It’s not a problem most people think about when placing a call, sending a text, or answering an email on their Blackberry. The signals cell phones use to transmit data are invisible, and all around us. But the simple fact of the matter is that wireless airwaves are a finite resource. There’s only so much information that can be transmitted across them at any given time. And American is simply running out of wireless air space.
Industry insiders call this “spectrum crunch.” What will happen when the crunch comes? Well, for one, cell phone bills will skyrocket as carriers try to improve their networks to handle the demand. Data speeds will slow down significantly. And your calls are going to be dropped more frequently.
No one’s sure exactly when the crunch will happen, but the FCC estimates it could be as early as next year. The main factor driving this increase in data use is the rise of smartphones and other wireless computing devices. A traditional cell phone uses 24 times less spectrum space than an iPhone. The iPad is even worse, using 122 times what a regular cell phone does. AT&T estimates that wireless data traffic on its network has increased by 20,000% since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. That’s not a typo.
So, what are companies trying to do to alleviate the problem? For one, many carriers have started to introduce caps on customers’ data use, both by raising prices and throttling speed. Some have been trying to buy more of the wireless spectrum that isn’t being used, or have merged with other carriers to consolidate resources.
This isn’t a problem that’s likely to go away, and it’s not going to remain a problem only in the US for long. Spectrum across the world is a limited resource. And while, unlike other finite resources like coal and oil, spectrum can’t be depleted permanently, people are going to have to start making tough choices. Is it really important to have to check your email on the go? Do you really need to watch YouTube on your phone or iPad? Will it become cheaper, if not necessarily more convenient, to use just a landline telephone? We may not have long to wait to find out.
Photo credit: Esther Gibbons
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