STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
ARI SHAPIRO, Host:
And I'm Ari Shapiro. Whether Apple's new tablet computer, the iPad, takes off or not, the fact is more people are using mobile devices. And they're downloading more and more video, more software, and other big chunks of data that are clogging up the bandwidth. We spoke with our technology commentator Mario Armstrong about how much of a problem this is for consumers and for wireless carriers.
MARIO ARMSTRONG: Hi, Ari. Thanks so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: Well, right now, today, is the lack of bandwidth a problem?
ARMSTRONG: Absolutely, the lack of bandwidth is an issue. I mean, you could look at numerous reports or just look at some of the disgruntled consumers that are out there that are complaining about wanting to be able to do more with these devices but feel like they're a little hamstrung because the networks seem to be overwhelmed.
SHAPIRO: How much of a factor is that when Apple introduces a high- profile, new product like the iPad?
ARMSTRONG: You're absolutely right, when you start looking at how many more devices can we add to the mix? The Kindle is one, and then we have a netbook. We also have a Data Card from Verizon, a Droid, an iPhone. So all of these devices are consuming much more of the networks' capabilities than we would ever really imagined. One thing that may help to shift this a little bit is the idea of tiered data plans.
SHAPIRO: What is that?
ARMSTRONG: And so that means the idea of maybe you consume only a little bit of data on your smartphone or on a device.
SHAPIRO: I just check email. I'm not streaming video.
ARMSTRONG: That's correct. And maybe I'm just a hog. Maybe I just love broadcasting myself walking into the NPR studio - which, by the way, I did on my way in here; I'll send it to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARMSTRONG: I did that live on the iPhone, using an application. So the point is, maybe I should pay a little bit more for my service because of my usage of the network, versus you.
SHAPIRO: OK. Well, let's give this a try. You filmed yourself walking into the NPR studio?
ARMSTRONG: Yes. And in fact, I'm going to take it a step further, if that's OK with you. I'm going to start streaming us live. So...
SHAPIRO: All right. I'm going to straighten my tie. OK.
ARMSTRONG: ...I'm going to hand you the phone. I'm going to hand you the phone. You can actually see video. Right?
ARMSTRONG: On the phone.
SHAPIRO: ...there you are.
ARMSTRONG: Right now, we are broadcasting live on my Web site. If you were to go to my Web site and pull that up or go to Youtream.com, you would be seeing us in studio right here. And that's being handled from an iPhone.
SHAPIRO: And relatively speaking, this uses a lot of bandwidth.
ARMSTRONG: Relatively speaking, a lot of bandwidth. I mean, it's nowhere like near listening to an NPR podcast versus streaming live video - two totally different and significantly different uses of data.
SHAPIRO: Now, I've got to say this: I'm watching you in the iPhone; it's not a fluid, streaming image of you. It freezes for half a second, and then it jumps forward and it freezes for another half-second. Is that the problem we're talking about?
ARMSTRONG: That's exactly what some of the issue is in terms of streaming. I mean, it's still obvious, when I travel to California or to New York or to other places, I'm still dealing with dropped calls on multiple devices and not the best data connectivity at all times.
SHAPIRO: You know, we've been talking mostly about Apple products like the iPhone and the iPad. There are other competitors out there that use different networks created by BlackBerry, Palm, things like that. Could the problems with bandwidth make one of these competitors a front-runner just because people get faster service and they're able to do what they want to do?
ARMSTRONG: You're picking a great point right there. That is an absolute unique differentiator. I mean, we still see the advertisement for these companies, all talking about connectivity. Who has the largest coverage area? Who has the fastest speeds?
That's going to continue to evolve as a differentiating point for consumers, as the need becomes more prevalent for people to want to download larger files or stream broadcasts. And that's for all telecommunications companies.
A problem that they have to step into is, you know, how much are we going to allocate our network to Wi-Fi versus cellular versus other means of connectivity. And how fast can we get it done?
SHAPIRO: Well, Mario, I can see that your iPhone battery is almost dead, so I'm going to let you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAPIRO: Thanks a lot.
ARMSTRONG: Been sucking up too much juice. Thanks for having me in.
SHAPIRO: Mario Armstrong is MORNING EDITION's regular technology commentator, and he also hosts the radio show "Digital Cafe" on Baltimore Public Radio station WYPR.
INSKEEP: Some pockets of the country have no real high-speed Internet access at all. Last year's stimulus package included more than $7 billion to increase broadband access to rural communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of distributing some of the money.
SHAPIRO: And this week, they awarded more than $300 million in grants. The money funds 14 projects, from Alaska to Alabama. Not everyone is happy with the program. Yesterday, Alabama's Republican Senator Richard Shelby called it wasteful spending by the Obama administration.
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