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Making Wireless like Wired

October 27, 2010

Users are being lured to new mobile technologies with the promise of being able to do wirelessly all that they can do on a wired connection. But as bandwidth demand soars for applications such as streaming video, the wireless industry is having trouble delivering.

Video services, such as Netflix, are helping drive demand for more bandwidth.

When a wired network becomes congested, the phone or cable company can add more physical connections. But wireless providers can’t do the equivalent–allocate another radio channel to a network–because they are licensed to use fixed portions of the radio spectrum.

While the next-generation networks being built today (see “Feeding the Bandwidth Beast”) will allow much more data to be transmitted over a given chunk of the spectrum, it is unlikely that they can keep pace with demand, which is growing at 55 percent annually in North America, according to ABI Research. When people get access to more bandwidth, their appetite grows commensurately. For example, users of Sprint’s first WiMax-capable phone, the EVO 4G, typically increase their data usage by a factor of three to three and a half.

An even bigger strain on the network will come from broadband modems used by larger devices like laptop, tablet, and even desktop computers. The research firm Infonetics predicts that by 2013, more North Americans will be connecting to the Internet with mobile broadband than with any other technology.

Wary of suffering a version of AT&T’s “iPhone problem” (users of the Apple device overwhelmed the network, leading to dropped calls), carriers are investing in techniques to predict and dissipate data congestion. Sophisticated models of what happens when, say, fans at a ball game all try to access the Major League Baseball website can be used to stress-test network infrastructure. Companies that sell hardware and software to manage heavy wireless traffic report growing interest from worried carriers.

Options include hardware that can switch data streams from an overloaded connection to less busy circuits or even gently slow video downloads to prevent calls from dropping during a usage spike. Many in the industry believe that these same techniques will eventually have to be used to reduce demand by bandwidth-­hogging applications. Rather than preserving the flat-price model of wired connections, companies may charge customers different amounts for service, depending on the kinds of applications they access–more for streaming HD movies, less for making ordinary calls. That could run counter to “net neutrality” legislation that would require networks to treat all data packets the same; the desire to preserve the possibility of a multitiered plan was one of the motivations for Verizon’s recent and controversial “pact” with Google advocating different regulations for wired and wireless connections (see “Should the Airwaves Be Neutral?” and Q&A). For users, this pricing difference may ultimately become the biggest practical distinction between wired and wireless.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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