We’re surrounded, all of us, by a cloud of energy that we call the Electromagnetic Spectrum - and we always have been. We can see the visible spectrum, and sense heat, another part of the spectrum. The difference between them being the frequencies at which these waves* of energy strike us.
For other frequencies, we need equipment to detect them: like Ultraviolet, Infrared, X-Rays and Cosmic Rays. And equipment to exploit them : transmit radio, TV, to use WiFi, to control satellites, drones…
* or particles, we’re still not sure!
If a nearby alien has been watching us across the millennia, and could see all the frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum, this planet would very recently have burst into light - a fireworks display of wavelengths newly exploited by humankind.
After all, we only began to understand that radio existed about 160 years ago - compared with this planet’s life so far of about five billion years!
Earth is just going to look more and more spectacular, as we use more and more of the Spectrum to do useful things like control robots on the factory floor, deliver movies to your phone in microseconds, envelop ourselves in Virtual Reality - and get your fridge to order more milk from the supermarket!…
The list could be as big as our imagination.
There is intense competition for the most useful frequencies : with mobile telecom companies - the richest users of the spectrum - using a lot of muscle to get the best bits.
Privileged users of the past, like broadcasters and the military, are being pressed to release or share spectrum they have held for years.
Those telecom companies have been spending lots of money on those parts of the Spectrum assigned to mobile phones and internet. To make 5G happen they’ve been spending about $50 billion in Europe, and $120 billion in the US, to buy spectrum licences.
It’s debatable whether mobile phone companies are making enough profit to justify that investment. But they almost can’t help themselves. If one company doesn’t buy up Spectrum at auction, their rival will. And who knows : maybe VR, over a mobile network, will be a vast money-spinner in the next five years.
But if telecom companies get all the best frequencies, and don’t end up using them, it’s a waste of a precious, finite resource. Other users : from radio astronomers to factory owners to radio hams to hospitals all miss out.
Negotiations about 6G mobile networks are already well under way, but take about 8 years, in all, to bear fruit. Telecom companies are aware they can look greedy, so they’re making noises about sharing frequencies and surrendering unused space. But I’m told that in reality they’re reluctant to play fair.
The series is a basic guide to something that’s mostly invisible, but more and more essential in our lives.
I help tell the story of how we exploited the electromagnetic spectrum in the first place, and how quickly personal commercial interests got in the way.
But also how buying and selling Spectrum freed us from government sluggishness and led to the explosion in uses we have today, for increasingly reasonable prices.