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Wireless Demand Will Soon Outstrip Capacity, Report Warns



The wireless communications system in the U.S. is close to capacity and in danger of demand outstripping capacity, according to a new study. But there are three steps the industry can take to sidestep a communications disconnect if it acts in time, the author of the study says. The alternative is to lower our expectations for wireless service.

The problem, the report says, is that demand is growing more rapidly than capacity and may eventually overload the system and cause congestion.

"We're currently experiencing a mass migration from wired networks to wireless networks, which under the best of circumstances have far less capacity," said Michel Kleeman, author of the study and senior fellow at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego). "We must understand and accept the trade-offs we will face for the convenience of accessing limited wireless capacity. Alternatively, as citizens we need to dramatically lower our expectations for wireless services in the future."

Wireless data capacity is inherently different than fiber optic cables, which affects its performance, Kleeman said. Wireless is allocated a small portion of the available spectrum and its signals are susceptible to interference from numerous sources, including weather and buildings. Even with advanced wireless technology, the capacity available to all network users in a given cell can be less than  one-thousandth the capacity of a fiber optic thread. Wireless demand is also mobile and hard to predict, and when it exceeds capacity the result is dropped connections and slow downloads.

Kleeman's report highlights three strategies for addressing this disconnect. The wireless industry needs to increase network capacity by increasing and optimizing available spectrum, he said. In addition, carriers need to better manage traffic and invest in building infrastructure, including cell towers and backhaul traffic.

"There is a lot of discussion about supply-demand issues for broadband Internet, but soon the same questions will be considered more acute for wireless," said Roger Bohn, director of the Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego, which supported Kleeman's research. "This report shows why future wireless systems will require adjustments if one kind or another."