Federal Communications Commission

Message from the iPad: Heavy Traffic Ahead

February 1st, 2010 by Phil Bellaria - Director, Scenario Planning, Omnibus Broadband Initiative

[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. 



40 Responses to “Message from the iPad: Heavy Traffic Ahead”

  1. Rombo Deadfish says:

    Is this something that the U.S. government really needs to be concerned with? If there is congestion the free market will work it out. Just another example of over reaching government.

  2. Guest says:

    I want to learn more about Apple's technology infrastructure for network systems. Does Apple do good things to improve the network systems?
    <a href=""></a>

  3. says:

    The gov must let the free market come up with the soulution to this problem. The gov must stay out of it.
    the free martet is what has made this nation!

  4. Guest says:

    The February 3 "Guest" comment is right on. For wireless networks to provide the capabilities we are expecting - and, will come to depend on - we can't just rely on cellular wireless. There will have to be a robust ability to shunt high-bandwidth applications off the cellular network, and onto the wireline fiber internet connections that have essentially unlimited bandwidth. This will entail WiFi hot spots and similar devices that are now emerging for the home market.

  5. Guest says:

    There is simply not enough spectrum in bands suitable for mobile use to give everyone unlimited broadband access. Wireless works great for "bursty" apps like email, single photo sharing, small file transfers, and general "web surfing." It does NOT work well for streaming video, massive file downloads, and other bandwidth-hog apps.

    One way to manage traffic on a congensted shared broadband channel is to limit each user's throughput over a relatively short period of time, perhaps a minute or two. That way, if one user tries to, say, download a 1 GB file it will run VERY slowly, while not significantly reducing the perceived speed for "bursty" users on the same channel.

  6. Guest says:

    Its not the disadvantaged consumers in this situation that worry me - its the disadvantaged first responders. They "lucked out" in the 700 MHz auctions (what i mean is - they didn't get the wide coverage of broadband wireless networks based on up-to-date 3G/4G architecture that they deserve) and now have few alternatives other than commercial networks to carry their increasing data traffic. These same networks are the heavily congested ones being cited in this blog post.

    I would encourage the FCC to focus on deploying a priority access scheme (as they do in the UK) to give first responders access to commercial cellular networks in times of congestion. This congestion may arise from emergency and non-emergency situations such as large public events. In doing so they need to ensure that the carriers provide reasonable pricing to legitimate users. Couple that with the deployment of currently-available technology to bond multiple competing 3G/4G networks into one big, resilient network and first responders gain the ability to use higher bandwidth applications. Those of us that understand the benefits of deploying video for situational awareness and have tried to deploy it on a 3G uplink will know that it is a real challenge with today's networks and is likely to be next-to-impossible in the future if this article is correct.

  7. Guest says:

    The problem with traffic will be multiplied as more and more businesses, specialy small businesses begin using the 'cloud'. Incredible business application are appearing right and left and businesses will be migrating to those. SaaS (Software as a Service) is allowing these companies to run enterprise level applications, designed to make businesses more efficient, at a fraction of the cost.

    George Rathbun
    <a href="">INCENT Solutions</a>

  8. Guest says:

    "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."

    Mr. Bellaria and Mr. Leibovitz, you didn't really mean to say that, did you? I, as both a citizen of the USA and a taxpayer, as well as the Executive Director of a NYC-based non-profit that brings free Wi-Fi to public spaces, don't believe your responsibility is to ensure that consumers are taken care of.

    Perhaps what you meant to say is "We must ensure that network congestion doesn't choke off essential and emergency uses of our commercial wireless networks, but clearly see how such competitive uses of these networks very effectively enhances our competitive edge (which is woefully behind already) in the global broadband economy."

    At the FCC, you should be concentrating on bringing more spectrum availability to both commercial and license-free uses, in order to ensure capacity. You should be pushing (not "encouraging") more investment in our commercial networks through the entry of more competitive service providers. You should be encouraging our technology and software providers to build new and innovative uses and tools that take advantage of our existing network infrastructure and push our existing network providers to build more infrastructure by ensuring that network usage and access fairness is enforced by you with our incumbent wireless and wireline providers.

    Stop talking about consumers (you are the government, not a business, and should be for, by, and of the people) and stop trying to protect existing service providers to the detriment to technology, use, and economic evolution. Start focusing on your only responsibility, which is driving innovative use of our spectrum by and for citizens (and the companies that they create to do the same).

