Common wisdom has it that bandwidth-hogging smartphone users are the reason wireless networks are experiencing more frequent issues. Indeed, the average iPhone owner uses 273 MB of data per month, according to Consumer Reports. The proliferation of data usage has led to significant problems with call completion and Internet access in urban areas like San Francisco and New York. One New Yorker was told that up to 30 percent of iPhone calls are dropped on average.
Given this mindset, the proposed solutions from carriers include moving to 4G networks, which doubles the air interface capacity, and replacing unlimited data plans with capped plans. Sprint Nextel is leading the U.S. in the 4G area, having already deployed phones and modems on its WiMAX network, and MetroPCS is not far behind, leading the charge with LTE technology. Nearly all of the U.S. carriers have, or are, eliminating their unlimited data plans.
However, these solutions may not entirely solve the problem because, in reality, consuming too much bandwidth is only one of two ways that users can cause congestion on the network. The other is to overburden the radio network controller (RNC) with too many requests to access the network. That happens when you have “chatty” applications or highly interactive users causing the mobile device to signal the network too frequently.
With mobile applications growing in popularity, networks are becoming increasingly congested. According to the recent Pew Internet Project survey, nearly one in four adults actively use applications, and Gartner predicts worldwide mobile application download sales of nearly $30 billion by 2013. That means a lot of applications waking up the device to check the network, which increases the potential for network congestion and also for consuming more battery life.
What’s becoming clear is that the bandwidth threat posed by video or massive Internet downloads is matched by the constant, ever present trickle of millions of handsets pinging the network for updates. Analyst Michael Thelander of Signals Research has studied this problem and says: “Smartphones are causing a problem, but it isn’t data usage. The base station controller is spending a lot of its resources trying to process the signaling so it can’t do other things like allocate additional resources for data. You’ll see dropped calls and data service degradation.”
Recent reports suggest that signaling traffic outpaces mobile data traffic by 30 percent to 50 percent or more.
Many mobile applications are designed to automatically check for new content on the network. This requires a mobile device to move through four states from being idle (state 1) to having a dedicated network channel (state 4) for voice or data communications. Each time the device changes its state, it creates signaling to the local RNC to communicate the status change. Going from idle to dedicated channel, for instance, requires 30 signaling messages. The RNC is provisioned to handle a certain number of connections based on a statistical analysis of the average number of users in an area and the number of times they use their phones for calls, messaging or Internet access.
Many applications, though, skew this average by polling the network on a regular basis, without user intervention. Using synchronization technology, an application can check for new messages every minute, consuming the RNC resource and creating data traffic without the user knowing, and additionally, drawing down the battery. In fact, turning off automatic, frequent updates is what many smartphone users do to extend their battery life.
The best mobile synchronization technology is optimized for the constraints of a wireless network with software on both a device and a server that has the intelligence to communicate only when needed. That’s directly opposite of the polling model that is being commonly used by most mobile applications with a network signaling level that is far beyond the typical or even common push model.
It’s also in contrast with any technology used in the Web world where bandwidth and signaling constraints are not as prevalent. A comparison test that I conducted between messaging apps using an optimized wireless push protocol and a polling protocol shows how dramatic the difference can be: The optimized protocol reduced data transfer by up to 80 percent and reduced battery power consumption by 50 percent, an important end-user benefit.
Network signaling is poised to become an even greater challenge as smartphones and network-connected applications become more popular. In order to solve the real problem, carriers, device manufacturers and developers will have to rethink the way mobile devices and applications interact with the network. A careful and deliberate deployment of highly efficient push technology can help end network congestion, while also allowing carriers to cost-effectively scale their networks to meet the expanding demand.
—Michael Luna is chief technology officer at SEVEN.