Bandwidth hogs - iPhone and other smartphones

August 28, 2009: 9:33 AM ET

The way consumers use Apple's mobile phone (i.e., constantly) means big headaches for carrier AT&T. And more smartphones are on the way.

Randall Stephenson, chairman, CEO, and president of AT&T,  holds up his Apple iPhone

Randall Stephenson, chairman, CEO, and president of AT&T, holds up his Apple iPhone

At the South by Southwest music, film, and interactive fest in Texas earlier this year, the iPhone was all the rage -- and not in a good way.

The device proved so popular with Internet-addicted attendees that AT&T's wireless network in the city of Austin buckled under the strain, all but shutting down both voice and data service for many customers.

iPhone users bashed the phone company on Twitter and in blogs, and AT&T (T) had to haul in extra network equipment just to ease the gridlock.

As it turns out, smartphones are double-edged swords for phone operators. They attract big-spending customers who purchase highly profitable text-messaging and unlimited-data plans.

But they also tax networks designed for simpler times. Now the wireless providers hawking those Internet-enabled mobile devices are experiencing the digital equivalent of being proprietors of an all-you-can-eat buffet: It seems like the perfect business until the sumo wrestlers show up.

No carrier is feeling the pressure more than AT&T, the exclusive U.S. provider of the iPhone. Users of Apple's device are the hungriest mobile Internet consumers of all: Not only do they send e-mail messages and access the web, they also view maps and YouTube videos and download iTunes purchases.

Independent telecom analyst Chetan Sharma estimates that the typical wireless subscriber consumes 120 megabytes each month; typical iPhone owners use four times that.

Accommodating all that data is one challenge for operators such as AT&T, but the real issue with smartphones is that their users are always moving from one location to another, tapping into the network constantly, sometimes for a few seconds, other times for hours on end. And when a big group gathers -- the lunch crowd in Manhattan, say, or South by Southwest revelers -- the effect can be total gridlock.

"3G networks were not designed effectively for this kind of usage," says John Donovan, AT&T's chief technology officer, referring to the current generation of broadband wireless. "We fight the day-to-day guerrilla warfare as the customers move around." Not that AT&T is complaining. "The iPhone," adds spokesman Mark Siegel, "is a problem that other carriers would love to have."

chart_att_mobileNew data guzzlers
And they soon will -- sort of. AT&T is in the hot seat now, but an influx of Internet-savvy phones could easily strain other carriers' networks in the near future. By 2010, global mobile data traffic is expected to exceed 200 terabytes per month, six times last year's levels, according to Cisco Systems.

Why? One reason is that other phonemakers are catching on to the touchscreen craze that made the iPhone a hit. Users of phones with Google's Android operating system spend roughly as much time online as iPhone users, according to mobile advertising company AdMob.

To date, only two devices use the Android platform, including the HTC myTouch 3G launched by T-Mobile (DT) last month. But Android phones from Samsung, LG, and Motorola (MOT) are due in stores by early 2010. The data-oriented Palm Pre, which operates on Palm's (PALM) WebOS platform, is already on Sprint (S) and should be in Verizon stores early next year.

With all the money AT&T and other carriers are making from smartphones, why don't they simply upgrade their existing systems to handle more traffic? Because increasing wireless capacity is like adding lanes to a road; it takes months or years to get local permission to build new transmission towers.

Ultimately all carriers will move to faster next-generation networks that are designed for data traffic. But those so-called 4G systems won't be available nationwide for years.

In the meantime, carriers are likely to get pickier about the applications they'll allow on their networks. When Apple (AAPL) unveiled the latest iPhone software in June, developers collectively groaned after the company revealed that AT&T wouldn't immediately support two of the most exciting (and bandwidth-hungry) new features: MMS, which uses the text-messaging system to send media such as photos and video, and tethering, which allows a phone to share its Internet connection with a nearby computer. (AT&T says MMS will arrive at summer's end, when the network is deemed ready.)

Some carriers may try to offload data traffic. PCCW, the Hong Kong operator, has started using Wi-Fi hot spots to ease the load from smartphones and its digital TV service.

Pricing will probably change too. In private meetings, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has said that the most active 5% or so of data users are causing problems for the other 95%. AT&T is working on a revamped data plan whereby light data users would pay less, and heavy users would pay a premium rate -- or leave.

A few carriers in Europe already have moved away from unlimited-use data plans. And once one U.S. operator makes the move, it is likely the others will follow suit -- and the sumo wrestlers of wireless might have to do without the buffet.

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