The largest mobile carriers are asking the government for a bigger slice of airwave pie, as statements this week from AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint cause confusion among technology scholars.

The buzz words are "radio spectrum," and these companies say they need more of it to continue shoveling growing amounts of data to more demanding consumers.

Service providers say the costs of maintaining quality on these networks will rise, hitting consumer pockets the hardest.

Without more spectrum, they contend, the emerging ubiquity of smart phones and tablets will be halted by "capacity issues" - leading to poor connectivity and possibly even dropped calls.

The FCC currently governs all radio activity by doling out frequencies to companies for TV, military use, scientific research, and phone and data services.

If the FCC doesn't hand out more frequencies, say the service providers, costs of maintaining quality on these networks will rise, hitting consumer pockets the hardest.

Slices of Infinity

Experts paying attention to these demands decry these bandwidth needs as disingenuous, claiming that the move is motivated purely by competition.

David P. Reed, technology guru and former professor of computer science at MIT, said "electromagnetic spectrum is not finite," meaning that service providers aren't running out of transmission space, just understanding.

According to Reed, "it's a 1920s understanding of how radio communications work."

David S. Isenberg, former researcher with AT&T Labs, mentioned that the reason for wanting to purchase more frequencies is the desire to gain a competitive advantage in an exploding marketplace.

"Their primary interest is not necessarily in making spectrum available," said Isenberg, "or in making wireless performance better. They want to make money."

Getting Smarter

For the scientifically inclined, radio waves range from 3 kilohertz to 300 gigahertz, encompassing 10 million hertz of frequencies. The issue in harnessing these frequencies, says Martin Cooper, former vice president of Motorola, isn't the availability but the lagging technology.

Among the newest radio-wrangling gadgets is the smart antenna, a device that allows phones to communicate more directly with cellular towers rather than pick out a small amount of the radial spectrum emanating from towers.

Phone and tablet manufacturers on the fourth-generation LTE network have been slow to add this new technology to their products, though Cooper says that they'll start showing up more frequently in the next two years.

Still, the service providers contend that improving hardware is just a stopgap measure, and that it fails to address the real issue of limited frequencies. More spectrum, they said, is the only wave.