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It’s Time for Managing Data on the Mobile Internet

Wed, 04/11/2012 - 7:34am
Michael Luna, SEVEN Networks

Solving the problem of slow Internet downloads on the wired Internet is relatively easy – use a content delivery network (CDN) that has servers located near users all over the world.  Cache the content in those servers, and performance increases. 

On the wireless Internet, the challenge of slow content is the same, but a new twist on CDN services is necessary to accommodate the wireless last mile.

As more people use smartphones and download more apps – the average smartphone has 35 apps - many of these apps will continuously seek out updates so that when a consumer checks his or her phone, they will see updated emails, social media updates and other content. 

The challenge posed by these apps is two-fold. First the apps signal the network to make a connection and that consumes limited resources on the remote radio controller.  Then, there’s the bandwidth that these requests also consume, which over the course of a month can add up to hundreds of megabytes. 

Given that more than 50 percent of the US population now owns a smartphones (Pew Research,) it’s time to figure out a way to manage content transport for the mobile Internet as well. 

Content Delivery Networks 

On the Internet, the boom in demand for rich media content, from video to audio to games, resulted in significant network congestion and slow download times. CDNs emerged as a solution to manage the transport of this content. CDNs are a network of servers with high-speed connections, distributed across the country.  Each server has a copy of the content, so when a consumer uses the Internet to access audio, video, software, etc., instead of accessing data from a central server, the CDN parses out the requests to the nearest server. This alleviates much of the congestion on wireline networks and results in faster download times. 

Managed Transport on the Mobile Internet

There are technical and market issues that have made it unclear if mobile CDNs will emerge.  What is clear, though, is that there is a need for managing the data transport for smartphone data.  The data surge that has resulted from the mass adoption of smartphones – estimates from Cisco and others point to doubling of data traffic each year for the past eight years – has placed significant burdens on wireless networks.

This mobile data traffic explosion, and storm of signaling on the network, forces mobile operators and device manufacturers to rethink the way they manage data services. Operators face growing pressures as network upgrades and related investments grow faster than related subscribers’ data revenue impact their future margins. 

Traffic Optimization Technologies 

One of the first and highest profile optimization solutions to emerge is fast dormancy.  Fast dormancy allows mobile devices to return to an idle state faster, saving signaling channels. Smartphones are increasingly “‘always on” with chatty applications receiving frequent updates and polling the network. These constant requests cause the device battery to drain rapidly. 

Fast dormancy succeeds in improving battery life, however, it does not change the constant connection paradigm of chatty applications. The constant connections and disconnections increase the amount of signaling traffic which lowers the performance of the network overall. More sophisticated versions of fast dormancy are being rolled out to address both the device battery and network congestion. The new versions optimize specific challenges, but fail to address all the elements that are contributing to the mobile data crisis. 

Another solution, increasing the amount of bandwidth with network upgrades to 4G, LTE and other, addresses the need for “bigger pipes” to transport more data, but it does not take into account the type of data being shared.  Also of concern, the move to 4G networks doubles capacity, but demand is growing much more quickly than that, so it’s only a matter of time before the networks are back in trouble and carriers are already eluding to the fact that a lot more data is being consumed on 4G devices.  Additionally, an increase in bandwidth helps with mobile video applications, but fails to take into account the vast array of network connected applications that create a new emerging problem: signaling capacity. 

The third solution, offloading traffic to other networks such as Wi-Fi, is a popular way to encourage consumers to reduce the load on wireless networks. This approach has obvious benefits to subscribers such as extending their potentially capped data plans, however, it is still limited to specific use cases where a Wi-Fi network is available and these networks are not yet deployed broadly and in a way that is transparent to consumers. Usage policing also falls in the category of traffic avoidance but is going against the inevitable tide of consumers demanding the same level of accessibility on wireless as on wireline. 

Traffic optimization is another emerging solution that rethinks scaling mobile for the Internet by reshaping and coordinating the interaction between the device and the network and optimizing all applications rather than addressing the challenge one application at a time or one type of content at a time. 

By utilizing software components on the handset and a cloud-based server, traffic optimization can better the way devices interact with the network and minimize their consumption of the wireless world’s limited resources: battery, signaling and bandwidth. 

Early tests show that by eliminating the unnecessary requests, it can reduce the time the device is on the network by 40 percent without impacting the user experience. This translates into a data traffic reduction of up to 70 percent and an increase in battery life by up to 25 percent without application or network changes. 

Just as CDNs improved the way that consumers share and receive data on wireline networks, traffic optimization technologies are helping wireless operators to manage content to provide a better overall mobile experience. Traffic optimization has the potential to change the economics of the mobile industry, enabling operators to not only keep pace with the explosion of data traffic and maintain the quality of service their brand is known for, but also enabling them to support more smartphone users on the same network infrastructure and improve their margins on data.

Michael Luna is chief technology officer for SEVEN Networks. 

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