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The national demand for wireless service for devices from smartphones and computers to iPods and iPads could soon outstrip our infrastructure’s ability to handle the task, warns a new study from UC San Diego’s Global Information Industry Center.

“We’re currently experiencing a mass migration from wired networks to wireless networks, which under the best of circumstances have far less capacity,” says Michael Kleeman, the study’s author. The capacity of a single cell site, even on an advanced network, is only about 1/1000th that of a fiber optic cable.

According to another report cited, in 2008 Americans consumed 3.5 petabytes (equal to 3,500 terabytes or 3,500,000 gigabytes) of data per day, including nearly five hours daily average television viewing. That’s more in a day than the entire wireless spectrum handled in all of 2010. As mobile providers tout streaming video as the latest in an array of uses for their gadgets, experts suspect the capability of wireless to handle sustained high demand will be tested.

In order to keep up with continually growing demand, U.S. wireless suppliers have doubled their network capacities roughly every 30 months. But with the demand for wireless data expected to jump 1,800 percent in the next four years, that may not be fast enough to stay ahead of the public’s appetite for streaming.

“[W]e must understand and accept the trade-offs we will face for the convenience of accessing limited wireless capacity,” says Kleeman. “Alternatively, as citizens we need to dramatically lower our expectations for wireless services in the future.”

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