Besides world peace and a visit from the Publishers Clearing House van, the one thing I want in life is an always-on Internet connection—and, I want it affordably. More specifically, I want always accessible, reasonably priced, quick and dependable wireless Internet. After all, my broadband connection through the cable company is technically always on, but it's worthless once I walk out of the house. It stands to reason, then, that only a mobile provider will ever be capable of fulfilling this wish.
It dawned on me while on vacation recently that I actually already have what I've always wanted. The problem is that it's a last-generation definition of what Internet access is and needs to be.
There I was on Cape Cod, MA, with a bit of work to sew up before I could truly get down to what I was there for: to not work. I'd assumed that my accommodations would supply Wi-Fi and that was my first mistake. After finding the public library closed and the local Starbucks filled to capacity with outlet-hogging loiterers, my only option was to visit a Verizon Wireless store to investigate Big Red's mobile access offerings.
The abridged version of my two-hour nightmare at the Verizon store is this: I could have very easily purchased a cable to tether my laptop to my LG Voyager without paying an additional access fee. But, my connection would have equated to dial-up, and so I refused to go down that road. No, I'm not a bandwidth diva. The reality is, dial-up is no longer the speed at which the Internet (or business, for that matter) moves. Trying to work on it would have been counter-productive. The alternative was to buy a wireless access USB dongle for $70 and enter a two-year $60/month contract (on top of a plan that already includes data). If I'd owned the new Blackberry Tour, I could have skipped the dongle and tethered for an additional $30/month on top of my plan.
And, there's the rub. Always-on broadband that follows me wherever I go is mine if I want it—it just happens to be prohibitively expensive. Now, why's that? For that answer, we needn't look any further than AT&T, which is finally limping out iPhone MMS this week, two years too late.
By it's own admission (via the dutiful outreach manager/apologist Seth the Blogger Guy), AT&T's network has been unable to keep up with the bandwidth demands of its users. Though just about everyone but AT&T saw it coming, the amount of bandwidth consumed by iPhone users is unprecedented. And that's with features like tethering and, until last week, MMS turned off—not to mention the crippling of high-bandwidth apps like Skype and Sling. If you think AT&T's network robustness is dismal now, imagine how quickly it would have imploded under the stress of millions of users feely streaming voice and video.
The quagmire AT&T finds itself in is a problem endemic to all mobile providers. If they made it easy for us to use our connections for all that that we want to use them for, they'd crumble. It's why Verizon wants to charge me so much money to get my laptop online. They don't really want me to do it, and they certainly don't want millions doing it. If I want the privilege of desktop-quality Web browsing, I have to pay through the nose for it. The issue isn't lack of demand, it's lack of supply which is keeping costs up—prohibitively for many. Which must drive the suits crazy, because the customer base waiting to subscribe to an always-on connection when the price comes down just a bit is a huge one.
Our country's wireless network providers are playing a losing game of perpetual catch-up. As devices, apps and speeds improve, our desires and demands increase. But don't mistake 4G for the magic pill. Why? Because today's networks are built to withstand yesterday's bandwidth demands. By the time tomorrow's networks are widely deployed, the way we want to use them will have changed. Tomorrow's demands will have become today's. Sure, LTE is going to be sweet when it's first launched and all of our 3G devices and apps are suddenly on the autobahn. But what happens when 4G bandwidth propagates 4G devices and applications? We'll be in the same boat as we are today: not enough bandwidth to handle what we want and need to do.
Sadly, the FCC's newly official stance on net neutrality only exacerbates the situation. The only reason the AT&T network still even has a pulse is because the provider has been allowed to manage bandwidth by blocking iPhone access to the aforementioned high-bandwidth applications. It's a crappy compromise we have to swallow, but that's the sad shape today's wireless networks are in. Forcing an AT&T or Verizon to accommodate the insatiable bandwidth demands of users and abusers alike is unrealistic. Say goodbye to unlimited access. Under net neutrality, bandwidth will be managed with exorbitant per-megabit fees.
For CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, the magic pill is more spectrum. "If the spectrum is the highway, then LTE and WiMax are brand-new types of cars," says Chris Guttman-McCabe, CTIA's Vice President of Regulatory Affairs. "New cars will be faster, they'll carry more people and they'll get better gas mileage. But, the highway is crowded. LTE and WiMax are more spectrally efficient, and so they will benefit both consumers and providers—but not enough to offset the need for more spectrum."
To back his case for more spectrum, McCabe points to some fairly staggering numbers in a recent CTIA report [PDF]. The US currently leads the world in the amount of spectrum made available for commercial wireless use with 409.5 MHz (counting the recent AWS and 700 MHz auctions). The UK has made a little less available with 352.8 MHz. The difference is, our spectrum is split between nearly 200 million more wireless customers than in the UK—so there's much less to go around. Even more alarming, though, is the fact that the FCC has only set aside another 50 MHz for potential commercial wireless use, while the UK has set aside seven times that amount. Again, for far fewer subscribers. More spectrum means more can be allocated to every user in a cell site, which, depending on the band, can translate to higher speeds, more robustness and better building penetration. If the FCC is going to open a floodgate of bandwidth usage with net neutrality, then we all better hope it also opens up more spectrum.
