From Coverage to Capacity

7.27.2016, Written by Nora Hartman

coffeeAndWorkFrom Coverage to Capacity: The Latest Challenge for Mobile Networks

Gone are the days when searching for coverage was the most frequent issue faced by cellphone users. The four key telecommunications competitors in the U.S. – Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T – have reached a point where they can offer customers LTE reception in at least 80% of the country at any given time. No American city or town remains off the grid.

With the quest for coverage as good as complete, the concern now becomes capacity.

Coverage vs Capacity

 Capacity is the ability for Americans to use all the features included in today’s smartphones. The demand is there: studies show there are a projected 207 million smartphone users in the U.S. this year. Those people need reliable connection speeds, especially as devices get more sophisticated.

Want to stream Netflix on your phone? Upload photos to Google Drive? Download huge PDF documents? Each of these jobs take bolstered network capacity. With that in mind, the conversation has not become “can I access the features on my phone,” but instead “how fast can I access and download that data?”

The U.S. does well in terms of coverage, but its capacity for LTE high-speed data is another story.

While the four telecommunications companies listed above are consistently effective in the coverage they provide, a study conducted by Open Signal in 2016 shows their 3G and 4G data download speeds differ substantially based on location and that these speeds are lower than many places in the world.

The study showed the average LTE download speed is 9.9 megabytes per second (Mbps), although compared to several other countries, networks are offering 20 Mbps or faster. The top telecommunications provider in the world is SingTel in Singapore with 86% LTE coverage and download speeds at a whopping 40 Mbps. Providers in South Korea and parts of Europe offer similar balances of LTE coverage and download capacity within the 30 Mbps range. So while the 9.9 Mbps in the U.S. is enough to run every smartphone app on the market, it doesn’t necessarily do so with lightning speed.

To put global speeds into perspective, an hour-long YouTube video viewed in high definition at 720p is likely to be at least 800 megabytes in size. This means that using the average American LTE download speed, a video would load in 1 minute and 20 seconds. Compared to the speed of SingTel, however, and that same video could load in as little as 20 seconds.

What Comes Next?

To grow its wireless LTE speeds, U.S. telecom companies need to fight for greater use of the country’s airwaves. Until greater access to bandwidth occurs, data download speeds will remain stagnant. Fortunately, this looks like it will happen soon.

This year, $60 billion of “spectrum” will be auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission, and it’s suspected that telecommunications companies will be the key buyers. Spectrum is the industry term for the airwaves used to broadcast everything from television programs to radio shows and smartphone signals. An auction of this size hasn’t happened since 2008, and it’s an event greatly anticipated by tech industry insiders.

Wireless companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile have already put their name on the list as bidders, and it’s expected the auction will happen over the summer months. Successful telecom companies will be buying literal capacity for their networks. Depending on how they choose to use that increased bandwidth, and how quickly they can get their   American users could see a direct correlation between a successful bid and their download speeds.

Going forward, choosing between coverage or capacity can’t be a trade-off, and U.S. telecommunications companies need to offer users both – it’s what’s happening with the telecom industry around the world and what needs to happen in America, too.