Due to the proliferation of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets in recent years, there has been tremendous surge in data traffic that is exerting a lot of pressure on telcos to maintain a decent user experience on their mobile networks.
While 4G LTE technology is seen as the best solution to address this issue, it will be not long before telcos will face a similar problem when consumers, aided by faster throughputs and lower latencies, begin to use more bandwidth intensive applications and expose the capacity bottlenecks.
Telcos are well aware of this scenario and are exploring strategies to avoid history from repeating itself. We spoke to two telecom industry veterans, Zhang Gene and Nigel Wright from Spirent Communications during CommunicAsia 2012, who also shared their insights on the challenges telcos faced during 4G LTE deployments.
Mobile data offloading (MDO) is the use of complementary network technologies such as Wi-Fi and media optimization for offloading data that is originally directed for cellular networks. According to a study done by ABI Research in 2010, MDO is predicted to triple in the next five years as it helps telcos save money and relieve network traffic.
Locally, there have been some concrete developments in MDO via Wi-Fi. The InfoComm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore launched Wireless@SG in December 2006, which is a wireless broadband programme that is managed by three local wireless operators - iCell Network, M1 and SingTel.
As part of the Next Generation National Infocomm Infrastructure initiative, Wireless@SG aims to extend broadband access beyond homes, schools and offices to public areas. Over the years, the Wireless@SG network has been constantly upgraded to meet the growing demands for greater surfing speeds. For example, the Wireless@SG Enhancement and Service Adoption programme was launched in June 2009 to improve the user experience in the following areas:
Previously, users have to key in their login information and passwords if they want to access Wireless@SG. This doesn't really translate to a seamless user experience. Hence, IDA launched Seamless and Secure Access (SSA) on 10 February 2010 to enable users to access Wireless@SG without the need to re-enter their passwords on each login. It works on a similar concept as how mobile phones automatically log on to the respective mobile networks when the devices are switched on.
The new automatic log-in feature is supported by the three operators of Wireless@SG with their respective Wireless@SG Connect apps. In addition, these apps have a suite of personalized services and apps such as a hotspot finder, mobile messaging and directory search.
Just two months ago, IDA just issued a Call for Collaboration to invite interested operators and service providers to submit proposals for the proposed next phase of the Wireless@SG programme, which spans from 1st April 2013 to 31st March 2017. Several of its objectives include:
Wright and Gene also agreed that a growth area for Spirent Communications is assisting telcos to do testing on Wi-Fi offloading. Telcos want to offload the data traffic to Wi-Fi networks but hope to keep the customer base.
According to Wright, Wi-Fi offloading currently does not provide a satisfactory user experience. The trend now is telcos are trying to control the implementation of Wi-Fi offloading; managing the offloading in way that is completely seamless to consumers yet at the same offering the same level of quality and security. In his opinions, Wi-Fi offloading is still in its early stages, and it holds a lot of potential in the future.
Data throttling is a form of network management where a service provider intentionally slows down the Internet connections of consumers who use too much data on its network.
Believe it or not - data throttling has become a common practice among telcos around the world. According to The New York Times, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have made it public that they engage in data throttling to keep the mobile networks usable for everyone.
Wright shared that telcos in the U.S. actually monitor the type of data that consumers are using. If a consumer is found to be hogging the network, the telco actually throttles the speed back and give him or her very low data priority on the network.
How do telcos actually know that? Well, Gene said that telcos are building "smarter" networks known as app-aware or content aware networks, where they can look into the data and determine where the traffic comes from. This is how telcos identify the individuals that consume a lot of bandwidth and penalize them.
Wright and Gene asserted that such practices are not usually made public and telcos would not admit it. However, Wright felt that telcos are forced to do so due to the congestion of the mobile networks.
We reached out to the three telcos in Singapore on their takes on data throttling, and you will be very surprised by what we've found out. As you might know, IDA works with the various service providers to provide a reasonable level of service quality to consumers. The authority is aware that service providers may need to manage their networks some way or the other in order to optimize the quality of their services to subscribers in general. You can find out more about IDA's stand on this here.
Now here comes the interesting part - the telcos' responses:
M1 - "We do conduct traffic management of peer-to-peer protocol during peak hours, to maintain service quality to all users. M1’s network management ensures fair and consistent traffic utilization across our customer base and applications," said Petrina Teoh, Senior Manager for Corporate Communications.
