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AT&T Does Damage Control on Wireless Growth Claims
Includes Wi-Fi Offloading in Numbers to Keep Things Scary
by Karl Bode 02:39PM Wednesday Feb 15 2012
"Data consumption right now is growing 40% a year," John Stankey of AT&T recently told investors, numbers confirmed by CEO Randall Stephenson on a recent investor call. That was a startling admission, given that those entirely-reasonable growth rates were a far cry from earlier predictions. AT&T lobbyists are very busy trying to scare politicians into making numerous poor wireless policy decisions based on the idea they face a disastrous capacity crisis, when in reality the company squats on oodles of spectrum, and any capacity constraints are due to their inefficient use of existing spectrum.

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A number of people noticed our story and had been talking about how AT&T shot their own super-scary-predictions in the foot with their brief moment of accidental honesty, so the company did a little damage control this week. On the heels of a new Cisco study showing explosive growth (Cisco ignoring their incorrect earlier predictions), AT&T issued a blog post insisting that things were just as scary as always, with data on their wireless network doubling annually:
Running year-end numbers that show the same result as previous years is typically a sign of stability. But when the year-end numbers show a doubling of wireless data traffic from 2010 to 2011 – and you’ve seen at least a doubling every year since 2007 – the implications are profound. Over the past five years, AT&T’s wireless data traffic has grown 20,000%.
Amusingly, Tim Farrar at TMF Associates notes that in order to downplay their previously incorrect predictions and keep things scary, AT&T changed some of the definition of what they measured, bloating the numbers by including Wi-Fi offloading (including AT&T's massive hotspot network and home femtocells, which don't even consume cellular capacity):
...AT&T’s blog post is apparently obfuscating the issue by changing its definition from “mobile data” (in March 2011) to "wireless data” (in the current blog post). In other words, AT&T’s WiFi offloading (at Starbucks, Times Square, the Superbowl, etc.), which is helping to drastically reduce the growth of (on-network) "mobile data" traffic, is presumably now included in their statistics.
That's not to say spectrum isn't finite, or that AT&T isn't still seeing impressive growth, but it is to say that AT&T continues to play up the growth they're seeing because it's politically useful. Having politicians scurry to pass AT&T written anti-competitive laws because the nation's wireless networks will collapse if they don't -- makes for good motivation. It's also handy to have a national press believing the same thing, so when AT&T raises rates, or squats on spectrum to stop competitors from getting it -- the press can know it was necessary to save the universe. Capacity fear mongering is AT&T's way of justifying bad behavior and spectrum squatting.

Keep in mind AT&T never actually releases real network data because people could consistently see how full of crap they are and demand accountability. You'll recall that when AT&T imposed caps on their U-Verse and DSL customers they claimed it was due to network congestion, something the press mindlessly repeated without a shred of evidence -- while network engineers claimed congestion was minimal. When you over-state your resources as dangerously finite, you can more easily justify higher prices.

We recently noted how anyone proclaiming there's an unavoidable capacity crisis on modern networks is lying in order to sell something, and traffic predictions from Cisco, AT&T and the FCC all were recently shown to be over-inflated. Granted Cisco wants to sell more hardware, AT&T wants to scare the press and politicians into supporting anti-competitive policies, and the FCC wants to make money off of spectrum auctions, so there's not a high priority placed on accurate data on any front.

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