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Even Eric Schmidt dismissed my comments about limited bandwidth during an interview on NPR a couple of weeks back, maintaining that we will grow our wireless bandwidth to meet the demand

Beaten Up in the Blogs

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

They say any publicity is good publicity. In this case, I say publicity is good except when it comes from those who have never studied physics or taken the time to run a few experiments with wireless connectivity. Most recently, I have been beaten up by comments posted on TechCrunch (scroll down to comments starting at 85), Blogger Joe Duck, who seems to think I have entered into senility early and, of course, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google who basically said I did not have a clue about bandwidth and its ability to grow with demand.


But then, writing things that some people don’t like comes with the territory―I use facts to expose flaws in conventional wisdom. So, I don’t mind being beaten up now and again, and it certainly doesn’t hurt my business. It only makes me realize that those who are convinced that our wireless resources are unlimited have never come face-to-face with the realities of bandwidth constraints.


And those who complain about pricing on a bandwidth allocated basis don’t understand that most of us are already making that same choice for our DSL or cable connections. For example, if I were using Cox Cable where I live, I would have the choice of 12 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up for $56.95 per month for cable internet access (if I also subscribe to cable TV, $64.95 if I do not) or I could have 5 Mbps down but only 512 Kbps up for $41.95 or $49.95 per month. If I was a light Internet user, I could opt for the value package of $26.95 per month and get 1.5 Mbps down and 256 Kbps up.


My Verizon DSL pricing follows the same model: 768 Kbps down and 128 Kbps up for $17.99 per month or 3 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up for $29.99 per month. If I wanted to use Clearwire’s WiMAX wireless broadband (if it was available here) I would pay $59.99 per month for 1.5 Mbps down and 256 Kbps up, $36.99 for 1.5 Mbps down and 256 Kbps up, and for $29.99 per month I would get 768 Kbps down and 256 Kbps up (so much for high-speed, high-capacity WiMAX).


This certainly looks like bandwidth related pricing to me, yet when I mention that a wireless network operator is contemplating this same type of pricing plan, or one that might be even lower but then has additional charges for downloading large files or streaming video, I get beat up. I guess it’s okay to pay for bandwidth in the wired world but not in the wireless world!


Try this experiment: Use your DSL line at home, connect one computer and do both an up and down speed test (repeat it several times and take the average) using, which seems to be about the best and one of the most accurate speed measurement sites around. Now add a second computer and start downloading some streaming video and run the speed test on your other machine again. Okay, now add another computer that is also streaming video and run the test again. You will see a big difference in download speeds and in the amount of bandwidth you have for the first computer (keep these numbers handy).


Even Eric Schmidt dismissed my comments about limited bandwidth during an interview on NPR a couple of weeks back, maintaining that we will grow our wireless bandwidth to meet the demand. So, one more time, let me restate the issues as I see them:


  • Shannon’s law and the laws of physics cannot be broken—bent a little perhaps, but not broken.  
  • Wireless bandwidth is a finite resource. We cannot make any more of it, we can only use it more efficiently, which has occurred with each evolution in technology so far. BUT there is finite limit based on Shannon’s law.
  • If a network provider is using all of its licensed spectrum, the only way to increase capacity is to build more cell sites closer together and add pico, micro and femto cells. A standard cell site takes years to get through the approval process―not the weeks it takes to put in a new fiber drop.
  • The cost of backhaul for wireless networks is running about 40% of their total operating expense and this will probably go up with the next generation of technology. There are a lot of cell sites that cannot be upgraded to fiber backhaul and for which microwave is not a practical solution either.
  • Look at the specifications for the new-generation technologies LTE and UMB. You will see that they offer a significant improvement in data speeds in the same bandwidth, but remember that the more customers there are on a specific cell sector, the more users there are to share this total bandwidth. And someone who is downloading streaming video is using a lot more of it than someone who is checking email.

Now, let’s duplicate the tests you ran above with your DSL connection at a place that offers Wi-Fi access and has a single access point that is fed to the Internet using a T-1 connection (1.54 Mbps). No matter how fast the access point is (802.11b, g or n), the maximum speed you can get is the 1.54 Mbps minus overhead. If you are the only person using that access point, you have all of the available bandwidth if you need it. Run the same speed tests you ran on your home DSL service and you will see what is available to you when you are the only person using the access point.


Now add five or six more users, all doing normal web surfing, email, etc., and take your speed measurements again. Your results will show that your data speed has slowed, albeit not by 1/5th or 1/6th, but a lesser amount because while you are all sharing the connection, most of you are not downloading or uploading at the same time. Now, have two of these users start downloading streaming video and see what happens to your data speed. Until they stop downloading video, your data speed will be much slower because more of the bandwidth you are sharing is being used by those who are streaming data.


