Data networks are coming under increasing strain as smartphones become more commonplace and affordable, and dongle sales continue to grow.
Devices such as the iPhone are making it easier for millions of consumers to go online while on the move.
And with Apple’s device soon to be available across O2, Orange and Vodafone, networks need to be prepared.
Whispers of new technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE) are emerging but, although trials are taking place, this technology will not be a reality until around 2012.
Operators will need more spectrum, which will be made available in the next auction, also in 2012. They also need to make more efficient use of their existing spectrum to evolve current technologies first.
3, as the self-proclaimed leader in data, is already concerned by the amount of traffic travelling through its network, which can impair speeds for customers during busy times.
As a result, it has introduced a ‘traffic shaping’ tool to manage the data on its mobile broadband network. The operator is aiming to improve the web browsing, email and streaming experience on its network by making sure the
real-time experience ‘gets the priority it deserves’.
3 will now be actively managing the amount of bandwidth made available
for peer-to-peer file sharing at peak times in busy areas. It is thought that all operators are looking at similar schemes.
And although increasing amounts of data is coming from smartphones, it is dongles that are causing the main overload. Strategy Analytics analyst Phil Kendall says: ‘It depends on the network, but overwhelmingly, dongles are causing the traffic load. The average dongle generates 1.5GB of data per month – 10 times that of a smartphone. And there are obviously a lot of users – three million of them.’
The pricing of mobile broadband has changed to restrict the amount of traffic, Kendall points out, adding: ‘Most will charge you if you go over your allowance. General pricing and policies are stopping excessive use.’
But there is still a lot to be done – Vodafone has upgraded speeds, which helps a little on capacity, and by doubling the speed of the network there is around a 30% increase in the amount of bandwidth available.
Vodafone said it would increase its capacity by 50%, which Kendall says ‘is a solution in the medium term’. Longer term, he says, more spectrum is needed so networks can move to LTE.
He adds: ‘The focus at the moment is on HSDPA and the evolution of that for the next two years. Late 2011 and early 2012 will be LTE.’
And according to sources, the best spectrum for LTE is 800MHz (Digital Dividend) or 2600MHz (TDD), which will not be free until 2012.
The average feature phone generates 5MB to 10MB of data per month. Smartphones account for 10 to 20 times the data usage of feature phones. Because of the iPhone, there are more user-friendly devices that allow people to use services such as YouTube. This is having an impact, says Kendall.
But networks say they are well prepared to cope with increasing data.
‘Security and reliability’
Vodafone told Mobile last week it was not encountering problems with its network.
The operator’s network team senior product manager, Lee McDougall, says: ‘Our approach has always been about security and reliability. We make sure things are ready. We have a close visibility of what is coming.’
Vodafone’s strategy is to ‘focus on reliability and to protect the customer experience’, says McDougall, adding: ‘We have depth of coverage.’
The company has recently added a 14.4Mbps network capability for better speeds – ‘it is a bigger pipe with greater reliability’, he says. LTE is something the network is ‘looking at’.
There are two areas that Vodafone is working on to put in higher speeds – core networks and making sure backhaul is a significant capacity; and the radio network. ‘It is customer lead, we respond to demand,’ insists McDougall.
He admits: ‘Strain is occasional on voice or data. We see big use on web browsing or streaming and we dimension the network on what customers will be using.’
However, the operator is confident that it has ‘the best network in place’ for the iPhone and it ‘isn’t worried’ about the network coping.
But will there be more data outages similar to the one it recently suffered (see below)? Vodafone says a ‘massive amount of data’ is travelling through mobile broadband, so it is ‘already prepared’. McDougall adds: ‘For comparison, look at the amount of data on mobile broadband and the amount used on smartphones.’
Vodafone’s rival, Orange, is currently embroiled in a battle with 3 over its advertising, which proclaims it has the best coverage. 3, of course, also says it has the best coverage.
Orange, which is now selling the iPhone, is also preparing for more traffic on its network. Director of access, network design and delivery Tim Smith says: ‘It’s not a concern, but we have definitely observed that smartphone owners use a lot of data, and we are also seeing demand for dongles.’
Smith says that strain ‘won’t happen as long as we keep pace with demand’. He adds: ‘We have the iPhone in 28 countries. It’s making sure the sites are upgraded. We are ahead of the game with extra capacity, it is a case of operating.’
However, he warns: ‘Networks should be looking at whether they are investing in the right areas. Are they able to meet demand?’
And Smith says there ‘is a hell of a lot of demand’ coming from dongles. He adds: ‘We are having to scale the network – it is a holistic approach. In terms of the network, investment has happened over the last few years as demand for these things has grown.’
During the past two years, Orange has done a wholesale review and upgrade of its network – anything from radio network and sites – upgrading technology on the mast sites and the technology that transports to the core network.
‘We have also reviewed the connectivity on the core sites and upgraded to the latest technologies such as microwave radio technology HSDPA in large areas of the UK,’ says Smith.
He agrees that LTE is not ready for mass deployment, although [Orange parent] ‘France Telecom is looking at it’.
LTE may not be ready, but operators need to be prepared for the influx of data that is set to travel on their networks. They must ensure that current technology is up to date, while also managing traffic, or they will fall behind their competitors.
Vodafone network outage
Vodafone suffered a network outage last week, following in the footsteps of former iPhone incumbent O2.
The network crash first came to light at 7am on Thursday morning, and affected a ‘small number of users’, the operator said. It was resolved by 9am.
It left some Vodafone customers unable to make or receive calls, send emails or text messages, or surf the internet.
The operator did not give an exact reason for the network outage, but said engineers had been working on Vodafone systems at the time of the glitch.
Vodafone has around 18.7 million UK customers, with more than one quarter of its subscribers using a BlackBerry or other internet-enabled handsets.