A new report warns that the exploding usage of radio waves by broadband-devouring smartphones and video threatens to deplete a finite wireless spectrum.

“If you look at traffic patterns over the past five years, we went from things like illegal music downloads, to legal music downloads, to video,” said technology adviser and report author Michael Kleeman at University of California San Diego. “Video is the primary driver of Internet usage in the United States.”

The movie DVD and streaming service Netflix is responsible for nearly a third of the Internet usage in the United States, but it’s the mass migration from wired to wireless networks that will push an already burdened system over the brink, according the report, titled “Point of View: Wireless Point of Disconnect.”

According to the report, the volume of data traffic on U.S. networks will increase by 1,800 percent over the next four years, and mobile video will account for two-thirds of data traffic worldwide. A separate prediction from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has America’s spectrum deficit happening as soon as 2013.

“Streaming traffic, like Netflix movies, differs from voice or email traffic in that it is a constant demand for a long time,” the report stated. It’s “as if 30 percent of drivers rushed out and traded in our ‘voice’ cars for massive 18-wheeled ‘data’ trucks, blocking traffic and pushing other cars off the road everywhere we went.”

Released by corporate-sponsored think-tank Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego, the study comprises secondary research based on data from the FCC and mobile carriers. The methodology was not included in the paper.   

Most people don’t think of the wireless spectrum as a limited resource, but it draws on finite radio waves that are constantly being recycled within each “circle” or geographical area, Kleeman explained.

Before cellular, a framework of different channels protected nearby stations from interference. Now, a signal is re-used hundreds of times in the same city so that everyone gets capacity, Kleeman said. 

“So in theory it’s possible for users to prevent other users from getting service,” he said.  

Snail-pace downloads and reception failures may not cry “crisis” in the same way that a food or water shortage does. But their blow to commerce, social activity, and the ability to make a successful 911 call is already forcing carriers like AT&T to increase its prices for services that used to have a flat rate.

Unlike fiber optic networks, the wireless network cannot double in capacity by simply adding electronics. And even if it could do that at the miniscule costs afforded by fiber, its ability to send high-speed data can’t keep up with what consumers have become accustomed to.

“We’ve been spoiled. …What you can get on the landline is almost impossible to get on today’s mobile at any price, and even if you could, they’d turn you down because you’d be blocking others,” Kleeman said.

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