Seybold's take: Will the iPad choke wireless networks?

Andrew SeyboldIn an FCC blog post, two FCC officials--one the director of scenario planning and the other the deputy of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau--both voiced concern that the yet-unreleased Apple iPad could impact wireless networks in a negative manner. I don't think they were trying to stifle the iPad or AT&T (the only U.S. wireless network that has announced it will support the iPad), but they did express concern about the amount of wireless spectrum available, which is a good thing.

In their final paragraph, they state: "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." This followed: "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."

The reason I decided to write about this is that while it is apparent that some within the FCC acknowledge that demand for wireless broadband is growing, they also liken it to the dial-up congestion of 1996 when AOL began offering unlimited dial-up Internet access. The above comments imply that AOL was able to fix its problems by upgrading its servers and dial-up modem pool, making it seem as though taking care of demand for broadband is as simple as finding more spectrum and making it available.

The fact is that no matter how much more spectrum the FCC "finds" and makes available, wireless broadband is and always will be a shared bandwidth type of broadband service. Even with LTE on the horizon, bandwidth within each cell sector is shared bandwidth and will continue to be so. Yes, we can build cell sites closer together, we can install femtocells, and we can configure broadband wireless wide-area networks with unlicensed spectrum such as WiFi, but the bottom line is that when it comes to wireless, we have to share.

Consider a brand new LTE system. If it is built out as a typical cell system, each cell site will have three sectors, each covering 120 degrees. If my information is correct, in a 10 MHz portion of the spectrum, the total available data speeds will be about 15 Mbps down to a device and 2-3 Mbps up to the network. This is shared bandwidth. If I am the only customer in a given cell sector, then I get it all. However, if the cell sector has 5, 10, or 20 customers in it at any one time, the total bandwidth is shared among them. If all of the customers are checking email, surfing the Web, and looking to see where a movie is playing, data speeds will still appear to be at their maximum because data is sent and received in packets...Continued

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