As the U.S. wireless sector prepares for next year’s historic broadcast incentive auction, one overriding question looms: What’s next? The appetite of consumers and our innovation economy for mobile capacity is unquenchable, and our nation is in a constant race to stay ahead. One welcome development: hearings this week in both the House and Senate focusing on streamlining wireless broadband deployment and shaking loose underutilized spectrum controlled by the U.S. government.
Establishing and continually feeding a pipeline for expanding wireless capacity is a competitive imperative for our nation. LTE was introduced in the U.S. in 2010 and today, more than 40 percent of global 4G connections are here. More than 40 providers compete to offer 4G to consumers in the U.S., collectively offering service to more than 99 percent of Americans. And, the expansion and evolution to even faster networks continues at full tilt. U.S. 4G connections are expected to triple by 2019, reaching more than two high-speed connections per person. 4G connections give the U.S. the lead not only in speed, but in data usage. Last year, roughly 40 percent of U.S. mobile connections were over 4G networks, and they accounted for 72 percent of mobile data traffic.
In a race to keep pace with their customers in a hotly competitive market, U.S. wireless providers are pile-driving investment into the upgrade and expansion of their networks. Indeed, wireless carriers had the largest share by far of domestic capital expenditure across all U.S. industries in 2014, investing $32.1 billion last year alone in our nation’s infrastructure.
That aggressive pace of private capital investment has been utterly relentless with U.S. wireless data traffic growing exponentially.
The tip of the spear in terms of spiking future growth is wireless video. Three quarters of all Facebook video rolls today—3 billion a day and counting—take place on wireless devices. By next year, U.S. consumers are expected to watch more video over wireless than wired broadband networks. To understand the magnitude of the capacity challenge, consider that watching a live Periscope video feed for just five minutes on a smartphone is the data equivalent of nearly two hours of Web surfing.
And in our increasingly connected world, we anticipate 1 zettabyte of data traffic among connected devices by 2020. Since most of us haven’t had occasion to count that high: 1 ZB is 1 trillion GBs.
All tallied, Americans today use nearly 340 billion MB of wireless data per month—a quantum 20X leap from just five years ago. What lies ahead? The rise of mobile-native millennials—87 percent of whom say their smartphone never leaves their side. Simply put: Ongoing, explosive wireless data traffic growth is our new normal. As a result, U.S. networks consistently operate far closer to their capacity—as vast and rapidly expanding as it is—than our global counterparts.
While a monumental challenge for network engineers, it should not be lost on policymakers that this heady combination of voracious consumer demand, massive infrastructure investment and rapid innovation—all repeating on an infinite loop—is precisely what makes the U.S. the wireless world leader. Job #1 is seeing that continue. Wireless innovators are doing their part with billions of dollars in annual investment in network infrastructure and innovation. The onus falls on federal policymakers to ensure the right policies and incentives are in place to ensure continued investment in mobile infrastructure and to help free up additional airwaves – much of it held by the feds themselves – to support even more mobile data traffic.
Productive auctions and a healthy spectrum pipeline are cornerstones of this success. But our nation’s technology policies must also be as smart, resilient, and nimble as the mobile innovation they are meant to enable.
The stakes are high for the mobile future, which is why lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are to be commended for putting mobile broadband deployment and spectrum pipeline issues front and center in this week’s hearings. Their oversight and engagement is needed today, and can play a pivotal role in ensuring U.S. wireless policy pushes in one consistent direction—forward.