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Strike Up the Bandwidth

With smartphone data usage skyrocketing, we're fast approaching the limits of what cellular networks can handle. One writer offers his (unpopular but nevertheless sensible) solution to the coming crunch.

Author MARK MCCLUSKY

ILLUSTRATION BY SERGE BLOCH

TRULY, THESE ARE MAGICAL TIMES. Medical technology keeps us living longer than ever before. Air travel lets us crisscross the globe at a speed our ancestors would simply disbelieve. And when we can’t fly, modern communications makes it a trivial thing to talk to — and even see — people anywhere in the world.

Unless, of course, you’re sitting in my living room in Oakland, Calif. Because, at the moment, smack in the middle of a large metro area in the most prosperous country on earth, I can’t get a cell signal.

The conventional response would be to blame my carrier. If only the company would build another tower to cover the area near my house, I’d be fine. Right? Not necessarily. Bandwidth, as it turns out, is subject to not just the laws of physics, but also the laws of supply and demand. Both point to one unpleasant realization: The true cost of wireless data access has been hidden from us for quite a while, and it’s time to pay the piper.

Sure, a lack of towers contributes to the problem, especially when you can’t get a signal, period. But while everyone wants a good cell signal, no one wants a tower in their backyard, or by their kids’ school. And sometimes what towers there are can’t even handle all the data from their cellular connections, because they’re limited by what’s called the “backhaul,” the bandwidth that connects a particular tower to the larger network.

We’ve grown accustomed to technology progressing according to Moore’s Law, which states that the processing power of a computer chip doubles about every two years. Even beyond the realm of processors, we’ve seen this geometric progression in most of our devices, from hard drive and flash memory storage to the pixels in our screens and cameras.

But one place you don’t see it is in wireless bandwidth. That’s because Moore’s Law doesn’t hold there. Instead, you have to get familiar with Shannon’s Law.

Claude Shannon was an MIT researcher who, in 1948, came up with an equation that explained how two factors limit the amount of information that can be accurately transmitted over any communication channel: the bandwidth available and the noise present that could disturb the signal. Using those two numbers, you can figure out the maximum amount of information that a particular link can handle.

I won’t bore you with the math. But the upshot is that we’re coming very, very close to reaching the bandwidth limits determined by Shannon’s Law. Soon, the typical cell tower simply won’t be able to handle any more data. Which means we’re going to need to come up with a solution if we want everyone to be able to watch the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” on their iPhone.

None of the current solutions are what you’d call ideal, or easy, especially if you’re a cellular company. Carriers could build a lot more cell towers. They could try to get you, the customer, to supplement their network — in fact, they already do, with “micro-cell” devices that sit in your house and shunt cellular traffic onto your Internet connection. Or they could buy more wireless spectrum. More frequencies means more bandwidth, but that’s also expensive and a bureaucratic nightmare.

Or the cellular companies could take a different route, and raise prices. This is anathema in the age of unlimited data usage, but with skin in the game, people might think a little bit more before eating up so much bandwidth. Do you really need to check your email every five minutes? If so, it will cost you. And while that’s happening, the cost of network upgrades will be subsidized by those who truly need them.

Everyone likes a bargain, and price is one of the main ways that carriers compete. But wouldn’t it be worth it to cough up $20 more and actually get the service you’re paying for, rather than a simulation of it? From here in Oakland, as I wave my phone around searching for a signal, that seems like a trade-off worth considering.

When Wired special projects editor MARK MCCLUSKY can’t get a signal, he consoles himself by using his smartphone to play Draw Something. You can follow him on Twitter at @markmcc.

One Response to “Strike Up the Bandwidth”

  1. Dr. James Moreland Says:
    July 11th, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Mark,
    Nice article on Shannon’s Law, but he was a Bell Telephone Labs, not an MIT, employee when this was developed.
    Dr. James Moreland
    Retired Bell Labs Employee

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