Imagine this scenario: You’re walking along having a video chat on your mobile phone with a friend, and you stumble into a dead zone in the network — one of those sketchy regions in between cells where speeds suffer and connections are lost. Normally, you’d be booted off your video call as the network strained to deliver the necessary bandwidth, but suddenly a funny thing happens.
In a split second, the network has looked up your billing records and determined that due to the $250 family plan and data bundle you pay each month, you are a high-value customer your carrier wants to keep happy. Then, before your video call has a chance to freeze, the nearest tower boosts its transmission power expanding the circumference of its cell. Instead of being at the edge of the cell, you find yourself closer to its center where the bandwidth is higher and connections are more resilient.
That scenario is entirely possible: today Amdocs announced it has begun selling such technology to carriers. One of the first to use it will be TIM in Brazil, just in time for the World Cup. If you haven’t heard of Amdocs before that’s probably because it’s a pretty carrier-centric shop, selling billing, customer management and operations support software to telecom operators worldwide.
But recently Amdocs has been expanding beyond the carrier back-office and into the network itself through strategic acquisitions . Two of the companies it has acquired — Actix and Celcite — specialize in a pretty exciting new field in cellular communications called self-optimized networks, or SON.
When networks start following you
Today networks are static grids, but SON makes them dynamic allowing them to grow and shrink their cells as demand on those networks change. (For a more detailed description, check out my profile on Intucell’s SON technology.
So getting a speed boost when you’re on the edge of a cell doesn’t sound like bad deal, right? The problem is there’s a trade-off: When your cell expands to give you a better experience, the cells around it are forced to shrink to prevent their signals from interfering.
Users in those shrinking cells might suddenly find themselves booted out of the middle of a cell to the cell edge, where their connections will suffer. SON is designed to produce an overall net benefit — Amdocs estimates it could boost overall network capacity by 10 to 20 percent and reduce dropped calls by 20 percent — but not everyone can have their connections optimized all the time.
That raises some controversial net neutrality issues since it means the network has to favor one link over another. But the mechanics of how carriers pick winners and losers here won’t necessarily be based on the size of their customers’ bills. They could choose to favor certain types of applications, such as the video or VoIP over browsing or email. Or they could discriminate between different content providers, say prioritizing YouTube over Netflix.
But each case comes with its own net neutrality baggage. We’re already seeing evidence of different content being prioritized and throttled on the wireline network. On the wireless network, where bandwidth is far more scarce, that traffic shaping could be far more extreme.
I spoke with Amdocs director of marketing Neil Coleman about this, and his answer was rather apt, though some might interpret it as a cop-out. “We are just the arms dealer,” he said. Amdocs is delivering the ability to squeeze greater capacity over overtaxed networks, Coleman said, but it’s up to the carriers how they use it – whether they jigger their traffic in ways consumers consider fair or unfair.
A different way to bill for data
As a mobile billing company Amdocs is proposing that the size of your monthly data bill may be the best way to make those distinctions between connections. I don’t entirely agree with Coleman because that’s not the way we’re billed for data today. Today carriers sell metered data. If I’m paying for 1 GB each month, then that gig should be delivered just as efficiently (or inefficiently) as the data consumed by someone on a 10 GB plan.
But offering up data by the gigabyte isn’t necessarily the ideal way of selling someone a mobile data plan. On the mobile network the cost of delivering of megabyte of data can vary wildly depending on where you are in the network and how congested it is at any given time. Instead of paying for data by buckets of megabytes, maybe we should be paying for network availability. Subscribers who pays for a $20 plan might get access to unlimited data, but when the network is crowded their connections take a back seat to the people paying $50 a month.
I doubt we’d ever see a carrier implement such a pricing model because it just wouldn’t sit well their customers. We consumers like to latch onto quantifiable measures like megabytes and average data speeds, not more ephemeral qualities like network availability.
Either way, though, the days of unfettered mobile internet access will probably soon over. Even if we won’t pay directly to have to have our connections optimized, that doesn’t mean carriers won’t start optimizing them anyway.
Density image courtesy of Shutterstock user higyou