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The iPad Could Mean Big Trouble for AT&T’s Network, FCC Warns

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People are excited about the arrival of the iPad (s aapl) (or at least, some people are), but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is a little more apprehensive about what the device could mean for AT&T’s (s t) wireless 3G network. In an official FCC blog posting at, Director of Scenario Planning Phil Bellaria and Wireless Telecommunications Bureau Deputy Chief John Liebovitz expressed that concern.

Bellaria and Liebovitz didn’t specifically mention AT&T by name, but it seems fairly obvious who they’re talking about in the FCC blog post last week, especially given that the iPad so far only has one official carrier in the U.S.:

?With the iPad pointing to even greater demand for mobile broadband on the horizon, we must ensure that network congestion doesn’t choke off a service that consumers clearly find so appealing, or frustrate mobile broadband’s ability to keep us competitive in the global broadband economy.

The blog post also recalls a time not too long ago when AOL’s (s aol) unlimited internet usage plan caused connection and service problems, and how that time mirrors our own:

The congestion problem circa 1996-97 revealed an intense latent demand for Internet access.  Similarly, wireless network congestion today reveals intense demand for wireless broadband.  Widespread use of smartphones, 3G-enabled netbooks, and now, perhaps, the iPad and its competitors demonstrate that wireless broadband will be a hugely important part of the broadband ecosystem as we move ahead.

Finally, Bellaria and Liebovitz leave off with the conclusion that AT&T and other mobile broadband providers must expand their spectrum offerings to ensure that a similar congestion problem doesn’t happen again. No doubt, AT&T is taking steps to galvanize its network (which it knows is in trouble already) against the demand increase it has to have anticipated as a result of the iPad’s introduction, but will it be enough?

This problem is one that affects the fundamentals of mobile communication in this case, unlike before with AOL’s home Internet access issues. Even though it doesn’t make as much sense from a profitability perspective, AT&T has to make every effort not only to anticipate demand, but to over-prepare for the iPad’s release. If there’s one lesson the telecom should’ve learned from its ongoing iPhone usage problems, it’s that half measures will only continue to exhaust the patience of its subscribers.

I realize that a just-in-time approach to bandwidth probably makes more financial sense, but surprise everyone by taking a slightly longer view, AT&T. Presumably the next-gen iPhone will be available on your network, too, as an exclusive or otherwise, so factor that into the estimates of what you’ll need to provide for the iPad’s launch. Stay just one step ahead of the game instead of two steps behind and maybe you can go some of the way towards improving your terrible reputation.

Related GigaOM Pro Research:

How AT&T Will Deal With iPad Data Traffic

9 Responses to “The iPad Could Mean Big Trouble for AT&T’s Network, FCC Warns”

  1. Jeff K

    The thing that people aren’t seeing is this; It’s safe to assume that a BIG percentage of iPad early-adapters will almost definitely be iPhone owners, too. When they’re consuming data on their iPad, it stands to reason that they WON’T be consuming data on the phone at the same time(beyond simple push activity). And vice-versa.

    So it’s really an either/or situation in many cases. Plus, AT&T is clearly making a profit on the data plan deal. After all, they ARE in the profit biz, yes? It doesn’t make any sense to assume that they aren’t beefing up the coverage to accommodate the pending increase in consumption. Do we think they WANT the network to fry?

  2. If you have problems, you can call to any of the european carriers.
    We have 3G’s networks at least 10years and no problems! America has a lot to learn with Europe in this sector. Let the iPad arrive to Europe and you will see if we are going to have problems !!!!

  3. I don’t get why the FCC is so worried. They warn us that we should be worrid about the extra bandwidth and then do nothing about it. If enough customers are frustrated they won’t buy the product. In this case it will force apple and consumers to put pressure on AT&T to improve their network which will work a hell of a lot faster than the government ever will.

    The problem is not with the spectrum it’s with AT&T. When the problem becomes airwaves congestion the FCC can go ahead and get involved. Until then let the market sort it out.

  4. I don’t live in area where ATT has had major issues. However, after reading reports of issues in New York and San Francisco you have to wonder how in the world they would be ready for the iPad? I truly wonder if “unlimited” data for $30.00 a month is really capped? So for them it would be no more demanding than people buying an iPhone. So maybe we are in for no better or worse than we are now.

  5. Well duuuh. Demand outstrips AT&T spectrum capacity. They will have to lease/buy spectrum from other providers. That being said iPad is the 1st gen flop anyway so why worry about capacity?

    Worry more about iPhone laptop tethering capacity they promised and still haven’t delivered.

    What the FCC should have done is instead push for unlocked devices say after 3 months of use, early termination fees apply, etc.

    Therefore easing any carriers capacity limit naturally vs. This deer caught in spotlight panic.