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Tuesday, 09 February 2010 13:22

How YouTube is killing mobile networks, and what to do about it

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According to a study of mobile broadband networks YouTube accounts for 10 percent of global mobile bandwidth and peer-to-peer traffic is "the single largest factor leading to cell congestion which accounts for 34 percent of bandwidth utilisation in the top five percent of cells."

Within the last 24 hours there's been a whole series of announcements pointing to radical change in the mobile communications industry as service providers struggle to cope with surging demand for mobile broadband services.

Network equipment vendor, ADC, issued a press release saying that: "traditional methods to provide mobile coverage cannot scale to offer mobile operators the coverage, capacity and return on invested capital necessary to deliver 4G services."

The real aim of the release was to promote ADC's line of 'micro-cellular' infrastructure products that will be on show at the GSM World Congress in Barcelona later this month.

According to ADC "4G service is different because the modulation efficiency varies widely depending on signal strength, so a user less than a kilometre from the nearest base station may well get the multi-megabit data service that's advertised, but those farther away won't see better service than they have today."

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The generally accepted wisdom seems to be that the problem will be solved by having more and more base-stations in areas of high demand, each serving a smaller and smaller area, the so-called femtocells and picocells. According to ADC, these won't deliver; "The reality is that deploying them alone will make it very difficult to re-use precious frequency efficiently." And of course, every one of these has to be backhauled somehow.

The answer, according to ADC, is "to deploy precision coverage solutions consisting of distributed antenna systems (DAS) for both in-building and outdoor coverage, as only these solutions can distribute strong signals to the mobile user while unlocking coverage from capacity."

I'm neither competent to nor particularly interested in discussing the merits of ADC's proposed solution (but I do note that ADC has not defined that much abused term 4G - most often used for 3G and 3.5G rather than true 4G technologies). But it is not the only vendor highlighting the mobile bandwidth demand problem to promote its particular solution.

Allot Communications, which bills itself as "leader in IP service optimisation and revenue generation solutions based on Dynamic Actionable Recognition Technology (DART)," has just released the latest version of its Global Mobile Broadband Traffic Report.

It says that, worldwide, mobile data bandwidth usage grew 72 percent in H2, 2009, that YouTube now accounts for 10 percent of global mobile bandwidth and that peer-to-peer traffic is "the single largest factor leading to cell congestion which accounts for 34 percent of bandwidth utilisation in the top five percent of cells."

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According to Allot: "The most striking result to emerge from the Allot MobileTrends Report is how streaming video has become a mainstream medium and is the single most influential factor driving the need for increased network capacity.

"The exponential global and regional growth in video streaming indicates that much of this increase is due to a shift towards more real time, user-generated, on-demand content where the user is both broadcaster and viewer. This is most clearly highlighted with YouTube, which with 10 percent of global bandwidth, is clearly a major player in the future of mobile broadband."

And the news gets worse. Two senior FCC officials - Phil Bellaria, director of scenario planning and John Leibovitz, deputy chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau - have fingered the iPad as an innovation that will ratchet mobile bandwidth demand up another notch.

In a blog posting they say "Apple's iPad announcement has set off a new round of reports of networks overburdened by a data flow they were not built to handle." They add: "These problems are reminiscent of the congestion dialup users experienced following AOL's 1996 decision to allow unlimited internet use. For months users had trouble connecting and, once they did connect, experienced frequent service outages. The FCC even held hearings on the problem."

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The congestion problem circa 1996-97 revealed an intense latent demand for Internet access. Similarly, wireless network congestion today reveals intense demand for wireless broadband. Widespread use of smartphones, 3G-enabled netbooks, and now, perhaps, the iPad and its competitors demonstrate that wireless broadband will be a hugely important part of the broadband ecosystem as we move ahead."

But never fear; yet another vendor has published similarly frightening research to highlight its claimed solution to the problem.

Bridgewater Systems - which bills itself as the mobile personalisation company - has published "new research into the mobile data surge, highlighting cost reduction strategies that can save mobile operators up to 60 percent per annum by 2013."

The report, "Towards a Profitable Mobile Data Business Model", says that: Policy control could contribute substantial annual cost savings of over 10 percent; operators deploying a data traffic offload strategy to Wi-Fi, femtocells or 4G could expect savings of 20 to 25 percent per annum by 2013; the evolution to HSPA and LTE could save just under 20 percent in network costs."

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2013 of course is a mere four years out and none of Bridgewater's suggestions is likely to provide long term solution to the problem of burgeoning demand for mobile data.

Everyone of the sources I've referred to here has appeared on the Internet in the last 24 hours. No doubt the upcoming GSM Congress is in part to blame, but that aside it's clear that the zeitgeist of mobile broadband is mighty powerful.

And whatever the claimed gains from distributed antenna systems Dynamic Actionable Recognition Technology, policy control, femtocells or even attocells (I made that one up: atto is SI prefix for 10 to the minus 18, one down from femto which means 10 to minus 15). The most fundamental requirement is spectrum.

As the FCC bloggers point out: "Wireless providers today...will be able to deal with congestion issues but only if they have adequate spectrum. Reaching an always-on wireless broadband future means that spectrum can no longer remain attached solely to uses deemed valuable decades ago."

They promise that the upcoming US National Broadband Plan "will suggest ways of moving more spectrum into high value uses, such as broadband access, to help ensure that we don't get stuck in 1997 dialup-style congestion."

In Australia the ACMA and the DBCDE are wrestling with the same issues ahead of several upcoming spectrum allocations. With the mobile broadband landscape changing so rapidly, getting the right answers won't be easy.


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