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Summary:

Faster mobile broadband networks are on the way, but the demand for wireless data is increasing at a fast pace. More towers and connections are only part of the solution; here are four other ways carriers are combatting the issue. And you won’t like them all.

wireless-antenna

Global demand for wireless data surpassed mobile voice use back in December, and there’s no inclination of the trend reversing. Carriers can continue investing billions of dollars for network expansion and faster wired backhaul to wireless towers, but throwing money at infrastructure won’t work by itself. Instead, as expert panelists discussed at our Mobilize event last month, technological innovations must supplement infrastructure investment to gain efficiencies. Here’s a quick look at some of the latest technical and pricing solutions that are now available, or coming soon, to ensure our wireless data pipes don’t clog:

Cell towers in the home. As smartphone users return home after using mobile broadband networks all day, do most of them revert over to Wi-Fi or do they stay on carrier networks? Results will vary, but carriers are taking steps to further offload data traffic with femtocells. These devices act as small cellular base stations: Phones connect to the femtocell, but network activity is then routed over a home broadband connection, which reduces wireless network demand. AT&T began offering a femtocell last year, and both U.S. CDMA carriers, Verizon and Sprint, do as well. The biggest challenge for consumer acceptance may be in the pricing model: Consumers often have to purchase the device (at a cost of up to $250 in the case of Verzion), or get a free femtocell and pay a monthly fee. In either case, the customer is paying for and providing the home broadband connection used in place of the wireless network. Even with such a price structure, femtocell demand is rising: Alcatel-Lucent today announced it earned 12 new contracts to create femtocell devices over the past three months alone. Such devices will complement next-generation networks as well; picoChip, a Bath, UK-based company is ready to support femtocells for LTE networks.

Improved idle features (with a bonus). Nokia Siemens Networks today announced a successful joint test with Qualcomm of an updated cellular standard that reduces wasteful network signaling traffic. Called Cell_PCH or Fast Dormancy, the updated standard increases wireless network efficiency up to 50 percent by placing a handset in an idle state when not using wireless data. This standard tackles one of the two largest network congestion issues, according to wireless analyst Chetan Sharma. By maintaining a minimal level of connectivity in a reduced power state, Fast Dormancy can also help offset the “achilles heel” of mobility: battery life.

Go Wi-Fi Go! One of the simplest methods to increase the supply of wireless mobile broadband network services is to get users on localized Wi-Fi networks. That’s a key reason AT&T purchased Wi-Fi provider Waypoint (and its 80,000 hotspots) in 2008 and explains why Verizon Wireless began partnering with Boingo last July to offer free Wi-Fi for its customers. How much can such network offload help with data demand? Take AT&T’s midtown Manhattan hotspot as an example. According to Jeff Thompson, CEO of Towerstream, which monitored the hotspot, the Wi-Fi zone experienced single days with more than 1 terabyte in usage, not to mention 21 million connections in a quarter. Every “bit” on the Wi-Fi network helps reduces demand on the carrier’s 3G network in this case, providing an opportunity for chipmakers. This week, for example, BelAir Networks introduced new Wi-Fi network management systems and Ruckus Wireless is now offering carriers a fast 802.11n Wi-Fi system to help offload traffic from mobile broadband networks.

Pay for what you use. Love it or hate it, the end of unlimited data plans are near. Now that carriers have a few years of smartphone user data to predict data demand, wireless plans are getting adjusted accordingly and economic barriers will keep some users under certain levels of data usage. With the debut of Apple’s iPhone 4 and iPad devices, for example, AT&T eliminated the all-you-can-eat data plans for new customers, opting instead to sell data buckets of 200 MB and 2 GB. Those limits roughly correspond with Sharma’s own estimates that data card users consume on average 2 GB a month, while superphone users consume about 500 MB. T-Mobile recently revamped its stance; the carrier will slow wireless data speeds after 5 GB of monthly data is used. Verizon is rumored to be offering new, limited plans as early as next week for 3G smartphones, and the carrier previously said it will follow a similar, tiered approach with its 4G network, which launches in the coming weeks in 38 markets.

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  1. while femtocells and wifi may be good temporary fixes I doubt they will have long term consumers acceptance.

    consumers paying month fees for cellular data want there carrier to provide them with sufficient data without having to pay for a wired link out of pocket just to get full functionality on their phones.

    also increasingly i expect consumers to start cutting out their cable/DSL all together in favor of mobile broadband solutions. future WIFI connections are going to be MIFIs and tethering cell phones that loop the connection right back to the cell towers.

  2. I reluctantly purchased an AT&T microcell this weekend because the reception at my home is terrible – surrounded on three sides by nearby hills, our reception is poor for most carriers. I do find it offensive to use my broadband bandwidth as well as my cell phone minutes – or to pay extra for unlimited home minutes. But I bought it anyway because I could not afford to miss work calls at home.

    As for unlimited wireless broadband, I find it very interesting that both Clear (4G) and Virgin Mobile (3G) are offering unlimited plans. I’m glad to see it, but I wonder whether it will last.

  3. Let’s not confuse tiered data plans or “data buckets” with paying for what you use. Paying for what you use would require metered data in small enough increments that unused data would be a very small percentage of the total.

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  5. I’m not 100% sure I completely understand the technology, but don’t femtocells sound the death knoll for UMA (and other consumer-friendly FMC solutions)?

    Improved coverage and capacity using IP, while keeping users using minutes on licensed spectrum. In effect, consumers get to pay twice (your broadband provider + cellular minutes through the femtocell) for the same data. Contrast that with solutions like UMA, which seamlessly hands off cellular traffic to IP for major coverage improvements without eating minutes.

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    [...] “The average margins for the US operators are around 37% with VZ and ATT in 40%+ margins overall,” Sharma said. He estimates that the carrier data margins as of 2010 are generally around 40-50 percent. Because their margins are declining, the companies are looking to spend money on network upgrades and use tiered pricing to offset some of those upgrades. [...]

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