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Planning ahead to avoid mobile traffic jams

Amy Gahran says broadband service could struggle to keep up with the growing number of mobile users.
Amy Gahran says broadband service could struggle to keep up with the growing number of mobile users.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More Americans using smartphones and consuming more data than ever before
  • Obama administration has moved to free up more broadband space to deal with the growth
  • Future could lead to users getting frustrated when flow of wireless data gets clogged
  • That could lead to leaner sites and apps that won't hog as much data

Editor's Note: Amy Gahran writes about mobile tech for CNN.com. She is a San Francisco Bay area writer and media consultant whose blog, contentious.com, explores how people communicate in the online age.

(CNN) -- More Americans are using more and smarter mobile phones, and consuming more data via those devices. But can wireless broadband service keep pace with this growing need?

The Obama Administration would like to make sure it does.

Wireless network congestion threatens to bog down the much-hyped mobile broadband revolution, leaving smartphone and tethered laptop users waiting and waiting for web pages to load, videos to stream, and apps to update.

This week the White House sent amemorandum to the FCC, directing that agency to free up more of the public airwaves for wireless by "making available a total of 500 MHz of federal and nonfederal spectrum over the next 10 years, suitable for both mobile and fixed wireless broadband use." (CNN story)

The intent is to more than double the width of the wireless internet "highway," allowing far more data to travel much faster to an ever-expanding array of cell phones and other mobile devices.

Sounds like a good long-term move -- but 10 years is quite a long time indeed in the mobile technology world. Plus, there's a hitch: the spectrum that the FCC has been directed to free up technically is already occupied.

Yesterday on the Future Tense podcast, professor Marvin Sirbu of Carnegie Mellon University explained that all of the radio spectrum in question is currently allocated to other users: broadcasters, maritime communications, military radar, etc.

"In many cases," said Sirbu, "Those assignees are not using their spectrum very intensively."

In that same podcast, Darrell M. West, founder of the Brookings Center for Technology and Innovation, noted: "Some companies want to sit on their spectrum allotments in the hope that they can do something with it in the future."

Sirbu likened the situation to a land developer reassigning unused or sparsely developed plots of land for more dense development.

The organizations currently holding rights to that desired spectrum may not surrender it quietly or quickly -- and probably not without significant compensation.

While the FCC and an inevitable fleet of attorneys start wrangling over reallocating spectrum for wireless, U.S. mobile carriers are working to expand their broadband networks -- by adding more towers, more capacity, and launching 4G and LTE high-speed networks (which will not just increase speed, but also total network capacity).

Also, mobile device users can run network-edge intelligence software to help alleviate their part of wireless network traffic jams. But again, given how fast the U.S. demand for smarter mobile devices is growing, this could all be like swimming against a fast current -- at least for a few years.

In the meantime, carriers, users, and policymakers must figure out how to make the most of the wireless bandwidth and network technology that's actually deployed today.

The recent move by AT&T and other carriers to end unlimited wireless data plans is an opening move to shift usage patterns to curbdata hog behavior. (And yes, carriers did encourage data hog behavior by offering unlimited data plans in the first place).

At the very least, as unlimited wireless data plans disappear, data hogs will be paying more -- revenue which carriers could put toward building out their networks.

Some mobile users are bypassing potential wireless network problems and costs by choosing not to get data plans for their phones. According to Roger Entner, a VP at Nielsen, recent research from Nielsen shows that more than a third of US smartphone users have not signed up for any data plan.

It's likely that many no-data-plan mobile users rely mainly on wifi for broadband access -- and if you're around reliable free/cheap wifi often enough, that's probably a good deal. (Incidentally, I'm writing this at the Oakland airport, where the usually reliable free wifi has gone AWOL today.)

That is, unless your carrier requires you to get a data plan when your current contract expires, or if you switch carriers, or if you upgrade your web-enabled phone. And that kind of forced upsell has become the norm in the United States.

Since the trend toward increasing mobile access of internet-based services seems inevitable in the U.S., I'm guessing that in coming years more and more smartphone users will end up frustrated by problems caused by network congestion: slow-loading mobile maps and web pages, stalled video, floundering apps, dropped network connections, files that won't upload, etc.

As smartphone users' frustration mounts, and as more of the inexpensive "feature phones" common among cost-conscious consumers allow at least some web access, lean mobile services that consume less bandwidth and phone resources may prove surprisingly popular.

Mobile-optimized websites based on wireless application protocol (WAP), like m.CNN.com, may be the most efficient option for must-have information, interaction, and entertainment on the go.

Some smartphone devotees scoff at simple WAP sites -- and indeed many WAP sites fail to offer a compelling user experience, since they're often planned and built thoughtlessly.

But while over75 percent of U.S. handsets in use are feature phones, and while the recession continues to constrain consumer spending on nonessential technology, and while a quarter of all smartphone users aren't using data services much or at all, WAP sites and other kinds of low-bandwidth, easy-to-display mobile offerings probably are worth exploring.

Being a mobile data hog may limit your options on the go.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Amy Gahran.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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