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Message from the iPad: Heavy Traffic Ahead

The FCC’s Broadband.gov blog recently had the following post:

Message from the iPad: Heavy Traffic Ahead

February 1st, 2010 [By Phil Bellaria, Director, Scenario Planning, Omnibus Broadband Initiative, and John Leibovitz, Deputy Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau]

Apple’s iPad announcement has set off a new round of reports of networks overburdened by a data flow they were not built to handle. These problems are reminiscent of the congestion dialup users experienced following AOL’s 1996 decision to allow unlimited internet use. For months users had trouble connecting and, once they did connect, experienced frequent service outages. The FCC even held hearings on the problem.

The congestion problem circa 1996-97 revealed an intense latent demand for Internet access. Similarly, wireless network congestion today reveals intense demand for wireless broadband. Widespread use of smartphones, 3G-enabled netbooks, and now, perhaps, the iPad and its competitors demonstrate that wireless broadband will be a hugely important part of the broadband ecosystem as we move ahead.

Eventually, AOL was able to resolve its problems by upgrading its modem and server capacities. Wireless providers today, too, will be able to deal with congestion issues but only if they have adequate spectrum. Reaching an always-on wireless broadband future means that spectrum can no longer remain attached solely to uses deemed valuable decades ago. The broadband plan will suggest ways of moving more spectrum into high value uses, such as broadband access, to help ensure that we don’t get stuck in 1997 dialup-style congestion.

With the iPad pointing to even greater demand for mobile broadband on the horizon, we must ensure that network congestion doesn’t choke off a service that consumers clearly find so appealing or frustrate mobile broadband’s ability to keep us competitive in the global broadband economy.

I have posted the following comment:

WTB's predecessor in the 1980s, PRB, urged the Commission to create more Private Land Mobile (Part 90) spectrum because that use was growing fast too. The preferred source of that was increased sharing of TV spectrum - extending the sharing that was happening in channels 14-20 in 10 cities. PR Docket 82-10 was the forum for comments on this issue.

As Joel Brinkley explained in Defining Vision, the TV broadcasters revolted, brought in Japanese technology as a demo, and said the future of the country depended on analog HDTV. Along the way, the techies figured out how to do DTV and at least the public safety segment of Part 90 got some more spectrum. The rest of Part 90 users had to live with the spectrum they had and the efficiencies available through new technology.

The guest of Feb 3 said "its the simple fact that there is only so much spectrum that a wireless network can deploy in a given area." There is some truth to that. But it is not clear what the limit it is although it is clear that at some point the marginal cost of squeezing more use out of spectrum increases dramatically.

While many people think they need spectrum, what they really need is communications capacity and the conversion of spectrum to capacity is technology dependent. Cellular pioneer Marty Cooper has commented that “Wireless capacity has doubled every 30 months over the last 104 years”. Much of this has been through availability of new spectrum, but technology has also had a profound effect in increasing spectrum capacity.

Suggest you dust off documents from Docket 82-10 which sound a lot like the concerns here that large amounts of spectrum are essential. Such language tends to trigger fights among spectrum incumbents that often focus attention away from technical innovation to improve spectrum efficiency. As we speak the IRAC members are trying to dig a moat around Federal Government spectrum and are still licking their wounds from the AWS reallocation.

Part of the present problem is that the CMRS community in the 1990s projected their requirements for 3G and anticipated rapid growth of 2-way symmetric high speed communications such a 2-way video. As a resulted they created paired symmetric spectrum for 3G/AWS. Guess what? Today's demand is very different and using 3G spectrum for iPhone/iPad is inefficient due to the large asymmetry in traffic between uplinks and downlinks. So part of the solution could be to make the 3G bands more efficient through the use of technology better suited to the real demand.

Parties tend to see spectrum fights as "zero sum games", get spectrum from CMRS by taking it away from someone else. Yet repeated measurements show that over time and space most spectrum isn't used. Part of the solution has to be better more creative sharing of spectrum to go from "zero sum" to "win/win". I tried to show some options in this area in my 8/09 presentation to IRAC.

The IRAC crowd seemed more interested to keeping their "zero sum game" viewpoint and gearing for a fight with the FCC and its regulatees. I hope we can focus less on reallocation and more in creative sharing approaches among all spectrum users.

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