Avoiding the mobile data traffic jam

Going forward, we can only expect that mobile data traffic will grow.  More email.  More apps.  And, especially, more video.  And so the traffic is just going to get worse.  In fact, total mobile traffic is expected to increase nine-fold within the next five years.

To put this in context, imagine the Washington Beltway at rush-hour.  That’s basically what wireless networks are today.  Sometimes open road; but frequently congested, especially at peak hours.

Now imagine adding 50% more traffic to the Beltway each year for the next five years – a nine-fold increase.  You’d get grinding gridlock, with major delays… frustration, anger, and a major loss of productivity.

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Those same effects will occur if Congress and the FCC don’t act to address the looming spectrum crunch, which will take place because mobile data traffic in the United States will be 687 times greater in 2017 than it was in 2007. 

We already feel the crunch today, particularly when thousands of people are texting photos from an NFL game or more importantly, in times of crisis, when we all try to reach out to loved ones.

Just a few years ago, mobile data traffic was at relatively low levels, the product of a handful of text messages, mostly by our teenagers.

Fast forward a few years.  Each of us has multiple mobile devices connected wirelessly to the internet – smartphones, tablets, laptops, video streaming devices, smart TVs and gaming consoles. 

And the devices will continue to proliferate --in just a few years, we forecast that that there will be eight devices for every American. 

Not only do we send email and text messages constantly, but we also watch massive amounts of video – from short clips of our children’s first steps to feature-length movies on hand held devices. 

Taken as a whole, this change has really transformed mobile data traffic, with profound implications for technology policy. The latest data show that there’s simply no stopping the growth. We’ve become attached to our mobile devices and have integrated them into our lives.

So what should policymakers do today to ensure that we have the infrastructure and investment in place to meet this demand tomorrow?

Put simply, Congress and the FCC should allocate licensed and unlicensed spectrum for broadband access.  To return to our Beltway metaphor, adding spectrum will add more lanes for traffic, widen lanes which today are too narrow, and create more on-ramps, off-ramps, and feeder roads to reduce bottlenecks.

Here are three steps that can and should be taken immediately:

•    First, the FCC should proceed with voluntary incentive auctions that make as much licensed spectrum available as possible.  This was approved by Congress in 2010, and it will generate revenue for the federal government, compensate those willing to give up underutilized spectrum, and create more spectrum for broadband to help keep up with the incredible growth.  It is a true win-win-win outcome.

•    Additionally, the FCC is analyzing whether additional sharing of WiFi spectrum in the 5ghz band for commercial purposes is technically feasible.  We hope that this analysis can be completed as quickly and thoroughly as possible to help increase broadband speed and adoption.   This is increasingly important, given that approximately 50 percent of all data moves over Wi-Fi or mobile networks, and given that Wi-Fi helps alleviate pressure on licensed cellular networks.

•    To expedite action, the FCC should immediately set a date certain by years end for the voluntary incentive auctions to begin, and for the 5ghz proceeding to reach completion.

The bottom line is this:  The mobile revolution is here.  It’s changing the way we communicate, the way we analyze data, and the way health care, education, government and public safety services are delivered. 

And it’s creating new American jobs and economic growth every day.  Doubling mobile data results in a 0.5% increase in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, growth which is necessary now more than ever.

It’s imperative that we address the looming spectrum crunch here in the United States soon and allow providers to invest private dollars in network infrastructure. This will help ensure that the United States continues to be a global leader when it comes to mobile technologies, and it will help alleviate the massive data traffic jam that will only get worse in the years ahead.

Webster is vice president of Cisco.