[By Phil Bellaria, Director, Scenario Planning, and John Leibovitz, Deputy Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau]
Apple’s iPad announcement has set off a new round of reports of networks overburdened by a data flow they were not built to handle. These problems are reminiscent of the congestion dialup users experienced following AOL’s 1996 decision to allow unlimited internet use. For months users had trouble connecting and, once they did connect, experienced frequent service outages. The FCC even held hearings on the problem.
The congestion problem circa 1996-97 revealed an intense latent demand for Internet access. Similarly, wireless network congestion today reveals intense demand for wireless broadband. Widespread use of smartphones, 3G-enabled netbooks, and now, perhaps, the iPad and its competitors demonstrate that wireless broadband will be a hugely important part of the broadband ecosystem as we move ahead.
Eventually, AOL was able to resolve its problems by upgrading its modem and server capacities. Wireless providers today, too, will be able to deal with congestion issues but only if they have adequate spectrum. Reaching an always-on wireless broadband future means that spectrum can no longer remain attached solely to uses deemed valuable decades ago. The broadband plan will suggest ways of moving more spectrum into high value uses, such as broadband access, to help ensure that we don’t get stuck in 1997 dialup-style congestion.
With the iPad pointing to even greater demand for mobile broadband on the horizon, we must ensure that network congestion doesn’t choke off a service that consumers clearly find so appealing or frustrate mobile broadband’s ability to keep us competitive in the global broadband economy.