We've all experienced it on our smartphones: long waits for buffering videos, apps that hiccup when your Net connection cuts out, and webpages that take forever to load. According to experts, what we are experiencing are hints of an impending wireless broadband drought.
As smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous and hungry apps greedily gobble bandwidth, the days of cheap and reliable wireless broadband become as rare as a white rhino. In July researchers at investment bank Credit Suisse reported that North American mobile networks are filled to 80 percent of capacity. The impact of those nearly jammed Internet tubes, as the late Senator Ted Stevens famously called them, is already being felt by urban wireless customers.
"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. Last year the wireless carrier became the target of late night comedians who poked fun at AT&T's wireless network after many customers complained that their iPhones had a tendency to drop calls and have unreliable data service.
Smartphones' Mixed Signals
Solis that says 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, checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and more, all the time. While network signaling may be tiny in terms of actual megabytes per user, Solis says the increase in sheer volume of communications traffic was a bigger challenge for its network to handle than AT&T expected.
AT&T has acknowledged network challenges, but notes that issues with devices and software might just as well be to blame for what 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 smartphones. "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. A more likely explanation is that AT&T and others are running out of spectrum--the actual frequency allocated by the Federal Communications Commission for carriers to use. A very 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 is a political hot potato that's still in flux.
AT&T has already spun the issue of spectrum shortage as one reason why its deal to acquire T-Mobile should go through. This is partly window-dressing. While the merger is a spectrum grab in some respects, T-Mobile doesn't have much in the way of spectrum holdings for 4G, which is the direction things are moving, and at a quick pace.
Can Carriers Keep Up With Growing Demand?
This summer, carriers are rushing to roll out more LTE and other, faster networks being marketed as 4G to keep up, but mobile users are upping the ante again with rapidly increasing demand for bandwidth-intensive activities like 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 impacts, carriers could wind up far more overwhelmed 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. When that happens, wireless video will generate two-thirds of all mobile data traffic. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2015 is also the year that wireless Internet traffic is expected to surpass wired traffic, according to the same sources.
None of this is to say that a mobile bandwidth apocalypse is in the offing, however. Such a thing was actually predicted in a report back in 2007 that warned of the Internet beginning to collapse under its own weight at some point in 2010. If you're reading this now, the bandwidth apocalypse never happened.
The truth is that overall, the Internet itself has a healthy backbone. In fact, growth in Internet traffic is much slower than the explosive turn-of-the-century days when IP traffic was doubling every year, thanks to cable and DSL modems invading U.S. homes for the first time.
Telegeography, a firm that monitors global Internet traffic, says 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, and 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."
But on mobile networks, it's a whole different game. Here in the U.S., we've enjoyed life without the mobile bandwidth caps that have become a way of life elsewhere. That's all 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 others 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 also could be expensive and would get mixed up with politics and other concerns.
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 to PC World. She says U.S. carriers have been slow to act in dealing with the potential for a bandwidth drought, and that other solutions, like application-based plans are likely still in the works.
In the future, Paulin says, operators may offer a "Social Networking" data plan that allows the consumer unlimited access to Facebook and Twitter. Conversely, a wireless carrier could provide a data cap of 5GB, as an example, on other bandwidth-intensive uses such as wireless access to Hulu, iTunes, or a video conferencing app. Another type of solution 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. The process of acquiring spectrum and building out networks has been moving forward, but clearly not fast enough to avoid the move to data caps, which some carriers will admit are coming. All of them will tell you that only a very small percentage of users are affected by caps, and it appears that's true--for now.
The question is whether or not that will hold true when the day comes that streaming HD video to a 4G tablet is the most popular after-dinner pastime. If mobile video demand is underestimated, as was the case with mobile signaling, video buffering may replace dropped calls as the bane of wireless life.