Email a bandwidth hog on mobile broadband networks

A flurry of new studies out this week are pointing to one thing: explosive growth in mobile broadband.

Informa said broadband subscribers worldwide topped the 225 million mark at the end of March 2009, representing 93 percent year-on-year growth. A new, inaugural report from deep packet inspection player Allot Communications--which gathered data from operators around the world with a combined user base of more than 150 million subscribers--said traffic on mobile networks grew 30 percent between the first and second quarter this year.

Still another report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project survey shows that 56 percent of adult Americans have accessed the Internet via wireless, such as a WiFi laptop, a mobile device, a game console,or an MP3 player. The most popular way people get online wirelessly is with a laptop computer, numbering 39 percent of some 2,200 survey participants.

Of course, the massive growth is a double-edged sword for operators. Revenues attributed to mobile broadband are growing, but so is congestion. Soon, according to experts, growth will outpace revenue.

Interestingly, as I scoured for news this week in the mobile broadband world, I found two schools of thought regarding what kind of traffic is problematic for mobile operators. That same broadband report from Allot Communications concludes that P2P accounts for 42 percent of bandwidth utilization in the busiest cells on the network, but only 21 percent in the average cell.  

In BusinessWeek, Mike Schabel, a research director at Alcatel-Lucent's research arm Bell Labs, said email is actually the biggest network clogger because it is inefficiently managed. He stressed that operators can't just look at how much traffic is sent but also how it is sent. Email is particularly problematic because it constantly queries the server to check for new messages and thus consumes almost 70 percent of a wireless data network's signalling resources. Moreover, Schabel added that a lot of applications--such as weather updates and stock tickers--operate in a similar manner to email by checking the network periodically.

That's not to say that P2P and web browsing traffic isn't becoming problematic, but it points to the need for operators to tackle the network congestion problem by doing more than just throwing more capacity at it. Perhaps it highlights the need for operators and vendors to develop more efficient email transmission methods. Otherwise we might see AT&T Mobility once again change its terms of service for mobile data plans and not only ban P2P traffic but email as well to cope with the increasing data congestion. -Lynnette