WASHINGTON - The United States is bracing itself 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 worsen in 2014. If no action is taken, smartphone users could see slowdowns, dropped connections and higher prices.
Some carriers are already preparing for the crunch by imposing data caps, or "throttling" speeds for smartphone users.
Each mobile device - whether it is an iPhone, an Android device, an Internet-connected car, a medical wireless device, or a 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 programmes, and other portions are dedicated to air-traffic control, military communications, police and emergency use.
Wireless-data traffic is expected to roughly double in each year to 2015. This will mean there will be a "deficit" of 90 MHz next year and 275 MHz in 2014, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Telecommunication analyst Jeff Kagan said that Apple ignited much of the growth with the iPhone and iPad and, now, Android devices are gobbling up data use as well.
"Now, wireless-data usage through hundreds of thousands of apps is squeezing the networks dry," he said.
Ms Julie Kearney of the Consumer Electronics Association said that a data crunch could have adverse economic consequences, hurting consumers, wireless-gadget makers and sellers.
"Ultimately, the consumer will suffer," she said. "They realise 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?"
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 MHz.
The Obama administration unveiled a plan last year to free up 500 MHz 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 MHz but is losing viewers to cable and satellite operators.
The National Association of Broadcasters sought last year to deflect criticism and commissioned a study, suggesting that the case for a spectrum crunch is overstated and that the crisis can be solved with better technology, including more efficient antennas and cells.
Consultant Uzoma Onyeije, who led the broadcasters' study, said: "The factual basis for the 'spectrum crisis' claim is underwhelming." However, AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson said that the industry is in "a race against time" and that if there is a data overload, "the speed of the mobile revolution will slow down (and) prices, download times and consumer frustration will all increase".
He wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the FCC auction is an important step but that "it will take six to eight years to put that spectrum to use. Our country and our consumers can't wait that long".
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