The same tests in a single cell sector of a wide-area network, even a WiMAX network, will provide the same results because you are competing for a specific amount of bandwidth in that cell sector and the more people who want to use it, the slower the data speeds will be. I don’t know why this concept is so difficult to grasp. Even when we are using wired or wireless voice phones, we are all competing for a finite amount of bandwidth.


The argument I get is that new technology, more cell sites, more backhaul and more spectrum will solve these problems, therefore, we don’t need to worry about or address them. This may be true to some extent, but there is still a finite limit to our capacity. Those who say that wireless will be deployed to meet the needs are missing two important points: 1) It takes a long time to develop, permit and build cell sites, even pico and micro sites, and 2) the addition of these sites cost someone money. Those who believe we will never have to worry about bandwidth also believe that demand should bring down the cost of service so it is almost free. Where will the money for increasing bandwidth to keep up with demand come from? Especially considering that these people believe wireless network operators should simply get out of the way and be dumb wireless pipes and not worry about any other aspects of the wireless ecosystem.


I know my rants here probably won’t change many minds, but I will feel better. I have tried, once again, to help those who want to understand with ways to experience bandwidth and speed constraints on their own with nothing more than a couple of computers. Run the tests, see the results, and then let’s talk about how much capacity we really have available. And we can talk about what happens when people want more than their share of it because it is their right to be able to access anything and download anything.


One final point, according to TeleGeography Research, Internet bandwidth grew more than 40% in 2004 through 2007, and in 2007 it will grow at a rate of 68%. Average Internet traffic will be up by an estimated 60% this year, so the Internet build-out is keeping pace with the increased traffic. If wireless data traffic grew 60% in a single year, network operators would not be able to match the rate at which wired and fiber providers increased the capacity of the Internet.


To those of you who are complaining about wireless operators using price to help manage the amount of bandwidth they have available, what’s the big deal? You are already making these choices based on pricing and speed for your wired connections. Why not wireless?

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Neale Hightower - 12/06/2007 14:06:32

Andy's right, even if people don't like the truth.

The Google /Joe Duck line is basically the same that's been used in the past... albeit with a few variations. Metricom and the original frequency-hopping CDPD are examples. There is an undue belief that "what the mind can conceive..."... but this is one place where other factors are at play...

Let's check out Joe Duck and Eric Schmidt's views in 3-5 years. They'll be singing the same blues that Earthlink and the other Metro WIFIers are singing now. Of course they'll probably blame the "big companies" (Google being the insignificant, struggling startup that it is) and the FCC when they fail. But I will remind them.

I actually do keep a file, and I have been known to bring up the past in conversations. Physics and economics ultimately control the enthusiasm of marketing and "vision".

Miles Jackson - 12/06/2007 15:41:29

Does anyone else see a similarity to this and to the power companies telling us that nuclear energy will make electrical power "too cheap to meter"? In both cases, the entities wanting to attract investment in the new technology are promising capability well beyond what is rational to expect. I've always wondered whether the overpromising was deliberate misrepresentation or just naivete.

It doesn't matter, though. Increasing the amount of bandwidth delivered to the average user is the right thing to invest in; and mechanisms must necessarily arise to MANAGE the delivery. If you don't manage it through pricing, you'll have to manage it some other way, and I haven't heard any proposal that makes more sense than the free market approach of tiered pricing.

Having said that, there are an almost infinite number of ways to modify the pricing, so I personally look forward to seeing more growth in interesting pricing strategies as companies experiment to find a strategy that meets their financial needs and their customer's expectations.

I have little sympathy for any customer who buys an infinite amount of something for a finite amount of money. He has only himself to blame if he later finds himself dissatisfied with reality. Caveat emptor.

Jonathan Wells - 12/06/2007 16:05:29

Andy, two points. Firstly, as a card-carrying physicist, I agree with your finite bandwidth / limits on throughput arguments. Sure, innovations such as improved modulation and multiple antennas will enable incrementally higher speed services, but not the exponential increases we’ve seen with essentially unlimited bandwidth wired mediums. For example, even today’s “advanced” technologies such as WiMAX offer no real world data throughput improvements over existing cellular standards if you constrain them to the same channel sizes. (I also believe that cost / complexity / size and power tradeoffs with MIMO and other technology advances will place economic limits on these innovations, but that’s another story!) Secondly, I strongly endorse that cumulative bandwidth from any access point will be limited by the size of the backhaul pipe. With most cell sites having just a few T1s servicing them, few realize that an infrastructure upgrade across the whole network is needed to remove choke points before any data rate increases can be realized.

