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4G needed to avoid wireless network overload: CTIA keynote

LAS VEGAS -- The surge in popularity of mobile applications and smartphones is resulting in significantly greater data consumption, which could soon push existing wireless networks to their limit.

From 2005 to 2012, mobile traffic will have increased a thousand-fold, according to a keynote address at the CTIA Wireless 2009: Mobile Life conference. A Cisco white paper predicted that usage on wireless networks would double every year for the next several years, potentially multiplying 66 times between 2008 and 2013.

"It's hard to conceive of that type of growth -- can we keep up with that type of demand?" said Benjamin Wolff, co-chairman/CEO of Clearwire Corp., which partnered with Sprint on 4G WiMax technology (see story). "We're already having some challenges with today's networks to keep up with consumer demand, and as an industry we have to deal this capacity crunch to avoid the threat of network overload.

"We're seeing a huge amount of wireless data consumption, and it's only going to go up," he said. "Capacity is the wireless industry's dilemma, and today's apps and devices are just the beginning."

Today's smartphones use 30 times as much data as feature phones, while laptops use 450 times the data of a standard mobile phone.

The popularity of new mobile applications is driving bandwidth consumption.

Consumers now regularly use mobile devices to check email, browse the Web, play online games, share photos via Flickr, post and share home videos via Facebook and YouTube, download full-track music from iTunes, stream music from Pandora, watch TV shows on Hulu and even watch movies via Netflix.

"It used to be all about coverage, coverage, coverage, but the rules are changing and it's all about capacity, capacity, capacity," Mr. Wolff said. "The merger between Clearwire and Sprint last fall enabled us to assemble a near nationwide footprint, but just as important is the depth of spectrum, giving us the ability to sell to our customers.

"There's a finite bandwidth that operators can meter out to customers, and more spectrum equals more capacity," he said.

Analysts expect the consumption of data over the Internet to continue to increase exponentially, and LTE and WiMax, both 4G technologies, are competing to provide the solution for the increased load on carriers' networks.

To date, Sprint and Clearwire have rolled out WiMax in Baltimore, MD, and Portland, OR, while LTE has yet to deploy commercially.

Yesterday, Verizon touted LTE as the future standard during its keynote address, while Sprint is backing WiMax. However, Mr. Wolff refused to stoke the rivalry.

"WiMax and LTE are about 85 percent the same, and there's not a lot of differentiation in the way they're going to work and compete, but there is a tremendous difference between 3G and 4G," ," he said. "Latency is extremely important in today's Internet world, and 4G takes one-quarter to one-third of the time compared to 3G networks, giving consumers everything the Internet has to offer.

"4G is the way to go."

Development of the 4G ecosystem is accelerating, according to Clearwire. The company expects 100 WiMax devices to be released commercially by year's end, as well as 30 laptops and notebooks.

Mr. Wolff singled out the Samsung Mondi for praise.

Clearwire is also launching the Clear Spot Personal Hotspot, an accessory manufactured by CradlePoint that enables up to eight standard Wi-Fi products to connect to the Internet at broadband speeds via the company's Clear mobile WiMax service.

Clearwire is in the process of rolling out the WiMax network, with expansion plans underway enabling coverage for up to 120 million people in the U.S.

Clearwire plans to deploy WiMax in more than 80 markets by the end of 2010.

Internationally, there have been more than 450 WiMax deployments worldwide potentially covering 430 million people, and Clearwire expects to double that number to 800 million people by the end of 2010.

"If you are talking about competition between LTE and WiMax, you have to ask, ?Which is going to get scale?'" Mr. Wolff said. "We're getting pretty good scale with WiMax."

The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world by 2020, according to Pew Research.

"That is a pretty compelling prediction, and that's just a decade from now," Mr. Wolff said. "We have a good opportunity, but we have a lot of work to do to keep up with consumer demand.

"4G networks will help to make information and content so much more relevant to people based on who they are and where they are," he said. "Now we're putting the Internet in the palm of your hand."