Resource Crunch: Why Many Things Cost Much More

By Tom Randall and Eric Roston - 2012-02-06T18:24:40Z

Photograph by Amy White and Al Petteway/National Geographic Stock

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Peak Spectrum--Will Devices Overload the Airwaves?

Spectrum is the highway system of the mobile Internet, and data-intensive devices are taking up more road. Owners of Apple's iPhone 4S take up almost twice as much data as users of the previous version. They belong to the top one percent of mobile device users, who today consume half the world's data volumes. As the other 99 percent catches up, there may be traffic jams and more expensive tolls.

To cope with traffic, users are increasingly offloading data onto more efficient, shorter-range Wi-Fi networks. Service providers are also investing in more towers to address congestion.

As demand increases for limited spectrum, service providers may raise prices. Many are already eliminating unlimited-use plans or capping speeds for heavy users. As with another natural resource -- oil in the early 1970s -- suppliers and consumers are only beginning to take basic steps to minimize consumption.

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