Attention smartphone users: your Internet connection is just about to crawl to a halt

January 22, 2013
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For many smartphone users, fourth-generation technologies like LTE have ushered in an era of fast mobile broadband, with practical speeds reaching 62 Mbps in some areas and even a theoretical 162 Mbps with LTE-Aย (even higher with multiplexing). But these network speeds might amount to nothing if there is no network capacity to support the data transfers. Analysts estimate that the upward trend in mobile data use among smartphone users will eventually outpace network capacity in the next three years, and speeds will slow down to a crawl.

A recent report by Deloitte says that smartphones — mostly comprising Android, iOS and Windows Phone — consume 35 times more data traffic than typical non-smartphones. As such, this means a 50-fold growth by 2016. But since carriers’ network capacities are not expected to drastically improve by this time, Deloitte likened it to rush hour traffic. Networks will suffer congestion just as physical roads do during rush hours.

“In the worst situations, download speeds may be under 1Mbps for lengthy periods of time, making video streaming impossible and even web browsing difficult,” said the report. Given these situations, it might take two or three attempts before successfully loading a webpage. Sites might freeze, and even voice calls might not go through on the first try.

Major metropolitan areas will bear most of the brunt, given demand in these areas. While governments are trying to grant new spectrum allocations to mobile carriers, these are often meant for rural areas, or to de-congest traffic in high-use areas such as big cities. The study said the use of 4th generation technologies will help ease the burden for carriers, given that these are more efficient in using the available bandwidth. However, “[d]emand for wireless bandwidth will likely attempt to outstrip these improvements in supply for at least several years.”

As such, it might be a worry for smartphone users that the quality of service you are enjoying right now might not be a long-term benefit of smartphone use. As more and more users get onboard the smartphone bandwagon, and as online content becomes richer and richer (videos vs. text, for instance), mobile traffic will continue to become congested.

Are you worried that your LTE plan might crawl to a 1Mbps pace in a few years’ time? Or are you confident that new breakthroughs in mobile technology will eventually result in more efficient use of what bandwidth we are already using right now?

Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. For instance, mobile users in emerging economies don’t always get to enjoy 4G or even 3.5G speeds, and can make do with 2Mbps or less. And then there are always traffic optimization techniques employed by Opera Mini, Onavo and the like, which can help reduce network traffic for both a user and the carrier’s network itself. Should we begin to look into more efficient means of using our mobile network resources? Or is this perhaps another argument against net neutrality?

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