Operators struggle to satisfy mobile broadband appetite

Consumers' enthusiasm for mobile broadband would appear to be unstoppable. With HSPA+ coverage now becoming widespread in France, Germany, Spain and the UK, a growing proportion--estimated at around 20 per cent--of fixed broadband customers want to migrate to using mobile connectivity.

Regardless of Germany being the first country in mainland Europe to start offering LTE, a large majority of mobile broadband subscribers across the continent want to use the technology to gain access to the promised higher speeds. And a third of these are prepared to pay a premium to gain access.

However, this eagerness to pay operators for faster connections also brings with it the demand for greatly improved quality and better coverage. But the operators are becoming increasingly worried about how their networks will cope with this data explosion if left unchecked. While their initial attempts to stimulate data usage by offering uncapped data tariffs worked beyond their wildest dreams--to the extent that networks in London and Paris collapsed under the strain, all efforts are now focused on constraining unbridled usage.

One of the first to go public on this mounting problem was O2 UK's CEO, Ronan Dunne, maintaining that it was unreasonable to suggest that O2 UK could offer and sustain unlimited and unmanaged data traffic. Speaking at last week's Westminster eForum event, Dunne admitted that the current explosion in data usage had driven costs up and was creating "more demand than [O2] could handle."

"It has to be fair and, if we left it unmanaged, data hungry users could affect the connections of others," he said. "This is not about financial reasons but to ensure a consistency of experience, to ensure that everybody can access and use the network."

In an attempt to avoid being dragged into the net neutrality argument, Dunne advocated that it was correct to treat mobile and fixed-line internet services as different because of the limited capacity of mobile spectrum versus fixed-line services.

While not detailing how the company, or industry, would construct a regime to manage this scheme, Dunne believes that, eventually, there will be no distinction, just a single, intelligent network.

"It will be a smarter and more intuitive network that can understand how and where you want to engage with the internet. It will be like a second skin that connects you seamlessly," he said. "The next five years will change the way we access and use the web."

The next five years will undoubtedly see an upheaval in the way the mobile internet becomes a greater part of our everyday life, but CTOs within Europe's larger mobile operators must already be fearing this data onslaught given the worries already raised about LTE's ability to handle even tomorrow's demands. -Paul