Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Making Wireless like Wired

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.

This story is part of our November/December 2010 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.