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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mobile broadband problems - looking beyond the "obvious culprits"

I've written a few times in the past about the "capacity crunch" for mobile broadband, as well as the potential for offloading traffic or policy-managing the network to prioritise certain users or data types.

More recently, I've discussed the role of signalling as an important factor in driving network congestion, especially from smartphones.

But there is a fair amount of uninformed comment about what's causing the problems - it "must" be laptop users downloading HD video or doing P2P filesharing over their 3G dongles, or it "must" be iPhone users using Google Maps and Facebook.

My view is that these over-simplistic analyses are leading to knee-jerk reactions around capacity upgrades, or stringent policy-management and traffic-shaping installations. Many vendors don't want to (or can't) give a fully-detailed picture of what really causes problems for the network and user experience.

It is in many suppliers' interests to market a neat single-cause and single-solution message - "You need to upgrade to LTE to add more capacity"; "You need PCRFs and charging solutions to limit video"; "You need to upgrade your GGSNs to really big routers" and so on.

The truth is rather more complex. Different situations cause different problems, needing different solutions. Smartphone chipsets playing fast-and-loose with radio standards may cause RNCs to get blocked with signalling traffic. Clusters of users at a new college might overload the local cell's backhaul. A faulty or low-capacity DNS server might limit users' speed of accessing websites. And so on.

Or, as many parts of London are experiencing today, a fire at a BT office might knock out half the local exchanges' ADSL and also the leased-line connections to a bunch of cell towers.

Now, in the long run there certainly will be a need to carefully husband the finite amount of radio resources deployed for mobile broadband. My order-of-magnitude estimates suggest that the macrocellular environment (across all operators, with the latest technology) will struggle to exceed a total of maybe 3Gbit/s per square kilometre, even on a 10-year view. So offload to pico / femto / WiFi will certainly be needed.

But in the meantime, I'm moving to a view that Stage 1 for most operators involves getting a better insight into exactly what is going on with their mobile data networks. Who is using what capacity, in which place, with which device, for how long? And exactly what problems are they - or the network - experiencing?

In recent weeks I've spoken to three suppliers of products that try to analyse the "root cause" ofmobile data congestion [Velocent, Compuware and Theta] and I'm starting to hear a consistent story that "there's more than meets the eye" with regard to network pains.

Some of the outputs can be eye-opening. It may be that a lot of customer complaints about poor data speeds can be traced back to a single cell or aggregation box that is mis-configured. It could be that a particular group of devices are experiencing unusually high problem rates, that may be due to a fault in the protocol stack. It might be that viruses (or anti-virus updates) are responsible for problems. Or it might just be that all the iPhone users are using YouTube too much.

One thing is for certain - the yardstick of "Dollars per gigabyte downloaded" is an extremely blunt tool to measure the profitability of mobile broadband, especially when opex costs around support and retention are included in the equation. There's no value in having a blazing-fast and ultra-cheap network, if users end up spending an extra 4 hours on the phone to customer care, complaining that they can't get access because of flaky software.

Note: The new Disruptive Analysis / Telco 2.0 report on Broadband Business Models is now available. Please email information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for details.

1 comment:

Mobile Marketer said...

"Different situations cause different problems, needing different solutions."

This really applies to all. We can't solve a problem if we have used a wrong solution, what I'm trying to say is, study the situation first before deciding what to do.