Apple has announced a number of new features in their next major release of operating system for the iPhone and iPad due out in September. IOS 5 adopts the cloud computing strategy and removes the need for users to run iTunes on their home computer. But it will also place stringent demands on wireless connectivity. Will these create a stronger use case for femtocells?
Apple smartphones heavy network loads due to increase
Many mobile networks are already suffering from the heavy capacity drain of smartphones. This relates both to overall data traffic as well as signalling. Much of the traffic bypasses the mobile network today because data is downloaded and uploaded to home computers (both PCs and Macs) via USB cable, synchronising with iTunes and iPhoto applications. Typical examples are podcasts, application updates and photos.
IOS 5 synchronises wirelessly
Apple are expanding their cloud computing service with iCloud, removing the need for their customers to have a PC or Mac at all. As I understand it, iTunes media and your photos will be stored in server farms and synchronised over the air.
The system is designed to automatically synchronise wirelessly every time your device is recharged and is in range of Wi-Fi. In most cases, that will meaning using your home Wi-Fi but it will also work with Wi-Fi in public areas, office or friends houses.
Large data transfers every day
Common use cases involve transfers of podcasts, videocasts, photos and other media which can easily be many 10s of Mbytes daily. For example, I heard of one iPhone app that downloads around 80Mbytes of local music every day. With millions of iPhones in active use around the world, data traffic demands are likely to be significant.
Why move to wireless connectivity
There are a surprising number of iPhones that aren't fully configured. I've heard rumours of 30% or more. This article suggests perhaps 50% of iPhone users have never synced their device – meaning that they have never been backed up either. Automatic wireless sync will make backups and downloads much more frequent. Cloud service should make the data storage more reliable.
Overall, this will increase the utility and value of iPhones and iPads across the full customer base.
But what if Wi-Fi isn't available or configured
I wonder how many of the 50% of customers who don't use iTunes are likely to have configured Wi-Fi access on their devices. While configuration is much easier than it once was, I suspect there are still quite a few customers who haven't done so (or are aware they might need to). There are also many who don't have wireline broadband at home, especially in developing countries and so rely on 3G as their primary connection to the internet.
Isn't it inevitable that wireless sync will move to 3G in due course
While Apple have surely been very thoughtful about how they roll out their new iCloud service (they did have a few hiccups with their MobileMe service when it launched some years ago), isn't 3G wireless sync an inevitable next step? Surely this would be essential in markets with lower wireline and Wi-Fi penetration.
Other smartphone devices, including Android and Microsoft, are likely to follow suit.
And there is already an App developed and currently awaiting Apple's approval to provide wireless sync (over 3G).
So surely it's just a question of time before this method becomes commonplace.
Femtocells have a place in this solution too
I've heard some people argue that for data use in the home, Wi-Fi beats femtocells because its already widely deployed at low cost. However, it still requires configuration and has some issues. If femtocells were incorporated in home set-top boxes and the smartphones didn't require configuration to use them, then this option becomes quite attractive. Alternatively, the adoption of metro-femto for use in high traffic areas provides high capacity in areas where the traffic demands require it.
Other solutions to the problem may be adopted too
There may also be some other techniques used for this purpose too. Designing the system to synchronise during offpeak periods in the middle of the night, when network traffic is typically low is one. De-prioritising sync traffic so that it trickles through at periods of high demand is another.
Who knows, perhaps some pricing schemes might emerge which link the cost of storing and synchronising to the cloud (including data traffic loads) and sell that separately from the standard data communication package, instead bundling it with the cloud backup service (for which the network operator might get a share).
What's clear is that the high forecasts for traffic growth from smartphones and other data devices seem to be coming true, and when additional capacity comes onstream the industry continues to find ways to consume it.
Many solutions for capacity will be required to meet this future demand.