Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

IIR Mobile Network Performance Conference Report

logo_mobile-network-performance-iirIIR’s Mobile Network Performance conference provided some real insight into how several European operators are tackling the issue of measuring and dealing with mobile broadband services.

This is one of the smaller conferences, targeting a very specific group of people looking at how to manage the storm of growing capacity. Several operators revealed considerable detail about the approach they use, although some understandably could not share confidential figures.

Here are my summary notes of the event. Apologies for having to omit many good presentations and conversations from other delegates.

It’s the user experience that counts

Several operators explained they don’t start by just measuring peak data rates or other headline factors. Instead, they have tested and evaluated the end user experience and customer satisfaction. Mobilkom Austria has undertaken a wide range of usability tests, with many subjects visiting a mockup office in their lab to use the internet. They can then work out how fast and with what latency they need to deliver to keep their customer’s happy – these Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are then used in capacity planning of the network.

Europe has very much selected HSPA+ technology

The 3G technology adopted by GSM operators, known as UMTS, has evolved to handle ever higher data rates. High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) now offers 21 Mbit/s peak rate, with more to come. European operators have continued to invest heavily in this rather than taking a leap forward directly to LTE (the 4th generation technology) as has been chosen by Verizon in the US and in several other countries.

LTE was discussed, but with the impression that it’s not such a dramatic difference in itself – one operator challenged me to say what it could provide that HSPA can’t.  When I proffered low latency, he said “I’m getting 23ms latency in my office using HSPA+ today.” On the other hand, operators would love to get hold of additional spectrum – particularly at the lower frequencies released by switching to Digital TV.

Some operators provided a snapshot

KPN,  Netherlands, who don’t offer the iPhone today, and so didn’t really see a problem due to smartphone signaling congestion. They took a holistic approach, modeling the end-to-end path through the network so that every potential bottleneck was considered. Their approach was to filter out peaks of excessive use in the results before using them for capacity planning.

Mobilkom Austria, with one of the highest mobile broadband customer penetration rates, explained that their marketing strongly emphasized the quality and capacity of their network. A survey showed this was the second most important factor for customers choosing a network operator (the first is personal recommendation). They had found many reasons why performance might not be what the customer expected – for example, the TCP/IP window size in Windows XP limits throughput to 7Mbit/s (not a problem in Windows Vista or 7). This is something that might not be apparent to customers who have bought and expect a full 21Mbit/s service.

Sunrise, Switzerland observed that:

  • 3G traffic mix usually follows wired result with around one year delay
  • P2P traffic is decreasing
  • Audio and Video streaming traffic is increasing
  • Real-time applications such as Augmented Reality are increasing

What’s the cost of a Megabyte?

There was general consensus that the cost per megabyte of traffic is a key metric. Today this is about 1.5cents/Mbyte, reducing to about 1 cent with HSPA+. This the incremental cost of adding capacity to an existing network – new Greenfield mobile broadband networks would be much more expensive regardless of the technology used.

Tariff plans that oversell this (such as Mobilkom Austria 19Gbytes for 19Euros) would seem to defy business sense (it should be more like 190 Euros just to defray network costs), but are based on the knowledge that very few consumers actually use anywhere near this.

Offloading is a real option

Sunrise observed that previously having done their best to wean customers away from using fixed lines, operators were now scrambling to encourage them to do so!

With some 75% of data traffic indoors, they explicitly commented that femtocells and Wi-Fi were important methods to mitigate traffic congestion (as well as improving coverage). They also commented on four concerns about their adoption: Cost, Health Concerns (just don’t call them home base stations), limited addressable market because of the required fixed broadband connection and the need for a compelling consumer proposition.

No Traffic Jam Ahead – assuming femtocells and other measures are in place

Sunrise were confident enough to say that subject to sensible norms (continued investment, fair usage caps, similar traffic mix and usage patterns), there wasn’t an imminent 3G data traffic jam ahead. The four pillars for operators to success would be:

  • know the delivery cost per MB technology
  • choice must consider future service usage
  • Offloading Macro Mobile Network (femtocell, WiFi)
  • Introduce traffic and subscriber management, make the users pay

Summary

I suspect that the mobile broadband boom may show some real differences in the quality and performance between network operators. Those who plan, operate and market their services well will do better. It’s encouraging that the operators at this conference were so confident that there isn’t a traffic jam ahead – perhaps this is not a representative sample and these are just those better prepared.

But it was great to see offloading to Wi-Fi and femtocells noted as a key pillar of the strategies operators need to adopt for success.

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