Currently, there are a number of options open to carriers to help them manage growth in data traffic. One of the most well-known is the use of data caps, whereby carriers charge users for exceeding a certain amount of data usage per month. In the United States, top carriers generally cap wireless data usage at 5 GB per month. The goal, of course, is to prevent users from hogging up too much bandwidth.
Current Analysis' Jarich argues that data caps may evolve into a system where users' speed is throttled down if they are on a busy cell site. However, Sprint's Tarazi argued that most customers would not tolerate such a situation. "Very few customers will select and go to someone who is trying to manage their traffic down," he said.
But several solution providers and vendors said a tiered system for data usage--where users pay higher prices for higher data speeds--may come into vogue as carriers look to get more revenue out of mobile data.
"[Operators have] to look at alternative revenue streams to supplement what they're doing in terms of providing a dumb old data pipe," said Ricky Watts, the solutions and innovation director at Aircom, which provides network management tools and services. "The (carrier) CFO is going to look and say, ‘The emperor's got no clothes,' and, ‘When are we going to make any money from all of the investment?'"
Another avenue carriers can explore is network policy management. Randy Fuller, vice president of business development at Camiant, a network policy control software provider, said it is important to note that not all cell sites are experiencing overloading because of increased data traffic, but that a certain percentage of cell sites get full at certain times of day. He said the attractiveness of policy management is that it allows carriers to manage traffic in a targeted, surgical way.
Tarazi said that policy management has multiple applications and is very situational, something to be used at certain cell sites that have become hotspots for data traffic. He said it's "not going to be the tool of tools to be used."
However, some are arguing that carriers will need to use more sophisticated tools to manage data traffic.
Mike Schabel, the director of Bells Labs within Alcatel Lucent Ventures, said carriers need to become more congestion-specific and application-specific in how they manage data traffic on their networks--but noted such a concept is in its infancy.
"Let me be bold and say that when it comes to implementing true, dynamic, real-time subscriber management in order to optimize the experience and minimize congestion in the network, I don't think anybody is out there and doing that yet, because the technology to do that is just right now coming to market," Schabel said.
It is unclear to what extent carriers will make use of policy and network management controls as data traffic grows, but Camiant's Fuller said that they will have to grapple with how to manage the growth, since data revenues will continue to be a boon for operators.
"Slowing the whole cart down is not an option," he said. "You've just got a find a way to keep this thing on the road."