Tackling wireless network congestion

A man displays his iPhone 4 in New York City.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: You know that Verizon ad, the "Can you hear me now" guy?

Verizon's "Can you hear me now?" guy: Can you hear me now? Good.

Yeah, that's the one. Verizon retired that ad campaign this summer, saying it's time to focus on all the other things people do with cell phones, besides making calls. That's right -- talking on your telephone is so quaint. But then, here's the question: Can the wireless infrastructure we have in place handle all that innovation?

We asked reporter Cathy Duchamp to check it out.


Cathy Duchamp: The strength of the nation's wireless networks may come down to one strange sentence.

Computer voice: These days a chicken leg is a rare dish.

This is what's called a "Harvard Sentence." It includes most of the variations in the human voice. It's one of dozens of phrases used by the telecom industry to test how wireless networks perform at the most basic level: A phone call.

The result:

Computer voice: These days a chicken leg is f... [garbled].

Habib Huq: So the quality of that was not good.

That's Habib Huq. He's operations director for Global Wireless Solutions, based in Dulles, Va. Think of him as the real world "Can you hear me now?" guy.

Huq: We are on the corner of Route 7 and the Georgetown Pike. So, we're going to be driving Georgetown Pike...

Huq's company owns a fleet of 60 mini-vans like the one we're in. Each has a bank of computers that benchmark the performance of the various wireless providers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile among them. Today, we're on a test drive of the northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington D.C.

Huq: This is exactly the typical failure, they're trying to access their e-mail but could not.

Huq says 10 years ago, the quality of that chicken leg sentence was all that mattered. Today, as we heard, it's still an issue. But so is data speed.

Huq: It gets complicated. Who thought four, five years ago you'll be talking to someone on your cell phone, and at the same time, surfing the Internet. We didn't even think about it. Because of the new technology, new issues come along.

The new issues boil down to congestion. There isn't enough room on the wireless networks to handle the flood of data coming from people who upload photos, download videos or listen to public radio on their smart phones.

Greg Rosston: The business model has shifted from the networks determining everything that went on to device manufacturers having a much bigger say in what gets used on the network and what kinds of things are done.

That's Stanford University economist Greg Rosston. He says smart phonemakers have built devices based on unlimited data plans. But the networks haven't expanded fast enough to handle the tsunami of data.

Rosston: One of the things that AT&T has done has been to introduce bandwidth caps, or pricing for bandwidth.

Meaning, how much data you upload or download -- how much bandwidth you use. The more data you move, the more you pay. That's a way to control demand.

Or, you can increase capacity on the wireless networks. That doesn't mean building more cell towers. Most of those wars are over. You get more capacity by putting more powerful antennas and software on those towers, and by giving wireless companies more spectrum. That's the invisible part of the wireless system.

Rosston says television broadcasters have too much spectrum and should sell some to wireless companies.

Rosston: And allow it to be used for something much more useful than over-the-air television, which is watched only by about 10 percent of the country right now.

Until all of this gets sorted out, smart phones won't work as well as they could. But for the most part, consumers aren't rebelling.

Lee Vaughn: Well yeah, you're frustrated but what's the use?

Lee Vaughn works along the route we took on that drive test through northern Virginia. A dropped call?

Vaughn: You just pick back up and you go. If that's gonna blow your lid, you need to work on some other things than your cell plan.

Habib Huq with Global Wireless agrees. As we finish up our test drive, he explains that smart phones are really hand-held computers. We all have to reboot our laptops when they hiccup.

Huq: There are certain things in life you just have to live with, and a dropped call is one of those things. Doesn't matter what network you're on. You have your phone. You just have to live with it.

In other words, if you have problems with your cell phone, it's because you still think of it as a phone. If you want innovation, you have to accept imperfection.

Near Dulles, Va., I'm Cathy Duchamp for Marketplace.

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