Mallinson: Handling the coverage and capacity crunch

Keith MallinsonExponential data growth calls for revolutionary carrier service strategies. Expanding 3G footprint and capacity is only part of the solution.

Until the last couple of years, 3G coverage and capacity was a non-issue for end users. One could call and text to one's heart's content on 2G that performed pretty well across Europe. Few people were using dongles. Expectations for browsing, streaming and downloading on phones were modest, with a lack of decent mobile Internet services and performance was limited as much by device deficiencies--in modems, operating systems, applications processors and software--as it was by unavailability of 3G network resources.

Of late, many more people are acquiring dongles, smartphones and usage has increased with improving devices, mobile internet services and end-to-end user experience. The multiplicative effect of increased adoption and increased usage per user explains the current exponential growth in demand.

The strain has thus become apparent due to both coverage and capacity limitations with 3G, although users cannot always distinguish between these two shortcomings. Congestion on 3G can result in performance akin to or even inferior to 2G. Canny mobile industry folk sometimes turn off their 3G transceivers at trade shows to improve smartphone performance by switching to less clogged 2G networks.

December apologies

FierceWireless:Europe reported 3UK had confessed that some customers were experiencing poor web browsing and email performance and would be allowed to cancel their contracts or receive a discount. In an effort to restrict the number of customers affected, 3 said it temporarily suspended dongle sales in areas that were poorly served for 3G--without pinpointing which areas in the UK had coverage problems. According to Hugh Davies, 3's director of corporate affairs, these suspensions were to take place across "a few hundred sites where, for a short period--one to three months--we'll be advising stores in those areas to have a thoroughly good check of the coverage maps to make sure [potential customers are] not on the edge of a degraded experience."

The head of O2 in the UK told the Financial Times he was disappointed with O2's network performance in London since the summer. Ronan Dunne apologised to customers who could not make phone calls because the mobile operator's London network was overwhelmed by bandwidth-hungry smartphones. According to this newspaper, O2 ran into difficulties in the capital during the second half of 2009 as customers with smartphones such as Apple's iPhone ramped-up use of applications that repeatedly pull data off the internet at short intervals.

The head of AT&T's wireless unit said it was working to improve its network for iPhone and other smart-phone subscribers in New York and San Francisco. Ralph de la Vega, chief executive of AT&T Mobility, said at an investor conference that networks "are performing at levels below our standards." Verizon Wireless has exploited those difficulties in extensive fun-poking TV advertisements. These claim it has a superior network with five times the 3G coverage.

Data tsunami

Percentage growth rates have been very high, but were on a relatively low base until a year or two ago. With voice traffic continuing to exceed data on all mobile networks until 2008 at the earliest, overall growth seemed manageable in the context of total traffic. This is because the impact of data was still less than doubling total network traffic. Network planners could get by with some incremental thinking for a while. No longer.

Data is set to exceed voice traffic on more and more mobile operator networks. With an average of less than 300 minutes per month, European users account for approximately 20 MB of voice traffic per month. As reported by FireceWireless:Europe in November 2009, the global head of France Telecom's Orange mobile business, Olaf Swantee stated that already 24 per cent of its mobile customers were using 30Mb of data per month, compared with just 17 per cent of the customer base who were using 25 MB in February 2009, including pay-as-you-go and pay monthly contract customers. Figures exclude mobile broadband customers with dongles.

Nielsen estimates that the typical US iPhone customer consumes 400 MB of data a month. By comparison, the average smartphone subscriber consumes between 40 MB to 80 MB of data a month. Whereas average data usage rates vary by nation, iPhone and devices that succeed in emulating its success will generally stimulate network traffic growth in multiples within the next few years...Continued

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