How to Deal With the Explosion of Mobile Broadband

Will development of wireless always be a generation behind wired?

Robert Atkinson, the president of a tech policy think tank in D.C., thinks so. It's because of an "inherent physics problems," Atkinson explained Wednesday during a panel discussion on the future of broadband policy hosted by Atlantic Live, The Atlantic's events arm. He and others spoke about, among many other things, the problems facing the improvement of the nation's mobile broadband infrastructure.

That "inherent physics problem" is that cell towers only have so much capacity. Building more towers is one option, but it suffers from a not-in-my-backyard problem, said Atkinson, the president of the non-profit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "We have city after city after city who decides they don't like cell towers."

And demand is exploding. Earlier this year, networking giant Cisco issued a report in which it predicted a 39-fold increase in global mobile data traffic between 2009 and 2014.

Two major global trends are driving this increase-the proliferation of mobile-ready devices and widespread mobile video content consumption. By 2014, there could be over 5 billion personal devices connecting to mobile networks - and billions more machine-to-machine nodes.

Robert Quinn, another member of the panel discussion and AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulations, said reducing the strain on the "last mile," or the last stretch data travels to reach the consumer, is critical. "Our corporate mantra, if you will, is to get the wireless data traffic off of the wireless last mile and onto the core network as quickly as we possibly can."

AT&T has been ridiculed for the slowness of its network, which suffers the strain of being the only one to support the wildly popular iPhone. Quinn said his company is trying to extend faster fiber-optic connections to cell towers and give customers access to Wi-Fi hotspots (last month they set one up in Times Square). Improving the wired connections to cell towers is critical to making viable the new 4G wireless network, as I've written elsewhere.

Of course, faster wired connections aren't the only solution. Freeing up unused parts of the broadcast spectrum to use for mobile broadband, is critical too, Atkinson said. It's an idea the Federal Communications Commision backs. Earlier this month, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told The Wall Street Journal that his group hopes to triple the amount of spectrum available for mobile broadband. But even that may not be enough, he said:

Sounds good until you see the consensus studies that show the demand that iPhones, iPads and other smartphones will place on spectrum networks over the next five years is 30 to 40 times. It's a huge gap.

Yesterday's event, part of a two-day long event on the future of the city, was moderated by Blair Levin, the architect of the FCC's National Broadband Plan. The panel's fourth member was Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative.