Picture this: It’s 6:30 pm. You stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. As you walk in the door, you realize you’ve just passed the end of the checkout line, which is snaking through the store. “Well, at least it’s moving,” you rationalize to yourself.
Now picture this: It’s 8:00 am, and you’re on a commuter train heading into the office. You have to give a big presentation and want to prepare, so you whip out your phone to download the latest draft of the presentation deck. You wait, and wait, and wait. Why? Mobile capacity—like the grocery store’s cash registers—is a finite resource. The more people use a network, and the more demands they place on it, the more things slow down.
Users generally have an idea of how much data they use on a month-to-month basis (no one likes overages!), but there’s also a misconception that there is a bottomless well or an unlimited trough of available capacity, should they need to dip into it. Not so. The metaphorical “pipe” is only so wide, and only so much data can pass through it at a given time.
The easiest way to understand how this happens is to picture all wireless transmissions flowing on a highway that’s broken into dozens and dozens of lanes. Once traffic fills up a lane, things start to slow down.
The nightmare scenario is that the amount of data we want to access on our smartphones, tablets, and other devices will choke up the lanes entirely, crippling both our ability to connect—and the speed at which we do it.
For analysts, figuring out exactly how much mobile traffic networks can handle is a moving target; it’s difficult to pinpoint when, if ever, we might risk outpacing what they can take. A recent Cisco report for example, predicts that by 2019, enough mobile connections will exist to create more than 24 exabytes (that’s 24,000 petabytes, or 24,000,000 terabytes) of traffic per month.
In reality, though, the data apocalypse (dare we say “datapocalypse”?) should never happen. Qualcomm is leading the charge in preparing the mobile industry for an astounding 1000x increase in mobile data traffic through technologies that increase the efficiency of existing mobile assets and networks (“squeeze” more capacity out of existing bandwidth and networks), as well as provide network operators radically new ways to cost-efficiently employ more resources. At the foundation of this is the effort to continually evolve mobile technologies, such as 4G LTE, that are helping the industry stay ahead of the demand and keep things flowing smoothly, even as mobile data traffic skyrockets.
Part of the solution to this “1000x challenge” is offloading data traffic from traditional large, long-range cellular towers to shorter-range small cells. These compact, low-cost access points can sit either indoors or outdoors in high-traffic areas, such as malls and corporate parks. Small cells are already being deployed en masse both by network operators and by consumers, in effect bringing the network closer to the users. And this network densification means that more people can access more streaming movies and other data-hungry apps and services.
Beyond adding more access points such as small cells to the mix, more bandwidth (spectrum) is also needed. This is a simple concept: Ease traffic by opening more lanes. This includes using all possible lanes, including those shared by other technologies such as Wi-Fi. These shared lanes are referred to as unlicensed spectrum, and new technologies are now extending LTE to unlicensed spectrum, allowing network operators to move data traffic onto these lanes as needed.
And finally, new technologies are emerging to more efficiently use existing mobile assets. Part of the playbook is similar to old-fashioned, over-the-air TV broadcasts. Rather than sending thousands of individual “content streams” to individual users, a technology currently being commercially launched—known as LTE Broadcast—delivers the same piece of content (say, an instant replay at a football game) to everyone at once. Going back to the highway metaphor, think about car-pooling. Many users going to a common destination share the same lane (and vehicle) at the same time.
These technology innovations and advancements in network infrastructure will keep the data moving to and from our smartphones and other connected devices, and fulfill the consumer demand for more and richer video, like 4K Ultra High Definition, which is a primary driver for the exploding growth in data demand. Moving forward, other emerging use cases will certainly add to the congestion. For example, one study projects that connected cars will create a digital traffic jam of their own. Another study predicts that an estimated 200 million homes will have smart systems by 2018, and there will be about 800 million smart meters by 2020.
Will one of these technologies save us from our growing hunger for data? There’s no silver bullet. It will take a combination of all of them to manage the deluge. But if we aggressively implement the latest technologies—and keep evolving them over the years and decades to come—there will be enough bandwidth for the next generation of selfies, cat videos, and more.
This article was written by Qualcomm and not by the Quartz editorial staff.