Smart wireless networks to the rescue

Carriers are turning toward more intelligent network management to ensure their networks can handle the onslaught of wireless data traffic that is being thrown at them.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

CHICAGO--Wireless operators are adding more smarts to their networks to ensure the flood of new smartphones, tablets, and other wireless connected gadgets don't overwhelm them.

Equipment suppliers gathering here this week at 4G World to discuss the next generation of wireless network infrastructure are working not only to help wireless operators add more capacity to their network, but they are also adding more intelligence into the network to make more efficient use of the resources.

Analysts predict that data traffic on the wireless network could increase 700 percent by 2015 as smartphones and other connected-devices access the Net wirelessly. Smartphones in general consume 50 times more bandwidth than traditional cell phones. And laptops consume 25 more data than smartphones. Tablets--an emerging category of product popularized by the Apple iPad--are somewhere in the middle.

In preparation to handle the onslaught of traffic, wireless operators have already begun upgrading their networks. They've been placing wireless bay stations closer together to increase capacity using smaller cell sites to handle more traffic. They're starting to offload traffic to Wi-Fi and femto cells. They've added fiber to the backhaul portion of their networksto carry data from the cell towers to the core wired networks.

And they are also migrating to new network technologies. In the U.S, each of the four major wireless operators is upgrading its network technology to increase bandwidth and performance. Verizon Wireless is deploying a so-called 4G wireless technology, LTE or Long Term Evolution. Sprint Nextel, through its partnership with Clearwire, is deploying its next-generation network using a technology called WiMax. And AT&T and T-Mobile USA are using upgrades to existing HSPA infrastructure to increase bandwidth. AT&T and T-Mobile have each said they plan to eventually deploy LTE.

While 4G technologies will add more capacity to carrier networks, that is only part of the benefit of the upgrade. The upgrade to LTE and WiMax will make the networks more efficient because they are based on IP. And more efficient networks mean carriers don't have to spend as much to offer customers services.

"The carrier that spends the least amount on delivering its services and is the most efficient will win," said Phil Marshall, co founder and chief research officer for Tolaga Research.

But becoming a more efficient network also requires more intelligence in the network.

"Intelligence is needed to manage the network," he said. "And we're only at the beginning stages of deploying this technology."

Indeed, the timing is right for intelligent network management of wireless networks. Marshall, who spoke yesterday on a panel sponsored by Qualcomm with other industry execs, said that six or seven years ago there were several companies developing wireless network optimization products, but many went out of business because there wasn't enough data on the networks to manage.

That has all changed with the advent of the super smartphones, like the iPhone and Android devices. And it will continue to grow as other devices come on board, such as Windows Phone 7 devices and other devices like the tablet PCs.

Marshall said that when you talk about capacity on a wireless network, it's helpful to think of it the same way you think of building new roads. You can add several more lanes to a highway, but you may also have to manage the traffic by coordinating traffic lights and adding HOV lanes during peak travel times. That's also what is needed for wireless networks, he said.

Mike Wright, executive director for Telstra, the Australian broadband provider that was the first carrier to deploy next-generation HSPA+ network technology, was also on the panel. He agreed that even as bandwidth increases, carriers still have to manage their networks to ensure that they are keeping costs down and optimally serving customers.

"We're already at a point where there is mass market adoption of these data services," he said. "So we need to look at ways we can more intelligently manage the traffic on our network."

As an example, he said he is looking at ways to time-shift traffic during the busiest parts of the day to flatten the cost.

"Your network is as expensive as it costs to carry your peak loads," he said. "So flattening out that traffic with network quality of service techniques or time-shifting traffic, means we can get more out of our resources."

Infrastructure companies are already working on solutions. Cisco Systems, which makes infrastructure equipment that fuels the Internet, has launched a special business unit to work with wireless operators. And tomorrow, the company is expected to announce a product that will help wireless operators better manage their data traffic once it comes off the radio network and is aggregated onto their wired IP-based infrastructure.

"Making the IP core network more efficient helps alleviate the need for more spectrum and more capacity throughout the network," Andy Capener, the director of marketing for service provider mobility for Cisco, said in an interview last week. "We don't actually supply the radios that transmit the data wireless, so it's incumbent upon us to optimize the traffic beyond that point so that it consumes less wireless resources when it goes through the radio network."

In other words, Cisco's technology will help compress video and Web pages that consumers download and view to reduce overall usage on the network.

Ericsson, which makes radio gear in addition to IP core infrastructure, is also making equipment to help carriers use the network more efficiently. George Antoun, head IP and broadband products for Ericsson, said during the panel that ideally all players in the wireless ecosystem should be designing products for efficiency. He pointed out that Research In Motion has done a very good job with the BlackBerry designing the device and its core applications to use the network very efficiently.

By contrast, he explained that other devices, such as the iPhone, are not designed with network efficiency in mind. He said that Apple has designed the iPhone so that apps are updating constantly. This means that the device is always talking to the cell towers in the network and downloading data, which runs up data consumption unnecessarily.

"Even if the phone is in your pocket as you drive down the highway, it's talking to every cell tower in every cell site you pass," he said. "It's transmitting data. It's pushing data to you unless you turn it off."

In addition, to consuming more data, this activity also drains power from the cell sites, possibly making them less effective. And it drains the device's battery as well. The net result is a network that is not operating at full efficiency with hundreds or even thousands of these devices constantly moving between cell sites.

"It would be great if we could get application developers and device makers to design the products differently," he said in an interview. "But who is going to tell Steve Jobs he has to change the iPhone? Instead, it's up to the carriers to add more intelligence to de-prioritize apps and functions that are not being used."

Antoun also pointed out that it's the device makers and application developers that are driving innovation. New devices, such as the iPhone and the Android devices, are pushing wireless operators to upgrade their networks.

"The big change in the industry is that service providers used to wait for the business case to be fleshed out before they built out their networks," he said. "But now they are building the networks and people are immediately filling them. Where ever they go, there is demand."

Antoun also said that the solution is not simply a technical one in terms of adding capacity and intelligence for better traffic management. Consumers' consumption habits must also be altered so that people pay for what they use.

"The industry is at an inflection point where we can change the way we charge for services," he said. "There's not only an opportunity to optimize the network, but to really put new business models out there. We have lost the war a little bit. And we can't continue with flat service pricing."

Intelligent management and network provisioning can help carriers develop these new business models, he suggested.

"The tech is there," he said. "A lot has to be understood and applied. And then it's a matter of who will make the first move."

One thing that could derail the march toward intelligent network innovation is the fight in Washington, D.C. over Net neutrality. While in theory, Net neutrality rules, which are supposed to ensure that operators can't give priority to traffic to harm competition or block consumers from accessing legal content, should not prevent wireless operators from managing their networks. But regulation, even with the best intentions, could still have unintended consequences, which hamper development.

"The problem is that the regulations tend to lag technology innovation," Marshall said. "And right now, things are evolving so quickly."