Bandwidth: The next scarce resource

June 15th, 2010 in .Blogs
Nick Holland
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With the ever increasing popularity of the smartphone and over 2 million users of the iPad, with other tablets like the Eee Pad on the way, Telecoms companies are starting to rein in the use of data on their networks.

According to Cisco, a smartphone is claimed to use over 40 times the data traffic of traditional cell phones, while tethering your Eee PC to your iPhone uses 410 times more than a smartphone!

Up until now you might have had an “unlimited” data package with fair use, but it looks like those days are over with increasing weight being put on data networks – especially for video and music streaming, or even video calling with the iPhone 4 – the data providers are starting to introduce tiered pricing schemes, much to the uproar of users.

There are some advantages being mooted to encourage people – like the possibility of a uniform pool of data bandwidth assigned to all your internet enabled devices, meaning you don’t have to keep worrying which to use or swapping SIM cards, providing that is, all your favored products are contracted with the one company – a deal that could turn sour if someone you don’t use lands an exclusive hardware contract.

If you’re familiar with travelling abroad and the insane cost of roaming charges, the issue with data, unlike voice or text, is that your phone or tablet does things in the background, using that pool, drip by drip. Email is obviously at the top of that list, because unlike text messages the mobile device has to ask the server whether there’s a message or not. There’s similar reasons for things like weather or travel alerts, program updates, and questions like whether using the GPS counts as data or not?

To be cut off and not have that crucial weather update telling you to leave early or not attempt to travel at all, could actually be life saving – so what then? Buy enough to make absolutely sure or have an auto-top up system? That’s not easy to budget for single customers or small business’.

However in defence of telecom companies, it’s an impossible scenario to deal with: How do you manage the finite and ever depleting network bandwidth and invest in more hardware for better and faster network coverage? Throwing up more masts often requires considerable planning and investment – Not only considering how it weighs in on the overall network, but because people don’t want to live near them. The level of expansion required is also just not achievable when millions of tablets and smartphones are being sold month on month.

Inevitably there’s the net neutrality argument too – if a person is willing to buy the $100 a month talk-and-text package, are they more important than the $30 a month customer? Should their data be prioritied, encouraging people to buy network performance rather than megabytes? If the demand is there, business has always seen fit to exploit it. Thankfully we haven’t reached that level of desperation just yet, but it’s still a card in the hand of your data provider that they could be willing to play in the future.

What needs to happen is data-enabled devices need to balance WiFi and 3G data, and the availability of more WiFi hotspots  – if the phone or tablet sniffs that it’s within range of an acceptable WiFi source then it automatically switches to save your data. Unfortuately, powering up two chips requires more battery use, which is always a bad thing, and people are often currently only using known WiFi locations at work or home, so that’s a lot of sniffing power gone to waste.

Traffic shaping and capped data plans are unfortunately not just a way of life, but ones that will become ever more strictly enforced. What worries me is that this means we’ll come to accept it instead of looking for alternatives in a faster future.

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