"To keep up with demand, U.S. wireless networks have traditionally doubled their capacity every 30 months, but this trend may not keep up with future demand," considering that "the volume of data traffic on U.S. networks is expected to increase by 1,800 percent over the next four years." Such is the outlook for wireless networks and services according to Michael Kleeman of the University of California San Diego's Global Information Industry Center. In an October 2011 paper, "Point of View: Wireless Point of Disconnect," Mr. Kleeman insists that there is now a looming disconnect "between the capacity of wireless networks and the emerging needs of today's customers."
Kleeman's paper provides a concise summary and overview of recent research and estimates of wireless network data traffic trends. Among the various analysts' estimates and data points cited:
- "U.S. mobile data traffic had grown at approximately 120 percent annual rate over the previous two years."
- "[B]y 2014 voice is projected to represent only 2 percent of the total wireless traffic."
- "The average amount of traffic per smartphone in 2010 was 79 MB per month, up from 35 MB per month in 2009."
- "[T]oday 10 percent of mobile users are watching video content on their devices and consuming 38 percent of data volume on mobile networks. By the end of 2011, video content will jump to 60 percent of network data volume."
- "[M]obile data traffic in the U.S. was approximately 6 petabytes per month in 2008, 40 petabytes per month in 2010, and it is expected to reach 451 petabytes per month in 2013."
- "[T]he nation is running out of spectrum and will experience a spectrum deficit starting in 2013."
This last estimate comes from an October 2010 FCC staff technical paper on the need for making more spectrum available for commercial use. Accordingly, Kleeman concludes that "[a]dding new spectrum is the least expensive way to grow capacity because it can utilize much of the same infrastructure, e.g., no new towers, cell sites, generators, etc."
Two other "core strategies to manage this disconnect between wireless infrastructure and demand" are identified by Kleeman. One is active network management. According to Kleeman, "carriers will increasingly need to manage traffic and develop triage and prioritization protocols to ensure users are treated fairly and that users do not degrade the network experience for others."
To this end he also cites the potential for wireless carriers to use pricing-based mechanisms with real time customer feedback to help manage network load" – something that even the FCC recognized regarding wireless in its Open Internet Order (2010) imposing network neutrality regulations. (See also my September 2010 blog post: "FCC Should Take Broadband Pricing Flexibility Seriously.") Unfortunately, many proponents of net neutrality regulation would rather see wireless services subjected to the same controls as wireline broadband access services.
The other core strategy is to enable deployment of supporting infrastructure. Simply put, "[t]he more we consume wireless data, the higher the number of cell sites will be needed to increase the capacity and improve reliability…we must be willing to support this construction." Kleeman is exactly right in insisting "we must be willing to support this construction. This needs to be an explicit choice made by the community." As the FCC has acknowledged in its 2009 declaratory order establishing time-frames for state and local government processing of cell tower and collocation permit applications,"[i]n many cases, delays in the zoning process have hindered the deployment of new wireless infrastructure."
Michael Kleeman's paper sums up the trends in wireless growth and the corresponding need for policymakers to adopt policies to match. Policymakers need to enable the market to innovate and invest to meet the needs of the fast-approaching future. In particular, making additional spectrum available for commercial use should be a most urgent priority of Congress, NTIA, and the FCC.