Addressing the smartphone conundrum

OvumThe rapid growth in smartphone use has been a blessing and a curse for mobile network operators. While on one hand it has driven uptake of data services and more expensive contracts, on the other it has affected the performance of operators’ networks – in some cases bringing them to their knees.
This degradation of network performance has been caused by a dramatic rise in the network signaling traffic generated by smartphones, but unlike mobile data it cannot be monetized by operators. Advances in network technologies have brought some relief, but they only address one side of the issue.
Smartphone use is forecast to rise dramatically over the next five years, with annual shipments set to increase 300% by 2017, meaning the signaling problem is only going to get worse. Therefore, more needs to be done to prevent a repeat of the network outages experienced in the last few years. This is an issue that will affect everyone in the mobile industry.
While operators have so far borne the brunt of the problem, continued poor network performance will have a detrimental effect on the user experience of smartphone devices, software platforms, data services, and applications.
The solutions deployed to tackle signaling traffic have, to-date, focused on network technology enhancements, which (aside from the cost) are relatively straightforward for mobile operators to implement. However, these only address half of the issue. Device-side solutions are much more difficult for operators to introduce as they require the cooperation of parties who are outside the direct influence of the operators, namely software platform providers and application developers. This is the fundamental issue - the various parties that need to work together have little motivation to do so, nor do they have existing relationships to facilitate cooperation.
Just as the cause of the signaling problem involved the whole smartphone ecosystem, the solution to the problem needs to be equally holistic. The solution will require a combination of elements, including network technology enhancements, software platform efficiencies, and developer education. A key issue is a lack of awareness, as many outside of the operator and network vendor communities do not view signaling as a problem that affects them.
Operators, therefore, need to educate developers and platform owners on the impact that signaling will have on the user experience of their applications and services, and make them realize that it is in their interest to become more network-friendly. This education can be done through industry-wide initiatives such as the GSMA’s Smarter Apps, or ideally through the platform providers.
Looking at specific platforms, Android is the highest priority for operators as it is not only the least network-friendly smartphone platform, but also the largest and fastest growing. Operators need to put more pressure on Google to improve the performance of Android, or work directly with Android handset manufacturers to encourage them to improve their individual devices.
Nick Dillon is a senior analyst for devices and platforms at Ovum. For more information, visit