Wi-Fi Snafus Demonstrate Woeful Infrastructure

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In a way, it's funny. First, Google had to ask people to turn off their smartphones and computers to do their recent Google TV demo; now, Apple's Steve Jobs, the master of the demo, has run into the same kind of bandwidth problem with the iPhone 4 release demo. What's going on when two of the biggest and brightest technology companies on the planet can't get a demo to work because of lack of bandwidth? I'll tell you what's going on: We don't have enough Wi-Fi/3G/4G bandwidth.

This problem mostly stems from a lack of infrastructure. When thousands of people want megabytes of bandwidth for video streaming or real-time applications like Twitter, even an OC-192 pipe providing 9.4 Gbps (gigabits per second) isn't going to be able to keep up. Even if you have an OC-192, you still can't deliver all that bandwidth to a limited area with the fastest common version of Wi-Fi, 802.11n, with its maximum burst throughput of 600Mbps (Megabits per second).

Even if you made the best possible use of your 802.11n AP (access points), you'd still have too much demand trying to share the same limited resources. You can't get around the problem by throwing more APs at it because their signals will interfere with each other.

You don't have to be a network engineer at a major trade show to figure this out. If you live in an urban area with lots of people running their own APs, you've probably had trouble sometimes getting your brand new, faster than fast 802.11n AP to deliver the speed you expected. It's a variation of the same problem: too many people trying to share the same resource, wireless space, at the same time.

It also isn't just a Wi-Fi problem. One reason why AT&T has such a dismal record with iPhones and iPads is that its 3G technology can't keep up with the demand. The result? Lots of people hate AT&T, the company is building out its 3G/4G infrastructure, and AT&T is dumping its 'all you can eat' bandwidth pricing plan for one that will charge by data usage to pay for that build-out.

But giving Wi-Fi and 3G/4G more resources won't be enough to solve the problem. The simple truth is that we don't have enough bandwidth in the United States. When it comes to average broadband speed, the U.S. comes in a dismal 26th in the world.

The root cause of all of our bandwidth woes is a lack of infrastructure. Even as I was writing this story, a friend of mine at Microsoft's TechEd conference in New Orleans told me that the site's entire network had crashed due to the Wi-Fi load. Like it or not, we need to start paying once more to lay out more optical fiber for our ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and WANs (Wide Area Networks). Good old copper doesn't cut it anymore.

What -- you think we can use dark fiber, installed-but-unused optical fiber? Oh dear, that's so 2005 of you. There's far less of it around these days, and dark fiber prices have skyrocketed. Besides, the real problem now is with wireless, and as I mentioned earlier, even if you do have a lot of bandwidth on the cable, sharing it wirelessly is much harder to do than it sounds.

You know what the worse part of all this is? It's only going to get worse -- much worse. Internet video is already huge, and HD Internet video is going to demand far more bandwidth. According to Cisco's CNI Visual Networking Index forecast, "Global IP traffic will increase by a factor of four from 2009 to 2014 ... By 2014, the various forms of video (TV, VoD, Internet Video, and P2P) will exceed 91 percent of global consumer traffic." At the moment, Internet video is only around 40%.

Add it all up, and you can expect to see a lot more demos going wrong, and a lot more trouble with your new iPhone 4 video-conferencing and the like. The days of the great bandwidth shortage are quickly moving in on us, and this isn't going to be funny at all.

This story, "Wi-Fi Snafus Demonstrate Woeful Infrastructure" was originally published by Computerworld.

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