Data crunch

While handset manufacturers and software developers at this year’s Mobile World Congress were busy touting their latest products and services that will likely increase the amount of traffic passing through operators’ networks, vendors were using the conference as an opportunity to showcase ways of dealing with the upswing in traffic.

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Data crunch
By  George Bevir Published  March 2, 2010 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

One of the items at the top of the agenda at last month’s GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC) was the topic of network congestion. It has been a source of major concern for networks in the US and Western Europe over the past 12 months, with UK-based operator O2’s CEO pressed into making a public apology for the performance of its network.

We are yet to see similar pronouncements from the heads of telcos in the region, but with an ever-increasing amount of smartphones being used in the Middle East and more operators marketing their USB plug-in devices, the amount of data traffic passing through networks is increasing.

One of the firms at MWC showcasing its solutions for operators with congested networks was network planning and optimisation firm Aircom International. Fabricio Martinez, director of the firm’s services and product management division, says that the Middle East is the fastest growing region when compared with other markets around the world.

“At the moment we see 1.5GB of data being consumed, and that’s three or four times higher than the rest of the world,” he says. “By 2013 or 2014 that figure will be around 6-7GB of data per month, per user."

Such a rapid rise is already happening, according to Zain Kuwait CEO Khalid Al-Hajeri. On the first day of MWC he told delegates that mobile broadband usage among Zain Kuwait’s subscribers had rocketed by 500% during the second half of last year. The dramatic increase was a surprise, he said: “We thought the trend was localised, but it looks like it is all over [the region]. Innovations such as the introduction of the iPhone and the BlackBerry have contributed to it, but what we have seen from the analysis is that it is not only the corporate users, it is the consumers,” he said. “Whether they are $10 average revenue per user (ARPU) or $100 ARPU, they all want to have the internet.”

The handset manufacturers’ focus in Barcelona was largely on mid to high-end smartphones, with a particular focus on the merging of social networking websites, something that Sony Ericsson, Samsung and Motorola all were all keen to highlight.

Sales of such devices are expected to increase over the coming years, and according to data compiled by Bridgewater Systems, another exhibitor at this year’s MWC, smartphones drive 30-50 times more data usage than other devices. By 2012 it estimates that they will account for 65% of the handset market.

Saudi at the centre

KSA operator Mobily was branded the “largest and busiest mobile broadband network in the Middle East” by the GSMA, and it says it has more than 1 million active HSPA subscribers from a base of 18 million subscribers. But behind such headline-grabbing accolades sits the potential headache of a clogged-up network.

Bridgewater Systems announced that Etisalat subsidiary Mobily had selected its ‘Service Controller and Policy Controller’ to manage mobile data growth across its WiMAX and Wi-Fi networks. Bridgewater says that the solutions, which are being delivered in collaboration with Samsung, Mobily’s infrastructure partner, will allow the operator to “implement smart subscriber, service, and policy controls to manage the complexities of exponential mobile data traffic growth, and millions of subscribers, devices, and applications”. It will also give the KSA telco the ability to centralise control and policies across multiple access networks to optimise and offload mobile data traffic across different networks.

One of the infrastructure vendors with the biggest presence at MWC was Chinese firm Huawei. Like Bridgewater, it too has teamed up with Mobily, and was previously selected to provide a packet switched core network for HSDPA deployment, with the Chinese vendor claiming that it will be one of the world’s largest packet core installations.

Cross town traffic

One of UK network O2’s solutions to its problem of a faltering network was to install another 200 base stations in London, its most congested locality, in a bid to appease frustrated customers living in the capital. Bridgewater claims that 80% of network traffic is managed by only 10% of cell sites, which it says has resulted in service degradation for mobile subscribers attached to congested cell sites. It is no surprise, then, that operators looking to roll out 4G networks are targeting main centres of population in the Middle East.

On the first day of MWC, Zain Saudi Arabia announced that it had signed a deal with Motorola to upgrade part of its network to LTE (Long Term Evolution). And just after the show had ended, it revealed that another deal had been signed with Ericsson to work on its LTE upgrade.

Motorola will deploy what it described as the largest LTE network for Zain in Riyadh, with an end-to-end LTE solution, devices and optimisation and integration services. Work on the network upgrade will begin in the second quarter of the year, and Zain Saudi Arabia’s chief operating officer Ismail Fikree said the roll out will help to address the needs of its consumers. Ericsson said its deal with Zain will cover four main cities in the kingdom: Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Al Khubar.

“We want to provide Zain subscribers in the Kingdom with the fastest high-quality network that can accommodate real-time multimedia applications such as video conferencing, high definition content streaming, video blogging, or the ability to quickly upload video onto social networking sites,” Fikree said.

Mid-way through MWC, and not to be outdone by its KSA rivals Zain and Mobily, Saudi Arabia’s STC announced that Ericsson had been chosen to roll out its own LTE network in the country, which it said will be capable of speeds of up to 150 Mbps.

Boosting backhaul

According to a report from industry analysts Informa Telecoms & Media, there is a need to re-examine the backhaul strategy adopted by operators in advanced markets in order to protect capital and operational expenditure. Informa suggests that fixed line copper connections “are not a viable option”, and that “plugging in more ‘E1’ lines will put a mobile operator at a major disadvantage in terms of operating cost”. A fixed line alternative, fibre, is dismissed as still being too expensive.

