Questions remain on offloading data to femtocells, WiFi

Lynnette LuneLast week I moderated a webinar on mobile network data offloading, and it occurred to me just how complex this market will be. It's not just a simple matter of diverting data traffic onto femtocells or WiFi networks, there is a host of considerations, including data growth predictions, technology decisions and business strategies that operators have to make when it comes to data offload.

We have been bombarded with news during the past year that a tsunami of data traffic threatens to overwhelm 3G networks--and even 4G networks down the line. Bandwidth-hogging video has been named the biggest culprit.

In reality, there is a plethora of data-hogging culprits. Michael Thelander, CEO and founder of Signals Research, pointed out during the webinar that the majority of network congestion today on HSPA networks is related to signaling traffic coming from smartphones--which are ever increasing on 3G networks--making constant queries of the network to push email, access social networking tools and conduct other repetitive actions. Signaling traffic is outpacing actual mobile data traffic by 30 to 50 percent, if not higher, he said.

For instance, an IM user may send a message but then wait a couple of seconds between messages. To preserve battery life, the smartphone moves into idle mode. When the user pushes another message seconds later, the device has to set up a signaling path again.

Thelander outlined a host of solutions, including technical changes in how smartphones and networks talk to each other along with data offloading solutions such as femtocells and WiFi networks.

Then there was RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, speaking at a conference hosted by the Toronto Dominion Bank last week, who said it's not clear that video is the "killer app" for smartphones, but nevertheless, the smartphone maker is working on more efficient ways of delivering video.

Interestingly, he said that even if video doesn't become the killer app, it still presents a big challenge to networks.

"If you think that today's 3G as a browsing experience is a challenge to these data networks, imagine what a video streaming or download experience is going to be as these screens start to look like HD televisions in terms of resolutions," Lazaridis said, according to Reuters.

Talk about a planning nightmare. WiFi hotspots and femtocells are likely to ease that burden, but there are issues operators want to hash out first, such as where might WiFi make sense in lieu of femtocells and vice versa. WiFi hotspots and femtocells are highly complementary, and operators are likely to use both, panelists said. I suppose those decisions will come from an economic, marketing, network planning and technical basis.

Meanwhile operators are still grappling with a number of strategies for selling femtocells. Do they offer them for free or sell them? Do they charge extra for their use? Can the coverage and capacity goals of an operator match up with the sales strategy? Customers don't particularly care whether an operator needs more capacity.

On the WiFi side, operators--most notably AT&T--are using WiFi as a key data-offloading strategy. Others haven't quite jumped in yet. Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director with the WiFi Alliance, said operators in the past month formed a new group within the alliance to prioritize a range of issues associated with marrying WiFi and mobile networks, including ease of use and making the transition between the two networks as seamless as possible. In addition, in speaking with vendors like Ruckus Wireless, operators will have to decide how much they want to integrate their networks with WiFi networks and still have visibility into their customer base.

My point is that while WiFi and femtocells certainly make economic sense when it comes to handling data traffic, their roles as data offloaders will be evolutionary and not ones that pop up overnight. --Lynnette