Spectrum Crunch: The Bandwidth Epidemic

One of my favorite South Park episodes is called "Over Logging." The citizens of South Park wake up one morning to discover that there's no Internet left. No one can check their e-mail, play games, or chat with their boyfriends. News stations cannot report on stories because everything is based on computers. A new Western expansion begins, with thousands upon thousands of US citizens working their way "Californee-way" to use the last remains of the Internet. Who would have thought that Matt Stone and Trey Parker would predict an actual technological phenomena? According to the FCC, spectrum crunch is caused by an increased demand for high speed Internet buffered through a limited spectrum of broadcasting frequencies. Smart phones, tablets, and WiFi are increasingly used in day to day life for all sorts of things. E-mail is one thing. Streaming movies to your cellphone or playing MMORPGs on your tablet is quite another.

The team behind Extra Credits, a animated-ish web series on game geek news, just released a video taking us through the grim basics of this rapidly growing problem. Unfortunately, you can't embed Penny Arcade TV content, so I'm going to have to hope you click on that link and watch before you continue here.

Now you see why I said grim. The reason that we, the general Internet media consumers, can't really do anything to help the bandwidth problem is the allocation of resources. If you just stop watching Netflix on your 3DS, you're not doing anything but stopping yourself from streaming the entirety of Doctor Who during your daily commute. Why? Because the channels allocated to wireless Internet communications are already allocated or claimed. You not using it doesn't stop program developers from creating more bandwidth zapping content.

In the AirWould reduced demand help slow things down? Only if everyone stopped getting smartphones and tablets or stuck to land line Internet connections for big data use--no WiFi for any live streaming or downloads. The problem with that is the growing smartphone and tablet market. A big draw is being able to download on the go and use wherever you have a connection. Shutting off those features cuts off demand, which drops sales, which hurts the pockets of the developers. I don't think they want to lose money to save bandwidth.

So we're in a strange situation where the proactive approach isn't readily available. This isn't like using a ceramic cup at the coffee shop or riding a bike to work. There is a finite scarcity of resources unless we accept random blurring of information ala a pirate radio station competing with the company that actually licenses that bandwidth. Do you want bad and grainy techno music playing over your WoW raid? Then you don't want more frequencies shoved in where we've reached the closest usable proximity already.

As someone who didn't get a real working computer in my household until the 1998*, I can remember how quickly home computers with Internet connections just seemed to pop up overnight. Working in schools since 2005, I can also remember how quickly WiFi came up out of nowhere. Now students are accessing their class resources and Facebook pages all day long. The former is encouraged by teachers.

KnockoutWiFi, 3G, 4G, 4GLTE: these are data services that are not disappearing in the near future. Ok. Maybe 3G is. But I digress.

You don't go from doubling usage every year since 2007 to a plateau. This is "oh, look, electric lights" or "wow. Check out that automobile" or even "well what do you know? A gas stove" levels of expansion. I don't doubt the 2014 estimate by the FCC at all. Tinfoil hats be damned. The science behind the trend makes sense.

We rely on the Internet all the time now. People like me can earn a living sucking up bandwidth all day long. Other people have abandoned TV in favor of streaming online media for all entertainment. New technology is being developed every day that relies on the ability to use bandwidth at any time. It's shiny, it's new, and people want it.

Can anything stop Spectrum Crunch? There has to be a solution. Unfortunately, the solutions right now are limited to forcing TV networks to ditch antennae based programming bandwidths or cellphone carriers raising their data fees to discourage use. There has to be a more moderate solution.

Now if you'll excuse me, my marathon of American Dad! episodes on my WiFi-enabled PS3 with the Netflix app isn't going to start watching itself. I'd love to hear your thoughts on spectrum crunch. Sound off below.

*Why, yes, I did learn to type book reports and essays on a typewriter. I also learned to use carbon paper to produce copies of a final manuscript before turning the paper/story into teacher for grading. I still own all of that equipment. Shame about the chewing gum and sand incident ruining its ability to work.

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