Most consumers take it for granted that they can switch on their smartphones and gain instant access to a world of Tweets, Facebook friends and Google apps, but in the next couple of years, staying connected might not be as easy as all that.
Apparently, the United States is bracing itself for a data crunch, and if nothing is done about it, we could soon see massive slowdowns, lost connections and sky high prices.
To understand the coming crisis, we need to know a little bit about how all of that data is transferred to our smartphones in the first place. Every single mobile device we use – be it an iPhone or an Android or something else – uses the radio spectrum to connect with its carrier. Unfortunately, no one could really foresee just how big the explosion in smartphone growth would be.
The problem is that other services, such as TV and radio broadcasting, as well as the military, police, air traffic control and others, have all been allocated their own portions of this spectrum, meaning that what’s left over for mobile carriers is rather limited. And of what little remains, that’s being gobbled up at an astonishing rate.
Smartphone growth is so rapid in the US that wireless-data traffic is set to double each year. By 2014, there’s going to be a deficit of some 275 MHz, leading to growing panic among carriers, who insist something must be done if they’re going to be able to continue providing high speed services at an affordable price.
The government isn’t oblivious to the problem, with the Obama administration announcing last year its plans to free up some 400 MHz of spectrum in the next ten years, but the problem is that most of this won’t be available to carriers for a good few years yet.
So does this mean we’re all going to have to put up with slower connections and rising prices for the next few years before things are finally sorted out?
Well, probably not.
There are a number of innovative technological solutions that could well fix the problem. The new Open Garden app for instance, which serves to make Wi-Fi connections more easily available, could well take a large part of the burden from carrier’s shoulders, although one significant hindrance is that it is almost entirely reliant on the generosity of other people towards complete strangers, so we won’t hold our breath too long on that one.
Various other ideas have been put forward as solutions to the data spectrum crisis, including something known as Wi-Fi offloading, which essentially involves carriers just shunting data to the nearest Wi-Fi connection if and when one is available. Of course, this is going to be a haphazard solution at best, despite the efforts of Israeli companies like We-iFi to make Wi-Fi offloading more streamlined.
The Chinese are also coming up with their own solutions. ZTE’s software defined radio is capable of doubling the amount of data that can be sent over the radio spectrum, a development that would allow carriers to send lots more bits over their existing airwaves.
The Myth Busted
Of course, there are those who argue that none of these solutions will be needed anyway. Many experts have said that the data spectrum crisis is just a myth designed by carriers to instill fear and justify future price increases. As Karl Bode of DSL Reports points out in his excellent attack on mobile carriers, fear sells:
“Drink orange juice or you’ll die of cancer. Get more insurance or you’re a bad family man. Vote for me or lose your job and see your grandma deported. Pay $2.50 per gigabyte or face Internet brown outs.”
Bode points out that data growth isn’t even close to matching so-called predictions, citing AT&T whose mobile growth is only 40% a year – a far cry from the 26-fold increase predicted by Cisco in 2011.
So is the sky really about to fall in due to a data spectrum crisis – or is it just the biggest load of BS since the infamous Y2K bug, which of course, turned out to be a load of old baloney? I think its about time we had some real answers.