Unlimited Data’s resurgence due to SDN, says AT&T

Software-defined networking and virtualization is behind the return of the unlimited smartphone plan.

sdn lead image
Credit: Mueller via Wikimedia Commons

The days of unlimited wireless data were thought to be over. Too many mobile subscribers, and not enough bandwidth to go around had Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) clawing back unlimited data plans wherever they could over the last few years.

The glory days of unfettered device-based media gone forever, hungry downloaders may have thought. But not so fast. We might be spotting a resurgence in the ‘unlimited data’ marketing rhetoric.

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, with its unlimited video, have recently picked up the tagline again. The reason? Well I can assure you that it’s not generosity.

What appears to have happened—certainly in AT&T’s case—is that software has improved and is letting the customer and traffic scaling get managed better. The company can handle the load now.

“We’re turning routers, switches and other network gear into virtual network functions,” says John Donovan, AT&T’s Chief Strategy Officer, in a corporate blog post. In other words, virtualization is kicking in on what’s called the ‘mobile packet core.’ And those efficiencies are allowing the MNO to hand out more data.

“We recently brought back Unlimited Data,” AT&T says in the blog. “One of the reasons we were comfortable doing that is we know this software-centric network can adapt to meet the demand,” the blog explains. Of course, ‘Unlimited Data’ doesn’t mean ‘Unlimited Data at Fast Speeds.’ Marketing semantics is another story. However, the latest AT&T unlimited data plan (in a triple-play with TV) is dishing out 22GBs before throttling, which is good.

AT&T reckons it will virtualize three-quarters of its network by 2020. It’s currently achieved 5.7%, according to the company. Plus it says it has moved 14 million customers over.

AT&T comes up with more interesting numbers in this announcement, too. It says it’s seen a 150,000% increase in wireless data traffic between 2007 and 2015. The year 2007 was when the first iPhone was released.

“The amounts of data we use is exploding,” the company says in a blog-accompanying animation.

“Data, specifically video is now the largest source of traffic on our network,” it says. They include voice in that traffic.

AT&T reckons video usage will double by 2017. That’s one reason it thinks it needs to move away from the traditional, voice-oriented networks it’s offered in the past, particularly pre-smartphone. The company says it’s now using regular “off-the-shelf” equipment and is shifting away from “bulky, expensive hardware” to software.

Another reason for this shift is so it can offer customers real-time scalability. It uses the example of a retailer running a sale. The retailer can dial-in “more bandwidth” when they need it, returning to normal levels when they don’t.

AT&T is also painfully aware of the smartphone’s maturation in the developed world. The days of customers flocking to AT&T stores to buy expensive smartphones are probably over—the customer has already bought one of the generic slabs of plastic or aluminum.

And virtualization allows the MNO to move into other markets, like home security and IoT, more flexibly. More markets means they’re not just betting on phones. More software also means a phone company can gather Big Data on customers too, if it chooses. That’s something it can also sell.

I wrote about that business in “How wireless providers are quietly cashing in on your location data,” in November. Ad Age says that business will be worth $79 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile, have some speedy unlimited data. Up to 22GB, that is. Should be enough to download some video, and enough to upload some Big Data.

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