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Is 2010 the year of wireless congestion?

For the last few years, wireless carriers and manufacturers have been pushing smartphones as the way to go. But now that a growing number of Americans are using them, the system seems as if it's starting to choke.
Image: People using cameras and cell phones to photograph
Many of those attending the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. in January 2009 used their cell phone cameras to record the event. They were among the 2 million people who attended and some had problems with cell phone service because of the congestion.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

For the last few years, wireless carriers and manufacturers have been pushing smartphones as the way to go. But now that a growing number of Americans are using them, the system seems like it's starting to choke.

New York and San Francisco are giant dead zones for many iPhone users. Research In Motion, maker of BlackBerrys, had two outages within a week recently, highly unusual for the reliable devices. Last January, some of the 2 million people attending the presidential inauguration couldn't get phone service because the area around the nation's capital was so congested with cell traffic.

Some say such congestion could be more common this year because of nearly 280 million Americans' increasing reliance on cell phones, continuing consumer demand for data-intensive mobile programs like video and audio, fourth-generation cell networks that are not in place for most of the country and inadequate wireless spectrum to meet customer needs.

AT&T, the exclusive seller of Apple's iPhone in the United States, in particular, did not adequately anticipate the device's huge popularity, critics say, making the company a victim of its success, and its customers frustrated in the process. Users around the country have complained about sometimes-spotty coverage with the phone.

"AT&T provides the cautionary tale that no other carrier wants to repeat," said William Ho, research director of wireless services at Current Analysis. "If anything, these companies should have been planning for the anticipated smartphone uptake in heavy traffic markets" that started happening in the last quarter of 2008 and first quarter of 2009.

'Playing around the clock'
"What’s driving usage on the network and driving these high usage situations are things like video, or audio that keeps playing around the clock," said Ralph de la Vega, president of AT&T Mobility.

"And so we’ve got to get to those customers and have them recognize that they need to change their pattern, or there will be other things that they are going to have to do to reduce their usage.”

Whether those "other things" include higher rates for whatever data usage is deemed excessive is not known. De la Vega said first AT&T will concentrate on "improving all of our systems so that we can begin to give customers real-time information about their data usage and begin to get customers educated."

Longer-term, he said, "there’s got to be some sort of a pricing scheme that addresses the usage."

AT&T is also working furiously to upgrade its 3G, or third-generation, service by going to what is called "High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2." The company says HSPA 7.2 should result in doubling peak data transmission speeds, from 3.6 megabits per second to 7.2 megabits per second.

The company is working "quickly and aggressively" on network enhancements, said Mark Siegel, AT&T spokesman.

"We are giving particular attention to markets like Manhattan and San Francisco," he said. "We're adding cell towers, we’re building and upgrading antenna systems to boost performance in high-traffic areas, like stadiums and convention centers and public transportation routes. And we're adding radio network carriers to make sure that we have maximum capacity on the spectrum that’s available."

Verizon Wireless, with ads that have long touted "It's the network" — and more recently, taking AT&T's 3G coverage to task in commercials — says that "the growing percentage of smartphones in the network has resulted in greater consumption of network resources, especially on the data front," said Nicki Palmer, Verizon Wireless' vice president of network.

However, she said, "Frankly, the growth is no different than what we’ve seen since 2000 when our company was formed. We’ve kept a very, very close eye on data growth, month over month, frankly sometimes it seems, day over day, so that we’re building our networks in advance."

AT&T's problem, in part, is the iPhone's success. Mobile research firm Flurry estimates since the iPhone went on sale in June 2007, through October 2009, approximately 14.5 million iPhones have been sold in the United States. Recently, the Nielsen Co. said the iPhone was the top-selling mobile phone in the United States from January through October 2009.

But it's not just the iPhone. All the other phones on Nielsen's list, with the exception of one, the Motorola RAZR, are phones capable of handling e-mail, Web access and heavy text messaging.

Demand for 'real-time Web'
Millions of BlackBerry users recently experienced e-mail and instant messenger outages twice in less than a week, highly unusual for Research In Motion, maker of the stalwart phones which are carried by the nation’s four largest networks.

The company blamed a software upgrade — not network issues — for the problem, which affected millions of users in North and South America.

Alastair Sweeny, author of “BlackBerry Planet,” said the outages “were surprising since they occurred so close together,” but said RIM is “not overextending its resources … The problem is making their software work with different wireless network standards and the demands of the carriers.