    Dana Spiegel
    Executive Director, NYCwireless

  9. Guest says:

    I'm with your third guest commenter <a href="">-</a> the wireles spectrum needs to be more closely managed, and a tiered pricing plan for its use is, I suspect, the best way forward.

  10. Guest says:

    Copper ain't gonna cut it and fiber is only part of the solution, so let's hear about what needs to be done as opposed to beating around the bush! Otherwise, this country really is destined to become third world. We're already way behind other smaller economies and falling further behind every day.

  11. Phil says:

    There has been a lot of interest in our recent blog posting about potential mobile broadband congestion, both in other blogs and in traditional media outlets. Thank you for your comments, perspectives, and interest!

    We have two follow-up points:
    1. Rapidly growing demand for mobile broadband service, fueled by upgrades to 3G networks, new innovative devices and hundreds of thousands of mobile applications, will stress all networks, both mobile and fixed. For example, 42% of the iPhone data traffic is carried over fixed broadband networks through WiFi connections.

    2. The National Broadband Plan will recommend medium to long term solutions to this congestion, to ensure that the US has a world-leading broadband infrastructure by 2020. In the near-term, mobile operators are addressing congestion through upgrading networks, increasing backhaul capacity, and splitting cell sites, among other actions. In the longer term, though, we will need to bring more spectrum to market for mobile broadband service if we want to sustain it as a platform for innovation and a driver of productivity growth in the US.

    Phil Bellaria & John Leibovitz

  12. Guest says:

    Wait a second - didn't the FCC just auction off a bunch of spectrum on the FREE MARKET? Did everyone forget how we stopped analog TV broadcasts? Let's wait for the companies that purchased that spectrum to make an attempt at putting out their 4G LTE systems and compatible products before we say the sky is falling. Your so-called dial-up congestion was the genesis of the broadband era and created all kinds of competing technologies. Last time that I checked, America was a free market economy. As for this "global broadband economy" that you're talking about - that has more to do with geography than anything else. Maybe you can get $13 a month 100MB broadband in Hong Kong, but I don't want to live in Hong Kong. It takes a little more time to run fiber to the houses across this country. How about giving some incentives to the companies that are actually trying to tackle that huge task? Instead you threaten them with net neutrality rules that would squash any return on their investments.

    As for wireless - I'll admit that the US got stuck in competing wireless technologies and that slowed us down a little, but LTE is going to change all that. It's going to be a global standard. One device will work everywhere. Your short sighted net neutrality rules are what's going to kill broadband wireless reliability. Why can't you leave it to the carries to enact sane and reasonable restrictions on the use of their own network? Ultimately, the people will decide which carrier is the best by who they select. Sure, I would love to get an iPhone on the Verizon network. However, I don't think I need the FCC to help me there either. The openness will happen all by itself. I'm pretty sure that no LTE data device will have a carrier subsidy because they be portable to all carriers. If the iPad is any indications, we may even see the end of those two year contracts. How about the FCC just stick to spectrum licensing? Let us figure out the rest cause you don't have a clue!

    Yes, I do work for a telecom company - but I work hard and smart.

  13. Guest says:

    WTB's predecessor in the 1980s, PRB, urged the Commission to create more Private Land Mobile (Part 90) spectrum because that use was growing fast too. The preferred source of that was increased sharing of TV spectrum - extending the sharing that was happening in channels 14-20 in 10 cities. PR Docket 82-10 was the forum for comments on this issue.

    As Joel Brinkley explained in Defining Vision, the TV broadcasters revolted, brought in Japanese technology as a demo, and said the future of the country depended on analog HDTV. Along the way, the techies figured out how to do DTV and at least the public safety segment of Part 90 got some more spectrum. The rest of Part 90 users had to live with the spectrum they had and the efficiencies available through new technology.

    The guest of Feb 3 said "its the simple fact that there is only so much spectrum that a wireless network can deploy in a given area." There is some truth to that. But it is not clear what the limit it is although it is clear that at some point the marginal cost of squeezing more use out of spectrum increases dramatically.

    While many people think they need spectrum, what they really need is communications capacity and the conversion of spectrum to capacity is technology dependent. Cellular pioneer Marty Cooper has commented that “Wireless capacity has doubled every 30 months over the last 104 years”. Much of this has been through availability of new spectrum, but technology has also had a profound effect in increasing spectrum capacity.

