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Crowded Airspace: We're Running Out of Wireless

In just two years, there won't be enough wireless to go around.

In 2008, the average American consumed 34 gigabytes of information a day.

That number is still growing, and the information is increasingly being conveyed to us over wireless connections, whether to our smart phones, tablets or laptops. Data usage, rather than phone calls, is the primary activity on wireless networks. But the escalating growth in internet use and in wireless access has created a collision course: There’s just not enough wireless infrastructure to support the amount of data we want to blast at each other through the ether.

Consider this fact, from a recent report [PDF] from the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California at San Diego: All the traffic on America’s wireless data network last year totaled less than one day of the nation’s online video consumption. Data traffic is expected to increase by 1,800 percent over the next four years, from 40 petabyes a month last year to 451 petabytes a month in 2013.

That poses a huge challenge because technology isn’t keeping up with demand yet. While fiber optics and other physical networks scale with relative ease, we’re running out of space in the air—spectrum—to fill with data. By 2013, the FCC thinks we’ll have a “spectrum deficit”: more data than room to transmit it.

The good news is that there are manifold solutions for this problem. One is a win-win: The government can open more space on the spectrum for wireless traffic, selling the rights to operate on it to companies for billions of dollars that will reduce the budget deficit. We can also look to new-fangled wireless technology, although it will likely take years before that technology gets to scale.

Carriers will also need to manage their networks more effectively, using advanced software to regulate traffic so that everyone gets a fair shot at the network (or, more likely, allowing those who pay extra to get extra space). They’ll also have to spend more money on infrastructure like cell towers, which aren’t always winners in the community but carry the signals we love so dearly.

Besides answering consumer demand, though, an expansion like this could be helpful economically, too. Studies about broadband investment suggest that increasing network penetration lowers the barrier of entry to markets, spreads information and increases productivity, leading directly to increases in economic expansion.

So unless we’re ready to face a world of super-slow e-mail and mobile internet, it’s time to unplug, tune in and start investing in our wireless infrastructure.

Illustration courtesy Global Information Industry Center.

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