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Smartphones, data hogs causing wireless network capacity crunch

Flat-rate plans also a key cause of wireless network data deluge

By , Network World
November 16, 2010 11:59 AM ET

Network World - Two-thirds of wireless carriers say their networks are suffering due to the surge in data traffic. They're racing to apply a wide range of technical and tariff changes to cope with the problem, and with the growing customer dissatisfaction, according to a new global survey of network operations staff.

Overall, 20% of respondents say heavy data traffic causes "severe overload at specific times." Forty-three percent say network congestion is in "specific geographic areas." About 50% say capacity demand is intermittent and varies by time of day, but about 40% report that data demand is rising for all customers. About the same percentage (and characteristically operators in the Americas) say that "bandwidth hogs" -- a subscriber whose data traffic usage can consume much or even most of a given cell site's capacity -- are a major contributor to the capacity crunch.

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The survey was done by Telesperience, a U.K.-based telecommunications analyst company whose focus is on improving operational efficiency of service providers. The study was sponsored by Amdocs, a company that offers business and operational support systems, among other products, to network operators. 

For this survey, Telesperience used an approach it calls the "expert sample." The survey is based on only about 30 participants, but these were carefully chosen for their roles, knowledge and expertise in cellular wireless network operations, management and planning. A PDF file of the full report is available online  

The survey only skims the surface of the full depth of the considerable technical challenges facing wireless operators as they deal with soaring data demand on networks that were originally designed for voice calls. Cellular networks today are a mix of technologies, and for the past few years, operators have been investing in 3G network upgrades to add more capacity at cell sites.

The coming switch to LTE will provide a lot more bandwidth, but phasing it in will take time and money. MetroPCS deployed the first LTE network in Las Vegas in September.  

 The network experts identified several reasons for the surging data growth, but they vary in importance in different regions.

Overall, these respondents ranked smartphones as being the biggest contributor to the data crunch (4.06 of 5.0 points). Second was flat-rate (or unlimited) data plans, at 3.47, closely followed by bandwidth hogs, at 3.29, and laptops with mobile broadband at 3.22.

American operators all blamed the first two as the main culprits. By contrast, the tariff plans were the No. 1 cause in Europe; mobile broadband laptops were No. 1 in Asia. In the United States., AT&T last June announced it was ending unlimited data plan, in favor of two plans, one tailored for most current users, the other for users that routinely move lots of data. Both offer unlimited access to AT&T's nationwide Wi-Fi hotspot network.  Within days, Verizon executives hinted they would do the same

The survey offered several statements to identify the characteristics of what Telesperience calls the "capacity crunch." Just under 55% agreed that "peak capacity demand is related to service usage." Forty percent blame "bandwidth hogs" for "consuming a larger proportion of capacity."

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