Keeping QoS in the Picture
As video accounts for more mobile data traffic, technicians are finding ways to improve the quality of service – and quality of experience.
These days, plenty of consumers are interested in the quality of service their wireless carriers are providing. Heck, there are apps for that, like Ookla’s Speedtest.net. But if you’re the one building the network, where do you turn to get a read on the quality of service (QoS) your network is delivering, or will deliver if it’s still in a testing stage? Besides their in-house engineers, carriers can turn to test & measurement firms to see how they’re doing and to an array of video optimization vendors to improve it if they so choose. And given the direction that mobile video is taking and was designed to take with 4G, providing a decent QoS for video is top of mind.
Video generates 40 percent to 60 percent of total mobile data traffic on wireless networks, according to Bytemobile’s second-quarter 2011 Mobile Analytics Report that included data from carriers worldwide. Laptops, iPhones/iPads and Android devices are consuming the majority of mobile video, and while people are not usually watching two-hour movies from Netflix on their smartphones, they are watching short clips from YouTube and other, lesser-known sources.
“We’re seeing an explosion in video,” says Jeffery Glueck, CEO of Skyfire. He wasn’t surprised when Cisco earlier this year upwardly revised its estimates for the rate of mobile video growth. “We’re seeing that every day … We call the whole phenomenon ‘mobile warming.’ It’s the meltdown of the networks that’s coming.”
It’s that threat of a meltdown that has companies like Skyfire targeting carriers with video optimization solutions. Skyfire, whose most famous (and Apple-approved) consumer app is enabling Flash on iOS, offers end users a downloadable app that will perform an “instant optimization” of their videos so that they use less data from their allotted monthly data plans. Skyfire says it has the potential to save users $120 to $240 a year depending on what data plan they’re on.
With more consumers signing on to tiered data pricing plans – Verizon Wireless being the latest to phase out unlimited plans – the expectation is they will be paying more attention to the amount of data they’re consuming. Skyfire says its browser app can help users minimize or avoid extra charges while still watching four times as much video.
Skyfire also is trying to get carriers to use its carrier-grade products geared for networks. It basically optimizes video before it goes through the cell tower, and it will be going into production this fall for an unnamed Tier 1 carrier. Even if a carrier implements Skyfire’s software, end-users can still get savings from the app download. The solution is triggered by congestion; once it hits a certain level, Skyfire kicks in and within less than a second, the video is optimized.
Netflix is often cited when talk of video and over-the-top springs into industry conversations, but it’s not a big presence on mobile – yet. It’s big on the fixed Internet and big screens, but the typical video on mobile is around 4 minutes long, Glueck says, noting that comScore data shows 47 percent of all video minutes are from hundreds of thousands of smaller websites that are not as well-known.
Some video optimization vendors are working directly with test and measurement firms. In a project sponsored by Orascom Telecom at the TMF Management World event in Dublin in May, Avvasi demonstrated how service providers can gain intelligence into their voice and video services, get real-time feedback and tap a test and measurement firm, in this case Tektronix Communications, to get to the root of the problem.
The idea is for operators to tie that information to their customer service department; if a customer calls to complain of poor quality video, the CSR can tap into the system, find out what’s causing it and if it’s due to too much congestion, maybe the customer gets a discount.
Over at test & measurement firm Spirent, engineers are continuing to work with both infrastructure vendors and carriers to make sure devices and equipment are working properly, from the lab to the real world. Now more than ever, the company is working on the backhaul side with a lot of non-traditional service providers to make sure they understand what they need to deliver to meet wireless carriers’ QoS requirements, according to Ross Cassan, senior director for product marketing.
In the days of 2G, voice was the focus of tests – the “Can you hear me now?” days. With 3G, the BlackBerry became more popular, but if an email was delayed, it wasn’t mission critical – and even so, end users often would get their email on their BlackBerry before their PC. Now with services that carriers are labeling 4G, mobile broadband services are starting to rival fixed Internet to the home, and the networks need to work smarter to manage bandwidth.
Then there’s the question of whether service guarantees can be made when it comes to wireless data, which unlike wireline, is not reliable 99.999 percent of the time. In June, California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, (D-Palo Alto), introduced the Next Generation Disclosure Act, which would require 4G providers to, at the point of sale, post a guaranteed minimum data speed, network reliability and other information, including “network conditions that can impact the speed of applications and services used on the network.”
As for that last point, the list could get pretty long. Spirent executives note that buildings, trees, weather and more all affect how the signal performs before it reaches the end-user – basically, how/where the user is positioned in relation to the network. If Eshoo’s proposal goes anywhere, and there’s no guarantee it will even make it out of committee, operators might end up doing what car dealerships do: Post something like a 24 miles per gallon (MPG) average on the highway, and note that “your mileage may vary.” And when doesn’t it?
Cassan notes that live wireless networks are constantly in flux and if there’s a change made in one area, it tends to migrate throughout. Engineers can simulate and emulate all they want, but until users start piling on and their behavior becomes known, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. Case in point: AT&T’s famous underestimation of what iPhone users would do to its network.
Avvasi President and CEO Mate Prgin points out the distinction between QoS and quality of experience (QoE). QoS is about the quality of the network whereas QoE is what the enduser sees. When Prgin and his colleagues at Avvasi started building their solution a few years ago, the biggest comment they heard from potential customers was that there were a lot of QoS tools available, but their customers – the end users – were calling their customer care centers anyway to complain about their service quality, so there was a big mismatch there.
At the core of Avvasi’s solutions is a passive measurement capability that reports video-based QoE, reflecting the subscriber’s perceived experience with video content. The company says such analytics helps service providers manage customer relationships to reduce churn, troubleshoot network issues based on video QoE triggers and maximize revenue.
MEASURING VARIOUS SERVICES
RootMetrics takes a different approach, directly targeting the consumer market and measuring the quality of services with devices purchased offthe-shelf at carrier stores and with crowd sourcing. “We’re all about trying to measure what the consumer experience is,” says RootMetrics CEO Bill Moore. “We want to measure and illuminate this on their behalf.”
But as carriers constantly upgrade networks, doesn’t that change the results pretty rapidly? “It is moving very rapidly,” he concedes, with each carrier deploying network upgrades and offering new devices. “What we’re really measuring is what is the best you could achieve in that metro area at that time we measure,” Moore says. Previously, a lot of testing revolved around coverage, but Moore says most carriers generally have pretty good coverage. “What we’re seeing is congestion,” he says.
RootMetrics measures things like the ability to place and hold a call, upload and download speeds for accessing data and the speed of texting. The scoring is weighted, so it’s based 45 percent on calls, 45 percent on data and 10 percent on texting, reflecting consumers’ low tolerance for call failures and their ever-increasing dependence on data. As behaviors change, Root can adjust the weightings.
Verizon Wireless, with its LTE network, is generally winning in major markets on upload and download speeds. With LTE, expectations are that it will provide a better quality of service, but Verizon Wireless did have a network outage at the end of April, so doesn’t that need to be factored into the equation – as in no service, poor quality? Moore says that when Root conducted its Chicago tests, it was done during the time of Verizon’s outage. That didn’t seem to matter. Hands down, he says, Verizon still won the title for fastest data speeds in that market even with the network outage factored in.