The new report analyzes the traffic on our nation’s wireless networks as it shifts away from a wired world and suggests how to prepare for a wireless future. Image: University of California, San Diego
report from the Global Information Industry
Center at the University
of California, San
Diego examines the projected disconnect between U.S. wireless
infrastructure capacity and consumer demand. According to “Point of View:
Wireless Point of Disconnect,” wireless use is growing rapidly and if present
trends continue, demand will often outstrip capacity, causing congestion.
currently experiencing a mass migration from wired networks to wireless
networks, which under the best of circumstances have far less capacity,” says
Michael Kleeman, author of the report and senior fellow at UC San Diego.
Wireless is much more convenient than wired connections for many purposes, but “we must understand and accept the trade-offs we will face for the convenience
of accessing limited wireless capacity. Alternatively, as citizens we need to
dramatically lower our expectations for wireless services in the future.”
data capacity is inherently different than fiber optic cables, which affects
its performance. Among other differences, wireless is allocated a small portion
of the available spectrum, and its signals are susceptible to interference from
numerous sources, including weather and buildings. According to the report,
even with advanced wireless technology, the capacity available to all network
users in a given cell can be less than 1/000th the capacity of a fiber optic
thread. Wireless demand is also mobile and hard to predict, and when it exceeds
capacity the result is dropped connections and slow downloads.
Much Information? 2009 American Consumer Report found that in 2008,
Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of data including nearly five hours of TV
viewing per average day. This is more than 3.5 pettabytes per day, which
exceeds the wireless data network’s entire 2010 throughput. Increasing use of
mobile video will be a major source of growing demand for wireless capacity.
While there are many different types of cell sites, a typical cellphone site can handle about 120 iPad/iPhone users who are all simultaneously streaming video. Image: University of California, San Diego
The 2011 “Wireless Point of Disconnect” report highlights three strategies for
addressing this disconnect, all of which have drawbacks and tradeoffs. First, a
key limiting factor is spectrum, and increasing and optimizing available
spectrum are effective ways to increase network capacity. A combination of
public and private strategies to optimize spectrum use should be employed and
encouraged. However, many of the public solutions will take as much as a decade
to implement. Second, carriers will increasingly need to manage traffic and
develop triage and prioritization protocols, potentially including
pricing-based mechanisms with real-time customer feedback to help manage
network load. Third, the industry can invest in more infrastructure, including
cell towers and “backhaul” cables. This will require community support.
a lot of discussion about supply-demand issues for broadband Internet, but soon
the same questions will be considerably more acute for wireless,” says Roger
Bohn, director of the Global
Center at UC San Diego. “This report shows why future wireless systems will require adjustments, of one
kind or another.”
The report is in the Center’s “Point of View”
series, which are occasional overviews by noted experts. They address topical
issues in technology, business, and public policy.