Siri isn’t a bandwidth hog & users aren’t the problem


The sky is falling again in cellular land, and this time Siri is to blame. At least, that’s the assessment from an opinion article in the Washington Post  Friday morning claiming Siri not only unleashed a huge new pattern of data consumption on mobiles, but that in return, her piggy ways destroy the experience for the rest of us because of the shared nature of cellular networks.

From the article:

And building new capacity isn’t cheap. Everyone — not just the first-class passengers — ends up paying for it. So prepare for higher cellphone bills. And in the meantime? Prepare to sit and wait. That call to Grandma might not get through until the congestion clears.

Other alternatives might be less palatable, especially to anyone who wants immediate downloading gratification. We could stay off the grid or utilize fewer data-intensive functions. Or we could put some traffic cops on the beat to regulate our data demands and limit the traffic snarls and bottlenecks.

But if you think Siri is somehow responsible for the data overload, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Siri is the first generation of interfaces that will make it seamless and easy for us to surf the web from anywhere, and on any device or vehicle. So the author’s problem is one that’s only going to get bigger. Thankfully, it has a solution — one which he seems to ignore.

Paul Farhi, the author of the piece, makes a couple of errors (or maybe omissions is kinder) that are worth pointing out to the policy wonks in D.C., especially as they contemplate bills that would gut the FCC’s ability to make spectrum policy in the U.S. for the sake politics. Onto the problems:

Siri as data hog

Siri, the natural language processing service Apple introduced on the iPhone 4S, doesn’t consume the data Farhi says it does in his article when he says, “Siri’s dirty little secret is that she’s a bandwidth guzzler, the digital equivalent of a 10-miles-per-gallon Hummer H1.” Siri consumes very little data in sending your voice back to the servers to figure out what you want the phone to do, but what it does is make it that much easier to surf the web. Farhi seems to understand this, but his first characterization is blatantly false. Siri isn’t guzzling data; she’s making it easier for us to do so. We’re the guzzlers.

The airwaves as highways

The second problem with the article is more complicated. Farhi uses the popular highways analogy for how we send cellular traffic and explains that building out more infrastructure takes time. (One reason is because it takes about 10 years on average to get spectrum into the hands of carriers thanks to the politics associated with spectrum auctions.) But what he misses, and what is crucial to his point, is that there is more than one set of wireless highways. There are multiple types of licensed airwaves that are used for everything from satellite radio to cellular, and there are unlicensed airwaves where data is currently sent using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and soon, WiGig.

When we’re talking over the air, there’s not one single highway to get us from Point A to Point B; there are multiple spectrum bands, technologies and costs associated with them. In this age, using wireless is like engaging in multimodal commuting. You use cellular to drive to the train station and the high-speed rails of Wi-Fi fly downtown. Meanwhile, you’re sharing those rails and highways with thousands of other commuters in neighboring airwaves that are the equivalent of bikers, skateboarders etc.

We can keep Siri and still call grandma. Here’s how:

That’s where Farhi missed a big opportunity to tell D.C. that instead of focusing on cars and the single highway, it should look around at all the other technologies out there. Stop listening to the carriers, who actually do have spectrum they can deploy if they want to work a little harder and spend a little more, and start thinking about how Wi-Fi or white spaces broadband (Super Wi-Fi) can play a role in taking congestion off over the air data networks.

Passing a spectrum bill that allows for more unlicensed airwaves would be a start, as would leaving the FCC to deal with the highly technical issues surrounding spectrum auctions. Pushing the FCC to investigate special access fees would also help, as it might lower the rate of bringing a fiber pipe out to areas so ISPs can support large-scale Wi-Fi or white spaces networks. But first, we have to understand how the wireless and cellular networks work, so we can propose viable solutions instead of blaming applications that make our lives better for congesting our network.

Since many of those solutions will require action (or inaction) from Congress and the FCC, the Washington Post missed a golden opportunity to educate its readers about possible solutions and push the debate forward with mobile operators about using Wi-Fi more strategically, making it possible for rural areas to use unlicensed airwaves to create broad coverage areas without paying an arm and leg for a gigabyte and helping Congress understand how the industry actually works.

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