Mobile devices are quickly becoming the nation’s preferred on-ramp for all things Internet — including high bandwidth goodies like movies and TV shows. And mobile graphics will soon rival gaming platforms such as Xbox 360, PlayStation and Wii, providing an enhanced mobile gaming experience, according to gaming technology company Nvidia.
We also are seeing a sharp increase in consumers viewing programming online, and Congress this week is holding a hearing on Internet video. Changing consumer habits and demands to use innovative services and products will drive even more data traffic over already congested wireless networks and could cause even more heartburn for network operators and wireless users.
Today, there are already more wireless subscriptions than people in the U.S. as consumers continue adopting mobile products, services and technologies at a record clip. This explosion in wireless data growth is straining network capacity. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission predicts mobile network demands will exceed current spectrum capacity as early as next year. In 2011 alone, wireless data traffic grew more than 130% and looking ahead, Cisco predicts there will be 2 billion networked mobile devices in the U.S. by 2015. A snapshot of consumer usage and demand foretells a continued and escalating network capacity strain. Since apps were first introduced five years ago, for example, more than 25 billion apps have been downloaded from Apple’s app store alone. And according to Flurry, there were 25 billion Android and iOS downloads in 2011. That’s a 300% increase from 2010. Consumers want individualized entertainment; Pandora launched in 2000 and today more than 100 million people in the United States have registered to use the personalized radio stations. Merchants want seamless and wireless options to collect payments; Square, which offers businesses a wireless point of sale for accepting credit cards, was founded in 2009 and today boasts more than 800,000 customers.
With consumers increasingly streaming video and music, sharing high-resolution photographs and downloading gaming apps, it is not surprising we are taxing network capacity. North American wireless networks already are running at 80 percent capacity, compared to 65 percent for the rest of the world, as operators work around the clock to squeeze as much capacity as possible out of the networks. Back in 1984, for example, there were just 599 cell towers in the U.S. Today, there are over 256,000. And the networks keep evolving, maximizing capacity and delivering faster speeds. In fact, by 2014, the number of 4G LTE users in the United States will exceed the number of LTE subscribers in Europe and Asia combined.
For its part, the wireless innovation community is working hard to meet this technical challenge. Since 1985, wireless network providers alone have invested over $322 billion to build out and upgrade our nation’s wireless networks. Those same providers have committed tens of billions of research and development dollars to advance new technologies that can maximize efficiency and upgrade our country’s mobile infrastructure to meet booming demand. The fact is, however, neither innovators, nor technology, nor venture capital alone can solve the looming constraints on our wireless networks. To keep pace with growing consumer demand, more mobile spectrum must be brought online quickly. Spectrum fuels wireless connectivity, but the nation’s wireless networks are shuddering under consumer demand. Today, policymakers are being challenged to make more spectrum available for mobile and help enable robust wireless network investment and innovation. This duty falls squarely in the government’s wheelhouse. One year ago, President Obama set the right goal in his State of the Union Address: Connecting 98% of America to the opportunities of the high-speed mobile Internet. Now it’s time for government leaders to step up and deliver by eliminating barriers to investment and advancing policies that encourage the rapid deployment of high-speed mobile broadband.
The wireless community has made a massive down payment on the nation’s mobile future—and our innovation community stands to do far more. Now it’s time for government to act to ensure the vibrant experience 300 million American wireless consumers have come to expect and will continue to demand.