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America’s Wireless Airwaves Are Filling Up Fast

America’s Wireless Airwaves Are Filling Up Fast

Itís 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. Thereís 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 ďspectrum crunch.Ē 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 oneís 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. Thatís not a typo.

So, what are companies trying to do to alleviate the problem? For one, many carriers have started to introduce caps on customersí data use, both by raising prices and throttling speed. Some have been trying to buy more of the wireless spectrum that isnít being used, or have merged with other carriers to consolidate resources.

This isnít a problem thatís likely to go away, and itís 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 canít 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.

 

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Photo credit: Esther Gibbons

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21 comments

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2:14PM PST on Mar 6, 2012

Wow, I had no idea. I have a traditional (old) cell phone and don't plan to upgrade. Sounds like a good thing.

2:04PM PST on Mar 6, 2012

If we'd ease up on copyright laws to allow copies for personal use and make things a bit easier to copy, then people could download entertainment to their phones in advance and watch/read/listen to it offline while traveling. People still might want to check for email/IM/text messages and such and occasionally look something up, but it'd decrease the amount of high-bandwidth streaming people do.

1:48PM PST on Mar 6, 2012

Well, we've polluted the air, land and water. We've polluted near Earth orbits with space junk. If Gingrich has his way, we'll pollute the moon. It's not surprising that we're polluting the broadcast spectrum as well. As always, the ultimate answer is fewer people by way of more human birth control.

10:20AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120302083011.htm
Major breakthrough that puts this off for a few years. Apparently they can send 11 channels on one frequency band using this new method. So bandwidth will increase 11 fold in the next year or two as this technology is adopted.

10:13AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

And now I'm glad that I have a prehistoric cell phone that we keep for emergencies. We pre-pay too. I've never wanted a smart phone; the last thing I need is to be able to carry the internet with me wherever I go!! The only thing I'd change about my phone is I'd like a QWERTY key pad so I can text easier.

But I don't want it enough to pay for a phone with that feature.

9:21AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

I still have an ancient cell phone with no plans to get an iPhone, iPad, etc. I refuse to buy into the whole cell phone madness, especially given all the atrocities associated with extraction of the phone materials through the actual build. It's a human rights disaster and no gadget is worth the human and environmental suffering involved.

7:57AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

I have an iPhone but don't use it much. It's more for when I'm out of the house & need to call home. I find watching YouTube on a small screen annoying, so I don't. When I'm at home I plug in my Mac Pro and do everything on it.
We have a land line and that will never change. I still can't imagine my home without a landline. Old school, maybe.

7:49AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

All good things must come to an end.Maybe one should use more telepathy?..

6:59AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

I knew this would happen eventually, because I used to be an installer for AT&T. When cellular first came out, we were super overloaded with work. Putting in the new systems to accommodate the cellular businesses. After 6 years of tons of work, it started to slow down because most of the new systems had been installed and just maintaining them was left. Then fiber optics came out and we got busy again. Same thing, installing new jobs with fiber. Eventually everything fills up. Unless you have a unlimited digging hole.

So you have to go back to the basics to stay floating I would have to say.

6:45AM PST on Mar 6, 2012

It's a matter of time until there are definitive scientific studies that proves all these waves flying around in the air are harmful to our health. What will we do? Nothing.... We'll sweep that science under the rug just like we've done with mountaintop coal mining, oil spills, fracking, and all the other things that inconvenience us. Who cares about the environment and human health anyhow?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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