With apologies to Mark Twain, it seems that these days everybody talks about data traffic growth, but nobody does anything about it. Amid a mix of eager anticipation for the increasing data revenues, and fear for the potential for network congestion, most mobile operators are focused on expanding capacity and imposing traffic caps to limit the impact from the most active subscribers, but they are surprisingly are less keen to address the issue at its root: nudge subscriber behavior toward a more balanced use of network resources, trying to maximize the quality of their experience within the constraints of available resources.
Of course mobile operators have no choice but to invest in increasing capacity (i.e., install more base stations) within their existing wireless infrastructure (HSPA, WiMAX) and deploying new technologies such as LTE. Necessary as these steps are, they are not sufficient to meet the projected increase in data traffic, given the limited spectrum allocations, funding availability, and, equally importantly the need to turn a profit from data services. As voice revenues decline, mobile operators can no longer rely on voice revenues fatter margins to fundamentally subsidize data users. No matter which technology is used--HSPA, WiMAX or LTE--it is expensive to support multi-GB subscribers, especially if they are willing to pay only $20-40 per month.
Usage caps alone make things worse
As mobile operators have started to experience network congestion, they have gradually come to terms with the necessity to impose either traffic caps (e.g., 5 GB per month, with additional fees for traffic above the limit) or traffic management tools (e.g., bandwidth limitations after reaching the 5 GB limit).
While traffic management has the welcome effect to limit network abuse from a small fraction of subscriber to the benefit of the rest, as data traffic per subscriber increases traffic limitations are likely to hit an increasing percentage of subscribers. Even among those users that are not affected by them, traffic caps generate apprehension, and may discourage them from using the services they pay for, especially in markets like the U.S. where subscribers are used to unlimited (or near-unlimited) wireline and wireless data plans.
What do you do if you go over your 5 GB per month?
The downside of traffic limitations as the main tool to curb traffic is that they leave the subscribers powerless. If you go over you 5 GB allocation in the middle of your billing cycle, what do you? How can you avoid running into the same problem next month? Right now there is little that subscribers can do, other that indiscriminately curtail their data usage, just to be safe. This not a good solution as it makes data plans difficult to manage and support both for subscribers and operators.
As pointed out in a recent article on FierceWireless by Mike Dano, we have very little knowledge about the traffic we generate--either on wireline or wireless networks--and even less ability to manage our traffic consumption effectively. It took a long time for service providers to even provide basic data usage on a billing cycle basis. If a data plan is unlimited, the need for such information is not that great, but as operators impose traffic caps (and they do exist even for many wireline broadband connections in the U.S.) they need to provide some information on traffic levels.
Ignorance is not bliss
Yet more is needed for subscribers to manage the traffic allocation they have effectively--namely, to be able to use their data plan for the applications they really care about, and if needed to skip those that generate a lot of traffic but they are not as crucial.
Many operators report that in many cases, abusive subscribers are not even aware that they generate above-average traffic. It may be that there is someone in the household generating disproportionate amounts of traffic, or that some applications do not run correctly or have been installed without knowledge of the subscriber, or that the subscriber is simply not aware that downloading movie after movie is a bandwidth-intensive activity.
With smartphones, a major culprit of increased traffic levels in mobile networks, subscribers do not know which applications generate more traffic, whether some applications are simply very inefficient in their use of bandwidth (in this case they may want to switch to more thrifty ones), or there are some background processes that consume a lot of resources but are not perceived as valuable to the subscriber.
And when the experience is not good, subscribers have no way to know whether it is bad coverage or insufficient capacity, whether the device or the network is the bottleneck, and whether postponing or suspending some background applications may bring some relief. So, for good measure they will blame the operator, even though it may not be responsible for the negative performance.
Give subscribers the carrot first--then use the stick
Operators will increasingly need to resort to aggressive traffic management, using traffic caps or other approaches. However, to contain the possible negative effects that it will generate, they should provide sufficient information to subscribers to understand tradeoffs and manage their online activities effectively.
Providing usage data on the basis of traffic type and application, as well as bandwidth information in real time can be helpful in monitoring and prioritizing data access. Of course, the interface has to be easy to use and the data easy to understand to make it valuable to subscribers. Furthermore, not all subscribers will find this information useful or relevant. Some will undoubtedly be overwhelmed. But for many subscribers, this information will give them control over their data plans and the perception that operators are helping them to make the right choices, instead of simply sending them a nasty letter or a hefty bill.
Once this information is available, enforcing traffic management rules may become easier for operators, as they can offer a solution to their subscribers. Now when you call to understand why you went over your traffic allocation, you are most likely going to receive a generic advice to use less video or downloads, which does not really address the issue of what caused the problem in the first place. If more information is available, the operator can help the subscriber assessing their data consumption and act on it.
Coverage or capacity? A modest proposal
Even if mobile operators do not feel comfortable providing real-time per-app traffic information, there is still plenty of room for more modest improvements. Manish Singh from Continuous Computing had a simple, but very powerful suggestion: Along with the coverage bars, mobile operators could provide a data rate speedometer icon that shows the real-time data rates available to the subscriber.
The coverage and bandwidth icons are highly complementary. You may be in a spot with good coverage, but if there are many users or the network does not have much capacity, you are unlikely to see a good data rate. On the other hand, you may be the only active subscriber in a spot where coverage is not that great, but this would still allow you to have a decent data rate. Distinguishing between coverage and data rates seems a good start to educate and empower subscribers as they widen their use of mobile data applications.