Femtocells and Net Neutrality

traffic_lightsThe recent appeal court decision in favour of Comcast supports the right for them to shape the traffic on their broadband network. Would this affect service from your femtocell if it were connected through it?

What is Net Neutrality anyway?

Net Neutrality can be interpreted differently by different people. Some believe this should allow any internet data packets to be given the same priority as any other, regardless of the service being used, its purpose or destination.

Others would interpret this as the principle whereby traffic for a given service is treated identically regardless of who is providing the service. This ensures that any 3rd party service provider can compete on the same terms as others. This more closely matches the Wikipedia definition. You might also refer to the FCC’s three basic Open Internet rules.

The decision of a US Federal Appeals court Supreme Court upheld Comcast's appeal of an FCC ruling which required them to prioritise peer-to-peer traffic at the same level as other services. This traffic shaping is implemented by many Internet Service Providers around the globe as a means to make best use of their resources. Sending a 10GByte file at 4am across the network is always going to be cheaper than sending it at peak time in the evening when web surfing and other usage is in heavy demand.

Comcast have a generous monthly data usage allowance

In my view, there was always either going to be a regulatory or a market solution. Where Comcast today sets an enviable 250GByte limit (that’s enough for about 125 standard definition movies)  on their monthly data consumption (i.e. about 50 times what I use), they could have imposed tiered pricing on their consumers which would have affected many more users.

It’s believed that a small percentage of users consume inordinate amounts of network bandwidth today. Certainly that’s true for mobile networks – AT&T Wireless claim that some 3% of their users consume 41% of their network capacity primarily because of unlimited data tariffs.

One study of US internet use from 2009 suggested that traffic patterns vary considerably between the US and European countries (which peak at about 7pm). The articles found here and here include several interesting charts on US internet traffic by service type, suggesting that many stay up late at night watching video and Instant Messaging.

Traffic shaping also affects those using femtocells

Because of the nature of femtocell traffic, which is often bi-directional (for voice) rather than uni-directional, ISPs can mistake it for peer-to-peer file sharing traffic. Femtocells are commonly connected through 3rd party Internet Service Providers over which the mobile network operator has no control. Although online tests might be used to determine the peak traffic rate available at a customer’s home, this may be traffic shaped at peak time and/or made worse by congestion.

Operators need to talk to their local ISPs

One of the activities that mobile network operators may need to take into account as they deploy femtocells is to talk with the major Internet Service Providers through which femtocell traffic will pass. They’ll need to ensure that traffic shaping doesn’t adversely affect femtocell services.

ISPs are likely to want to handle femtocell traffic correctly - they won't want their customers to leave because the service is incompatible.

Femtocell vendors need to incorporate functionality to cater for this too

The experience of femtocell deployment in the real world brings with it many additional features and requirements that might otherwise be overlooked. One is the need to handle reduced rates of internet bandwidth due to traffic shaping and/or congestion, automatically limiting the number of calls handled at any time  to match  what’s available.

The more difficult issue is perhaps how to explain to new femtocell users that their box won’t handle the full 4 simultaneous calls at particular times of day due to issues with their wireline broadband provider.

Perhaps we’ll see reviews and recommendations for femtocell friendly ISPs

Some ISPs already provide a premium service that prioritises traffic, such as for gamers and/or business use. It’s not inconceivable that femtocell traffic could be given guaranteed performance either as a differentiating or premium service from ISPs in the future.

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Comments   

#1 Kmitchell said: 
David, you refer to "the nature of femtocell traffic, which is often bi-directional (for voice)" and that "ISPs can mistake it for peer-to-peer file sharing traffic". I don't think they'll be able to do DPI on this. This voice traffic will encrypted be in a IPsec tunnel and would look like a VPN to the ISP. They could not inspect the traffic within the IPsec tunnel.
0 Quote 2010-04-13 23:44
 
#2 Peter B. said: 
@Kmitchel
Yet the ISP can apply traffic shapping policies to the IPSEC traffic.
0 Quote 2010-04-14 12:16
 
#3 Kmitchell said: 
Yes, they can apply traffic shaping to IPsec tunnel overall, which could be sizable if Internet data traffic is backhauled to the mobile SP. Otherwise with 1-2 voice calls, the tunnel shouldn't be large enough to warrant enforcement of policies. The Tunnel will be a long lived event but with no attached phone, the traffic will be minimal: keep alives to keep tunnel open.
0 Quote 2010-04-14 15:28
 
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