Mobile Networks Feel The Data Strain

If mobile operators don’t start investing in their infrastructure, they will end up crippling the smartphone market, says Tom Jowitt

The arrival of the football World Cup has brought with it a number of warnings that IT and network managers should prepare their internal networks for a potential bandwidth surge, as people trapped at work use the Internet to watch bandwidth-munching online football matches.

This got me thinking about the potential for the same happening to mobile networks. Of course, most of us would opt to use fixed-line networks for video streaming, as the cost per megabyte tends to be much cheaper over the wire than over the air. But can mobile networks, based on GSM technology, cope with the demand being placed on them by mobile broadband and the rising use of smartphones?

Can GSM Cope?

The answer from the WiMax camp is no, it cannot. “Currently the GSM networks cannot cope,” said Graham Currier, Chief Operating Officer at Freedom4, speaking to eWEEK Europe last last year. “You cannot expect voice networks to suddenly triple their capacity, and what happens when it fills up is that my voice call gets dropped.”

Another warning was also issued last year by Andrew Bud, chairman of mobile billing company mBlox at the Future of Mobile event, run by Westminster eForum. “Everyone is selling something they don’t have possession of, and the cost and revenue are not linked,” he said. “There will be an initial boost but it will then come crashing down, unless there is a radical change in the business model.”

And indeed it seems that some analysts also agree. Informa, for example, has previously warned that mobile data traffic is set to increase 25 fold by 2012, and said that mobile operators need to take action in order to handle imminent data traffic jams.

This was borne out in December when O2 suffered a number of embarrassing network failures in London. The operator was forced to admit that the crash was caused by the bandwidth strain from the increasing use of smartphones.

O2 had already said that it planned to spend hundred of millions of pounds overhauling its mobile network in order to give it ’significant headroom for mobile data’ and to meet the rising demand for mobile broadband.

Despite this, months later, the same operator announced it is now scrapping its unlimited data deals, presumably because it is struggling to deal with the data strain. And to make matters worse, angry O2 users have decided to do something about it, and are organising a protest called O2 Data Day for 24 June. Apparently, organisers are encouraging O2 customers to consume all of their mobile data allowance on that day, to show how angry they are at the change.

This protest could potentially cause O2 further network problems, especially if users swamped their local cell towers with data requests.

Investment Needed

There is little doubt that mobile networks are creaking under the strain of mobile broadband. So should we should be building bigger and wider superhighways in the sky? After all, BT is replacing significant parts of its copper-based network with superfast fibre. It has even just promised that most Londoners will be able to have fibre-based broadband by the end of Spring 2011.

Fundamentally, there is little doubt that GSM was initially designed with voice, and not data, in mind. So is LTE or WiMax the answer then? Well maybe. At least WiMax exists as a working technology, but in the UK it has only limited presence. LTE on the other hand is still some way off, at least in the UK.

But all this boils down to one salient point. Mobile operators have been encouraging customers to use more and more data for years now, and now that this is happening, they seem to be penalising them for it.

Mobile operators cannot have their cake and eat it, and perhaps they should follow BT’s example by investing significant sums in their infrastructure. BT has realised that if it doesn’t invest in fibre, someone else will. The UK carrier knows it needs to take the painful decision to invest billions now, in order to secure its longer-term survival.

Mobile operators should wake up and realise that by making their customers scrutinise every data download, they could in fact cripple the very market they are trying to encourage.