Why cellphone bandwidth is running out (and what to do about it)

Conventional wisdom holds that we need to build more highways in order to curb congestion. But what ends up happening is, more highways encourage more driving, creating a Möbius strip of never-ending highway building and even more entangled traffic jams. But there's only so much room to build new highways, which means eventually we'll be living in eternal gridlock.

The same Möbius strip of more capacity=more traffic is happening in cellphone land.

While wireless spectrum limitations have been a constant problem since the early 1960s when car phones exploded in popularity, the iPhone and its ilk ignited a seemingly unending cycle: speedier networks that enable more data-hungry applications such as HTML Web browsing, photo and video sharing, peer-to-peer game playing, GPS navigation, video downloading, and video chatting — all of which necessitate the creation of more capacious capacity, ad nauseam. But like highways, there's only so much spectrum to carry our increasing wireless data loads.

According to cellular analyst Chetan Sharma, we drew 20MB per month per user of wireless data in 2007. By the end of this year, consumption will grow to a whopping 370MB/month/user. By 2014, we'll data suck an estimated 3 GB/month/user by 2014. This year, U.S. data traffic is likely to exceed 1 Exabyte (EB) — that's 1 quintillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 1 billion gigabytes, or 1 million terabytes of data. It's a big number, no matter how you delineate the zeros.

AT&T users in New York and San Francisco have already suffered the consequences of too many users and not enough capacity — just getting a connection was a hassle, much less a speedy, consistent one.

What to do? Since spectrum is finite, the best we can do is rearrange existing and potential capacity. There are four parallel efforts underway to help ease the load.

1. 4G

In the short-term, 4G will help since 4G networks run in virgin spectrum recovered from analog TV, although AT&T and Verizon are not as well positioned as Sprint in terms of bandwidth room. But given the more capacity=more traffic rule, the new 4G will fill up faster than 3G spectrum, and we'll be having this same conversation a few years from now.

2. Curtail Our Usage

Last month, AT&T eliminated unlimited wireless data plans, hoping this would encourage customers to curtail their usage and ease loads on the network. Verizon is expected to make the same announcement any day now.

3. Network Optimization

In addition to 4G, AT&T has spent billions to build new cell sites and buttress its network "backhaul" — the network layer that connects the cell towers to the core network infrastructure that handles session management, call routing, and the connection to the internet and the landline network — with Wi-Fi, in the hope of trying to soak up some of the data load. A couple of months ago, AT&T announced both free Wi-Fi access in Times Square, the latest in 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots AT&T has created to try and lay off data traffic from its network.

4. More Spectrum

Last month, President Obama announced an initiative to recover 500MHz of spectrum from varying wireless nooks and crannies for wireless broadband use. But spectrum allocations can take years to work their way through the bureaucratic approval, auction and testing phases, and for new phones that can access the new spectrum to get into the marketplace.

All of which is nice, but merely delays rather than solves the problem. Given the short supply of spectrum and in the absence of a long-term wireless strategy (maybe city/state/nationwide Wi-Fi networks run like a government utility) from either carriers or the FCC, it will likely take some sort of radio technology to create more space in a fixed-sized room. Hopefully there'll be some sort of breakthrough before we all get stuck on a gigantic wireless traffic jam.