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Those who are lucky enough to acquire a new iPad this Friday, when the latest version of the tablet goes on sale, may find their download speeds slowing over the coming months. They may also run up against the data limits in their wireless contracts.

The new tablet connects to 4G networks that are today only lightly used. If it sells in large numbers, the device will place significant new demands on those networks, experts say, requiring bandwidth to be spread more thinly. The new iPad’s “retina” display, capable of playing full 1080p HD video, will likely encourage heavy data usage that will exacerbate that effect. Many users may also get their first taste of what it is like to bump up against the data limits that are now a standard part of wireless contracts.

Demand for the new iPad has been very strong; Apple says all the units it set aside for online preorders are now allocated. Long lines are expected outside stores as customers wait for it to become available on Friday. Buyers can choose to sign a contract with either AT&T or Verizon to provide wireless data to their device over new 4G networks that use LTE technology only now being introduced by carriers worldwide.

“The iPad is definitely going to be a challenge, and it will put a strain on the networks,” says Michael Thelander, CEO of Signals Research, a wireless industry research consultancy that spent time late last year driving around testing the capabilities of the latest wireless data networks.

Any wireless network has only a fixed amount of bandwidth to share among its users. That means the download speeds that LTE networks can offer users—often between 10 and 20 megabits per second today—will decline. “As more and more users come on, it can’t give out bandwidth forever,” says Thelander. “I expect the [new] iPad to add congestion.”

4G networks are relatively empty today, he says, and the devices using them are not as numerous or data-intensive as the iPad is likely to be. Laptop modems used by business travelers are the most established category of 4G devices today, says Thelander, while 4G smart phones are becoming more popular with consumers but do not use much bandwidth because phone screens are small. “The iPad’s right in the middle,” he says. “It will have a really strong adoption but also consume large amounts of data.”

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Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Tagged: Computing, Apple, iPad, tablets, 4G

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