The U.S. mobile phone industry is running out of the airwaves necessary to provide voice, text and Internet services to its customers.
The problem, known as the "spectrum crunch," threatens to increase the number of dropped calls, slow down data speeds and raise customers' prices. It will also whittle down the nation's number of wireless carriers and create a deeper financial divide between those companies that have capacity and those that don't.
Wireless spectrum -- the invisible infrastructure over which all wireless transmissions travel -- is a finite resource. When, exactly, we'll hit the wall is the subject of intense debate, but almost everyone in the industry agrees that a crunch is coming.
The U.S. still has a slight spectrum surplus. But at the current growth rate, the surplus turns into a deficit as early as next year, according to the Federal Communications Commission's estimates.
"Network traffic is increasing," says an official at the FCC's wireless bureau. "[Carriers] can manage it for the next couple years, but demand is inevitably going to exceed the available spectrum."