Streaming video fuels demand for capacity

Mobile data bandwidth consumption grew 72% in second half of last year, driven by rapid uptake of streaming video. According to a report from Allot Communications, the global surge in bandwidth usage is attributed the growing popularity of high-bandwidth content and the increased availability of mobile internet devices.

Mobile bandwidth consumption in APAC expanded 86% compared to the Americas, where bandwidth usage increased by 59%. Faster subscriber growth in APAC, coupled with the presence of technological leaders like Japan and Korea, and the rapid spread of 3G networks all contributed to this growth.

Ovum analyst Nathan Burley told Telecom Asia this growth trend is likely to continue in the region. "Increasingly, a larger proportion of global data consumption will come from APAC."

APAC last year accounted for 116 million of the 342 million HSPA/HSPA+ connections worldwide, according to the GSMA. The subscribers are spread across 294 commercially live HSPA networks in 123 countries, and 37 live HSPA+ networks. Wireless Intelligence predicts that HSPA subscribers will increase by nearly 13 million per month this year, up from nine million per month in 2009.

The relative popularity of the different forms of online content have changed over time, said Allot spokesperson Jonathon Gordon, with HTTP streaming replacing HTTP browsing as the most globally dominant application. 

Streaming video has truly hit the mainstream, he said, and is now the single most influential factor driving the need to boost network capacity. The bandwidth consumed by HTTP streaming grew by 99% during the half, with video sharing site YouTube alone accounting for 10% of global usage. The growing popularity of HD video streaming, as well as the proliferation of competitors to YouTube, is the likely root cause for this growth.

Gordon told Telecom Asia that he expects streaming video to continue its rapid rate of growth. "Even more so with HD and 3D video on the way," he added.

By contrast, HTTP browsing experienced a slowdown in growth to 58%. P2P usage grew almost 40% - but this rate was dwarfed by HTTP downloads, which increased in popularity by 73%. This indicates that downloads have become a feasible alternative to P2P for the sharing of large files, Allot said.

VoIP and IM applications experienced 47% growth during the half. The majority of VoIP traffic on mobile networks is generated over IM applications. Undisputed market leader Skype accounted for 77% of the global VoIP bandwidth during H2. Competitors Yahoo Messenger, GoogleTalk and WindowsLive lagged distantly behind, accounting for just 5% each of the bandwidth.

The most popular IM application was Yahoo Messenger. Together with Windows Live, they account for 56% of global IM bandwidth. Chinese-language IM application QQ was third with 16% of the bandwidth.

Another leading cause for growth in bandwidth consumption is the popularity of social networking sites. Facebooktraffic, for instance, grew nearly 180% worldwide - and 280% in Asia - during H2. Facebook estimates that over 65 million active users access the site via mobile devices.

"Mobile broadband and social networking seem to be a match made in heaven - people get access to what they want - and who they want - 24-7," Gordon said.
But taking a look at a breakdown of the average cell compared to the top 5% of congested cells, it becomes clear that heavy users are skewing the results.

"The single largest factor leading to cell congestion remains P2P, which accounted for 34% of bandwidth utilization in the top 5% of utilized cells," the report said. "This is nearly three times P2P's bandwidth utilization of 12% in the average cell."

HTTP browsing remains the most popular application on the average cell, consuming 33% of bandwidth compared to just 17% in the most congested cells. Allot said that browsing is much higher in the average cells because it is an internationally popular way to use a mobile broadband network.

Ovum's Burley added that P2P applications can be disastrous for mobile network performance. "P2P applications tend to use up all available bandwidth," he said. "With this potentially leading to congestion, some operators have looked at de-prioritizing P2P.

"Although this may have regulatory and customer implications in some geographies, some operators have implemented solutions with scope to do so in their terms and conditions."

Hong Kong operator CSL, for example, in February decided to throttle high-bandwidth file-sharers on its Next G HSPA+ network. The operator said that 5% of its customers account for more than 50% of the bandwidth consumed on its network.

Preparing for the data tsunami

To cope with the soaring bandwidth requirements of today's mobile broadband users, operators are being forced to step up their network investments. The GSMA predicts that operators will invest up to $72 billion in mobile broadband technologies this year alone.

Asia Pacific will lead investment, the GSMA said, spending an estimated $34 billion - more than double the expected spending from Europe, which will invest up to $14 billion. Asia's spending will  also dwarf the US, which is projected to lay out $19 million, even though the latter will allocate an estimated 80% of its mobile capex on mobile broadband.

"The forecast investment in mobile broadband technologies reflects the importance the mobile industry places on enabling consumers to access any type of content on the move," GSMA chief marketing officer Michael O'Hara said.

"HSPA and HSPA+ have become the dominant global mobile broadband technologies and are set to benefit from a significant proportion of this capex investment."

But throwing money haphazardly at the problem is not the ideal strategy, Ovum analyst Nathan Burley said. "No doubt operators need to increase capex and install more capacity," he said, "but there is also numerous other things they can do, for example looking at off-loading traffic of the macro-network, use of QoS or prioritization, and smart pricing to increase utilization or lower peak hour demand. 

"Some operators are obviously better prepared for the influx of data on their networks," Burley concluded. "The ramifications of this will play out in the market, as those unprepared will not be able to price data competitively, or will experience congestion on their networks."