Will consumers be able to afford the bandwidth they're craving?

The pocketable Internet has created an insatiable need for bandwidth. 18% of total Internet traffic in 2008 came from mobile devices, and it's only increasing. In fact, a national tier one mobile network operator (MNO) (that preferred to remain nameless) participated in Yankee Group research that recently projected its data consumption would grow by a factor of six in the next three years.

Here is what that means: In 1995, there were about 9,000 cell sites in the United States. Today, there are more than 228,000, or an average of 80 thousand new sites every five years. Each one of these sites serves about a thousand users, and the backhaul is provided mostly T1 and E1 lease lines, with an average of 3 T1's per site and an average bandwidth capacity of 4.62 megabits per second. The maximum speed is generally around 10 Mbps, and Yankee Group research showed that it cost MNOs about $6.1 billion to provide that much bandwidth in 2008.

But because Internet traffic is increasingly coming from mobile devices, and a larger base of users demands higher performance, the anonymous MNO expects that sites will have to provide more than 50 Mbps each going into 2011. If the current backhaul methods were to continue, in 2012, the total cost of mobile Internet backhaul could grow to more than $82 billion dollars.

"Linear growth is not an option." Said Yankee Group's Vice President of Enabling Technologies, Jennifer Pigg. "God Forbid you want 100 Mbps, you're talking about an equivalent of five thousand dollars per month per mile. GigE? Forget it, it'll cost you almost twenty times that much."

So as this demand is only increasing, mobile network operators are scrambling to implement a variety of strategies on the radio side to handle this flood of data. They need to increase their cell site density, and as we enter the 4G era, the traditional T1 infrastructure is just not going to be able to fulfill our demands.

"Backhaul is extremely problematic in the overall network, not RAN (radio access network), not radios, not the core network...it's the backhaul," said Pigg.

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