The Washington Post reports, via Jim Giles of New Scientist, that a catastrophic collapse of the globe’s cellular networks is a real possibility over the next decade:
[S]ome kind of collapse in cellular networks in the near future is a real possibility. They are already showing signs of strain: Your phone may temporarily cut out in large crowds or at a sporting event or music gig, and if you live in New York, San Francisco or London, you may have found it increasingly difficult to make calls in your home city. Data-gobbling smartphones are, of course, the source of the problem, . . .
Giles’s article likens the problem to traffic jams:
Think of it as a road traffic problem. Governments in Europe and the United States allocate five-megahertz chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum to each operator’s network, These chunks correspond to the lanes of a highway, carrying data either to or from the operator’s transmitter. . . . In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone and has now sold 50 million of the devices. And many other companies have joined the fray. Suddenly, lots of people are on the highway, each taking up huge amounts of road space. (A single streaming video occupies as much bandwidth as about 100 phone calls, for example.) As a result, the 3G highway is now overcrowded, especially in cities where lots of people use smartphones .
And here’s the worst case scenario, which Giles imagines as plausibly occurring sometime in 2013:
The first thing to go might be your smartphone’s connection to YouTube, with videos becoming increasingly choppy and then one day just failing to download. In your impatience, you decide to scout out the latest posts in the Twittersphere, except that, too, is temporarily down. Your e-mail is stalled, and even a simple text is now too arduous, as the world’s phone networks come crashing down. In the following months, it’s almost impossible to get a lasting connection, even for a voice call.
In other words, it might not be a terrorist act that catastrophically locks up the global communications network, but your smartphone. Thanks for all that texting, pinhead.
The article then goes through a number of (unsatisfactory) options for avoiding this outcome, and lands on the following solution:
[T]here may be a . . . way that would leave the door open for cheap and extensive Internet use: Install a cellphone transmitter in every home and office. These transmitters, dubbed femtocells, look like wireless routers and would plug into broadband connections. Several companies have begun to offer them. By shifting smartphone traffic onto the Internet, they would bypass conventional cellphone transmitters, which would serve users when they’re outdoors. Femtocells wouldn’t be too much of a burden on the home’s broadband connection, since the constraints of cell towers have already forced engineers to create smartphones that use data far more efficiently than traditional desktops and laptops.
Problem solved. Smiley face. But we have to start now:
If the growth in smartphone sales continues at the current pace, mobile traffic will more than double every year for the next four years, according to predictions by the network technology company Cisco. Which means that the occasional congestion of today will become gridlock tomorrow, especially in big crowds in sporting events such as the Olympics.
If the global cellular network doesn’t outright collapse, it sounds to me like buying stock in companies like Apple, At&T, and Verizon might be a pretty good idea. A scarce resource makes for a seller’s market, at least until femtocells are ubiquitous.