A panel discussion a the CCA Convention. Credit: Andy Szal

The U.S. wireless industry is already running into capacity constraints as forecasts predict demand will continue to skyrocket in coming years. 

But more spectrum, while welcome, isn't necessarily the answer, according to a panel of wireless executives at the annual Competitive Carriers Association Convention.

"When you build it, they will use it," Nathan Sutter of Nex-Tech Wireless said Wednesday at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas. "And it goes away very quickly."

Sutter said that Nex-Tech, which serves about 60,000 wireless customers in Kansas and Colorado, currently holds significant spectrum and other assets.

"We've got to figure out how to get mileage out of the existing LTE assets that we've deployed," Sutter said.

Craig Sparks of C Spire, which operates in the southeastern United States, agreed, and argued that even if carriers could magically double the amount of available spectrum, users "would fill it."

C Spire is experiencing capacity problems in some areas, but Sparks noted that its network also remains fallow "a good portion of the time."

He suggested that a solution will require providers to add spectrum and cell sites, but, most importantly, to share their resources and allow customers to move fluently between networks. In 10 years, he said he hopes to see a "heat map" of cell coverage in the U.S. that glows as brightly as it possibly can.

"We're just not using the spectrum we have today efficiently enough," Sparks said.

Although carriers are increasingly offering unlimited data plans in an effort to attract more customers, Sutter and Sparks argued that those plans aren't dramatically affecting demand since the overall capacity remains intact.

Instead, Paul Challoner of Ericsson argued that video — and particularly livestreaming — is driving network demand. He told CCA members that about half of current traffic is video, and that its share is expected to climb to 75 percent in coming years.

"These are huge challenges that we face as an industry," Challoner said.

The panel came on the heels of the Federal Communications Commission's vote to officially propose new licensing rules for the 3.5 GHz band on Tuesday

Challoner said that the industry needs to ensure that spectrum is deployed to get to next-generation 5G networks, but the carriers called for a balanced approach and cautioned that the recent auction of 600 MHz spectrum wouldn't necessarily work at 3.5 GHz.

Sutter worried that an auction could abandon smaller carriers, while Sparks said that it risks leaving spectrum underutilized — and rural customers underserved — if it is gobbled up by larger providers.

"We can’t just have another auction where a lot of capital goes out to get this spectrum," Sutter said.