Prevent the data tsunami from swamping cell networks

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Nokia Siemens Networks published a blog post Friday called “Wake-up call: Industry collaboration needed to make Beyond 4G networks carry 1000 times more traffic by 2020.” Such a headline is designed to strike fear into the hearts of mobile operators (and NSN customers) everywhere as the demand for mobile broadband outstrips the carriers’ ability to supply it. Even AT&T is prepping for a traffic explosion, not just at the edge of the network, where its wireless base stations sit, but at the core of the network as the world transitions to an all-IP future complete with video.

From an interview with Krish Prabhu, of AT&T Labs, in Fierce Wireless:

Over the next five years, our traffic volumes tell us that when we launch LTE each one of our 11 regional cores will have a throughput of two to three terabits, and the national core will have a throughput at least 10 times that. … We are very involved in the solution to that problem. We’ve identified a layered approach to get us there even as we support the launch of our LTE network and get LTE to 90 to 95 percent of our end-users. That to me is the biggest challenge.

However, instead of fear mongering, both stories actually try to discuss some of the technical challenges the industry needs to meet to support the demand for data. The NSN report discussed the need for more spectrum, but also the need to figure out ways to cram more bits into a single megahertz of spectrum, so every airwave can work a little harder. We’ve covered some of the ways this can happen, from carrier aggregation technology to better use of available spectrum to more base stations to help with capacity. NSN goes further and discusses the need for cognitive radios and self-optimizing networks, a concept that major vendors are pushing as networks become more complicated.

Over at AT&T, Prabhu told Fierce Wireless that when the network was carrying mostly voice traffic, managing the network itself was simpler. However, with the switch to data, and soon to all-IP networks in the form of LTE, the way traffic is handled changes. Data traffic becomes harder to anticipate and predict, and can overflow the network or the handset. He said AT&T Labs is working with developers to understand how apps behave on the network (products such as those from Mu Dynamics can help with this) as well as researching things such as algorithmic flow control on the network and better signaling and control of how data flows through the networks. Companies such as ByteMobile, Starrent (acquired by Cisco), Camiant (acquired by Tekelec) and others are providing some of these products. I expect we’ll hear more about this from Cole Brodman, the CMO of T-Mobile USA or Stephen Bye, the CTO of Sprint, when they hit the stage at our Mobilize 2011 conference on Sept. 26 and 27.

However, both of these articles ignore a critical element to help meet mobile broadband demand: Wi-Fi. AT&T is already using Wi-Fi as a means to offload traffic from its cellular network, and Metro PCS may be offloading some 20 percent of its traffic via the technology. But there is still a lot that needs to happen to help integrate Wi-Fi into the cellular experience in a way that’s seamless and encourages the customer to use it and trust it. It’s not surprising that NSN wouldn’t want to focus on the topic, since it’s not an area where it’s selling gear, but I hope that AT&T is keeping its commitment to better Wi-Fi even as it expands capacity and the capability on its core network.

Here’s the brief NSN presentation from SlideShare:

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