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WASHINGTON - The United States is bracing for a data crunch from the surging use of smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices as the explosion of Internet-ready devices eats up the radio spectrum allocated for mobile broadband.
US regulators say the crunch could come as early as next year and get worse in 2014. If no action is taken, smartphone users could see slowdowns, dropped connections, and higher prices.
Some carriers are already are preparing by imposing data caps or "throttling" speeds for smartphone users.
Each mobile device - whether it is an iPhone, Android device, Internet-connected car, medical wireless device or gadget such as Google glasses - connects to a carrier over the radio spectrum.
Much of the spectrum has been allocated to broadcast television and radio, and other portions are dedicated for air traffic control, military communications, police and emergency use.
Wireless data traffic is expected roughly double in each year through 2015. This will mean a "deficit" of 90 megahertz next year and 275 megahertz in 2014, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
APPLE, iPHONES TO BLAME
"We are running out of wireless data spectrum. What does that mean? Slowdowns and outages when trying to use one of the many apps like watching television, movies, using GPS and navigation," says telecom analyst Jeff Kagan.
Kagan said Apple ignited much of the growth with the iPhone and iPad, and now Android devices are gobbling up data use as well.
After the iPhone was introduced, he said, "the entire industry shifted. Now wireless data usage through hundreds of thousands of Apps is squeezing the networks dry."
Julie Kearney of the Consumer Electronics Association said a data crunch could have adverse economic consequences, hurting consumers as well as wireless gadget makers and sellers.
"Ultimately the consumer will suffer," she said. "They realize we can build these products but if they don't have the spectrum, they will stop using or buying them, and then who will make them?"
A White House report this year notes that growth in wireless will have "substantial impact on jobs, growth, and investment" for the US economy.
The crisis was underscored when Lightsquared, a company with an ambitious plan to offer a nationwide mobile broadband service, failed to get a portion of spectrum when the government said it may interfere with GPS.
The impending crunch is setting up a mad scramble among wireless carriers, the broadcast industry, government agencies and others to reallocate some of the spectrum, which has a limited capacity of around 2,500 megahertz.
The Obama administration unveiled a plan in 2011 to free up some 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade, through voluntary auctions and streamlined government communications. But only a fraction of that is likely to be available within the next year or two.
Some of the focus has been on the broadcast television industry, which has nearly 300 megahertz, but is losing viewers to cable and satellite.