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June 26, 2009 8:31 AM

Let's Leave Wireless Broadband to Wireless Devices

One of my biggest pet peeves is the claim that some day we'll live in a world without wires, that all of our broadband connectivity will eventually be delivered over the air.

While I don't rule out the possibility that some new technology could be invented that makes this possible, the reality of today's technology is that wireless is having enough trouble trying to keep up with the increasing demands of mobile applications and devices.

Just take a look at AT&T;'s struggles handling iPhone traffic. There have been reports from across the country that anywhere too many people with an iPhone come together in one place--be it at a baseball game, a concert, a conference, or otherwise--the network starts to slow down dramatically. I've experience this myself, even to the extreme of not being able to make phone calls or send text messages, let alone surf the web, and at events as relatively mundane and preplanned as the Washington Nationals' home opener.

And these were issues with the old iPhone. What's going to happen now that the new video-capable iPhone is out? Already YouTube has seen mobile uploads of video increase 400% a day since the iPhone 3GS came out. And these trends don't just apply to the iPhone as in the last six months YouTube reports having seen a 1700% increase in mobile video uploads.

Also important to point out is that this is just one video application--recording and uploading video--mobile devices are or soon will be capable of. Tons of mobile phones now have on-demand and broadcast TV as well as other video available to watch. Some phones are enabling live video communications between users. And there's a growing trend of webcasting live streams out to the world from a mobile device.

All of these applications don't just require mobile connectivity, but a lot of sustained bandwidth as well. So what's going to happen to these mobile networks when everyone's using their mobile devices to push video over the network? They're having a hard enough time supporting limited web browsing and text messages!

Increasing demand for mobile bandwidth further is the ability some phones feature to allow laptops to be tethered to them to use their wireless connections to get onto the Internet. There are already rumors that the reason AT&T; doesn't yet support the new iPhone's tethering feature is that they're afraid their network won't be able to support the increase in demand for bandwidth. Making this even more notable is that most of the time when someone wants to tether their laptop to their phone they're in a mobile use case. So again, the demand created by mobile apps alone outstrips the capacity of mobile networks.

Also worth noting is that regardless of whether or not this rumor of lacking capacity is true, there's no denying the limitations of wireless when Apple and AT&T; force some apps--like the one from Slingbox that lets you watch your home TV service from your iPhone--to use WiFi rather than wireless to transfer data. By doing this they're basically admitting that more bandwidth-intensive applications need wireline connectivity.

An interesting sidebar to this discussion is this recent survey that showed nearly half of Americans would drop their mobile broadband service if they ran into financial trouble whereas only 10% would cancel their home broadband service. While some of those home connections may be wireless, the vast majority are wireline. So I take this to mean that the market already recognizes the value of reliable wireline service relative to less reliable wireless when it comes to their primary connection onto the Internet.

The simple, undeniable reality of wireless is that its capacity constraints are due to clear technological limitations.

For one, wireless spectrum is artificially limited, which restricts the throughput and overall capacity that you can get wirelessly. If we were able to get lots more spectrum that would relieve some of these issues but not all.

Because the more significant limitations are found in individual towers. When building a wireless network you only build enough supply for whatever demand you estimate will be there. But what happens when that demand increases dramatically, like for an event or, even worse, an emergency? You can't necessarily snap your fingers and upgrade that wireless capacity, which is why we run into issues so often whenever lots of people are trying to use their phones in the same place.

And some of these issues are purely evolutionary in that when you're deploying a new network you can overbuild capacity only so much, so as people start adopting it service is likely to degrade during those periods before the networks are upgraded with more capacity. This reality gets worse the larger the service footprint of a wireless network and in particular a wireless tower as there's a bigger area for too many users to try and get online wirelessly at the same time.

Fiber, on the other hand, can always have enough capacity and can easily be upgraded to meet any level of demand whenever its needed. It's the only broadband technology that can do this, too.

And as I've said many times before, you can't have robust wireless access without a robust wireline infrastructure. Those towers need big fat pipes to plug in to if they're going to offer lots of reliable bandwidth.

So for all these reasons, barring some unforeseen technological advancement, we will never live in a world completely without wires.

That being said, wireless is an essential component of a fully realized 21st century broadband network. It's the extension cord that brings service everywhere you don't have a wired outlet nearby.

The key point in all this, though, is that we should not burden wireless networks with expectations that are too high, that someday they'll be able to replace wireline networks, as that's setting them, and in turn us, up for failure.

Instead we need to acknowledge the limitations of wireless, and keep wireless broadband focused on supporting mobile apps and devices. Because as I detailed throughout this article, wireless has plenty of work on its plate just to keep up with the burgeoning demands for mobile bandwidth for mobile devices.

So let's stop trying to lump wireless and wireline broadband together and start realizing that they're complementary not competitive.

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