One thing “everybody knows that just ain’t so” is that we will all soon be watching videos on our cell phones.
The rather sudden appearance of wideband Web access via cable, largely due to the enormous capacity of fiber optics, has induced many to believe incorrectly that the same is about to happen for wireless communication, via either 3G or 4G phone networks. Not so.
The entire wireless spectrum available to cell phone users must be divided among the concurrent users reached by a single transmitter at the base station for the cell. That spectrum is sufficient for thousands of voice users, but for far fewer concurrent video users – maybe 100 or so. Even five concurrent video downloads can confound a given base station in a cell tower at present.
There is just not enough spectrum available to provide video to the thousands of concurrent cell phones within the footprint of a typical cell tower today. Those towers are dotted around the landscape in church towers and fake pine trees, each one covering many square miles of geography containing many wireless cell phone users. Coverage is annoyingly spotty today even for voice, both because towers are not numerous enough, leaving dead spots, and also because some base stations are trying to serve too many users at once. And that’s just for audio. Even low quality video, equivalent to old analog VHS tapes, soaks up the bandwidth of more than 20 voice channels
Having too many users attempt video streaming brings the cell to its knees. To get coverage for video comparable to what we have today for voice means that the essentially fixed bandwidth available to each base station must be divided among a much smaller number of users. That will require at least 20 times the number of base stations – or a base station on every fifth telephone pole, not just a few in the center of town in the church steeple. Demand will rise rapidly as more and more Web video clips become available, especially for ads. But the 20X multiple of base stations needed to provide the needed bandwidth per user will take longer to happen – maybe 10 years.
Meantime, we can all expect the kind of confusion and service interruption that prevailed when Steve Jobs attempted to demonstrate the new Apple iPhone last week to an auditorium full of people who were already online with their wireless phones and computers. To demonstrate his new phone, he found he could not get a reliable connection, and had to ask everyone in the auditorium to turn off their phones and computers before he could proceed. Steve was irked and seemed surprised that he had the problem. He should not have been. We are all going to have it, and we won’t be able to solve it like he did, when the users soaking up the available bandwidth, rather than being gathered together in an auditorium, are spread across the several miles a cell phone tower covers.
What does this mean? It’s not clear. People have become very dependent on their cell phones, and service interruptions like the one Steve experienced will not go down well with the public. Limited bandwidth is one reason that wireless providers have been arguing they need to be excluded from any “net neutrality” legislation. One way to provide for orderly allocation of the available bandwidth is to charge for its use. Just as people were once very sensitive to “minutes of use” of airtime for cell phones, they would be quite sensitive to using wireless video if it cost them enough per minute. Is that what we want? And would it still be necessary after there is indeed a base station on every fifth telephone pole?
(BTW – It makes no difference just which channel jammed for Steve – it could have been the cell phone network, the local WiFi network, or even the cable network to which the WiFi was connected. No matter – too many wireless users easily piling on caused the lockup. Even if it was the cable Internet connection that saturated, it would have done so only because it was so easy for too many wireless WiFi users to connect to it. If each had had to plug in via cable, it would not have happened, because that many cable outlets would simply not have been supplied.)