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Monday, July 19, 2010

Yet more mobile data traffic management options

It's only been about 2 months since I published my recent Disruptive Analysis research paper analysing 10 different technological approaches to managing mobile broadband traffic - offloading, compression, policy management and so forth.

The main pitch of the document was that so many silos have evolved so quickly, that very few network operators are able to view all the options holistically. There are numerous cases of one "fix" simply shifting the problem elsewhere in the network - unintended consequences abound.

Yet on an ongoing basis, I'm being presented with yet more alternatives to either manage data traffic, or avoid its existence in the first place.

Among the things that have caught my eye recently have been:

- Routing of offloaded WiFi traffic back via the operator core, usually with the rationale of allowing the operator to maintain "control". One approach is the I-WLAN standard, advocated by companies such as IntelliNet, although I'm really not convinced that operators want extra load on their core networks, even if they can mitigate the 3G and backhaul congestion. It's also far from clear what this would mean for the connection manager on devices - WiFi needs to be able to operate in both "private" and "operator" modes, from the user perspective.

- Accuris is focusing more on the problems of WiFi offload needing the user to log on, often in cumbersome ways. It's pitching various forms of roaming-enabled WiFi offload, either using SIM-based WiFi authentication with EAP-SIM authentication [of which I'm a general disbeliever], or a new standard being developed by the Wireless Broadband Alliance called Wispr2.0 . Sounds interesting, but given the general lack of sensible pricing for any form of mobile data roaming, the Devil will be in the details. In particular, it's going to need to work around the issues I identified recently , where extensive partnering by hotspot providers may mean the user can attach to WiFi at a given location through various different affiliations. I'd be annoyed if data was charged (or set against my quota) automatically by my phone or PC, if I could get it for free on the same access point, with another of my services.

- I'm quite struck by Sycamore Network's IQstream approach to mobile broadband optimisation. It uses some combination of intelligent caching and video management - but in the radio network, rather than in the core network,. This is quite a contrast to the ByteMobile / Flash Networks / Vantrix / OpenWave / Acision approach to video compression and similar actions.

- More generally, there seems to have been much more interest in busy-hour, or busy-cell traffic management, rather than catch-all policy management or optimisation. I'm increasingly skeptical of any solutions that don't have some links into the radio network - in particular, I'm expecting to see more regulators follow the Canadian stance on mobile net neutrality. This seems to be an extremely smart approach, which sits comfortably on the fence between "pure" neutrality, and a free-for-all allowing any form of policy management that operators want to apply. If I'm reading it correctly, it says that traffic can be shaped *if* the network is congested - Ars Technica describes by saying that policy: 'must not be "unjustly discriminatory nor unduly preferential." Management must "be designed to address a defined need, and nothing more."'

I think that sounds like a sensible compromise, especially if it is combined with a requirement for transparency - it should be a requirement to publish network policies, and not just in meaningless broad-brush terms. If I get a chance, I'm intending to put in a comment to Ofcom's ongoing consultation in the UK about Net Neutrality.

The other trend I've been observing is more about influencing user behaviour and psychology. Clearly, a lot of the pricing tiers for the new group of data plans have gone through a lot of research and analysis. Some are cynically designed to be heavy-handed and force an upsell - especially by pitching tier thresholds just below or around average iPhone data usage. Others are more nuanced and fair-seeming or generous.

But the other thing that has struck me is the use of nannying "content control" software - ostensibly to protect children from seeing undesirable websites. However, I suspect a secondary purpose of reducing adults' downloads of adult content - a major contributor to fixed-line broadband traffic, presumably likely to be replicated in mobile. There's no particular reason for defaulting to content-moderated status where an operator *knows* that the user is not a child - yet by forcing users to make an awkward or embarassing call to a customer service agent to disable the block, they probably reduce disactivations - and therefore traffic - considerably. Depending on your views, this is either pragmatic, clever, sinister, cynical or illiberal - but probably quite effective.

Overall, it's fair to say that mobile broadband traffic management is still evolving at quite a pace - and is becoming more sophisticated. There is definitely a split between two philosophies, though:

- Reduce costs and limit / delay capex, by focusing on finding and solving specific congestion hotspots
- Increase revenues by pricing, tiering and policy - and also look for ways to get Happy Pipe revenues from "upstream" companies like content or media players, a la Telco 2.0

My current feeling is that operators should be splitting their focus about 70 / 30 between these two domains. Clearly, some initiatives span both - but I believe that the long-term future of "two-sided" business models is predicated on a lot more intelligence in the radio and transport networks. Nobody will pay for prioritisation or premium QoS - they will want an SLA, and a way to measure it. Also, even if regulators allow it, nobody will want to pay a premium when the network is not actually congested.

If you are interested in more detailed discussion and analysis of these topics, I would encourage you to purchase my research paper on Traffic Management. I have also been conducting a variety of client projects, presentations and workshops on these themes - please contact me via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com if you would like to enquire about custom services.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dean, Great summary of options for data offload. However, one correction on I-WLAN. It does not require you to route the traffic back to the core thought that is an important feature - to integrate wifi and core network traffic. I have discussed some of the other modes in http://www.intellinet-tech.com/Media/PagePDF/Mobile%20Data%20Offload%20-%20Can%20Wi-Fi%20Deliver.pdf.

This is still a developing industry where we are still trying to figure out what the operator really needs.

Anjan Ghosal