“People now demand real-time Web services” on their phones, Sweeny said. “Voice, e-mail and texting are becoming just subsets of Web services — and the networks are straining to keep up.”

Smartphone households
The Nielsen Company, in a recent "convergence audit," estimated that 15 percent of U.S. households now own a smartphone. Meanwhile, landline phones at home are continuing to evaporate.

In the second quarter of 2009, Nielsen said "over one in five households reported they are wireless cellular only — an increase of 16 percent from the past year. This increase comes from the two-thirds of households who have dropped their landlines as well as from young adults that started new households with just a wireless phone service."

"If you look back just 18 months ago, the increase in wireless data usage is pretty staggering," said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group.

"Eighteen months ago, the hottest-selling phone was the Motorola RAZR, there were no app stores, there were no netbooks, there were no Palm Pres, no Google phones," he said. "There have been five BlackBerrys launched in the last 18 months and two additional iPhones, so it's been a pretty dramatic change.

"None of this could have happened with second-generation (2G) networks; it's all a product of the third-generation (3G) networks."

Moving to 4G
Those 3G networks can handle more intensive data like Web surfing and e-mail, but customers' added appetites for mobile video, audio and multiplayer gaming — all promised by the device makers and carriers — are an added strain on the networks.

The problem is not just limited to the United States. In Britain recently, mobile phone operator O2 apologized to its London customers for not being able to make calls because of pressure on the network from smartphones, including the iPhone.

In a September report, "3G networks will evolve, but will they cope?" British firm Unwired Insight noted that 3G operators "urgently need to find complementary ways to deliver services to mobile users," including the use of wireless access points and femtocells (a sort of home wireless router for a cell phone).

Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint (the latter the third largest carrier in the United States) say they are moving as quickly as they can to get fourth-generation, or 4G, networks in place that will pave the way for smoother transmission of data-intensive uses.

Sprint is ahead with a 4G network known as WiMax now being used by more than 170,000 subscribers in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Philadelphia. More cities will be added this year.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T both will use a different technology, LTE (Long Term Evolution), for 4G.

Verizon Wireless will begin rolling out 4G later this year, and AT&T most likely in 2011, said Ho of Current Analysis. T-Mobile, the fourth largest carrier, also is still building out its 3G network, with plans to add 4G in 2011.

Keeping ahead of the curve
"To some extent many of the carriers have already been beefing up their backbone infrastructure anticipating the next data technology," said Ho.

Adds Guttman-McCabe of CTIA: "The wireless carriers each year invest tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their networks. They’re constantly in motion trying to keep ahead of the curve."

Wireless spectrum request
CTIA recently asked the Federal Communications Commission to allocate more of the wireless spectrum to carriers — and soon.

"If the commission does not take quick action to meet this demand, wireless service providers will be unable to meet the increasing demand for data by consumers," Guttman-McCabe of CTIA said in his FCC testimony. Mobile data and Internet traffic "will increase 66 times between 2008 and 2013," according to one estimate he gave the FCC.

The FCC is leaning toward approving the request, which would make an additional 800 megahertz of the airwaves available for wireless companies — which now has about 500 megahertz — over the next six years.

Verizon Wireless purchased a 700 megahertz block of spectrum in a government auction in 2008.

"It gives us what we need to cover the country, and not have to look at different pieces of spectrum for different markets throughout the country," said Palmer of Verizon Wireless. "We're pretty well-positioned at this point with the investments we’ve already made in the network."

Guttman-McCabe said CTIA hopes its request for more spectrum "moves very quickly in 2010. "There are a couple of things that can be done in the short term to help alleviate some of the strain," and additional spectrum is one of them.

Another is speeding up the approval process for new cell tower sites by local governments, which have been slow to act in some cases, he said. The wireless industry recently received the FCC's blessing to limit local zoning authorities to 180 days for a "yea" or "nay" on cell tower proposals, with the right of appeal to a judge.

"We did a survey in 2008 when we filed this, and then had 2,300 applications pending around the country," McCabe-Guttman said. "At that one point in time, at least 25 percent of the applications had been pending for more than one year. There was a significant percentage of those that were pending for more than three years.

"Now our carriers are moving aggressively to get those sites built out that have been held up. We think that that’s a really significant benefit," he said.