Mobile broadband uptake has taken to such heights that in less than five years, an estimated 50 billion connected devices will be accessing mobile services worldwide. With overload occurring both on the control and data planes, planning and investing in 3G and Long Term Evolution networks will continue to be problematic.
Although LTE is being introduced rapidly in markets from Africa to Uzbekistan, demand will always outstrip network capacity. AT&T estimates that demand will grow by 5,000% in the next five years, yet upgrading to LTE will only offer a tenfold improvement in capacity.
Innovative data management solutions must be applied, and will need to include a variety of offload options. Offload is about helping operators deal with explosive traffic growth without expanding network capacity in a linear fashion to keep pace.
Wi-Fi offload has moved rapidly to the forefront of traffic management discussions, relieving pressure on the most costly component of the mobile network, the radio access network (RAN). The approach uses free spectrum, delivered on proven technology, and that is available and ubiquitous on mobile devices.
However, there are several ways to incorporate Wi-Fi access into a mobile operator’s service mix and the choice of solution has long-term implications.
The UMA/GAN (unlicensed mobile access/generic access network) and wireless LAN interworking products and standards provide a vetted blueprint for embracing unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum into an operators service mix. However the technology never achieved mainstream acceptance and some of the few operators that have deployed are now moving away from the technology.
An alternative to the 3GPP standard Wi-Fi solution allows the mobile equipment to connect to any Wi-Fi network and access content over the fixed line operator network – the simplest solution with most mobile data users consuming content from the internet. The approach calls into question who is looking out for the customer; who knows how much data the user consumes on Wi-Fi, and who can they call when a problem arises?
Wi-Fi offload is evolving through several stages. The earliest generation solutions place responsibility for Wi-Fi connectivity on the device with one simple policy: if Wi-Fi is present, use it. That policy creates many issues including removing the user from the operator’s network services and security.
Second-generation Wi-Fi offload - 3GPP standard WLAN interworking - gives the operator a level of visibility into traffic usage and user/device authentication, at the expense of routing traffic through the mobile core network. Both first- and second-generation solutions involve two disparate network domains and two different mobile internet experiences.
The defining feature of third-generation Wi-Fi offload is the ability for the operator to offer a single seamless service that enlists the appropriate wireless network at the appropriate time and/or location. It enables movement between access technology domains without requiring user intervention, and is based on comprehensive policies that benefit the operator and the user. Connections are maintained through ultra-rapid handover, and security is ensured regardless of access technology.
Today, intelligent software clients can also make a decision, in the background, on which network to connect to. When conditions change, such clients are able to automatically establish a connection on another network, signal the mobility anchor of the change in local IP address, and shut down the old connection.
Not all users have access to Wi-Fi. Substantial improvements will need to be made before Wi-Fi offload delivers on its promise.
Meanwhile, other offload and traffic management approaches are gaining traction. Of these, only Iu-ps Breakout provides the ability to deliver precise control over specific types of traffic while selectively diverting traffic streams more directly to internet content. Iu-ps Breakout represents a breakthrough in the path optimization approach, enabling functions and content to be located close to where they are being consumed - in the radio network - rather than in remote data centers half a continent away.
The immediate future of 3G mobile data traffic depends on path optimization, where the 3G hierarchies are updated in favor of identifying the optimal radio network for subscribers and for traffic remaining on the mobile network creating a shorter path to the requested internet content.
Dan McBride is director of product and solutions marketing at mobile broadband gateway firm Stoke. www.stoke.com