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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How much mobile broadband traffic is outside the user's awareness?

There's a lot of talk about controlling mobile broadband traffic by segmenting customers, or by trying to use tariffing to "modify behaviour".

Some of this makes sense - perhaps offering discounts for certain types of day, or even for using uncongested cells.

But I see a problem, literally "in the background" which may stifle attempts to "make customers use networks more responsibly" by being more careful about which applications they choose to use, or how they consume bandwidth.

I suspect that the amount of data traffic and events that are outside users' conscious control is going to rise inexorably. It will be very difficult to charge users for downloads that did not arise from them specifically clicking on a link, or firing up a particular application.

I'm thinking about:

- Javascript on web pages fetching extra data or applications
- Automated software updates running in the background (eg virus profiles, OS security patches)
- Interrupted downloads resuming while mobile
- Retransmitted data when someone reloads a web page because it hangs
- Repeated downloads of the same content (eg email attachments) because a device doesn't allow "save as", or because the file system is too convoluted to find it anyway
- Push notifications which drive both signalling and media consumption
- Pings and keep-alives between applications and servers
- Tracking data like cookies
- Monitoring of data about device "state" by the operator, OEM or 3rd party
- Encryption overhead
- Firmware updates and patches
- Lack of clear delineation between local applications and cloud-based components

.. and so forth.

I think that factors like these will make any application-based policy and charging very difficult to realise for mobile broadband. Expecting the user to know what their phone or PC is doing on their behalf, in the background is going to be a pretty tough sell. It's not user behaviour, it's device and application behaviour.

Does any operator have liability insurance that covers them for the consequences of throttling virus update downloads?

And should the user be aware of any compression being conducted on their behalf by the network? If I download a 10MB attachment, but it was only 2MB over-the-air, how can I be certain I'm charged for the lesser amount? Or if I'm drip-fed a downloaded video from an operator's buffer, is there extra signalling involved that I'm supposed to pay for?

Later this week, I'm going to be announcing the publication of a report on Mobile and Fixed Broadband Business Models, written on behalf of my associates at Telco 2.0. One of the themes it looks at is the role of policy in helping operators define new operating and revenues models. My view is that it is very important, but some of the theoretical possibilities about charging are overstated, because of complexities like these. If you're interested in getting some more detailed information about the new report, please email information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.


Sami said...

This is an important topic for sure, though probably much more important on mobile than fixed - the majority of the world has large enough quotas for most of that stuff to not matter on PCs, even though the "background" traffic is much bigger in terms of MBs on the PCs.

On the mobile, however, many users have to live with pay-as-you-go data or with limited quotas.

Without going into the numbers in too much detail, having your mobile always-on enabled with persistent connections (as, say, all the iPhones are thanks to their new notification architecture) can contribute to the tune of 20MB per month of data - not an insignificant amount. If you're paying by megabyte, you will not appreciate knowing you paid for 20MB "for nothing".

Davide said...

I do not think the traffic sources you listed are a significant percentage of the total data downloaded in a mobile broadband connection.

As it seems at the moment, the main traffic in Mobile Broadband (used via USB dongles) is composed of peer-to-peer traffic to download music/movies.

Perhaps you have different data?