At first glance, the solution to the so-called “mobile data crunch” looks simple: just allocate more spectrum. Hence the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan, which recommends making an additional 300 megahertz available for use within the next five years and 500 megahertz within 10 years. (Infonetics Research says the need is more like 1,000 megahertz within five years.) When it comes to the entire Americas region, a 2009 Arthur D. Little study says between 721 megahertz and 1,161 megahertz of additional spectrum will be required before the end of this decade.
There are at least three major drawbacks to using spectrum to address the mobile data crunch:
- Time. It often takes the better part of a decade for regulators to identify, clear and then reallocate spectrum, especially when it’s inhabited by TV stations or government users. The sheer amount of additional spectrum also adds time because more incumbent licensees have to be moved out. For example, U.S. mobile operators currently have access to about 300 megahertz. Doubling or tripling that amount isn’t something that happens overnight, unlike data traffic growth. In 2012 alone, it grew 70% to 885 petabytes per month, according to Cisco.
- Harmonization. LTE can be used in more than 40 bands worldwide, making it the most spectrally fragmented cellular technology in history. This fragmentation is partly the result of operators using whatever they could scrounge up to launch “4G.” Regulators also are struggling to free up spectrum in the bands that their counterparts in other countries have identified for LTE. That’s why in the eyes of operators and device vendors, some bands are more desirable than others. But for regulators, harmonizing their country’s spectrum with those of other countries is difficult and time-consuming because it often requires moving those bands’ incumbent licensees.
- Money. Because spectrum is in chronically short supply, governments will continue to treat it as an ATM, especially as they look to offset flat and declining tax revenue due to the recession.
Governments aren’t the only source of additional spectrum. Acquisition is another – assuming that a willing suitor is available and at a price that investors will bless. And even if there were a free, unlimited supply of spectrum available tomorrow, operators still have to spend billions each on additional macro sites, small cells, backhaul and other infrastructure to start using it.
For operators and their investors, the good news is that there is a way to maximize the capacity of their existing spectrum and infrastructure. That alternative is almost a rounding error compared to the cost of acquiring additional spectrum and expanding their network. Those savings directly improve an operator’s competitive position and bottom line because it’s now in a better financial position to price its services competitively yet profitably.
Don’t fly blind
To implement this alternative, operators need deep, end-to-end visibility into how customers use available bandwidth – not only in their network, but also when customers are roaming or on Wi-Fi. Only then do operators have the ability to manage and prioritize traffic so bandwidth is used as efficiently as possible. The solution that provides this visibility should include the ability to define policies on the fly and then push them out into the network, devices or both. That real-time aspect enables operators to respond quickly to changing conditions that affect traffic loads, such as a major sports event or a natural disaster.
The ideal solution also should include using compression, which is key for accommodating – and profiting from – the crush of mobile data services. The architecture would feature a server – either owned by the operator or hosted by a third party – that works with client software on customers’ smartphones, tablets and other devices. The client compresses, secures and proxies outbound Web traffic to the server, which then de-compresses, secures and routes the traffic onto the target destination. The client also secures and proxies video, audio and all other data traffic for network policies to be applied at the server.
The mobile data crunch also is a business opportunity for vendors of network-management hardware, such as routers and gateways. These vendors can upgrade their products to provide operators with the ability to prioritize and direct traffic. One option is using Layer 4 through 7 traffic-classification and bandwidth-management techniques, where data traffic is identified and routed by using pre-defined labels inserted into the data stream. For example, mobile operators can use this architecture to manage and allocate bandwidth for their business partners, such as a streaming-video service, to ensure those partners’ customers always get a great user experience. This architecture also enables real-time policy creation and dissemination.
Knowledge is power, but only if you have the ability to act on that information. Operators need both to avoid being victims of their own success.