Will Cellular Networks Keep Pace?

Carl Weinschenk
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10 Cutting-edge Mobile Application Trends for 2012

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The projections on the growth of mobile traffic are daunting, and a report this week from Credit Suisse suggests that the capacity situation today - even before the great deluge expected during the coming months - isn't all that rosy, in terms of available capacity.

The firm reports that mobile networks in North America are running at 80 percent of capacity. The InfoWorld story on the report says that 36 percent of base stations face capacity restraints and that carriers expect utilization rates to grow 70 percent during the next year. Juniper expects equipment vendors to enjoy good times and that problems exist today. "Constrained" situations, according to the story, are defined as utilization rates of more than 80 percent during busy hours. Twenty-three percent of base stations worldwide labor under such conditions, including 36 percent in North America.

There is a great alignment of planets is pointing toward great dislocation in the wireless networking sector. The first element is that carriers shied away, as much as possible, from upgrading networks and increasing capacity during the recession. Once the economy improved, there was an initial demand that needed to be met. We still are in this phase.

That game of catch-up is difficult, since there have been repeated major introductions of significant bandwidth-hungry devices: new iPhones are popping up fairly often and the iPad, other tablets and Android phones were born. The next great drivers will be the continued transition from 3G to 4G - with its higher bandwidth - and from cell phones to feature phones and smartphones. Each successive type of phone, of course, uses more capacity. Finally, there is the increase in mobile video entertainment and the increased use of video as a communications tool.

In addition to the great upswing in sales for the equipment vendors, it is reasonable to expect a great level of new business for mobile backhaul providers. A new generation of Ethernet-based means of ferrying cellular traffic upstream - from the tower back to the central collection points - will increase in even greater proportion than the downstream traffic.

Indicators of the intense increase in wireless demand appear weekly. This week, Juniper Research said that the number of smartphone shipments will reach a cool 1 billion annually in 2016, more than a three-fold increase since last year, when 302 million were shipped. The phones will continue to chew up more bandwidth. The report says that 3D and biometrics, for instance, will be increasingly common features.

One of the more interesting of the many issues to watch going forward is whether cellular networks will find a way to keep up with the onslaught. In the slightly longer term, an important means of doing so will be the use of adaptive radio technology. Now being pioneered in the white space sector, this approach lets a particular shard of bandwidth be used much more efficiently. Other new techniques - as well as the opening of more bandwidth - will almost certainly keep service reductions to a minimum.

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