TRAFFIC! Growth and Carrier Challenges – Part I

This is a Guest Blog by Tom Carter, VP Worldwide Sales at F5 Networks.

The incredible growth of smartphones in mobile operators’ networks has had dramatic effects.  It’s GREAT for users but a huge challenge for operators, and in fact a double edged sword. The insatiable desire for consuming mobile data has enabled operators to lock in long term contracts and drive new revenues, but the increased demand from these new powerful data hogs comes with a price - the host cost of managing the effects on the network.  However, this volume of content that users are consuming is not the greatest challenge that mobile operators have to deal with, but rather it is the dramatic rise in SIGNALING that is generated.

So what is “signaling”?  Simply put, signaling is the communication system that authenticates users to get connected to wireless networks. When you turn on your device, or when you land in a foreign airport, the first thing that happens is user and device authentication. This is a type of transaction that takes place in an LTE network, using a communications protocol called “Diameter”, between the device and the network’s subscriber database and unique subscriber service provisioning as verified by the policy rules established per subscriber.

As data consumption rises, the number of transactions to the radio tower increases together with the signaling that is required to support them.  Plus, the apps that are left open in idle mode (in the background) on smartphones, also “ping” the network frequently and add significantly to the number of signaling messages. Every time a phone is asked to retrieve content whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like, there is a need for the device to connect via a signaling path.

Therefore, mobile consumer behavior creates so much signaling traffic within the carrier’s network that it now outweighs the mobile content data traffic by FAR - at least by a factor of 3x.  As new smartphones hit the market the carriers are faced with this deluge of data requests (“pinging” the network) and need to cope with the associated signaling.  MANY carriers struggle to keep up as their next- gen networks evolve and bring on congested signaling operations.  And the problem only grows as more apps aim to deliver content and messages in real time.  Improvements to network, device, platform and application design can help. They will help alleviate the capacity issues but users are unpredictable and the only sure thing is that mobile consumers will increase their data use, particularly with faster LTE networks.   All these factors require new enhancements to mobile operator networks with capabilities that are designed specifically to deal with these new and evolving challenges.

What enhancements are needed to address the challenges? Look for a few thoughts on that (Part II) in the next few days. I will have some airplane time while travelling to Mobile World Congress.

Published Feb 20, 2014
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