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Long Lines for the iPad and Staying Ahead of the Curve

April 2nd, 2010 by Phil Bellaria - Director, Scenario Planning, Omnibus Broadband Initiative

By Phil Bellaria - Director, Scenario Planning, Omnibus Broadband Initiative and John Leibovitz - Deputy Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

With lines expected to go out the doors of Apple stores nationwide when the iPad is released tomorrow, it's a good time to think about the changing ways Americans are accessing broadband.  More and more, it seems Americans don’t want to be tethered to a desktop computer -- or even a laptop -- but want a light mobile device they can curl up on the sofa with to watch an on-line movie, stow in a backpack for subway reading, or pass around the office with the latest vacation pictures.  The broadband connections that enable this flexibility are wireless – a fact that points out the need for more spectrum for mobile broadband that we identified in the National Broadband Plan.

Many iPads will rely solely on Wi-Fi to connect to broadband, and the Plan recognizes how Wi-Fi broadband access on unlicensed spectrum can relieve the growing pressure on licensed cellular networks. The Plan calls for the FCC to free up a new, contiguous nationwide band of spectrum for unlicensed use over the next ten years. These bands have the added benefit of providing economical broadband access in rural areas that aren’t well served now.

Other consumers will buy iPads configured to also connect to AT&T’s commercial licensed networks, adding to the fast-growing volume of data traffic that has already been fueled by smart phones, like the iPad’s little brother, the iPhone, and laptop aircards. The growth is exciting – and a call for action to stave off network congestion. Consider this: AT&T’s data traffic has grown by 5000% over the past three years. Cisco estimates that smartphones alone can generate 30 times more data traffic than a basic feature phone. And laptops can generate many times the traffic of a smartphone.

Before long, we’ll have an idea about what the iPad’s impact on spectrum use will be. But we shouldn’t wait. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan has outlined the fundamentals of a bold spectrum policy for the future. It includes short-term steps, such as carriers building out 4G networks, more cell phone towers, and migrating to more efficient equipment. But long-term, it’s clear that we’ll need to act on the Plan’s call for more spectrum.

Failing to do so will frustrate consumers with balky networks and hamstring innovation in a sector where America leads the world.

3 Responses to “Long Lines for the iPad and Staying Ahead of the Curve”

  1. Concerned says:

    I am confused why the government is allowed to give free advertising to one particular company. This post clearly feeds into the iPad advertising hype and seems to be an inappropriate use of tax payer resources. Shouldnt the govt be neutral as to market players?

  2. Guest says:

    The best thing for consumers is choice. The exclusive contract between AT&T and Apple is illegal tying and should not be allowed. That bandwidth should be spread among multiple providers. Let consumers choose which provider provides better service. This isn't 1935 and AT&T isn't the only game in town.

  3. Dave Burstein says:

    Good news. The rate of growth of wireless data has dropped precipitously since the figures Phil quotes. I'm reporting, based on data from Merrill Lynch and the carriers "the U.S. average mobile data usage in the second half of 2009 was 58 megabytes, up from 45 megabytes at the middle of the year. That's a 29% increase in six months, an annual rate of 60% and almost surely falling." 60% and anything close to 60% is of course substantial growth that needs to be planned for, although not out of line with the 1,000% five year increase in capacity some predict."

    It's time to retire comments "AT&T’s data traffic has grown by 5000%." Especially since AT&T, when a reporter asks, refuses to explain how they measure or even what period of time they are discussing. Lobbyist's figures, unverifiable, are often misleading. They should never be used in policy making without independent confirmation.

    We need improved spectrum policy, of course, but accurate data is essential to develop it.

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