Feature Article

January 10, 2012

Mobile Bandwidth Hogs - The Quest for a Suitable '1 Percent Solution'

Arieso, a UK-based leading provider of mobile network management software solutions, created a bit of a sensation with the publication of a study by its CTO Dr. Michael Flanagan entitled, “Recent Smartphone Trends & the Extreme Data User.”   Why such a hubbub? Here are the highlights:

·         Study reveals explosive growth in mobile data demand

·         iPhone 4S users are the “hungriest” data consumers, demanding twice as much data as iPhone 4 users and three times as much as iPhone 3G users

·         Just one percent of all users now consume HALF of the entire downlink data

You read correctly, only one percent of all users now consumer half of the entire downlink data. According to the press release on the study stated:

The most significant change in consumer behaviour between 2010 and 2011 data has been catalysed by the introduction of the iPhone 4S. iPhone 4S users download 2.76 times as much data as users of the iPhone 3G. And while an Android-powered device maintains last year’s position at the top of the table for uplink data volumes, with HTC Desire S users typically uploading 3.23 times as much data as iPhone 3G users, the iPhone 4S falls just behind in this category with a typical 3.20 times as much data uploaded.

There are some very hungry handset users, even compared to the iPhone 3G benchmark (iPhone 3G = 100%):

Data calls per subscriber:

·         HTC Google Nexus One: 221%

·         Sony Ericsson Xperia X10i: 157%

·         HTC Desire: 156%

Uplink data volumes:

·         3G Modems (various): 2654%

·         HTC Desire S: 323%

·         iPhone 4S: 320%

Downlink data volumes:

·         3G Modems (various): 2432%

·         iPhone 4S: 276%

·         Samsung Galaxy S: 199%

 It goes on to quote Dr. Flanagan as saying, “While the report provides general trends, the studies on which they’re based demonstrate the importance to operators of understanding the increased consumption each type of smartphone brings. Despite stark industry warnings, mobile operators are still playing ‘Guess Who?’ with their subscribers.”

The report notes that of the hungriest one percent of subscribers, 64 percent were using laptops, 35 percent were using smartphones and three percent were using tablets.  This suggests users are consuming data in one location, or in a few very distinct locations.

As if the findings were not startling enough, two Arieso suggestions as to how to address the problem of data hogs and their use/abuse of dwindling spectrum garnered industry attention:

·         4G microcells could be placed near the heavy users to offload network traffic from the heaviest users and thereby double available bandwidth for everyone else.

·         Short-term, network providers could reduce the data transfer rates or increase fees once a user has exceeded the data volume limit, e.g., making the cost-causer the cost-bearer.

Flanagan contends that as a quick fix, locating microcells near the one percent of heavy users would be good because it alleviates the strain they are putting on the networks. It has the added benefit of increasing coverage and starting the longer term solution of deploying more small cells universally. 

While this sounds good in theory, it is based on the premise that heavy users are relatively stationary. With the proliferation of 4G, the use of 4G as a feeder into smartphones that can become WiFi hot spots, and the sheer increase in market penetration of smartphones fueling the growth of things like mobile gaming, streamed video and picture swapping on social networks, one can only wonder if this hypothesis holds up over time. It only seems to do so if mobile operators can convince the heaviest users to not be mobile. Seems counter-intuitive based on the value proposition for such users and the trend for all of us to use a lot more mobile bandwidth in the near future.

It does seem from reading the findings that Dr. Flanagan’s short-term fixes, along with advances in technology, hold the key longer-term. Making those who use the network the most pay for that usage, including using the tariff structure to pay for small cell proximity appears to be a rational way forward along with the obvious need for regulators to free up more radio spectrum around the world.

If nothing else Areiso has given everyone in the industry serious food for thought.   In fact, Dr. Flanagan gets most of the last words here with his cautionary note that, “Without adequately preparing networks to support the new generation of smart devices, operators risk spiraling and misplaced operational expenditure and delivering a sub-par quality of experience to customers. It’s critical that operators redouble their efforts to limit the impact of this inevitable squeeze.”

Wishing the problem to go away will not make it so. Whether operators heed the warnings will be fascinating to watch. With tariffs the first thing that can be easily addressed, which operator becomes the market mover and if/when they are followed could be a big story in the coming months.

Want to learn more about 4G wireless technologies? Then be sure to attend the 4GWE Conference, collocated with TMC’s ITEXPO East 2012taking place Jan. 31-Feb. 3 2012, in Miami, FL. The 4GWE Conference provides unmatched networking opportunities and a robust conference program representing the wireless ecosystem. The conference not only brings together the best and brightest in the wireless industry, it actually spans the communications and technology industry. To register, click here.

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Peter Bernstein is a technology industry veteran, having worked in multiple capacities with several of the industry's biggest and best known brands, and has served on the Advisory Boards of 15 technology startups. To read more of Peter's work, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Carrie Schmelkin

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