Today’s consumers have every type of information at their fingertips, with instant access to email; the Web; and applications through smartphones, tablet computers, e-readers and music players. In July 2010, Amazon reported that its electronic-book downloads steadily were outpacing sales of physical hardback or paperback books. However, the increasing demand for mobile content is straining the networks that enable delivery of this content, leading to decreased quality of service and slow connections.

The surge in the popularity of smartphones, coupled with the introduction of such other data-centric devices as wireless modems, tablets and e-readers, has pushed mobile broadband to its limits. The popularity of these devices and the growing selection of content available is congesting wireless networks, especially as applications become increasingly dynamic. A recent ABI Research report estimates there will be more than 1.5 billion active mobile broadband consumers by 2015.

Service providers are implementing
a combination of solutions to solve congestion, each with its own host of benefits and drawbacks.

Congestion is a significant challenge. How can operators continue to offer a high quality of service for all customers while maintaining the integrity of their business? Service providers are implementing a combination of solutions to solve congestion, each with its own host of benefits and drawbacks. These investments are a mix of strategies and services.

Strategies

The following congestion solutions involve the operators’ business plans along with IT assistance:

Expand Infrastructure: An obvious way to address congested networks is to increase the capacity of the network itself. However, most existing pricing models result in a poor ROI associated with additional infrastructure because it requires a significant investment of time and resources without significant additional revenue gains.

It’s also a temporary fix: additional infrastructure could support the current demand for data adequately, though this only creates more bandwidth for consumers to use – and then it is only a matter of time before network congestion becomes an issue again.

Invest in next-generation technologies: Another option for operators is the investment in next-generation networks like LTE and (less frequently) WiMAX. This investment is important and necessary for many reasons, not least of which is a significant savings per delivered bit vs. 3G technologies.

But this option has its own set of caveats, as implementation is complex and saddled with such challenges as handset availability and spectrum allocation. The problem with congestion can’t be solved in the short term by LTE, though LTE may have an impact in the long term.

Offloading: Moving data off a congested network is another popular answer to congestion. Many operators are beginning to offer femtocells as a means to offload demand, and some are considering similar strategies using Wi-Fi networks. This has the potential to be an elegant solution, but it faces challenges, too.

Billing systems often are not sufficiently sophisticated to differentiate between data consumed from a cellular network vs. data offloaded onto a fixed-line network. Offloaded data counts against a subscriber’s monthly threshold, even though the usage doesn’t affect the bandwidth these thresholds are intended to protect.

Offloaded data also counts against fixed-line thresholds, causing a “policy stacking” effect that forces users to account twice for the same bit. Handsets often are not sufficiently sophisticated to select the appropriate access point, nor ( i.e., in the case of Wi-Fi) to seamlessly authenticate within a network once it is chosen.

Policy Control: A fourth option is active control of resource consumption through network policy. Such policies, especially those that are subscriber- and service-aware, can help manage data consumption and associated congestion. Prioritizing traffic is especially important during peak usage periods, and this practice truly can show benefits.

Services

Managing congestion is only one challenge operators must address. Another is evolving the flat-rate business models that are contributing to the problem in the first place.

Service and Wholesale Data Passes: Updated charging controls can be used to regulate data usage, with particular flexibility options on such devices as the iPad. Services can be offered on demand, with peak periods costing more than other times and revenue associated directly with consumption.

Evolving wholesale models also present rich opportunities for additional revenue streams. One immediate example is Amazon’s Kindle, which bundles access with the device purchase.

Bundling: Another option is bundling data access with the price of an application, forgoing network access “subscriptions” altogether; such plans could enable discounts to applications sold with the caveat that they cannot be used during congested periods. Bundling services provides new opportunities to package mobile content and consumption together, while assisting with the overall reduction of congestion.

For service providers, the issues and roadblocks with network congestion are top of mind and difficult to solve. Service providers need to take multiple strategies into consideration for long-term planning and budget management, especially as effective technology investments are the key to growing both the top and bottom lines.

Chris Hoover is vice president/Product Management at Openet. Contact him at chris.hoover@openet.us.

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