Smartphone data explosion and spectrum

A recent report on the mobile spectrum crunch (PDF) by Rysavy research and MobileFuture highlighted the urgent need for wireless spectrum to avoid a potentially stagnant mobile broadband market due to the bandwidth capacity crunch.  It cited an interesting statistic from a 2009 Cisco report that smartphones use 30 times more data than ordinary “feature phones”.

With the mobile market rapidly converting to smartphones as hardware prices come down, the industry is facing explosive data consumption demand while capacity isn’t growing nearly as fast.  If more spectrum isn’t made available, mobile carriers will be under increasing pressure to limit wireless usage.  This could have an adverse effect on mobile broadband adoption.

The Rysavy report contained some interesting data on spectrum versus wireless capacity, shown in “Table 1” shown below.

Credit – Rysavy and MobileFuture.

The table shows how under typical usage scenarios (lower signal level than ideal), LTE only delivers 1.5 times the capacity, and much of that gain is due to the use of multiple radios in the 802.11 standard.  We can also double the number of cell towers while cutting down on power levels per tower, but that approach always runs into the massive bureaucratic red tape of “no new cell towers in my area”.  Even with easy cell tower approvals, doubling the number of cell towers is extremely expensive.  Cellular cellular carriers are already spending tens of billions of dollars a year.

Even if we assume we can double the number of cell towers and switch to LTE, we’ve only increased capacity threefold, and that isn’t nearly enough to handle the onslaught of affordable mass production smartphones.  The mobile industry desperately needs more radio spectrum, and if they don’t get it, the result will be stagnation in one of the most vibrant sectors in the economy.

  • Steve Crowley

    Not only do smartphones use many more times the data as do feature phones, there is a wide spread of data consumption depending on the smartphone. As part of another study Mr. Rysavy conducted, he compared the efficiency, in terms of data used, of devices using the BlackBerry 6.0 platform, Apple iOS3, and Android 2.1. For the particular test setup, he found that for Web browsing, BlackBerry was on average 2.1 times more efficient than iPhone iOS3 and Android. For e-mail, he found that BlackBerry was 4.5 times more efficient than Android and 11.4 times more efficient than iOS3. This points to one of the drivers of the spectrum crunch — software.

  • George Ou

    Regarding the device differences in data consumed by web browsing, isn’t that due to the fact that feature phones use the “mobile” simplified version of the website whereas an iOS or Android or Windows Mobile 7 phone will show you the “full” webpage that you’re used to on a laptop or desktop computer? People want the full fidelity of the full webpage.

  • Steve Crowley

    Looking at his report, he’s says the user gets the same experience regardless of device. What he says is happening is that instead of the Blackberry accessing end sites (as do the other devices, or a PC), the Blackberry accesses the RIM network operations center, which accesses the end sites. This allows for “optimization” of the data sent to the Blackberry. He discusses this on page 4 of his report, linked below:

  • Richard Bennett

    Blackberry Internet access is generally unbearably slow. I think their proxy server is overloaded, but the problem is getting better as people drop their BBs for better handsets.

  • George Ou

    It’s possible that they’re using HTML compression. That works on some bloated text based HTML, but it doesn’t work on the video or images unless the carrier transcodes the video to a lower bitrate and quality or converts the images to higher compression and lower quality or lower size. That might be fine for the small display on the smartphone.

  • Richard Bennett

    Blackberry’s reformatting proxy is a holdover from the days when web pages didn’t have mobile-oriented versions. It once had some value, but now it’s a performance-killer.

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