USA Telecom doesn’t have enough airwaves for your selfies

Nowadays we can’t live without wireless Internet. We use our mobile phones, tablets or laptops with integrated wireless cards to communicate with others and search information. We spend our days connected to the Internet through hundreds of apps, websites and services, thus using an incredible amount of data.

Wireless data use has grown and is going to keep growing due to demand for mobile Internet connection. “In 2009, approximately 191 billion megabytes (Mb) traveled across U.S. wireless networks, or roughly 21.8 million Mb an hour. By 2014, wireless providers reported handling more than 4 trillion Mb. That level of mobile data means that every hour, over 462 million Mbs flowed across U.S. wireless networks,” reports the study “Mobile Data Demand: Growth Forecast Met” (2015).

Data hunger

A research made by comScore shows that 191.4 million people own a smartphone in U.S, that’s roughly 59% of the country’s population. When it comes to searching information on the web, smartphone owners use their devices to look up for information about health, job offers and real states, do online banking or even to summit job applications, says a research made by Pew Research Center.

Applications have also had a great responsibility in data consuming growth. Another comScore research affirms that Facebook mobile app is the most used by Americans. The facebook app is followed by Youtube and Google Play Store. Music streaming app, Pandora Radio along with another social media apps such as Instagram and Twitter made it to the Top 15 Smartphone Apps too.

Whistle Out explains that the average Facebook users could spend 715Mb a month and in the same range using Pandora takes 1.8Gb. Watching videos in HD definitions in Youtube takes approximately 6Mb per minute. Uploading a picture to Instagram needs 1.5Mb of data and updating Twitter takes 70Kb.

And our phones do all these things “wirelessly”, because data transmits over antennas and data centers using wires. And the chances that those wires are fiber optics are really high.


Wireless data transmission 101

The first thing you should know is that wireless signals travel through the air using airwaves, known as spectrum. But those signals need physical towers to be sent and received.

You surely have seen a cell tower. They are around us and even though we don’t pay them much attention, they are the ones that make our communications possible. Many cellular service providers like AT&T or Verizon use the same backbone structure for their equipment, those backbones are connected to the transceivers next to the cell tower over fiber optics and transceivers are linked to the dozen antennas on top of the towers by fiber optic wires too.

Antennas can also be on top of buildings, street or traffic lights, trees or anything that put them some feet away from the ground. The research “Antennas Height and Communication Effectiveness” says that distance between antennas and floor is really important and they need to be at least 35 feet above the ground to have a good performance and the higher, the better.

Each antenna is a cell network itself and it can cover from a few blocks of a city up to 250 miles, range that is controlled by wireless service providers. An antenna uses radio frequencies to send and receive data to and from the little radios we have in our hands that we know as cell phones. And this is how we make calls.

When connecting to Internet, your cell phone sends encode data to the closest antenna using IPs, the antenna decodes the data and sends it to the rest of the network wirelessly or through fiber cables. Antennas also encodes data destined to your cell phone and sends it using airwaves. The entire process happens in the blink of an eye.

Fiber-optic role

Fiber optic transfer more data than coaxial cables in less time and to a longer distance, due to the fact that optic cables transmits data as light pulses. A LAN system built with fiber optic can carry 31.000 calls at the same time, while a comparable system made with copper can just carry 3.000. It’s really obvious who the winner in this competition is.

According to a report in the WSJ “Optical Delusion? Fiber Booms Again, Despite Bust”, made by Anton Troianovski, two big fiber optic deployments have been made in the U.S by telecommunications companies, the first one back in 2001 known as the dot-com boom and the other one in 2011, when 19 million miles of fiber optic were installed in order to offer faster wired and wireless Internet to their customers.

U.S Internet fell behind, really behind.

To connect to mobile broadband, you probably have a 3G or 4G cell phone. The Universal Mobile Telecommunication System establishes that 3G technologies must be capable of handling up to 2Mbps, while 4G needs to manage at least 100Mbps if you are moving and 1Gbps when stationary. Theoretically it all sounds really pretty. But do our phones really work on those standards?

4G is provided from national telecommunication companies such as Verizon, T- Mobile, AT&T and Sprint, and though they all claim to have the fastest 4G mobile network, they don’t.

Compared to rest of the world, American Internet is really slow and expensive. The report The Cost of Connectivity points out that with 50$ you can afford a 300Mbps connection in Hong Kong, while with the same amount of money you can just pay for a 50Mbps connection in LA.

A research made by OpenSignal concludes that U.S LTE is ranked on the world’s slowest LTE download speeds, with Sprint’s LTE running 5Mbps, AT&T and Verizon roughly 8Mbps and T-Mobile 10Mbps. U.S mobile networks aren’t even the fastest ones in North America, with a 4Mbps average speed in contrast with Puerto Rico’s 9.6Mbps or Canada’s 5.3Mbps, says The State of the Internet / Q1 2015 a research made by the Content Delivery Network Akamai.

Spectrum shortage

U.S mobile broadband is slow and expensive because telecommunication companies are running out of the airwaves they need to provide their services, such as voice, text and Internet. This problem, known as spectrum crunch, was anticipated by industry experts years ago.

Spectrum is a finite resource that telephony services providers have to buy from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) through auctions. Back in 2008 when smartphones were appearing, Verizon, AT&T and other telecommunication companies bought licenses to use parts of the 700MHz public Band for commercial purposes, but it came to be insufficient due to smartphones, tablets and data using growth.

That’s why the FCC released the National Broadband Plan in 2010. They estimated mobile users would need additional 500Mherz of spectrum by 2020, but industry insiders think is it not going to be enough, as they say another 350Mherz will be needed by 2019 and it would take at least 10 years before FCC could release enough spectrum licenses through auctions.

Spectrum shortage is a thread that can’t be solved just with fiber optic deployment or antennas installation, but with plans like Google Inc.’s request to regulators to free up a portion of the 3.5GHerz band that remains unused in order to make wireless industry cheaper and less exclusive.

September 21, 2015 by
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