Barcelona’s Fira welcomed 49,000 visitors from all spectrums of the mobile industry.
Yet, although continued excitement regarding mobile content and applications, and the shifting value chain was evident, this year’s event had more of a practical flavour.
The fact that LTE is now a reality, with live, commercial deployments starting to crop up across the world, could be one element at the heart of this. Another is that after years of waiting for data traffic to emerge in volume and bemoaning the lack of traffic to make sense of the 3G network build investment, famine has turned to feast. The challenge now facing operators is to ensure that their 3G and 4G networks will be able to cope with the stress placed on them by a massive upswing in data usage driven by apps and video.
The digital bottleneck was the phrase on everyone’s lips. Clever answers are needed and they must be cost effective if operators are to have any chance of making sense of the business case. Thankfully, many such answers have been demonstrated at the show ranging from intelligent ways to manage routine traffic to highly flexible signalling and radio systems to help take the strain in locations with high user volume or constrained wireless efficiency.
For many, the increased uptake of smartphones is the root of the network capacity problem. ‘Smartphones have become a burden on the network,’ explains Marc Rouanne, head of network systems at Nokia Siemens Networks. ‘They are always on in the background, connected to the network, and all the signalling they require in terms of checking for email and updating other applications can amount to 1,000 calls per day. That ties up lots of network resources, but how much do operators get for that?’
Rouanne points out that the problem is only set to get worse. ‘We expect a 10,000% increase in mobile data consumption from mobile devices, with only a 1,000% increase from laptops,’ he says.
Shifting to softer ideas
As a consequence, he expects operators to pursue all the available options. ‘Shifting traffic from the cellular network to the backhaul network is one approach,’ he says. ‘Another way is not to update smartphones thousands of times a day but to use the paging channel, which needs only four messages instead of the 21 required by the standard signalling. Why waste 80% of network resources keeping things updated?’
Backhaul is not the only option and Rouanne expects lots of similar options for intelligent network use to emerge. ‘The big emphasis is on smart networks for smart devices,’ he says. ‘We’ve got the IP backhaul and we’re not saying you don’t need it but the surge [in data traffic] is very big and that creates a set of very interesting opportunities on top of and beyond backhaul. There are lots of softer ideas that will emerge.’
New base station build, handing off cellular traffic onto the backhaul network and thinking up smarter ways to manage devices will alleviate the capacity crunch, and the show had a multitude of different options on display.
Harder options for offload
Dublin-based Accuris Networks has announced a partnership with Acision to provide its AccuROAM Data Offload solution as part of Acision’s Innovation network at the event. Accuris, which provides roaming interworking and convergence solutions, is pioneering a standards-based approach to automating Wi-Fi offload, which enables the mobile operator to keep control of its subscribers when they are on Wi-Fi networks. The company’s chairman, Gilbert Little, explains the rationale. ‘Operators with mobile broadband offerings are striving to maximise efficiency in their networks to prevent the cost of delivering these services from rising above the associated revenues. With our solution, customers are able to enhance network efficiency while keeping control of their subscribers when they are on Wi-Fi networks.’
David Frail, global market development director at Acision, adds: Ensuring the profitability of mobile broadband services is a challenge, and we anticipate traffic will continue to increase. However, we believe that profitability can be maintained with minimal impact on investment while reducing the cost of delivery.’
For others, it’s not just about how users are controlled and how their traffic is directed to more cost effective network technologies. There’s a need for a strategic rethink that takes account of a wide portfolio of technologies, policies and business models especially when it comes to providing 4G services.
‘Mobile broadband profitability requires a holistic approach,’ says Steven Hartley, principal analyst at Ovum. ‘Operators must adopt a range of technical solutions to manage costs, from traffic management tools, through to data offload and LTE or WiMAX. However, these will need to be allied with commercial approaches that protect revenues, such as tariff innovation and the enforcement of fair usage policies.’
Dick Parran, president of network solutions business unit at ADC, advocates changes in network architecture if 4G services are to offer users adequate quality. ‘We have already seen how smartphones can cause enormous 3G network capacity issues and unhappy customers if the infrastructure isn’t properly designed, and this is just a hint of what is to come with 4G services,’ he says.
‘Service providers need to address this issue now to meet their customer expectations and maximise revenue opportunities when these services roll out, as their networks must keep pace with device and application evolution.’
Parran’s answer is for operators to deploy precision coverage solutions such as distributed antenna systems (DAS) for both in-building and outdoor coverage. He thinks femtocells and picocells alone will not be enough to distribute strong enough signals to the mobile users while freeing up coverage from available capacity.
The DAS approach is also advocated by Powerwave Technologies that launched its Fiber Base Unit, a flexible, modular platform for wideband coverage distributed antenna systems, which converts and reconverts radio signals to optical signals and is designed for application in subways, airports, large office buildings, stadia and shopping malls, at the show. ‘Operators are always challenged with providing comprehensive coverage, especially in settings such as urban centres, transportation systems and terminals,’ says Khurram Sheikh, chief product and development officer, at Powerwave Technologies. ‘Our Fiber Base Unit offers a small footprint with significant flexibility and functionality to ensure repeater networks can address wireless coverage system’s needs today and evolve in the future.
`However, that’s not to say that DAS deployments will come at the expense of femtocell and picocells. The Femto Forum published research at MWC stating that a European operator with 10 million subscribers that deploys femtocells to 10% of their customer base is able to realise a return on their incremental femtocell investments of more than 10 times.
‘Wireless data has reached a tipping point,’ says report author J.Randolph Luening, VP of wireless economics at Signals Research Group, which authors the report. ‘As the mass market embraces mobile data, and as rich media reaches the device, top operators are confronted with an exponentially increasing demand for traffic. Femtocells – strategically placed – offer the operator a powerful tool to contain escalating network costs and to significantly enhance the end user experience.’
Femto Forum chairman, Simon Saunders, adds: ‘Now that tablets like the iPad promise to further add to the network load, operators are looking at new and innovative ways to leverage this growth and turn it into an opportunity.’
Femtocells are moving into wider spread deployment and on