If the International CES 2013 demonstrated anything, it's that we are going to need bigger, less expensive wireless networks to accommodate the wave of products, apps and services that were on display in Las Vegas.
More than 150,000 visitors wandered among the 30,000 or so exhibits, where bigger smartphones (like the one from Huawei with a 6.1-in. screen) and higher-resolution tablets were in abundance.
New Wi-Fi technology called Miracast (along with others shown at CES) will allow for the easy wireless transmission of a video or live game from a smartphone to a large TV display. Major players, including Apple, will almost certainly pick up on that.
Add to that Near Field Communication, new augmented reality functions in smartphones and tablets and things like AT&T's Digital Life initiative for home security and automation services and you can see where this is going: ever higher demands by data-hogging devices on increasingly strained wireless networks.
CES attendees repeatedly asked each other and exhibitors how it will be physically possible for networks to support all these innovations, given the limits of the wireless spectrum.At the same time, it dawned on many just how expensive it will be every month for consumers and workers to use so much wireless data.
The industry has been warned for years by Cisco and other networking bigwigs that all this video content over wireless is going to require a bigger network infrastructure -- more wireless spectrum.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski picked up the "more spectrum" refrain when he announced at CES that the agency would seek 35% more wireless spectrum for Wi-Fi as a means of boosting speeds and broadening bandwidth.
The idea has immediate appeal, partly because Wi-Fi is increasingly seen as a high-speed -- often free -- means of downloading songs, videos and other rich media. Genachowski is a populist in the sense that he sees the public demand for low-cost Wi-Fi, and a realist in that he views Wi-Fi as something of a pressure relief valve for widespread demands on cellular networks.
Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution (LTE), the cellular wireless technology being rolled out by all four major U.S. carriers, is already becoming popular with many early adopter smartphone users because it can deliver average wireless data downloads of about 10 Mbps.
LTE is expected to meet data growth demands over the next few years, if the major carriers are right in their projections. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam even announced at CES that he wants Verizon to use LTE to wirelessly broadcast the 2014 SuperBowl. Doing so would be a true technology feat.
Verizon has already added LTE coverage in 473 cities, making it the biggest LTE carrier in the world. Indeed, there's great promise in the technology, partly because it uses spectrum more efficiently, which is why the other major carriers are racing to deploy it -- and spending billions of dollars to do so.
The smallest of the four major national carriers, T-Mobile USA, had hoped to make Las Vegas its first LTE city in time for CES, according to Neville Ray, the company's chief technology officer. Ray told Computerworld that the Vegas launch would happen in mid-January instead.
In addition to touting its plans in LTE, T-Mobile's scrappy new CEO, John Legere, announced a $70-per-month unlimited nationwide 4G data plan subject to no annual contract.
In doing so, Legere picked up on the theme advertised heavily by Sprint about the value of unlimited data. Set against all the bandwidth-hungry apps and devices displayed at CES, Sprint and T-Mobile hope to offer an alternative to what could become an expensive wireless future for Americans.
Some analysts praised the smaller carriers for providing alternatives to pricey wireless data plans, and backed U.S. regulators and the U.S. Congress for encouraging wireless competition.
The next five years will almost certainly be something of a massive shake-out period that determines how well LTE, Wi-Fi and other networks can keep pace with soaring wireless data demands.
"The bottom line to all of this is that there will never be enough wireless bandwidth available," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "No matter how much we get, the new technologies will find a way to fill it, and quickly."
Gold said it is imperative for regulators to free up as much new wireless bandwidth as possible. Even so, he stressed: "The race to keep up is probably already lost. "
The best hope for avoiding choke points is to develop technologies that are more efficient at managing the bandwidth we already have -- "a much harder problem," Gold said. "Better compression, time management, smaller cells including Wi-Fi, faster backhaul and more could help a lot.
"But that's not easily or inexpensively done."
Want more on CES? See our Complete coverage of CES 2013 .
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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