What is Spectrum?

Video: What is Spectrum?

We are increasingly relying on a wireless world. Mobile phones, GPS tracking systems in our cars, free WiFi at a coffee shop, television and radio programming are just some of the wireless capabilities we use daily. These wireless services are delivered through the air via radio frequency spectrum.

To help understand spectrum, imagine a roadway with lanes for different types of traffic. It might have one narrow lane for bicycles, next to a wider lane for big slow-moving transport trucks, then another shared, multi-use lane. Spectrum is used in a similar fashion: one lane of spectrum is for satellite communications, while another lane is for mobile phones, next to a lane for amateur radio users. These lanes are the different frequencies.

But what if the spectrum becomes too crowded? What if there are too many lanes too close together, or too much traffic jockeying for space? Like a traffic jam, wireless traffic can no longer move efficiently. The transmission of information slows to a crawl and could ultimately grind to a halt. 

“By 2020, mobile data traffic is expected to be 1,000 times greater than it is today,” says Yvo De Jong, a research scientist with the Communications Research Centre (CRC), Canada's primary advanced telecommunications research facility. “More than five billion devices are already using spectrum to keep us connected. In a few years, that number is expected to reach 50 to 100 billion.”

But spectrum is a limited natural resource. While we can't create more spectrum we can make better use of what we've got. So rules are necessary – just like the rules of the road. Allocating or assigning parts of the spectrum to accommodate a growing number of users for a growing number of services requires careful planning. Some frequencies are stronger and better suited to different technologies, and other frequencies are already assigned for a specific use. This is what the Government of Canada does – it manages the spectrum so that Canadians can benefit from new wireless technologies and applications and all they have to offer..

Enabling or accessing more spectrum has many economic, commercial, lifestyle and health benefits to Canadians through faster and more efficient transmission of data. It can also save lives. In an emergency, first responders – firefighters, police, and paramedics – urgently need to communicate with each other using their wireless devices. Efficient use and allocation of spectrum will allow them to respond swiftly, maintain contact, and speedily resolve life-threatening situations.

Effectively managing spectrum will be vital as the next generation of wireless technology – 5G – and the growing number of wireless devices comes on stream. 5G advanced networks and technologies will impact all sectors of the economy, and enable initiatives such as driverless cars, smart homes and smart cities. Smart cities, for example, will offer cost-saving municipal services such as data sensors on garbage bins that tell collectors when they need to be emptied and technology that tell motorists about traffic conditions up ahead or where to find available parking.

Working closely with partners in government, the private sector and academia, here and around the world, the CRC is looking at innovative ways to make better use of existing spectrum and how to access more of the spectrum that was previously considered unusable. Supporting evidence-based decision making in how the Government of Canada manages spectrum will enable a modern and innovative digital economy that benefits all Canadians.

Contact us to learn more about our Grand Challenges research projects for spectrum management and collaboration opportunities.