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

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