Wireless has rapidly emerged as the predominant communication technology in the digital age. It has redefined the way we connect to the Internet, our devices and each other, giving an entirely new meaning to the concept of independence.

Despite its transformative powers, carriers are now facing the harsh reality that even wireless is a finite resource. As a result, it is unlikely to replace traditional wiring in its entirety.

According to the Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast 2011–2016 released by Cisco in February, worldwide mobile data traffic is increasing exponentially. It will reach 10.8 exabytes per month, or 130 exabytes per year, by 2016. That’s an 18-fold increase over the time span. An exabyte is equal to 1 quintillion bytes of computer data.

The study also emphasizes that, to address the rise in demand for the mobile Internet, service providers are increasingly looking to offload traffic to fixed/Wi-Fi networks. If this additional offloaded traffic is taken into account, the increase in mobile data traffic becomes even greater. In fact, the Cisco report projects that, when factoring in all aspects of mobility, including cellular traffic, traffic offloaded from cellular devices and fixed/Wi-Fi traffic generated from portable devices, the total amount of mobile data bandwidth use quadruples to 44.1 exabytes per month in 2015.

Suffice it to say that the effect of mobile data traffic on wireless spectrum is huge. To accommodate this insatiable demand for mobile connectivity, providers are scrambling to find other channels to expand their carrying capacity.

In December, Verizon announced a multibillion-dollar deal to purchase spectrum space from a consortium of cable operators. The deal is currently under review by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and is hotly contested by Verizon’s competitors. The nation’s largest wireless carrier also announced another, albeit smaller, deal in December. The company says it needs the extra spectrum to accommodate growing consumer demand for bandwidth, much of it driven by the increasing popularity of online video streaming.

Verizon’s rivals, who have been lobbying the FCC to reject the deal, would probably like to get their hands on the same spectrum and, along with Verizon, were probably pleased in February when Congress passed, and the president signed, the law that extended the temporary payroll tax cut exemption. It included

a provision that would allow the FCC to sell off unused television spectrum. The agreement applies to low frequencies that were previously set aside for analog TV broadcasts. The low frequencies will allow for longer range, higher capacity communications and could require some technological innovation to allow carriers to travel back and forth across different frequencies at high speed.