Of course, the impending spectrum shortage is only half the answer and shouldn't be a cop out for what our country's mobile providers can do today. AT&T isn't using a secret stash of spectrum to finally launch MMS on the iPhone. According to Seth the Blogger Guy, the company has been, "working for months to prepare the radio access controllers in our network to support this launch. That means calibrating base stations all over the country, and frankly that's a very time-consuming process." In other words, AT&T is using existing spectrum and existing infrastructure—it's just using it better (we'll see). AT&T should have done this two years ago, and that's the point. Our current mobile networks could be much improved if providers spent less money on PR, advertising and Seth the Blogger Guy videos and invested more in the quality of their product.
As for the shape of things tomorrow, a couple of things need to happen in order to keep the machine running smoothly, if at all. More spectrum is one of them. The other is that AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-mo need to stop playing perpetual catch-up with our demand and start making investments today in what their roadmaps tell them is still 20 years away. Forget 4G in 2010. It's already antiquated.
Great points. Great article.
The standard providers are slower than snails on glue and more greedy than Ebenezer Scrooge.
They're <b>always</b> too slow to understand the market, too slow to upgrade their own systems and too miserly to offer what users really need at reasonable prices.
Spoken like someone who's always been a worker and never been the owner. You just have your wants, your needs, your I want it now! mentality. Obviously if it was an easy fix they would make it happen, the company is in the business of satisfying your wants, not withholding. The cost to upgrade such a system are astronomical, and an owner has to balance such costs against keeping the company solvent. They are also responsible to shareholders for profits, that are tied to bonuses. And you can't tell me that if you were CEO and you were going to get a bonus of 10 million dollars if you met your numbers vs no bonus if you upgrade a section of your system for no return in profit you wouldn't take the bonus.
The problem is the fact that there is not enough competition in the market place. It's the only thing that would drive down astronomical prices while keeping the quality up.
I am glad the FCC is stepping in, these companies need better business models to satisfy customers. I do understand that in any business the end game is to make money. Hampering technological advancement is not the way to go about that end game.
Municipal or public utility wifi is the answer.
The cost of this technology - easily capable of 100 mbps speeds would be less than $10 a month - if integrated with power company smart metering, IPTV, wireless voice, and internet communications.
The power company runs fiber all over the city installing nodes on each block and terminated on a $100 wireless N router, and a 1 GigE ethernet router -capital cost about $40 a household. Households and business's can either use wifi with a home client repeater or pay $100 for a wired Cat 6E connection to the fiber node. The power company equipment Smart meter communication equipment terminates at the power meter with either wireless or Cat 6E access ahead of household distribution.
Mobile customers would access household repeaters (dual ssid) and block level N routers with software set up to allow easy handoffs router to router.
The wireless plan works because of the WIFI's extremely high bandwidth available with a very limited range.
Big Telecom would be reduced to serving rural areas with their existing spectrum. A win win for all.
This article is a couple of years old, so numbers are bound to have changed, but still it remains relevant.
"The median U.S. download speed now is 1.97 megabits per second — a fraction of the 61 megabits per second enjoyed by consumers in Japan, says the report released Monday. Other speedy countries include South Korea (median 45 megabits), France (17 megabits) and Canada (7 megabits)."
Bottom Line: The U.S. need's to catch up. For a country that played a very big part in designing the internet, the speeds to our fellow Americans are pathetic.
The current issues with ATT's network have very little to do with the amount of spectrum available or for that matter with the 3G technology. The gating factor is the capacity injection layer of their network being insufficient for the task at hand. Put quite simply, ATT has a limited number of copper T1 circuits at most of its base stations. There is just not enough capacity in those lines to link the towers back to the internet at busy hour.
CIL shortages are the single largest issue and fastest growing cost for all cell carriers. Last year, ATT and other US wireless providers spent more than $18 billion renting circuits from landline providers to connect those towers to the internet.
CIL may be the biggest problem at the moment but if they had multi-gig connection between all towers they would then STILL have a major problem with spectrum. Even if, for example, AT&T had all the 700 MHz spectrum that was auctioned they would still be short soon after they deployed LTE in major markets. All the spectrum that all carriers currently own will be swamped where people live soon after they deploy. So they will allocate by price. Anyone owning 700 MHz spectrum that AT&T and others want and need are setting on gold mines. Paul Allen just sold his spectrum in the Northwest for far more than was paid for similar 700 MHz spectrum last year in Auction 73 but he still sold far too low a price and too early.
The CIL problem is a simple fix, spectrum is limited forever. The best spectrum is 700 MHz.
I believe it will just take time - as we see how long it took to establish 3G (UMTS) the road to LTE (Long Term Evolution) will be quite bumpy :-)
Cheers Daniel (check out this website for 3G / UMTS Flatrates www.umtsflatratevergleich.de )
The providers will only upgrade when the price of 3g goes down they will be forced to invest. Not before. Brad from <a href="http://puppypottytrainingtips.org/">puppy potty training</a>
U are making a good point
i agree with that
Two year, $60 a month wireless broadband contracts are god’s way of telling you to put your laptop away and enjoy your holiday. People no longer remember the freedom of being out of touch and it’s a shame. When I first went to Europe I had to write home on little onionskin airmail fold-together envelopes to keep my parents apprised of my movements, and even that was too much connectivity for a teenager testing his wings. I feel sorry for this generation where leaving home just means extra roaming charges.