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3/7/2013
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Mike Feibus
Mike Feibus
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Wireless Capacity Crunch Answers At MWC 2013

I traveled to Mobile World Congress to learn about possible solutions to the looming mobile data capacity crunch. Meet the small cell, for starters.

Mobile World Congress 2013: 9 Hot Gadgets
Mobile World Congress 2013: 9 Hot Gadgets
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
I have a friend who refuses on principle to pay for SMS service. He thinks it's highway robbery for wireless carriers to charge for a data plan -- and then charge us again for access to an outmoded, inferior network.

It's hard to fault him for his logic. But if he'd been at the Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona, he would have been unreachable for hours at a time. How ironic that for much of the middle two days of the four-day Congress -- the industry's flagship venue for showcasing the world's latest mobile devices, apps and transmission technology -- that the network in the convention center was so taxed attendees were unable to make calls or check email for hours at a time. Playing with any of the cool new apps was out of the question. Heck, calling someone to tell them you'd be late to a meeting was a roll of the dice.

Indeed, the only reliable means of communication was going old school with it on the 160-character Dino-Net.

Attendees surpassed the amount of data traffic logged during the entire 2011 Congress before 6 p.m. on the first day, according to Jared Headley, director of service provider Mobility at Cisco, which deploys the show's network.

[ What could new laws outlawing locked smartphones do for you? What Unlocked Phones Mean For Businesses. ]

A couple of variables make it difficult to say precisely how much individual data usage has grown. For one thing, there were 20% more attendees this year than in 2011. On the other hand, the crush of attendee foot traffic – and, presumably, data traffic -- didn't begin until Tuesday. We all enjoyed far more elbow room on Monday.

What we can say with some confidence is that the demand for data inside the convention center is growing at least as fast as it is outside.

The paucity of bandwidth at the mobile industry's own show underscored the urgency of the looming capacity crunch. I went to MWC, you may recall, in search of answers to a problem that, left unchecked, threatens to spoil the seemingly boundless explosion in mobile.

Cisco's Headley, in fact, made his comments at a breakfast hosted by the Small Cell Forum at the start of the show's second day, not long before the throngs gridlocked the network. A small cell is a device that you can plug into the wall, connect it to the Internet and -- boom -- you have coverage. They've been used to expand coverage into areas where the carriers have no cell towers.

In densely populated areas, small cells promise to multiply capacity by offloading data traffic from a small space where the carrier already provides coverage. A lot of the work being done right now is finding ways to stretch the number of small cells that can operate effectively within a cell tower's coverage area.

There's also a lot of effort going into offloading traffic via Wi-Fi. Carriers tend to prefer small cells, though. The reason: small cells don't share their wireless capacity, so, according to the carriers, they have more control over their customers' experience. Regardless of how true that is, the carriers will have to rely on Wi-Fi offload, at least in the near term.

The terrestrial internet infrastructure -- DSL lines, T1 lines and cable -- is far more capable of handling an increase in traffic than the wireless infrastructure. According to Sandvine, a company that helps carriers manage their scarce data resources, there is "three orders of magnitude times 17" more data traffic on the terrestrial Internet today than cellular.

Sandvine isn't the only company focusing on improving network efficiency to help allay the worsening data capacity crunch. There is also, for example, Affirmed Networks, which helps service providers adjust to changing data demands in real time by virtualizing the purpose-built boxes typically deployed, and Gigamon, which aims to help carriers understand more about their data traffic faster and more cheaply than they can today.

I didn't spend all my time at the show on the capacity conundrum. I saw lots of cool mobile client technology as well. Such as virtual surround sound, for example. It's quickly becoming a point of differentiation in smartphone and tablets. Qualcomm announced that it is embedding into its newest processors technology from both DTS and Dolby to virtualize 7.1 surround sound in a headset. (Qualcomm's customers most likely will activate just one.) That means smartphones and tablets available later this year will be able to stream full 1080p videos with a theater-like surround sound effect. It's very impressive.

Of course, we won't be downloading movies on our mobile devices if the carriers don't solve the capacity crunch. Most likely, we'll just be texting.

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