In some cases, it isn't mobile video or big email attachments that are consuming an operator's spectrum, but small signals sent between devices and networks. With busy applications such as push email, social networking and even Web browsers, these small signals can add up.
"We've seen cases where carriers had lots of data capacity ... available in their network and congestion being defined by signaling capacity limits," said Peter Carson, a senior director of marketing at Qualcomm. He expects the problem to get worse.
In its mobile modem chips, Qualcomm is implementing several technologies that reduce signaling. One is a more efficient way for applications to request network resources and switch between communication modes. Another helps the modem to combine network requests and data traffic from a device's application processor in batches. These techniques also tend to slash power consumption, extending battery life. They should be available soon in devices equipped with Qualcomm modems, Carson said.
11. Pricing and data caps
Finally, technical and regulatory solutions are only part of the picture. The most powerful tool to prevent spectrum becoming overloaded may be regulating mobile traffic through service plans.
Most carriers are well along in phasing out unlimited data plans, if they ever had them. Now that monthly usage caps are in place, the service providers can modify them as needed to discourage subscribers from using too much network capacity. They can also fine-tune subscriber behavior by encouraging time-shifting or charging more for plans where the subscriber's packets get priority over other traffic.
"If I have a flat-rate plan on my iPad, and I can jump onto LTE whenever I like, that's what I'll do. But if it's a plan that doesn't allow me to do that, and I'll pay a premium to use that LTE network, chances are, I'm going to jump on to Wi-Fi," Marshall of Tolaga Research said.
If one carrier can make its spectrum support a plan that satisfies consumers, others will use whatever tools they need to try to match it, Marshall said. "It's market competition that will define how many cell sites, how much spectrum, and what techniques are used to deliver the service, as opposed to pure demand," Marshall said.