Nick Ruark - 12/06/2007 16:51:42

Neale Hightower proclaimed the following: "Let's check out Joe Duck and Eric Schmidt's views in 3-5 years. They'll be singing the same blues that Earthlink and the other Metro WIFIers are singing now. Of course they'll probably blame the "big companies" (Google being the insignificant, struggling startup that it is) and the FCC when they fail. But I will remind them."

It's doubtful that we'll need to wait 3-5 years for the Joe Duck's, Eric Schmidt's, etc, etc to start singing.....all the technological advancements in the world cannot change the basic laws of physics as they apply to RF (wireless) and least they haven't yet. My hat's off to those who keep trying, however!

And "Physics and economics ultimately control the enthusiasm of marketing and "vision"."

Physics is usually the last element of marketing that is considered; economics (read the smell of all those potential $$ signs) and over-enthusiastic advanced promotion of visions (read un-proven dreams) seem to come first, particularly when it comes to the wireless technology industry. Is it any wonder that peoples wireless expectations and experiences are slightly out of balance with reality?

Scott Goldman - 12/06/2007 18:19:07

I find it amusing - and revealing - that the people claiming bandwidth is unlimited and that technology will solve all problems have had little or nothing to do with wireless for the past 20 years. Invariably, when asked at business meetings or parties why cell sites can't be placed here or there, why capacity can't be increased or why calls get dropped, my replies are met with, "Oh, really? I had no idea." Once explained to most people the light bulb goes on over their heads and they have a greater respect for the realities of spectrum usage.

The point is that those that haven't had to deal with everything from zoning issues to the complexities of a graceful system expansion cannot claim to understand the obstacles that face expanded use of the spectrum resource. Those obstacles include:

Physics - you've already addressed this eloquently.
Cultural - the "NIMBY" problem
Political - it's taken how long to free up the spectrum from analog TV??
Financial - not everyone has a Google-iscious $3B in cash laying around to buy equipment, site locations (if you can, in fact, get them) and the personnel to make it all work.

All that said, I'm guessing that this is all a big bluff on Google's part and that they are gaming the system. When there was a ton of hype about a Google phone about to be released I predicted (on another blog) that there would be no such thing; rather, the company would release an operating platform that manufacturers could then adopt if they chose to. As we all know, that's what happened - and the reason for that is the same as the reasoning behind my guess that Google is gaming the system:

Google is a very smart company that knows enough to stay out of markets that it cannot dominate or in which it cannot command huge margins.

While Google may be planning to bid in this auction it doesn't mean that they're planning to win. Their very presence may have already drawn others into the game as a defensive measure... which may have been their plan all along.

P.S. Neale... nice to see your name again - I remember you well from the BellSouth days when I was doing so much consulting for their international division.

Andrew Seybold - 12/06/2007 18:39:43

Thanks to you all--great to see all of these comments here--I guess the folks who don't understand bandwidth don't get or visit this blog so we are not hearing from them, but I certainly apprecate all of the great comments and support

Joe Nordgaard - 12/06/2007 20:46:22


I read Google's letter to the FCC a couple of months back and I had a good laugh. Not to worry - it's only their shareholder's billions.

Atleast this won't be a complete rehash of 3G in Europe where misconceptions were rampant and the technology didn't exist to act as modest back stop to over $200B in auction and license fees. 700 MHz will be far more forgiving than 2.1 GHz and the FCC isn't holding quite the gun to the operator's heads as DG-13 did - where they basically said for the good of Europe "invest or else."

Enjoy your ringside seats for the wireless revolution - the entertainment never ends,

Charles McKnight - 12/06/2007 22:39:21

Hi Andy,

Thanks for succinctly summing up why the wired web folks not only do not understand the issues associated with the wireless environment, but also why if allowed to go unchecked that community will surely kill the wireless world of data. Now if we could only get folks to realize that the browser is a poor point of commonality and move away from the bloat of the wired web then we might have a fighting chance (but I'm not optimistic that will happen).


Charles McKnight

Andrew Seybold - 12/06/2007 22:41:00

Joe--I know that you have been there or done that--so I cannot wait to see what happens in the auction--as I said I would love Google to win the C block and then try and service 60 million Internet customers on 22 MHz of spectrum

Andrew Seybold - 12/06/2007 22:45:55

Charles--I agree-- in 1998 my business partner, Barney Dewey wrote out first article about active content--content that it within an application but is smart enough to check on the status of updates on the Internet--we have been preaching this every since but no one seems to listen--so with new technologies and new bandwidth speeds it appears as if we will have to wair for another generation of applications. Do you remember when we had a full word processor which worked in 64 Kbs of memory because that is all we had? Now MS word is megabytes big and yes, it has addiontal functionality but most of us stiil use it to write a letter.
So let's see what happens--I believe that the Interent, wirelessly, needs to be smarter than today's desktop Internet.