SingTel - "SingTel optimises the quality of its mobile broadband services with its fair-use policy which aims to ensure a smooth and consistent experience for all customers. When customers have exceeded the $94 data cap, their mobile line will be limited to a speed of 64Kbps until the end of the monthly bill cycle. To reach the $94 cap, customers would have to consume 18GB of data usage on top of their bundled allowance for the month," said Dylan Tan, Senior Corporate Communications Manager.
StarHub - "To prevent service deterioration and to enhance the end-user experience for all, StarHub implements network management techniques to ensure that no application or user should dominate finite network resources, especially during peak surfing hours (6pm to 2am on weekdays and 11am to 2am on weekends)," said Mr. Mock Pak Lum, StarHub's Chief Technology Officer.
Upon further investigation on StarHub's website, we unravelled more information on how it manages the traffic on its mobile network. Similar to what we learnt from Gene, StarHub deploys network traffic analysis to identify the types of apps and associated usage patterns.
The telco has been working with its technology partners to lessen the heavy burden caused by peer-to-peer traffic and video streaming on its MaxMobile network through the implementation of traffic shaping. According to StarHub, traffic shaping is a network deployment technique to provide control over the volume of traffic being sent into the network, either by specifying a period of time or a maximum rate at which the traffic is sent.
Traffic shaping is similar to traffic policing, but instead of dropping packets that exceed the bit rate limit, the packets are queued and metered out so as not to exceed the bit rate limit. In short, traffic shaping is achieved by delaying some packets but not dropping them.
StarHub - "StarHub Mobile employs traffic shaping policy, mainly by de-prioritising P2P and video-streaming once particular traffic thresholds are met. It is important to note that traffic shaping, as deployed in our network, does not examine end-users’ content."
To find out more about StarHub Mobile Network Management, click here.
While data throttling can come across as shocking to consumers who do not know about it previously, it does seems like a necessary evil. Telcos have stated that a minority of their customers, usually 10%, are hogging the bulk of the bandwidth. Moreover, telcos have cited tremendous growth in mobile data usage over the past few years as reasons why they are changing strategies so that consumers can enjoy a more consistent mobile surfing experience.
While the deployment of 4G LTE networks is a great step forward for telcos to deliver faster mobile surfing speeds, telcos also understand the need to continue investing and upgrading their networks.
M1 - "We will continue to invest and upgrade our networks to meet the growing data traffic. We have completed the rollout of our own fibre transmission backhaul network last year, and were the first to launch Singapore's nationwide 4G network which is specifically designed for the efficient carriage of data."
SingTel -"We have an ongoing programme in place to enhance our mobile network based on customer feedback. This ensures our customers’ needs are continuously met. We have made significant investments in expanding and optimising the capacity of our networks. For example:
To ensure a smooth and consistent mobile broadband experience, we are offering our 4G customers connectivity of up to 42Mbps whenever they fall back to 3G. SingTel is the only telco to offer this capability, and all our 3G sites islandwide will be able to support 42Mbps connectivity by early 2013.
We have implemented fibre backhaul connectivity for all our 3G base stations and introduced 3 and 4-cell carrier technologies. We have also used new technologies such as femto cells to provide enhanced coverage and capacity for homes and SMEs.
Last year, we launched Priority Pass, so that customers of 7.2Mbps and 21Mbps 3G mobile broadband plans can enjoy priority for their data traffic without affecting the experience of customers on other plans. This feature aims to provide faster and more reliable Internet connectivity on the move."
StarHub - "Expecting the fast growing demand for mobile data applications and services to continue, StarHub has been devoting its resources and efforts to drive service improvements in its mobile network.
In addition to steadily expanding its 4G network across Singapore, StarHub recently enhanced its nationwide 3G network with Dual Cell technology to offer customers a consistent, high-speed mobile broadband experience, both outdoors and indoors, as well as in the underground network of MRT tunnels and stations.
To further manage wireless spectrum efficiently, StarHub - togther with Microsoft Singapore, the Institute for InfoComm Research (I2R) and other members - are working to test TV White Spaces technology, an intelligent and efficient way in managing unused TV broadcast frequency bands which is critical for the development of next-generation wireless broadband services and smart-city applications.