Will influx of iPads cripple wireless networks?

Official warns of need for expanded wireless capacity

The release of Apple's iPad will add another flood of wireless-ready devices to the demand for wireless connectivity, and at least one government official fears that the proliferation of gadgets could bog down wireless networks.

Phil Bellaria, director of scenario planning for the government's Omnibus Broadband Initiative, is concerned. In a blog post published Feb. 1, he wrote that even before the iPad's official release, there have been reports of overburdened wireless networks faltering.

"These problems are reminiscent of the congestion dialup users experienced following [America Online's] 1996 decision to allow unlimited Internet use," he wrote. "For months users had trouble connecting and, once they did connect, experienced frequent service outages."

The AOL problems revealed "an intense latent demand for Internet access," and the wireless congestion today is doing the same.

"Widespread use of smartphones, 3G-enabled netbooks, and now, perhaps, the iPad and its competitors demonstrate that wireless broadband will be a hugely important part of the broadband ecosystem as we move ahead," he wrote.

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In another blog post, published April 2, Bellaria outlined ways in which the federal broadband plan will help.

"Many iPads will rely solely on Wi-Fi to connect to broadband, and the Plan recognizes how Wi-Fi broadband access on unlicensed spectrum can relieve the growing pressure on licensed cellular networks," he wrote. "The Plan calls for the FCC to free up a new, contiguous nationwide band of spectrum for unlicensed use over the next ten years. These bands have the added benefit of providing economical broadband access in rural areas that aren’t well served now."

Other iPad users will have the option to connect to AT&T's 3-G network, a different system than WiFi but equally prone to overload. "The growth is exciting -– and a call for action to stave off network congestion," he wrote. "Consider this: AT&T’s data traffic has grown by 5,000% over the past three years. Cisco estimates that smartphones alone can generate 30 times more data traffic than a basic feature phone. And laptops can generate many times the traffic of a smartphone."

Today, AT&T announced it will invest $1 billion this year to increase its ability to provide applications, mobility and cloud services.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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