Chris Coles - 12/07/2007 04:13:10

Good morning Andy,

I am not sure this is a safe thing to do after so much angst has been thrown against your side of the debate, but I did go back and run through the original post that had set this particular debate into motion. In particular Michael Arrington's last paragraph:

"Google isn’t always not evil, but in this case they are going to bat for all of us against some players with pretty bad history when it comes to offering consumer products. I’m behind them on this. And to the FCC: please learn from past mistakes, ignore the lobbyists this time, and do what is in the best interests of the public."

You make the point, not for the first time, about the idea of "content that is within an application" and that; "no one seems to listen", and yet at the same time, with the greatest of respects, miss the point too.

As you know, I have had the same experience of "no one seems to listen" with my ideas for a personal security Video-911 system. What I believe has occured with both ideas, yours as well as mine, is the environment for innovation is, (certainly has been), almost totally suppressed by a combination of an FCC that refused to permit anything new to be introduced that competes with their own internal zeitgeist, (in my own case, E911), and the incumbent carriers, again with the greatest of respects, aflood with cash, (the owner of a minor carrier once telling me that spectrum was a licence to print money), who refused to allow anything that in any way interfered with their perceived monopoly.

Google, on the other hand has made great strides forward without any monopoly at all other than their way of presenting access to information owned by everyone else. What wireless fails to see it that the many individuals that support Google, see what Google has achieved without a monopoly. So they are (for want of a better word), fighting their corner from an entirely different viewpoint, innovation, than you are in wireless. I have made that point last week also.

By pure chance, while you are all correct about the immutability of the laws of physics, you are all about to discover that they can be and have been re-written. (And, you even get a mention Andy). But that is for you all to discover when the new book I have just finished arrives at the book stands next year. (sorry, could not resit the plug). - Well you did not think that a good mind sits still and does nothing while he waits for the pack to catch up, did you?

The true benefit of the introduction of the likes of Google, as Michael Arrington states, is that they drive forward with the idea that there are benifits to be gained from allowing new ideas to surface and play a part. Yes, there are constraints, but I believe, as I am sure they do too that there is a kind of Moore's Law here too that says; innovation will often find ways to do things that extend the limits of possibilities beyond the point where others felt were impossible. As William Kingston says in INNOVATION The Creative Impulse in Human Progress, (a new, enlarged edition I published in 2003),

"Creativity in Commerce
The greatest advantage of looking at business from the point of view of the content of creativeness in it, is that it integrates business activity into the mainstream of higher cultural life, and in doing so, provides a context in which innovation can be understood, indeed one in which technological innovation can be made to follow a humane pattern. Hitherto, business has been outside this stream, being either neutral or even positively antipathetic to it. The viewpoint has also a number of practical advantages for business itself, the most important of these relating to its capacity to deal successfully with innovation. Many failures in innovation come from trying to apply standards to it that are only appropriate to other areas. The `invention' element in innovation involves uncertainty, and so proper financial control of it cannot be maintained through the techniques which have evolved for dealing with risk, even high risk. For the same reason, the tight control of research which may work at the level of `intensive' innovation, will not produce results at the level of `originative' innovation. Even more so is it the case that the mere deployment of physical resources, however great, will not achieve success in innovation except in so far as these resources are directed by individual creative energies.
People in business who have learned these lessons will not embark on any innovative venture unless they are sure of having the necessary resources in creativeness. If they see creativeness in business simply as part of creativeness in the whole of life, they will be the more able to recognise and foster it in their staff. The power to do this comes far more from contact with creativity in the arts and in science than it does from techniques of personnel selection. The firms which see themselves as providing an environment for the expression of creative energy must inevitably be those in which innovation, as an expression of intermediate order creativeness, will be taken seriously. If for no other reason, such firms are able to use applied science better than others. Creative people are drawn to such a working environment, which by its very subordination of creativeness in business to higher orders of creativeness, is attractive to them, and gives them a means of fitting their work intelligibly into the rest of their cultural life." (Chapter V, Creativity in Business, pages 197 -198).

Google is a creative business staffed by innovators. That is the difference. That is why they all feel they can succeed where conventional wisdom tells us they cannot. My advice is that you all put down your swords and get to know these new people, they will bring a lot of new thinking into wireless and yes, while they will not get as far as they think they can, nevertheless, they will succeed. Of that I am sure.