Can We Avoid the Mobile Bandwidth Drought?

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We've all experienced it on our smartphones: long waits for buffering videos, apps that hiccup when our Net connection cuts out, and webpages that take forever to load. According to experts, these symptoms are hints of an impending wireless broadband drought.

As smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous and hungry apps greedily gobble bandwidth, cheap and reliable wireless broadband will become as rare as the white rhinoceros. In July researchers at investment bank Credit Suisse reported that North American mobile networks are filled to 80 percent of capacity.

"Problems are most likely occurring in dense usage areas during peak periods," says Philip Solis with ABI Research, referring to the periodic episodes of slow or unreliable data service we've all experienced.

AT&T knows about this type of problem all too well. The company has warned that, starting October 1, smartphone customers with unlimited data plans may be subject to data throttling if their usage during a billing cycle puts them in the top 5 percent of data users for that period.

Smartphones' Mixed Signals

Solis says that AT&T can blame the rise of smartphones (not just the iPhone) and excessive network signaling of handsets for its bandwidth woes. Excessive network signaling is the constant pinging of millions of apps on a network, all of them syncing and checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and more, all the time. While network signaling may be tiny when gauged in megabytes per user, Solis says that the increase in sheer volume of communications traffic was a bigger challenge for AT&T's network to handle than the company expected.

AT&T has acknowledged network challenges, but notes that issues with devices and software might bear as much responsibility for issues that are often labeled "network problems."

"New applications come online all the time, each contributing new reporting data and metrics to a network awash in information. All these devices, new and old, interact in a myriad number of ways that can be very hard to predict," writes Jennifer Yates on the AT&T Labs blog.

She argues that AT&T's network is the easy scapegoat when, through no fault of AT&T's, pixels are missing from a video, voices break up, or games hiccup or don't run fast enough on a smartphone. "It's perceived as a network problem. Whether or not the problem is actually with the network itself (or with application devices or software) is almost beside the point."

It's All About Spectrum

Blaming the device is convenient because it's hard to disprove. But a more likely explanation is that AT&T and other carriers are running out of spectrum--the actual frequency allocated to them by the Federal Communications Commission. A crude way of thinking about it is that spectrum equals a wireless carrier's ability to boost its wireless broadband capacity and reliability. The FCC is considering giving carriers and other companies first dibs on spectrum freed up by the digital television transition, but the issue remains a political hot potato.

AT&T has said that the issue of spectrum shortage is one reason why its deal to acquire T-Mobile should go through. AT&T says that it needs T-Mobile's AWS spectrum holdings in the 1700 band to build out the capacity of the 4G LTE service it plans to launch later this year.

Can Carriers Keep Up With Growing Demand?

In recent months, carriers have been rushing to roll out more LTE and other, faster networks marketed as 4G to keep up, but mobile users are upping the ante again by rapidly increasing their demand for bandwidth-intensive activities such as downloading or streaming video, including HD.

"Although LTE will go a long way toward addressing the problem of network congestion, it will also lead to increased data usage and content being delivered using a higher-resolution format," says Michael Thelander, CEO of the Signals Research Group.

If they fail to anticipate the possible impact, carriers could be overwhelmed to an even greater extent than they were by the sudden tidal wave of simple signaling a few years ago. Cisco and Bytemobile estimate that the percentage of mobile data traffic generated by video will double every year until 2015. At that point, wireless video will generate two-thirds of all mobile data traffic. Perhaps not coincidentally, wireless Internet traffic is likely to surpass wired traffic in 2015, according to the same sources.

Don't Panic

None of this is to say that a mobile bandwidth apocalypse is in the offing, however, notwithstanding a report in 2007 warning that the Internet would begin to collapse under its own weight at some point in 2010. If you're reading this now, you've undoubtedly noticed that the predicted bandwidth apocalypse never happened.

Overall, the Internet has a healthy backbone. In fact, growth in Internet traffic is much slower today than it was during the explosive turn-of-the-century period when IP traffic doubled every year, as cable and DSL modems invaded U.S. homes for the first time.

Telegeography, a firm that monitors global Internet traffic, says that it predicts a 53 percent annual increase in peak international traffic in 2011, less than the 68 percent increase seen the previous year. Its numbers reflect mostly wired traffic; when asked if most networks can sustain growth moving forward, the firm's Alan Mauldin replied: "Of course. No providers are stopping adding capacity. Even with the 53 percent growth in peak traffic in 2011, the peak utilization rate only slightly increased from 46 to 48 percent."

On mobile networks, however, it's a whole different game. In the United States, we've enjoyed life without the mobile bandwidth caps that are a way of life elsewhere. That era is ending now as carriers begin to implement network management policies to forestall a possible mobile broadband drought.

ABI's Solis says that such caps are the most palatable of just a few possible options for mobile carriers. The other alternatives are to let network quality degrade, as he believes is already happening in some areas; to build out more network capacity at a high cost; or to acquire more spectrum, a process that could be expensive and could get caught up in politics and other complications.

New Pricing Schemes

"They are not unaware of their options, but it seems like many operators are not sure which solution(s) is best for them," writes Kristin Paulin with Informa Telecoms and Media in an email message to PCWorld. She says that U.S. carriers have been slow to act in dealing with the potential for a bandwidth drought, and that other methods, such as application-based plans, are likely still in the works.

In the future, Paulin says, operators may offer a "social networking" data plan that gives consumers unlimited access to Facebook and Twitter. Alternatively, a wireless carrier could provide a data cap of 5GB, say, on other bandwidth-intensive uses such as wireless access to Hulu, iTunes, or a videoconferencing app. Yet another approach would be to cap data use during peak hours of the day, she says.

For now, carriers are fighting the future by doing a little of everything, acquiring spectrum and building out networks, albeit not fast enough to avoid the move to data caps, which some carriers admit are coming. All of them say that only a small percentage of users are affected by caps, and that appears to be true--for now.

The question is whether it will continue to hold true when streaming HD video to a 4G tablet becomes the nation's most popular after-dinner pastime. If carriers underestimate mobile video demand, as they did mobile signaling, video buffering may replace dropped calls as the bane of wireless life.

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