Imagine a world with more wireless customers using more data on fewer carriers

Unemployed sales manager Nick Fiacco arranges interviews on his smartphone while waiting to meet potential employers at a sales and management career fair on July 20, 2011 in Westminster, Colo.

That's a lot of data to synthesize, I realize that. Sorry. The information on the number of wireless customers and their usage comes courtesy of a new report by CTIA (PDF), a wireless trade group. It seems kind of nuts that there are more people on wireless in America than there are people in America, but when you factor in people with multiple accounts for phones, tablets and other devices, it makes some sense.

And when you think of it that way, it makes sense too that usage of wireless data is up 111 percent over a year ago. We, as a society, are on wireless more than ever before and those numbers will only rise. Can the system handle it?

Jon Peha is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and he compares it to life in the Big Apple. "It's not that we will run out of space, exactly it's like asking if people keep moving to Manhattan, will we reach a point where the area can't sustain any more people? And there will not be a day when that happens in Manhattan. At least I can't imagine it. We can accommodate more people. But we do that by building very large, very expensive skyscrapers. The same is true in the wireless world. If you want to take more and more traffic, you can either pay a lot of money to try to squeeze it all into a certain amount of spectrum or get more spectrum. And because we happen to have a lot of spectrum that isn't being used efficiently by today's standards, that's a much more cost effective way to go."

But isn't life in Manhattan expensive? "Yeah, that's the rumor."

So the system might expand and your bill might expand. Your choices of wireless carriers, however, might shrink. Sprint, the third biggest carrier -- the George Harrison of wireless providers -- is on the ropes. The stock's way down. Sprint hopes the iPhone will help turn things around, but the company spent a lot to get it.

Susan Crawford of Cardozo Law School says those aren't the only problems. Sprint, she says, "doesn't have the right kind of spectrum, the frequencies, the airwaves that will allow it to make a transition to fourth generation phone services."

Put it all together, this is a world where more people are on wireless, using more data, and -- if Sprint falters and T-Mobile gets swallowed by AT&T -- there are fewer carriers. So what does that mean for me?

"For you," says Crawford, "it would look like not very much choice, pretty high prices, big-box approach to communications and crippled access to video and other things you might like to be doing using your device. We could make sure to let smaller companies have more spectrum by capping what these big guys can bid for. Force the big guys to share their towers with smaller actors."

But wouldn't that lead to more lawsuits and arguments from Verizon and AT&T? "Right," says Crawford. "But one of their strongest arguments is that they're subject to intense competition. That's becoming less and less of an argument these days."

Also in this program, kids are playing video games! Yeah yeah, not exactly shocking news. But the numbers are pretty stunning: 91 percent of kids ages 2 to 17 are gamers with the biggest rise being in kids ages 2 to 5. We examine the ramifications in the latest installment of Tech Report Theater.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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