AT&T Squeezes Data Hogs; Will Other Carriers Follow?

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Feb 22, 2012 - There is a lot of talk going on in our industry about how the mobile Internet will affect over-the-air broadcasting in the coming years. With that in mind I'd like to point to some articles on the topic of mobile traffic that have been published in the recent past.

It's no secret that AT&T now limits the data usage of those who find themselves in the top 5 percent of all data consumers on the AT&T network. Dwight Silverman has written on the topic, specifically in this article. " came as no surprise last October when AT&T started penalizing heavy users of data by dramatically slowing their connection speed, a process known as throttling. AT&T said it slows the connection of unlimited-plan customers in the top 5 percent of data consumers. This 5 percent threshold is a moving target. It varies regionally, AT&T says, and changes month to month." And further: "Based on speed tests I've seen from throttled customers, it can be slightly slower than a dial-up modem connection. While AT&T doesn't disclose the current threshold, it appears to be dropping, and quickly. I've heard from Houston-area AT&T customers who, shortly after throttling began, were slowed down after they'd reached 10GB of data. More recently, the number fell to the 4-5GB range. Now I'm hearing from folks whose connections are throttled after a mere 2.1GB."

That throttling is in no small part because of the introduction of the iPhone and the iPad. According to an article published in CNN Money "[T]he iPhone uses 24 times as much spectrum as an old-fashioned cell phone, and the iPad uses 122 times as much, according to the FCC. AT&T says wireless data traffic on its network has grown 20,000 percent since the iPhone debuted in 2007." The same article goes on to state: "The U.S. mobile phone industry is running out of the airwaves necessary to provide voice, text and Internet services to its customers. The problem, known as the 'spectrum crunch,' threatens to increase the number of dropped calls, slow down data speeds and raise customers' prices. It will also whittle down the nation's number of wireless carriers and create a deeper financial divide between those companies that have capacity and those that don't. The U.S. still has a slight spectrum surplus. But at the current growth rate, the surplus turns into a deficit as early as next year, according to the Federal Communications Commission's estimates."

Just what is that growth rate? Well, according to an article about the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast for 2011 to 2016, worldwide mobile data traffic will increase 18-fold over the next five years, reaching 10.8EB (exabytes, 1018 bytes, 1,000 petabytes) per month - or an annual run rate of 130EB - by 2016. The expected sharp increase in mobile traffic is due, in part, to a projected surge in the number of mobile Internet-connected devices, which will exceed the number of people on earth (2016 world population estimate of 7.3 billion; source: United Nations). During 2011?2016 Cisco anticipates that global mobile data traffic will outgrow global fixed data traffic by three times. I should note that these are global figures; data traffic in North America is projected to increase by 17-fold.

My conclusion is that broadcasters, with their own unencumbered spectra, will be using over-the-air transmissions to reach listeners for the foreseeable future. It's even possible that the means we use now will become even more valuable than they currently are.

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