    Suggest you dust off documents from Docket 82-10 which sound a lot like the concerns here that large amounts of spectrum are essential. Such language tends to trigger fights among spectrum incumbents that often focus attention away from technical innovation to improve spectrum efficiency. As we speak the IRAC members are trying to dig a moat around Federal Government spectrum and are still licking their wounds from the AWS reallocation.

    Part of the present problem is that the CMRS community in the 1990s projected their requirements for 3G and anticipated rapid growth of 2-way symmetric high speed communications such a 2-way video. As a resulted they created paired symmetric spectrum for 3G/AWS. Guess what? Today's demand is very different and using 3G spectrum for iPhone/iPad is inefficient due to the large asymmetry in traffic between uplinks and downlinks. So part of the solution could be to make the 3G bands more efficient through the use of technology better suited to the real demand.

    Parties tend to see spectrum fights as "zero sum games", get spectrum from CMRS by taking it away from someone else. Yet repeated measurements show that over time and space most spectrum isn't used. Part of the solution has to be better more creative sharing of spectrum to go from "zero sum" to "win/win". I tried to show some options in this area in my 8/09 presentation to IRAC.

    The IRAC crowd seemed more interested to keeping their "zero sum game" viewpoint and gearing for a fight with the FCC and its regulatees. I hope we can focus less on reallocation and more in creative sharing approaches among all spectrum users.

  14. John Hane says:

    A story posted today on summarizes a 50-page report by Glen Campbell of Merrill Lynch, reportedly concluding that there is no shortage of spectrum for wireless broadband. The story is available at .

    The Merrill report apparently begins to quantify some of the things that ought to be projected with rigorous, honest forecasting before we decide to displace tens or hundreds of billions in investment or disrupt long-established and recently deployed core national communications services.

    What capex is required to re-purpose 300-500 MHz of spectrum nationally for mobile broadband? How much usage -- and at what cost per GB -- would be necessary to support that level of capex?

    Also unexplored: what is the effect of too-liberal wireless spectrum policies in fixed/"wired" broadband investment and adoption? This can be a double-whammy: fewer ultrafast "wired" links mean fewer WiFi hotspots and fewer femtocells that can offload traffic from wireless networks when devices are in a nomadic use case (not actually "mobile"). Ironically, that can mean slower mobile links and much higher costs per bit. Are spectrum policies that promote fixed-mobile substitution really desirable?

    Simply saying that demand for mobile broadband will double, and double, and double a few more times isn't a rigorous projection, and such statements -- even if stretched into 20- or 30- page reports, should not serve as a foundation for policy recommendations. We need a clear and comprehensive understanding of the assumptions, tradeoffs, and mitigation techniques. We need to understand not only how much mobile broadband people may want to consume, but how much capex consumer and enterprise spending can reasonably justify. And we need to understand the implications for big shifts in spending on adjacent markets and related services -- wired broadband, voice communications, and video distribution markets to name a few. We only need to look at a bill for a quad-play service bundle to understand that both investment in and consumption of all of these services are interrelated.

    None of us can make informed policy recommendations with any level of confidence before we have confronted these questions and issues. Proponents of large scale spectrum reallocations are in the best position to address these things, and they should have ample data and other resources to do so. If a more sophisticated analysis would support the conclusory positions that have been stated publicly the proponents of reallocation would serve their own interests by undertaking such a study and publicizing its results.

    I haven’t read the Merrill report, so I can't know if the story accurately captures its sense. However, the summary indicates that notions of a wireless broadband spectrum shortage are at least somewhat ill-formed. Presumably Mr. Campbell intended his report to guide investment decisions rather than to guide spectrum policy or political outcomes. For that reason alone, it could be worth a read.

  15. Guest says:

    I cant wait for the ipad to be released!

  16. Guest says:

    Data is data. We are being kept asleep for a reason (revolution). Why else are we so low on the high speed internet list for countries we are right there with Communist China.

    Do your research and wake up. Time to take part in taking back our country........

  17. Mark Aitken says:

    Good post Mr. Hane. I have done a 'once over' on this Glen Campbell of Merrill Lynch report. High level impact from my read...

