A new report released this past week by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California San Diego concludes that wireless infrastructure in the United States will be increasingly unable to deal with the rising demand for wireless data networks unless certain measures are taken.
The report, titled “Point of View: Wireless Point of Disconnect,” and authored by professor Michael Kleeman, points out that because of the increasing migration from wired to wireless networks, once the nation’s wireless capacity is reached, it will be strained to accommodate the massive rise in demand. This will result in slower or stalled downloads, more dropped calls, and other access and connection problems, potentially irritating consumers who expect reliable wireless communications.
“The wireless communications infrastructure that makes cellular calling, smartphone applications, and Netflix streaming possible is largely invisible to everyone except a few engineers and operations personnel. But if it were visible, it would appear as a traffic-clogged highway with rush hour about to begin,” says Kleeman, to illustrate just how urgent the situations is.
Wireless networks are different from wired, fiber optic networks in several different ways. First, there is the problem of spectrum deficit: commercial wireless networks are only allocated a small portion of the spectrum, competing with other uses such as military communications, air traffic control, and broadcast television and radio.
Wireless signals are also susceptible to disruption by weather and geographic factors, and are sensitive to distance.
Most importantly, wireless networks—even under the best of circumstances—have far less capacity than fiber optics. For comparison, Kleeman points out that the “U.S. wireless data network’s entire 2010 throughput was only sufficient to handle less than a day’s worth of the nation’s video consumption.”
For years, this was not a problem, because wireless network demand, consisting primarily of voice calls and SMS text messaging, was relatively predictable.
However, as more users migrate to mobile smartphones with Internet cloud services, and mobile video consumption (browsing YouTube videos on one’s smartphone, or streaming a NetFlix movie) increases, the infrastructure’s ability to keep up with demand will be strained.
According to the report, “Data has now overtaken voice as the main application (by capacity consumed) on wireless networks, and by 2014 voice is projected to represent only 2 percent of the total wireless traffic.”
The report suggests the deployment of three strategies in order to mitigate or eliminate the disconnect between limited wireless capacity and increasing demand. Kleeman proposes that opening up more of the spectrum is the most efficient way to increase capacity.
Wireless carriers will also have to be proactive in managing and prioritizing traffic, perhaps introducing pricing-based mechanisms to make the system more efficient.
Thirdly, the development of infrastructure—the building of more cell towers, for instance—should also be a priority for wireless carriers.