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

by: J. Angelo RacomaJanuary 22, 2013


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-A (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?

  • Anon

    Meanwhile, the most connected countries in the world like South Korea are enjoying 1gig download speeds. Like c’mon, even those tablet bicycles in China have better connectivity then homes here in the states.

    • Carlos Sebastián Navarrete

      Come to Argentina, then you’ll be grateful to your ISP :)

  • Alu Zeros

    Sure, and the world was also going to end in 2012.

    • Zero0

      It actually ended in 2000, when all the computers stopped working.

  • brady

    3 years time is an eternity in technology

  • hoh

    Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean update for the Galaxy S II GT-I9100 released

  • LAmDroid

    says analyst funded by AT&T and Verizon

  • India has 1mbps average download speed with caps for home usage and some people even bottom down to 256 kbps download speed(with caps) with mtnl triband (The leading provider for mumbai city) doubt this would affect many people !

  • 1ceTr0n

    Don’t they say this kinda crap every few years? Said something like this for worldwide broadband usage also and guess what, everythings still working. But whatever, i’ll use WiFi when I can as the companies are already taking bids on our next of kin for the prices of data plans nowadays, so I don’t need to be on the web on my smartphone that badly

  • I would say at the rate that companies have been keen to deploy HSPA+ technologies and MIMO technologies on top of that, as well as WiMAX and LTE on a grand rapid scale, we will be okay. The technology is evolving fast enough to deploy within 3 years, and we already know we are upgrading to LTE-A even before LTE is even deployed realistically on some networks (Sprint and T-Mobile). The spectrum efficiency use on LTE and LTE-A as well as recycling older spectrum used for older technologies and mixed with homogenous networks like Sprint is doing with Network Vision, moving equipment up towers like T-Mobile is doing with its modernization plan, or even the use of picocells coming soon and offloading over WiFi or home broadband – there is no doubt in my mind we will be okay in the 3 year run. Sprint themselves is helping ease congestion on its network by using Optimization in its smartphones which allow the device to turn on and off WiFi, 3G and 4G periodically to search for a better, stronger, more robust signal. This will help offload over wifi high data applications, move data to its 4G network and spectrum, freeing up some 3G for users who havent upgraded, and vice versa backwards when needed. It happens quite seamless. AT&T will allow you unlimited AT&T WiFi use on their data plans, so thats one way they are offloading, T-Mobile wants you to offload to WiFi and has made all voice calls FREE if you do so, as an added benefit, however they still offer unlimited plans – which brings me to my final point. If companies are worried that LTE and HSPA+ cant handle capacity in 3 years, why are they still offering unlimited plans. Granted Sprint and T-Mobile are 1/2 to 1/4 size of AT&T or Verizon, likely have enough spectrum to do so, and can afford to offer more for less to keep their market share happy, but wouldnt it be beneficial to them to offer limited plans since neither of them have as robust of HSPA+ or LTE as AT&T or Verizon respectively? Just saying, we will be okay in 3 years since the technology and plans are set moving rapidly FORWARD.

  • Max

    Then I guess it’s a good thing I don’t use mobile internet much at all. What little I need is done over WiFi only – data charges would eat me alive otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, a phone is “smart” because of all the thing the software I installed on it can help me do, not because I can browse Facebook on it (I’m not even on it btw.). I don’t need the “cloud” to look at my locally-stored photos, listen to my music, review my calendar or to-do list, do my accounts or shopping, read an e-book or navigate on a map (yes, I use offline maps), get some help calculating or converting something. The occasional youtube clip I want to show my friends will download just nicely over the WiFi of the pub we’re in at the moment thankyouverymuch…

  • AnyManCan

    I’m in Sprint. 1 or 2Mps would be a significant upgrade. Lol