    * There seems to be little real concern regards MBB (Mobile BroadBand) and any notion of a "looming crisis"
    * "Nomadic" uses (i.e. laptops/datacards) top the data consumption (not "Mobile/Smartphone") from a percentage of data/device perspective
    * Spectrum issues are not driving shortage, 'modern' technical infrastructure is the bottleneck
    * Scheduled and underway system upgrades ('modernization') will meet projected (aggressive) use demands
    * New spectrum from 700MHz auction and others will be populated with much more efficient technical infrastructure (LTE and revised HSPA)
    * Congestion for data resides (currently) largely on the land-based trunking (data distribution to sites via fiber and/or microwave)

    You can say that some of the report cuts in different directions, but it certainly puts into perspective (for me) that AT&T is just whining and trying to create a "pity party" that is largely of their own making, and certainly a result of their marketing running over their own lack of infrastructure investment.

    One of the AT&T 'Three Musketeers" said it well..."I don't think you can have an unlimited model forever with a scarce resource. More people get drunk at an open bar than a cash bar." The scarce resource seems to be an ability by AT&T to meet expectations and hype. Seems to me that the available resource is investment! (which is clearly not being made...) <>

    In closing, the underlying issues are not wholly about spectrum, but rather understanding use (current and future) and defining a technical topology that that can stay ahead. Make more spectrum available and you may just end up with more drunks that need sobering up...

  18. Mark Aitken says:

    I was asked a question by a friend...did Glen Campbell join Merrill Lynch after his spell as a lineman for the county?


  19. Guest says:

    I hope ll of this will not raise rates I bet it will and the companies will be happy about it

  20. says:

    Very interresting article.. but i believe the Ipad is not a revolution..

  21. Guest says:

    The last thing customers want to hear is problems with provider's networks. This will give them greater leverage to hike up their rates even further. Maybe they should cool it and not have every commercial be about how great and fast their network is when it isn't.

  22. Guest says:

    Interesting! I wonder what your motive really is considering your outside or should I say inside interests in technologies that compete with Apple. You're actually comparing the infrastructure of dialup in the 90's to the 3G networks of ATT&T and Version not to mention many others trying to get their foot in the door. Obstructionists and sabotage have no place on the FCC!

  23. Guest says:

    I am glad to see that someone at the FCC actually understands the difference between wired and wireless networks. While ex-Googlelite Andrew McLaughlin wants Chariman Genachowski and President Obama to treat wireless the same as wireline networks, one only has to go to New York or San Francisco and see what happens when smart phone users consume almost 1GB of data per month. This is not an AT&T or VZW issue, nor is it a technology issue - its the simple fact that there is only so much spectrum that a wireless network can deploy in a given area. We pay for the electricity, water, and fuel we actually use. Why do we have "unlimited" use plans for wireless data? If we don't manage the use of wireless spectrum, either through tiered pricing models or forms of network management (i.e Bit-Torrent curbs) we will end up with slow, congested, wireless networks.

  24. Guest says:

    The real problems here are network companies that over-promise and under-deliver. Why don't we just enforce some basic standards of honesty in advertising and let the market set a realistic price for bandwidth? If you actually got the bandwidth you paid for, then maybe we wouldn't see so many "unlimited but not really" plans. The networks should not be able to get away with selling services they cannot provide.

  25. Guest says:

    Sir, the broadband speed and capacity in the US is already lagging behind by international standard.* The [long-term] solution should be beefing up the network and increasing efficiency, not restricting usage.

  26. Guest says:

    Let's let the service providers deal with this. No reason for the Government to be involved. I am sure if AT&T (or Verizon, Tmobile, etc...) sees a problem, they will address it. It is in their best interest to have the most robust network around. We don't need some unneeded Government employee stating the obvious and thinking the Gov. needs to intervene.

  27. Guest says:

    In the current world's average broadband speed, US rank the lowest with 4.8mbps. Japan rank the highest with 61mbps. Followed by Korea (46mbps), Finland (22mbps), Sweden (18.2mbps), France (17.6mbps) and so on. US is dead last on broadband speed.

    Cable companies want to cap customer's usage. And in turn do a rate hike, while they spend less on broadband expansion year over year. At the same time, whole sale rate for data rate has drop year over year. At the same time they post record earnings.

    New gadgets will continue to come out, internet is part of everyone's life. Everything is hook to it.

    You don't dig a hole when you are thirsty. Broadband providers are lazy.

  28. Guest says:

    Haha! You write one thing that doesn't go with what this article says and they remove it immediately. Typical Government. We do not need more regulation! Who cares if the networks are overloaded! Let the service providers figure it out! We do not need government intervention!

