The iPhone video threat: Can networks keep up?

With 9 billion video downloads last year over wireless, business and cell networks are becoming overwhelmed

Handset trade-offs are a key culprit

But the real problems have only just begun, according to Aruba Networks CTO Merwyn Andrade. Andrade points out that while high-performing 802.11a and 802.11n networks might alleviate some congestion, for a number of practical reasons, Wi-Fi-enabled handsets will not be easily or quickly upgraded to these more capable Wi-Fi standards.

The 802.11b/g technology used in handhelds offers only three non-overlapping transmission channels (1, 6, and 11) for use with video. By comparison, 802.11a offers 20-plus channels. But handset vendors are trying to cut costs, and 802.11b/g chips cost less than 802.11a or 802.11n units. So handset makers use the lower-bandwidth technology.

Furthermore, the chips that work on the higher bandwidth consume more power, either requiring heavier, pricier batteries or shortening talk time. Vendors believe that users prefer more cell phone time between recharges over faster download times, says Andrade.

These cost and power reasons explain why it will be a long time before users see 802.11a or 802.11n Wi-Fi in cell phones, Andrade says. Thus, users and network managers may soon be stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Because Wi-Fi is faster than cellular 2.5G technology such as the AT&T EDGE network that the iPhone uses -- "the 2.5G link on the iPhone sucks," says Andrade -- the Wi-Fi networks will soon be saturated with demand for video.

Time for new policies

Today, the new breed of Web- and video-capable mobile devices aren't generating enough traffic to hurt existing Wi-Fi and cellular networks, except in times of major disasters, says Gerry Purdy, chief analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "Current cellular capabilities are enough," he says.

When handsets become 4G-capable and, thus, can transmit hundreds of megabits per second, they will become a major issue, as users go beyond downloading videos and actually start creating videos on their mobile devices.

"Once you start using your phone as a camcorder and upload video to post to Facebook, there can be the potential for problems. A real-time video taking place in say Hong Kong by one person is OK, but if you have 10,000 people doing it, that's a lot of bandwidth," says Purdy.

To avoid nasty surprises later, Purdy says that IT has to start getting creative now in terms of making policies that haven't existed before: "Watch for policy development about rich media. An insurance adjustor taking a video will use a lot more bandwidth than a static picture, so companies need a policy about who can do what. It is all a balancing act."

Restrictive access policies may be a short-term solution to the problem. However, the long-term solution will more than likely be increased bandwidth capacity.

And although IT people may not gain a friendly ear as they try to convince a belt-tightening board that they need more bandwidth to accommodate employees using FaceBook and the like, paying for more capacity may become a necessity. "I would really have to justify spending on increased capacity," Friemann says.

Friemann and other IT executives may be able to do that once multimedia and video move from a consumer application to become part of a business solution.

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Ephraim Schwartz

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