some less transparent consequences are the fact that spectrum has become more expensive. As Internet service providers pay more to acquire additional spectrum, that cost is passed on to you, the individual user.


Beat the Spectrum Squeeze

Slower data and more expensive access are the last things nonprofits need as you struggle with scarce resources. Mobile Beacon can help – we’ve partnered with Clear, a leading provider of high-speed Internet service and the holder of the most spectrum in the U.S. That’s why we are able to offer unlimited data plans when many other carriers cannot. Additionally, we make a certain number of our 4G devices available to nonprofits for free each year through TechSoup’s Product Donation Program. The combination of donated devices and unlimited service plans for only $10/month is our way of helping nonprofits mobilize their missions with high-speed, high-capacity access on the go.

As we continue to shape our services to help nonprofits fulfill their missions, tell us, do you have access to all the bandwidth you need?


Leave a Reply