  29. Guest says:

    I know! Instead of warning people about the posible risks of something like the IPad (which will do a lot of good things for the economy). Lets take some of the billions of dollars we have thrown at the banks and auto companies and use it to beef up the infrastructure of wireless in America. One might think that would create a few more jobs as well. Or do we always have to wait until everything we have is at a breaking point before we start working on it. Just so we can milk a few more dollars out of it...


    Out of work for seven months!

  30. Guest says:

    This is crap. That issue only affected AOL. Why is AT&T's network the FCC's issue?

  31. Guest says:

    What a crock of horse puckey. This is just another excuse for the FCC to take control of something that it has no business getting its dirty little fingers into. Stay competitive in the Global Broadband marketplace? Give me a break, the companies involved will take care of that as long as they're not interfered with by over bloated federal agencies who's only purpose is to justify they're own existence and control more aspects of our daily lives. Stay out of the way, we're better off when you do what you do best, which is nothing. And no, I do not work for a telcom or broadband provider. I'm just a regular guy who pulled my head out of the sand.

  32. Guest says:

    You said: "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."

    Can you explain how a product that IS NOT YET IN THE HANDS OF CONSUMERS has set off another wave of complaints? Please?

  33. Guest says:

    I have dear friends in rural areas of Alabama who can't even get wired broadband, or sustain reliable analog modem connections. It isn't practical for them to rely on it for any real purpose. In my region (a wealthy suburb of Nashville) cable broadband is available but performance is not sustained under peak loads. I'm all for proactively addressing tomorrow's problems but let us also stay focused on the problems of today... the people of America are not only using broadband to entertain themselves, they're being asked to telecommute with it to earn their livelihood. The internet providers should be held to the same standards as providers of electricity and natural gas, a disruption should be a real, accountable event. I wish it were feasible to nationalize broadband and provide a high standard of service to all, regardless of their status, wealth or location. We'd likely find people educating themselves, making better spending decisions, and offering more in return to American society.

  34. Guest says:

    It is truly embarrassing how shoddy broadband networks perform domestically in comparison to other industrial nations...but as long as bandwidth providers are solely profit based, we can only expect mediocrity.

  35. Guest says:

    Interesting! I wonder what your motive rattling is considering your right or should I feature inside interests in technologies that contend with Apple. You're actually comparing the infrastructure of dialup in the 90's to the 3G networks of ATT&T and Version not to mention many others trying to get their foot in the door. Obstructionists and sabotage have no place on the FCC! I hope, Apple <a href="">make money</a> with iPad.

  36. Guest says:

    Companies like FiberTower will fix this problem like telcos in 1997 did.

  37. Guest says:

    I want to learn more about Apple's technology infrastructure for network systems. Does Apple do good things to improve the network systems?

  38. Guest says:

    We need to move past who owns the spectrum and pool all the spectrum so that we can reap the benefits of adaptive networks and cognitive radio technology. Devices that can see what spectrum is around it versus the application the device is requesting. We need to treat spectrum like the auto highways and shipping lanes, everyone has acccess to them to use. As someone else pointed out above, pay for the amount of usage and content, not the right to a specific portion of spectrum, pool it and let the devices and content figure out what is best in a given scenario (distance vs. speed vs application).

  39. Guest says:

    Apple chief operating officer Timothy Cook defended AT&T's performance with the iPhone. "AT&T is a great partner," he said. "I think it is important to remember that they have more mobile broadband usage than any other carrier in the world. In the vast majority of locations, we think that iPhone customers are having a great experience, from the research that we have done. "As you know, AT&T has acknowledged that they are having some issues in a few cities, and they have very detailed plans to address these. We have personally reviewed these plans, and we have very high confidence that they will make significant progress toward fixing them." Independent telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan said the iPad-AT&T linkup indicates that Apple still has faith in AT&T.

  40. Guest says:

    I agree. Glad to see that someone understands that strong quality of service and network performance actually requires substantial capital investment. Now, we can only hope that the FCC does not take any regulatory action (e.g. broad Net Neutrality rules) that impairs the ability of wireless companies to earn a fair and reasonable return on their investment. There are 4 nationwide wireless networks running today, which should be more than sufficient to ensure competitive access, competitive pricing and non-discriminatory access to content.

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