“The tipping point for fibre deployment is still about 8-10 years away when costs have fallen and benefits of upgrading make sense,” the industry analyst says. With many countries in the region spread out over large areas and pockets of population spread across large areas, it can make the cost even more substantial.

Informa says that microwave makes sense and but next generation microwave makes more sense - Point to Multipoint (PTMP) microwave links are the most logical short to medium term choice for mobile backhaul. “PTMP, a relative newcomer to Western Europe, offers significant opex and capex benefits performance gains and is the most attractive of the microwave technologies on offer,” the analyst firm noted.

According to the calculations in this white paper, PTMP can offer savings of up to US$5 billion over a 5-year period for a Tier-1 mobile operator with networks in five European developed markets. Informa estimates that PTMP can be deployed at 5% the cost of fibre and is 40% more cost effective to deploy compared with traditional point to point microwave.

Philip Bates, senior manager at global telecoms adviser Analysys Mason, spoke to delegates at MWC about the issue of backhaul on demand. He says that operators urgently need to deal with the backhaul crunch by offloading data traffic onto WiFi hotspots and femtocells and by finding economical ways to expand capacity at macrocell and microcell sites.

He says that most operators have indicated that they intend to expand their capacity by moving from circuit-based to packet-based backhaul. Together with commercial and regulatory pressures on operators to share sites there is a unique opportunity for incumbent fixed-line operators and their altnet competitors to offer shared packet-based backhaul services.

 “Backhaul-on-demand, as we call it, can be a win-win situation for both the buyer and the seller,” says Bates. “Mobile operators eliminate the risk of over- or under-dimensioning their backhaul networks as a result of errors in forecasting future levels of data traffic, avoid the capital expenditure associated with a move to packet-based backhaul, and safeguard their quality of service at shared sites by means of a service level agreement with the backhaul provider.

“Meanwhile, backhaul providers secure large, long-term revenue opportunities, and can mitigate the traffic forecasting risk to some extent through their ability to aggregate the traffic from multiple operators at low incremental cost.”

“Traditional networks are not equipped for the surge in mobile broadband traffic that operators are witnessing due to rising smartphone use,” says Vesa Tykkylainen, head of microwave transport at Nokia Siemens Networks.

Infrastructure major Nokia Siemens Networks says that new microwave products help operators overcome the overload generated by smartphone use.

Its microwave switch products ‘FlexiPacket FirstMile’ and ‘FlexiPacket Hub 1200’, which it says will enable operators to easily migrate from legacy networks to all-IP as they cope with increasing data traffic, were launched at this year’s MWC.

“Our FlexiPacket Microwave solution helps operators transform their networks to handle this deluge of data and offer their customers a better broadband service. These products allow operators to optimise their networks for data traffic, but also ensure that the quality of voice calls is not compromised,” Tykkylainen says.

App frenzy

Aircom’s Martinez says the main reason to move to LTE is increasing the capability for management of the network, not bandwidth. He says that many of the applications used by consumers and the streaming of high definition television do not demand the high throughputs that can be provided by LTE. Rather, what costs in terms of congestion is the behaviour of applications; it is not the volume of data that cause congestion, it is the allocation of data, with too many processes taking place at the same time, that causes the problem.

He uses the analogy of a glut of people arriving at an empty restaurant at the same time: the problem is not finding enough seats for the hungry people, but getting them all seated at the same time. There is a need, he says, for a more economical way to transport an increasing amount of small packets of data generated by more users, applications.

Dealing with the increased use of apps is a trend that looks certain to continue. For the first time at MWC, there was a dedicated hall for app developers, and twenty-four leading telecommunications operators announced at the show that they have formed the ‘Wholesale Applications Community’, an alliance to build an open platform that delivers applications to all mobile phone users.

The world’s largest operators were among the signatories, but from the Middle East and Africa, only Bharti Airtel, MTN, Orascom Telecom and Vodafone committed to the plans to “create an ecosystem for the development and distribution of mobile and internet applications irrespective of device or technology”.

Voice over LTE

At MWC, wireless trade body the GSMA announced it has adopted the work of the ‘One Voice Initiative’ to drive the global mobile industry towards a standard way of delivering voice and messaging services for Long-Term Evolution (LTE).

The GSMA’s Voice over LTE (VoLTE) initiative has the backing of more than 40 organisations from across the mobile ecosystem, including many of the world’s leading mobile operators, handset manufacturers and equipment vendors, all of whom support the principle of a single, IMS-based voice solution for next-generation mobile broadband networks.

The GSMA will also lead the development of the specifications that will enable interconnection and international roaming between LTE networks, and will complete that work by Q1 2011. The GSMA said it has widespread industry support for its VoLTE initiative, although some of the world’s leading operators support the initiative, the only operator with a presence in the region to sign up so far is Vodafone. Handset manufacturers and equipment vendors supporting VoLTE include Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, LG, Motorola, NEC, Nokia, Nokia Siemens Networks, and Qualcomm.

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