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Why I choose 3G over Wi-Fi

As the Net gets more and more congested, a free-for-all will not do, and network management will become more important than ever.

Say what you will about the wireless phone companies, but in a crunch their managed 3G cellular networks get the job done when Wi-Fi connections fail.

I was in Chicago at a telecom trade show this week and had to cover a Federal Communications Commission's meeting via Webcast. Ironically, the meeting was focused on the FCC's proposal to draft new regulations to keep the Internet "open" and "free."

The video for the Webcast, which I was watching over an unprotected Wi-Fi connection, started out fine. But after only a few minutes, the picture began to break up, the buffering wheel on the media player churned wildly, and the audio stopped and started so often that I only could make sense of two or three words at a time. Sometimes the audio would start up where it had left off, but then quickly jump ahead to the live stream, cutting out entire sentences and paragraphs.

When I couldn't take it any longer, I shut down my computer, rebooted, and plugged in my Sprint 3G air card.

Almost immediately after launching the video, Chairman Julius Genachowski's face popped up on the screen clearly. But the best part was that I could hear everything he was saying. I didn't experience one hiccup, not one pause. There was no little circle turning round and round as the video buffered. It was working perfectly.

The problems I experienced were likely due to congestion on the unsecured Wi-Fi network. Even though I didn't see a lot of people connecting to the network, there was still likely a lot of traffic. Meanwhile, Sprint's 3G wireless network is more tightly managed, because the licensed spectrum is a limited resource that must be used efficiently. So even if there had been congestion, I might not have even noticed.

Sprint, which owns spectrum licenses, has more control of the traffic that is on its network than the trade show folks who put up the Wi-Fi network, which uses unlicensed spectrum. In theory, the Wi-Fi network should be at least three times faster than the cellular network. But when there is a lot of traffic on the Wi-Fi network, Web pages load slower and video gets warped and choppy.

How Net neutrality fits in
One of the issues that has been hotly debated among Net neutrality supporters and detractors is how to prevent network operators from favoring some traffic at the expense of services, while also allowing the operators to manage their networks to ensure their customers have good experiences.

As I sat watching the choppy FCC Webcast, trying to piece together what was being said, I experienced firsthand how an unmanaged, congested Wi-Fi connection, simply doesn't work, especially when it comes to video.

And if we are to believe companies, such as Cisco Systems, which makes most of the routers powering the Internet, the Net is about to become a whole lot more congested. In June, the company said that Internet traffic worldwide would grow to five times its current size between 2008 and 2013. And much of this growth will come from video. Not only is video traffic very time sensitive, but it also eats up a lot of bandwidth. The result is a double whammy for network operators.

With a recent survey of more than 20 service providers around the world, Cisco predicts that by 2013, 90 percent of all consumer IP traffic will be video. Today throughout the world, the average broadband connection, generates about 11.4GB of Internet traffic per month. Of this 11.4GB of data crossing Net monthly, 4.3GB of it is video or some other type of visual application, such as social networking or collaboration services.

What this means for network operators is that a tsunami of data traffic is coming. And even though network operators continue to add capacity to prevent congestion, they also need to better manage their networks.

Network design becoming more critical
At the Supercomm 2009 trade show this week, AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donavan said that there must be changes in how networks are designed and managed to keep up with demand.

"The capacity we carried in 2008 will be a rounding error five years," he said. "We need to fundamentally rethink how we're carrying traffic in our networks. We have to rethink how we interoperate, how networks are constructed, how routing is done. How we move content in off-hours."

He warned that there will be consequences if operators don't act soon. "We'll end up in a dire situation a few years out if we don't collectively step up as an industry and throw Moore's Law out the window," he said.

So with more traffic on the network, operators say now is not the time to change regulation that could inhibit the way they manage their networks.

"If you have to treat all bits the same, it's hard to manage and protect the network," Tom Tauke, Verizon's chief lobbyist said. "When you're trying to make the network flow, you can't have lawyers looking over engineers' shoulders telling them what they can and can't do."

It seems that the FCC has gotten the message. In the nondiscrimination principle that was presented at its meeting this week, the document spells out that network operators cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications, but it allows for traffic discrimination when allowing for reasonable network management.

Of course, the FCC is only in the beginning stages of drafting the new Net regulations. And no one knows what the final wording will be. But I hope that when the official regulations are adopted, that network management is preserved unscathed. Because if it's not, we're all in trouble.