For quite some time, tension has been building between mobile operators and content providers. This has been fuelled by consumer demand for content, which is now higher than ever before. Apple recently reported it has received over 30 billion app downloads with 650,000 apps now available. To add to this, some of the most popular apps, such as Angry Birds, have received over 100 million downloads alone. While this is great news for content providers, it is the mobile operators that are often in the firing line when it comes to poorly performing apps.  Richard Stone

However, it was AT&T at this year’s Mobile World Congress that finally went public with its grievances. Sick of being blamed by its customers for a poor user experience when accessing popular apps, such as Facebook or YouTube, it declared that it was working on a plan whereby content providers would have to contribute to the increasing broadband bill it faces in giving customers access to their services.

This isn’t necessarily as crazy as it first might seem. From the operators’ perspective, the networks that they have spent millions of pounds building have been reduced to a free highway for content providers to engage with and attract more users – without any responsibility for how that service is delivered. Whilst content providers are sitting back and counting the cash, all operators are getting in return are call centers jammed with angry customers complaining about slow running applications. This is because the automatic assumption is that, irrespective of who’s actually at fault, it is the operators who are the weak link in the chain.

The key worry for operators is that unless they can solve this ‘wasted bandwidth’ issue, which is emerging as content providers don’t yet have to pay for it, the problem will only escalate.  However, simply creating a toll road for content providers isn’t necessarily the answer to the problem. If operators can generate insight into why and how applications are impacting the performance of their network, then they can seize the opportunity to change the nature of the conversation with content providers and improve the experience they deliver to consumers, while forcing them to use bandwidth more economically.

Performance woes

So what’s causing the problem? The proliferation of smartphones means that more and more people are accessing Internet-based services via their mobile. Indeed an incredible 25 percent of all mobile traffic can be attributed to YouTube alone.  For the ever increasing demands we as consumers place on the mobile networks, we (and sometimes the content providers) don’t give a second’s thought to the implications of our data hungry ways – until something goes wrong. 

How applications are coded or detailed device issues can make a big difference both to the user experience and the impact they have on the network. For example, working in conjunction with one client Compuware recently discovered that a recent change that Facebook made when customers were updating their account caused the application to send 18kb of additional ‘waste’ data. If you times that by millions of customers, you soon have significant wasted network bandwidth on your hands.  Different applications also behave in unique ways across different devices and networks.  For example, if you are downloading a picture on an iPhone via Facebook, it requires eight times more data to do so than if you were using an Android device downloading exactly the same picture.

As it stands, most operators and content providers are in the dark about these anomalies. So when an operator phones up a content provider to say that they’re sending too much data over the network, they’re often lacking the context as to why that is an issue. From the content providers’ point of view, more data means more people using the service, so what’s not to like about that?  They don’t know that they are sending wasted data and that the user experience is being reduced as a direct result. As such, conversations tend to be generic and non-specific, meaning that very little gets done about the issue.

One point of view that is very clear in this debate is that of the consumers; they don’t know – and don’t really care whose problem it is. They blame the (only) person who sends them a bill – the network operator. I’ve overheard people myself on trains calling up complaining that their Twitter app isn’t working. From the end of the conversation I can hear, it’s not a productive discussion. Without the ability to pinpoint the problem and provide the customer with a reason, operators are left floundering and apologizing. All they can say is that there isn’t a problem with the network, but from the consumer’s point of view they clearly believe there is because their application isn’t working.  This is frustrating for both parties, but for mobile companies the worry is that the consumer will perceive their inability to diagnose a problem as incompetence and after persistent problems take their business elsewhere.

To start to take back an element of control, some operators have suggested the idea of charging content providers to run applications over their network. In some ways this is not surprising. For every megabit of data that goes over the mobile network, there is a cost associated with that in terms of network investment, maintenance and customer service. Let’s say that cost is one pence. Initially this doesn’t sound very much but when you times that by multiple devices and by millions of customers, a carrier could easily find that it costs them an additional $4,827,000 a year to support a badly behaved application.  That’s money they could reinvest in the network to cope with the data deluge they face on a daily basis.

Whilst this approach might make logical commercial sense, in reality it’s plagued with difficulties.  Firstly, while content providers are likely to be reluctant to prohibit thousands of customers from accessing their services, they’ll pump more time, money and effort into building relationships with the carriers that it costs them less money to partner with. Secondly, consumers today expect to be able to access social media applications via their phone and download other favorites, such as Angry Birds or Draw Something, as a rite of passage. What they do not expect is to have second-class access to these applications as a result of a dispute between their carrier and the content provider.  Finally, and most importantly, it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem. Simply making pipes bigger isn’t the answer because the inefficiencies are still there and it’s not sustainable.

Taking a different approach

Looking to charge content providers isn’t the only avenue available to operators. Right now they only have half the picture about what is happening in their network. They know that data is having a detrimental impact on performance and they suspect that bandwidth is being wasted but they don’t have the tools or processes to know where, why and who. If they can gain the insight required to identify badly behaved applications and isolate the reason behind why the application isn’t performing, carriers will then be able to have a very different conversation with content providers. Rather than simply venting their frustration, they will be able to communicate the bigger picture, the reasons behind the problem and its implications. For example, when it is taking users one minute to download a photo rather than 10 seconds.

Armed with this information, content providers can take decisive action to remedy the issue at hand – wasted bandwidth. After all their business is built on consistent performance and consumers today don’t care about which device or where they are accessing the service from. They expect it to be responsive, not be left waiting. Working together with content providers by giving them the information they need to resolve issues will help them manage their brand but at the same time reduce the burden being placed on the carrier’s network.

Moving forward it is the operators who realize that they can’t live just in their network and need to monitor more broadly that will prosper. By taking a more holistic and collaborative approach to managing the mobile data challenge and sharing information with each other as well as with content providers, carriers can seize the opportunity to once again place themselves at the centre of the mobile ecosystem.

Richard Stone is senior solutions manager of Mobile for Compuware