Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mobile Broadband Congestions

People living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, already knows how it is when traffic is congested, just like in the case of mobile networks, everybody gets affected.

Well, in most cases anyway, because some operators are offering a way for some of their customers to get a fast lane in stead of the slow traffic.

Do no evil?

Vodafone Spain and Elisa in Finland have introduced a VIP Broadband tariff plan with prioritised traffic. But is that the best solution? Should normal users be left with a bad service just because the service is popular? It is actually curious that a Finish mobile operator is charging a premium for getting a good mobile connection to the Internet, when the Finish government has lately decided to make broadband a Human Right. Elsewhere, operators and technology suppliers are looking for other ways to solve the problem.

In many places, including Brazil, the lack of spectrum has been blamed for the congestion and slow speed in mobile networks, but in a number of cases the real problem has been the Access Network, i.e. the leased line, fiber, or radio connection which links the cellular radio base-station to the core of the network.

I highlighted this already 10 years ago when operators where connecting their GSM radio bases with one or two E1 connections, which can carry about 2MB/s each, whereas a 3G HSPA radio base would need ten to twelve E1's to feed full capacity. This made the cost increase directly together with the higher data volumes, and as the price per Megabyte has been dropping ever since, operators have been bound for trouble for some time now.

 Even though this still seem to be a problem for some operators in Brazil, most European operators have got over that part, by installing high capacity radios or fiber which will have sufficient capacity to withstand demand for some time to come. These operators are now getting to the next bottleneck in the broadband supply-chain: The Air Interface.

Broadband World Forum in Paris.

This week at the Broadband World Forum in Paris, Deutsche Telecom pointed out that the frequency spectrum currently foreseen for the LTE technology is not enough. Also in Brazil, Falco, the Oi CEO, predicted this week that mobile traffic will grow ten-fold until 2014, and Ericsson is foreseeing growth at 15 times today's levels for 1015. This will for sure put hard constraints on the frequency spectrum made available from the regulator, ANATEL.

To keep mobile operators out of trouble, so called, data off-load solutions have been developed by the technology suppliers. Among them Femto Cells, which works like small cellular base stations with some meters of range that can be placed in residence and office locations, and which are connected to a fixed broadband connection in most cases. Handsets can then reach the mobile network through an Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) connection. Off-load via WiFi is also a solution, and is already helping operators in areas where mobile handsets, laptops and iPads are connected to the Internet through wireless routers that people have connected to their fixed broadband connections at home or elsewhere.

Some operators are worried about this, as most WiFi solutions use unlicensed frequencies which are open to many types of equipment, and where there is no network planning to deal with radio interference. Some US cities, like Philadelphia, which have open public WiFi access have seen reports on interference problems decreasing peoples experienced connection quality.

Now, both the UK and the US government are reported to have plans on making 500MHz available for cellular systems to coupe with the traffic needs. Then again, some other markets have looked more to changes in the data plans, and are cancelling the unlimited data plans as was seen after the iPad launch at AT&T in USA, as mentioned in some of my previous blogs on Net Neutrality, Price Plans in the UK, and France Telecom.

This is probably not enough in the long run to keep data volumes out of trouble then it comes to spectrum capacity, as the competitive price erosion together with video anywhere (Video is finally escaping from home) will end up driving the total data volume much higher. In Brazil, which have low penetration of fixed broadband, with a large number of multi-million inhabitant cities, the spectrum looks to get under pressure in the coming years, and here planning is very important, and the possibility to use the 450MHz spectrum could become essencial.

It seem to be a very narrow vision when the Brazilian government believe that the current lack of broadband access should be solved by state subsidized backbones and LAN Houses. With nearly 200 million mobile users in Brazil, mobility is still not on the government's national Broadband agenda. Soon, more serious trouble have to be solved if Brazil wants to have a GDP growth bonus out of having a connected population.

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