It’s now day four of the aftermath of the Verizon-Google net neutrality announcement and the number of voices weighing in on the matter continues to grow.  Monday’s news fanned what was already a passionate discussion.  And it also brought into focus a critical aspect of the net neutrality debate – the treatment of wireless networks in any net neutrality regime.

There is much misinformation out there about this issue, as well as a genuine lack of understanding about the limits technology and physics impose on wireless networks.  It was therefore a pleasant surprise to read Fortune’s take on the matter.

The article’s opening line sums it up: “Unrestricted access rules for wireless networks would hurt users more than help them. They just don’t realize it.”  We’ve been making this point for several months now but we can’t emphasize it enough:  wireless is simply different.

Wireless broadband is an extraordinary technology and has led to countless innovative (and really cool) mobile services.  It has completely altered how we communicate, play, consume news and information and watch videos. It plays an enormous role in our daily lives, and it will continue to do so at an ever-increasing pace.  But we have huge challenges ahead, defined by the ever-constant struggle between capacity and demand.  

Data traffic on wireless networks continues to explode.  And this is not only being driven by the ever-increasing use of smartphones.  The per unit sales of wirelessly enabled portable devices (think netbooks, E-books, E-tablets and navigation devices) is expected to grow from approximately 6M in 2008 to 86M in 2014.  It’s not surprising that mobile broadband data traffic is on a similar trajectory.  The 90,000 terabytes of traffic per month that was carried on wireless networks in 2009 will mushroom to 3,600,000 TBs/month by 2014.

Pitted against this insatiable demand are wireless networks of finite and shared resources.  Wireless networks simply cannot provide the same amount of capacity as wireline networks (i.e., DSL and cable).  Fiber is to a wireline network what spectrum is to a wireless network, and as a transmission medium, the two simply do not compare.  The theoretical top speed of a LTE carrier is 100 Mbps.  By contrast, theoretical transmission speeds on fiber can reach as high as 25,000,000 Mbps.  The 5 extra zeros tell the story.

We are constantly striving to increase the efficiency of our spectrum resources, but the amount of available spectrum in any given market is finite.  And while we regularly split cell sectors and add additional cell towers, there are very real limits placed on cell site construction by zoning and local approval boards.

So what’s the solution?  There’s no silver bullet, but AT&T is doing its part by:

  • Accelerating network efficiencies thru billions of dollars of network upgrades, including HSPA+ and 4G LTE deployments;
  • Capitalizing on complementary network infrastructure, like WiFi and microcells; and
  • Deploying more cell sites and adding capacity to backhaul facilities.

Policymakers can help by reallocating more spectrum for CMRS use and, even more importantly, by protecting wireless broadband networks from onerous new net neutrality regulations.  The latter is vital to the continued growth of the industry.  In order to provide consumers with the high quality wireless broadband services that they demand, wireless carriers must to be able to dynamically manage traffic and operate their networks in an environment free from burdensome, arbitrary and unnecessary regulations.

But perhaps what might help most of all is for agreement to be reached on net neutrality so we can finally satisfy concerns and put that issue behind us.  Then we could focus all our attention on a more urgent matter struggling for oxygen right now, and that’s the National Broadband Plan.

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