|North American mobile networks are running at 80 per cent capacity, worrying companies and users [GALLO/GETTY]
The demand for bandwidth - the infrastructure which allows people to make phone calls, surf the net and connect with each other - seems insatiable. And in the US and beyond, from the boardrooms of major phone companies, down to college campuses, research labs and internet coffee shops, some users worry there simply won’t be enough to go around in the near future.
"I think there will be a major crunch in the next few years," Kang Shin, professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, told Al Jazeera. "The number of these mobile services and applications is mind boggling and the smart phone user population is growing … The wireless spectrum doesn’t just grow on trees."
The problem seems most acute in the US, where there are more wireless devices than people, according to a 2011 report from the wireless industry association.
Mobile data traffic is expected to increase 26 times between 2010 and 2015, according to the New York City Media lab, a collaboration of top universities and technology executives, who warn: "Current networks could choke under the strain."
Mobile internet relies on the quality of the connection between a wireless device and an internet service provider - companies which hold the gateway to internet access and essentially rent out chunks to users for a fee.
If you imagine all the data streaming between your handset and your provider as flowing through a pipe, the measure of available "bandwidth" is the diameter of that pipe - the more bandwidth (the wider the pipe), the more data can flow and the faster and more reliable your online access.
"Wireless communication only occurs between the users’ device to the base station or access point," Dr Jaeweon Kim, an information technology expert, told Al Jazeera.
'New black gold'
North American mobile networks are running at 80 per cent capacity, with a third of base stations facing capacity constraints, according to a Credit Suisse survey from 2010.
"This is a lot like the energy crisis; If no one changes their behaviour or does anything differently, then we have a problem," Harold Feld, legal director of the internet freedom advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Al Jazeera. However, calling the current situation a "crisis" is a bit over-dramatic, he added.
A 2010 headline in Time magazine stated: "Bandwidth is the new black gold."
During the 1990s, internet use was increasing faster than then amount of fibre optic cable in the ground, Feld said, and the problem was solved by simply laying more cable. The bandwidth crunch could be similar; the invariable stresses on infrastructure are being caused by rapidly evolving technologies, yet no easy solution appears imminent.
If nothing is done, it is possible that costs for data plans will rise drastically, as demand for limited bandwidth access will outstrip supply. Access could also be slower, hurting communications in the US and beyond, with consequences for economic growth and innovation around the globe.
AT&T's mobile data traffic, for example, grew 8,000 per cent in the past four years, industry sources told Al Jazeera, and by 2015 they expect mobile data traffic to be eight to ten times higher than it was in 2010.
The poorest internet, mobile phone and data plan users will likely be hit hardest by the bandwidth crunch. Professor Shin believes the issue could become a major problem, significantly raising prices by 2016.
Representatives from AT&T and Verizon, two of the biggest US mobile service providers, did not respond to interview requests. The companies, like others in the business, have been lobbying hard for more bandwidth to become available within existing networks; they want to get some of it from cable TV companies.
Part of the issue is a lack of investment, said Prof Shin, and companies need to build more mobile phone relay masts and other infrastructure. But that won't address the core problem with current networks. "Even if you put up more towers, you are not going to have additional bandwidth, just a better utilisation of [existing online] space," he said. "The wireless spectrum doesn't just grow on trees. There are fundamental limitations."
Telecommunication companies complain that TV broadcasters were given their spectrum for almost nothing by US government federal regulators decades ago.
However, critics of telecomms companies and their practices worry that, if they fail to make major infrastructure investment and fundamentally change how wireless technology operates, they will gobble up yet more space, robbing other users of bandwidth.
"Right now, government regulators are planning to solve this problem by giving billions to TV broadcasters to [free up] their spectrum, so it can be auctioned off to cellphone companies," Feld said. "Ten years later, when that is used up, where are we going to get more?"
Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University and a founder of the Internet Governance Project, thinks new technologies will solve most of the problems.
"There are new things on the horizon that will supplement bandwidth that is currently being used," such as satellite-based technologies and "Long Term Evolution", a new standard using new frequency modulation techniques, operating on non-traditional networks.
"LTE is priced as a premium model now, but it is such a more efficient mode for the phone companies," Mueller told Al Jazeera. "There will be competitive pressures to lower the price - to get rid of the 3G network altogether and put everyone on LTE."
The 3G model, on which many iPhones and similar devices currently operate, separates voice calling from data infrastructure, making it less efficient than LTE, which aggregates content flows, Mueller said.
Along with new sources of bandwidth, allowing mobile phones to operate "opportunistically" on under-utilised networks will be crucial for the future, experts say.
While the US pioneered internet and smart phone technologies, its networks are not the most advanced. South Korea, for example, has far faster and better internet connections than the US.
"We never would have had WiFi if some of the spectrum hadn’t been set aside for open, shared use."
- Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge
"The country [South Korea] is small and crowded, so they can put in more [cell-phone] towers and high speed connections," Kim said. "It is not easy in the US because of all the expenses to build towers [to cover large geographic areas]."
The coming crunch in the US could further reduce the country's competitive advantage in IT and the knowledge economy.
The answer, Feld said, could be making smart phones even smarter, allowing them to jump onto unused channels otherwise known as "white space", the empty spaces within TV bands.
"Right now, my cellphone knows it works on a certain frequency and it looks for a tower and assumes nothing else works on this frequency," Feld said. "Suppose I had a device that said ‘what frequencies can I use which no-one else is using right now?'"
If smartphones and tablets could automatically detect available frequencies, from unused TV networks or other forms of white space, the phones would frequently switch networks, depending on which space was free. This would massively free-up potential space, Feld said.
Space to innovate
Some experts worries mobile phone companies will able to buy-up remaining space from TV firms, walling off network access, meaning young tech entrepreneurs - or nerdy dudes working late nights in their parent's garage - won't have spectrum access to experiment with.
"That unlicenced space needs to be available," Mueller said, but this won’t be possible if "too much of the spectrum is auctioned off to exclusive licence holders".
The discovery of WiFi itself came through this process of "playing around" with the spectrum during the 1980s, Feld said. "The first things people came up with were garage door openers and cordless phones, WiFi didn't come until later."
A lack of free, accessible network space, he fears, could prevent a long-term solution to the bandwidth crunch.
"People need to have room to innovate," Feld said. "We never would have had WiFi if some of the spectrum hadn't been set aside for open, shared use."
As phone companies jostle for position, users worry about an impending crunch, and a heavily indebted US government appears to see bandwidth auctions as a source of revenue. Leaving space open for experimentation won’t be an easy sell.
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris