As the iPad is unveiled, are the world’s mobile networks ready to cope?
[N.B. a slight clarification, prompted by a comment, has been made to this article. – 30/01/2010]
According to the ITU, mobile broadband subscriptions topped 600 million in 2009. As mobile broadband connections overtake fixed, few networks are prepared to cope with this new wave of mobile data. A combination of always on apps, mobility and the growth of smartphones and mobile computing devices like the iPad, will increasingly test operators around the world.
With mobile broadband it’s always bandwidth, or download speeds, that grab headlines. Of course, capacity is vital for mobile broadband. When a single YouTube video is equivalent to half a million text messages sent across your network, you need the capacity to cope. But it is the unique demands of mobility – not just a wireless connection – that really impact the performance of mobile broadband, and therefore determine the experience of people using mobile computers like the iPad. That unlimited data plan isn’t worth much if the network you’re on isn’t smartphone friendly. You just won’t get the most from your device.
It may help to picture it like this: a typical fixed broadband operator knows where you want your connection. It knows– in fact, it often supplies – the single, approved device such as a wireless router, to get online, and it can predict the traffic across this, literally, fixed network. Of course, you can probably also plug your devices – router and computer – into a permanent power supply.
Now imagine for a moment if a mobile service provider delivered broadband like fixed. It quickly descends into farce: “What number do you want the broadband line on?” they may ask. “And where exactly do you want the broadband, because we need to switch it on at the relevant local mobile base station? Ah, you want it to be in different places? Oh, right. Well, it will be active at a site of your choosing within two working days, when you’ll also receive our approved ‘Mobile Broadband Terminal’…”
It’s a caricature, of course, but highlights the phenomenal experience we expect of mobile broadband. Switch on your device, activate an app that requires broadband, and receive a broadband connection. For the user: simple. Nobody contacted to switch on your service at the nearest base station, no insistence on using a single approved device to connect with, no waiting. In fact, as the wireless part of the service happens through the air, the potential line speed of the connection isn’t even held back by an old copper wire originally designed just for voice. That’s one of the reasons that mobile broadband is growing so much faster.
But as you know, this description may not match your current smartphone experience. To exceed the experience of a fixed line on a mobile connection is a unique challenge. And making networks smartphone friendly is unique to us, because we have the capabilities to transform them that no other company has.
To give two very specific examples: if you’re using mobile broadband, and your operator does not have our smartphone friendly kit, the experience is either equivalent to unplugging and plugging in a fixed connection to your computer every few seconds, or your battery drains very fast. I’ll explain why.
Depending on the network they’re on, some smartphones automatically turn off their antenna – force themselves into an idle state – to save battery life as soon as you are not sending or receiving any information. This means that the next link you click, or the next app that asks for data from the ‘cloud’, or if information from the Internet is being sent to you, a new connection has to be established. Every time that happens the network either has to find your device and tell it to become active, check who you are, change your status in its database and set-up a dedicated connection from you all the way through the network to the Internet (or the same but starting with the device making the original request) – all in a split second. This “talk” with the core of the network – known as signaling – doesn’t improve the experience for you at all. In fact, it wastes capacity on your operators’ network and can cause congestion – a poorer service for you and other smartphone users.
The alternative, however, is for your device to keep its antenna permanently connected to the operator while your browser or app is open. But then your battery drains, fast.
Only we have the technology*, built into our mobile networks all over the world, to eliminate wasted signaling and improve the battery life of smartphones. It allows the network to put the smartphone into a special power saving state that means it retains its connection, but switches off its broadband antenna. As well as doubling battery life in the smartphone, this technology can make signaling more efficient to such an extent – a five times reduction – that it can save the average service provider (with 6 million subscribers) 45 million Euros.
The challenges don’t stop there. Mobility itself makes predicting traffic across a network tough. During rush hour, around the world, millions of people change their location – all at the same time, putting varying loads on changing locations across mobile networks at different times of the day. How does a mobile operator cope with the fact that its capacity can be wasted – but still cost money – if a business district is geared to support peaks in traffic at certain times, but empty at weekends and in the evenings? Again, load sharing techniques, pioneered by us, can save an average mobile operator 11 million Euros by dealing with exactly this movement of people and the change in network traffic it causes.
There’s a lot more that needs to go into giving you the experience you want on a smartphone – or a new iPad – and we have a lot more to say on the topic. But as this next wave of technology becomes more widespread, isn’t it time you checked whether your mobile operator has a network that’s smartphone friendly?
*this technology uses the Paging Channel (PCH), specified by 3GPP, to shut down the device transmitter and receiver putting them into a power saving state to reduce device power consumption, while maintaining your dedicated connection, without any impact on the actual data rates you experience. We are the only vendor to implement this technique and it can reduce network signaling and congestion by five times and double battery life.