The Capacity Crisis Myth


by Karl BodeDSL Reports

Anybody who warns of an unavoidable capacity crisis on wireline or wireless networks is lying in order to sell you something. That may be a blunt assessment to some, but it’s the only conclusion you can draw as we see time and time again that claims about a looming network apocalypse (remember the Exaflood?) violently overestimate future traffic loads and underestimate the ingenuity of modern network engineers. Fear sells. Drink orange juice or you’ll die of cancer. Get more insurance or you’re a bad family man. Vote for me or lose your job and see your grandma deported. Pay $2.50 per gigabyte or face Internet brown outs. Be afraid.


You’ll recall the litany of predictions that video would crush the Internet permeating the newswires over the last five years. Most of those claims came from hardware vendors trying to sell network gear, or ISP lobbyists and executives trying to sell bad policy (caps, throttling, overages, neutrality violations). All were repeatedly debunked simply by looking at real data, which showed that the Internet video age was easily handled by even modest network investment.

With the rumors of a looming landline network apocalypse disproven, you’ll notice the doomsday predictions have shifted to wireless as we debate spectrum policy. Carriers like AT&T proclaim they’re facing a capacity crunch that simply can’t be avoided unless we do “X” (let them acquire T-Mobile, let them charge $50 per gigabyte, let them squat on oceans of spectrum). Research firms warn of a spectrum doomsday so they can sell LTE-Advanced hardware. The FCC nods dumbly throughout this cycle of hysteria because they want the revenue delivered by spectrum sales.

As usual though, actually bothering to listen to and look at the data tells a different story. Nobody argues that spectrum is infinite, but buried below industry histrionics is data noting that there really isn’t a spectrum crisis as much as a bunch of lazy and gigantic spectrum squatters, hoarding public-owned assets to limit competition, while skimping on network investment to appease short-sighted investors. Insiders at the FCC quietly lamented that the very idea of a spectrum crisis was manufactured for the convenience of government and industry. Now Dave Burstein this week bothered to actually look at wireless growth rates to (surprise surprise) find them to be completely reasonable:

“Data consumption right now is growing 40% a year,” John Stankey of AT&T told investors and his CEO Randall Stephenson confirmed on the investor call. That’s far less than the 92% predicted by Cisco’s VNI model or the FCC’s 120% to 2012 and 90% to 2013 figure in the “spectrum crunch” analysis…With growth rates less than half of the predictions, a data-driven FCC and Congress has no reason to rush to bad policy. 40% growth is still substantial, but wireless technology is improving at a breathtaking pace. LTE has about 10x the capacity of 2.5G and 4x the capacity of 3G. LTE Advanced, deploying beginning 2013 at Verizon, is designed for 10x the capacity of LTE.

Burstein correctly reminds us that there’s nothing to fear, and with modern technology like LTE Advanced and more-than adequate resources, any wireless company struggling to keep pace with demand is either incompetent or cutting corners (or both). The idea that our modern networks face rotating oblivion scenarios lest we not rush to do “X” is the fear mongering of lobbyists, politicians, and salesmen. All of them use fear by trade, but the key failure point when it comes to capacity hysteria seems to continually be the press, which likes to unskeptically repeat whatever hysterical scenario gets shoveled their direction each month.

The reality is that the evolution of wireless and wireline networks has been an amazing act of engineering, one that quietly and consistently keeps pace with demand. While politicians wrangle, lobbyists distort the truth, and marketing departments pollute the discourse with fear for personal gain, network engineers quietly do their jobs and do it well.