As manufacturers design and build, and we buy millions of smart phones, tablets and other whiz bang wireless devices, another group, an arcane bunch of engineers and scientists in the bowels of the communications network world are talking, mostly among themselves, about channel capacity limits, Shannon limits and a bunch of other stuff liberally punctuated with enough equations to make your head swim.

shutterstock_3413043.jpgStill another group, the communications and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), perhaps seeing smoke on the horizon, are beginning to impose communications caps, progressive billing … in short, they're beginning to limit what we are allowed to send and download over the wireless Internet.

Viewed as a whole, this could well be a recipe guaranteed to really upset those wireless users who expect to stream everything from radio to movies to webcam traffic to their hearts’ content. Trouble is, it is virtually never viewed or discussed as a whole, and unless you dig for it, you won’t even know it’s happening.

(Slightly) Rose Colored Glasses?

Read the popular literature and you may notice that the folks designing and selling all those wireless devices dependent on their ability to move lots of data around, the ISPs responsible for making those devices perform and the capacity limit guys don’t appear to be talking much to each other, and for sure never talking very publicly.

The reason, one might conjecture, could be that these three communities -- users, communications and manufacturers -- are actually heading for a collision the result of which wont be good for any of them, especially the device manufacturers who are depending on a constantly growing market fueled by an equal growth in capacity to satisfy users’ every wireless whim (wireless usage; smart phones and tablets, is the fastest growing communication mode, generating on average 10 times the data traffic of other user groups).

The mobile device industry has obviously decided that moving stuff on a high-definition screen sells really well, and they are upgrading their designs to support streaming so their users can enjoy a virtually unlimited wireless world whenever they want it and wherever they happen to be. The entertainment industries, likewise, especially music, radio, TV and movies, are moving their libraries into the digital world as fast as they can, and users are responding by making audio and video streaming the fastest growing segment of the mobile market with no voluntary end in sight.

Is that a Wall?

But there are limits. First, the very upper limit of data over a particular channel (Shannon et al) suggests that we won’t be capable of increasing our wireless transmission capability forever without technological breakthroughs not currently on the horizon.

There are techniques in the lab that can increase our effective transmission capacity short of the hard limits, but those techniques, for the most part, work by minimizing superfluous traffic required to complete communications among nodes, making our networks smarter and capable of deciding what to send and what to store locally against later use. They don’t, however, materially affect the limit of a wireless network to move data, and they will themselves require major increases in equipment and software, all of which must be paid for by a market grown accustomed to low cost wireless communications with only squishy usage limits.

One potential solution to this situation might be a significant increase in the presence of wi-fi capacity, minimizing the use of network capacity for mobile users. Wi-fi, by connecting a group of wireless users in a localized area to a hard-wired backbone, makes each user a node on that mini-network avoiding load on the wide area wireless network. But even this solution will require major commitment by providers and users not to mention the willingness of mobile users to go through the connection protocol as they move from hot spot to hot spot. This can of course be minimized as more users have devices that select and connect with an available hot spot automatically.

But the fact remains: we are selling mobile communications as if there is no limit even as we become more aware that those limits not only exist but, for now, are essentially unbreakable.

So what to do?

Options … If We Will Take Them

We could announce that use of mobile devices for massive data traffic -- movies, TV shows, games, music -- comes at a high price and users must begin to pay it through restrictions on their usage and by paying higher fees. But in an atmosphere with manufacturers, sellers, ISPs and communications providers all depending on continued rapid growth of mobile devices and wireless usage, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Government could, of course, attempt the same thing, but the lobbying power of the involved industries coupled with the relative ham-handedness of past government efforts in the communications field suggests otherwise.

We could, and current events suggest we very well may, just keep going: building, selling, using and suffering only modest limits until capacity is reached, reckoning on at least another decade or so before things get dicey and hoping for a technological breakthrough -- on which we should probably be spending much more effort and money than we are at present -- to keep the party from ending.

When capacity is finally reached, having no choice, all providers will be “forced” to restrict usage and charge much more progressive rates for mobile non-business use. And, of course, the “stream everything” world will begin to contract with some likely impacts on the rate of mobile device sales.

We also could begin to use network capacity the way electrical power is used in some settings, spreading the traffic over 24 hours by doing non-time critical tasks when users are not normally active -- one small hydroelectric dam in Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake), for example, generates hydroelectric power during the day then pumps water back into the reservoir at night after using then unneeded power, increasing the overall potential for power generation without using power when it is most needed. Using the same concept in network traffic, users would designate applications and data resources they planned to use during a defined period so networks could stage those data when demand was low.

But this too will require a major evolution in how we view, implement and use wireless communications, and the consumer marketplace responsible for most of the load increases gives little indication that it is interested in any voluntary limits on its freedom to stream.

So perhaps, absent some communications breakthrough, there is no complete answer to this puzzle. If that is true, then moving forward into the growing wireless world must be approached with a healthy degree of caution lest limits and their effects overtake us sooner than we expect.

We put a “chicken in every pot, a car in every garage” and a man on the moon, you'd think we could figure out how to support a wireless device in every hand.

Image courtesy of Fernando Gonzales S. (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Barry often sounds the voice of reason in his articles. To read more, see The Connected World: This Decade's Dot Com Bubble?