The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

The Wireless Network is Still the Weak Link for Mobile Adoption

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on November 5, 2013

I wrote earlier about my experiences today in Boston at the Red Sox parade, when my AT+T 3G wireless connection ground to a halt and made it impossible to get any updates from the internet at the peak of the event.  While it certainly wasn’t imperative that I tweet my enthusiasm for the parade, or upload pictures of the Red Sox to my Facebook timeline, it made me think a bit about the state of mobile today, and how the wireless network itself is still perhaps the biggest weak link in the entire ecosystem.

Granted, today was an extreme test for the wireless networks in downtown Boston.  Hundreds of thousands of people, a great many of whom were taking and uploading pictures, tweeting shout-outs to the team, posting on Facebook, etc., all in a fairly concentrated geographic area in a 2-3 hour window.  That’s not your typical load for a wireless network.  But, there are large events in cities all over the world on a regular basis, and these are often the kinds of events that lend themselves well to heavy mobile app usage.  Besides, in the context-aware, always on mobile future that we’re rushing towards, that kind of network utilization might not be so uncommon.  It’s clear that wireless providers will need to find a way to deliver better service during peak demand.

There are more essential drivers for improved capacity than just being able to share a picture of David Ortiz dancing on a flatbed trailer, though.  During emergencies, for example, mobile connectivity isn’t just a nice-to-have, but can be a real difference-maker.  Just a few short months ago in Boston, during the Boston Marathon bombings, people were frantically texting friends and relatives to learn who was safe, and to reconnect with people who they’d become separated from.  That was also made more difficult by the overloaded wireless network.  That event also highlighted the potential value in bystander photos helping to solve criminal or terrorist cases, and one can imagine that some people will be taking and uploading pictures at a much higher rate should a similar event unfold in the future.

Finally, even beyond large capacity events like yesterday’s parade, most wireless networks are still lacking in geographic coverage.  My daily commute on the MBTA commuter rail is full of wireless dead spots, making it hard to listen in on phone calls, never mind work productively on an internet connection.  The poor wireless service on the Amtrak line from Boston to New York is legendary, not to mention service in any building in Boston above 15 stories tall, or in the suburbs 30 miles outside the city.

If these issues frustrate me, as an “early adopter” of mobile technology, then they will absolutely turn off the “mass adopters”, most of whom won’t choose to change their habits to embrace mobile applications if they can’t use them easily whenever and wherever they want.   I recognize that creating a reliable, consistent, scalable signal everywhere is an big technical challenge, and will cost some real money, so this needs to be driven by consumer value.  Google’s Loon experiment is an interesting attempt at a solution for rural areas, and eventually, some kind of high-altitude solution might work well for urban areas as well – think GM’s OnStar, or SirusXM satellite radio.  Solutions like that will help address the challenges of coverage gaps, but the capacity issue will require new hardware and software solutions, perhaps utilizing a cloud-like approach to spool up new cell engines when times of peak demand are detected.  At the end of the day, though, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem.  I’m sure the wireless firms won’t make new investments until they are sure that they’ll pay off, and they’ll only pay off when the mass market demands more and better connectivity.  In the meantime, the rest of us will have to deal with the gaps and overloaded networks from time to time.

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