June 3, 2011

The incredible shrinking mobile spectrum

We seem to be a society that is fascinated with Armageddon. From books and movies, to documentaries and late-night talk-radio banter, there is something in the air that has all of us wondering about the end of the world. Doomsayers had recently predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21, and while my ISP apparently had some vital equipment give up the ghost leaving me without service for a couple of days, I’m still here.

A few weeks ago I was reading about the degradation of cellular service in large metropolitan areas. The gist of the article was that our cellular networks are coming under tremendous strain due to the explosion in smartphone usage. In fact, at the current rate of mobile computing growth, it is estimated that the current wireless network infrastructure will only be viable for about two more years. At that point it could begin breaking down and our smartphones will only be good as, well, phones. For some, I suppose, that would be the end of the world. Maybe the Mayans had it right — the article I was reading was written in 2010; two years from its publication would be 2012!

Data-geddon aside, in recent years, mobile usage has grown at an astronomical rate. In a study released in June 2010 by the research firm iSuppli Corp smartphone shipments are expected to increase 105 percent to 506 million units worldwide by 2014 — 246.9 million were shipped in 2010. The FCC released a whitepaper in October 2010 in which they estimate that domestic wireless data usage will be 35 times higher in 2014 than it was in 2009.

We’ve become a “mobile” culture. The things we dreamt about being able to do with our phones just a few years ago are not just the reality of today, they are, in most instances, commonplace. From checking email and browsing the Web, to streaming videos and viewing real-time GPS generated maps, many people find their day-to-day functionality is tied to and through their smartphone.

But there is an associated cost to that consumption, and it is bandwidth. For example, a single streaming video can take up as much bandwidth as 100 phone calls; multiply that by the 200 million views a day by mobile devices that YouTube claimed earlier this year and numbers start to get scary big.

Keeping bandwidth available

So what is the solution? How do we satiate our hunger for mobile data usage without rendering the wireless spectrum useless?

The first, and most obvious, is that we do nothing. Stick with the status quo and see what happens. The switch to 4G networks will open the spectrum up some, but it will be a temporary fix, buying us a year or two before a better solution needs to be implemented.

In the meantime, however, we will begin to have what experts are calling, for a lack of better terminology, a “crappy user experience,” i.e., slower download speeds, connectivity issues, dropped calls and service blackouts.

To reduce the number of CUEs, providers will most likely begin to raise rates and fees associated with bandwidth usage. It’s the crack dealer’s business model—get em hooked with the low rates and free services, then start charging em. When it comes to bandwidth, however, this model is based more on necessity than corporate greed.

Some providers have already begun excluding certain forms of data transfer from their networks, instead leveraging most smartphones’ Wi-Fi capabilities and diverting traffic for video and audio streaming, and in some cases Web browsing, to a broadband Internet connection. But again, these are just Band-Aid fixes.

A more promising solution is the integration and use of femtocells — small, cellular base stations, not unlike the wireless router in your home or office. Femtocells are basically an access point that connects mobile devices to a carrier via an existing broadband Internet connection. Originally designed for use in areas where cellular coverage is weak or non-existent, femtocells behave like miniature cellular towers, broadcasting a low-power cellular signal that phones within typically 100 to 150 feet can receive.

Apart from the major benefit of reducing wireless spectrum usage, users within range of the femtocell will experience almost perfect “five-bar” connectivity on calls and lower battery drain on phones. This is great news if you are trying to ditch that land-line for good; hook up a femtocell and you’ll experience crystal-clear calls, even in the deepest, darkest depths of your basement.

And if you change your location while on the call, your phone will automatically switch over to a cellular network once you are out of range of the femtocell. The strain of data usage on the cellular network is reduced, because the connection is now running through broadband connection (which it should be already if you are at home or the office — c’mon people, enable Wi-Fi connectivity on your phone and save the spectrum).

At the time of this writing, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all offer residential femtocells and T-Mobile has announced that it will introduce a femtocell sometime this year. Pricing and service rates vary for each carrier, but they are all within the realm of affordable. Commercial-sized femtocells, those that would allow connection in public places, are starting to appear in Europe, but nothing of scale domestically. Yet.

Until next time: Cogito. Lego. Diligo.

Michael Wailes is an Interactive Developer at Burns Marketing and Communications in Johnstown. If you have questions or would like to suggest a topic for a future Geek Chic column, e-mail him at news@ncbr.com.

We seem to be a society that is fascinated with Armageddon. From books and movies, to documentaries and late-night talk-radio banter, there is something in the air that has all of us wondering about the end of the world. Doomsayers had recently predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21, and while my ISP apparently had some vital equipment give up the ghost leaving me without service for a couple of days, I’m still here.

A few weeks ago I was reading about the degradation of cellular service in large metropolitan areas. The gist of the article…

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