Behind the operators’ technical scenes on the new iPhones, new Android, or the new Microsoft deal

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As we are getting closer to the traditional yearly event from Apple next week, where new iPhone devices (most likely an iPhone 5S, an iPhone 5C, and possibly a new iPad?) are to be announced (here), Google has also announced in parallel the name of their new OS for Android (Android 4.4 Kit Kat) (here). If you live in this world, you should also know by now that Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile phones division according to this week announcement (here). The battle of the mobile devices and OS is as interesting as every year in the last decade, and this battle has implications for all of the involved in the industry at all the possible layers, including of course the subscribers but also the Communication Service Providers (CSP’s) or operators. No matter if you work with an operator, or a vendor, or a consultancy, or are just a technology fan, you should know from the top of your head what is the current market share for mobile OS, or what is the split between the Android OS versions installed in the handsets, among others stats or facts. I give you a few ones below for feeding your knowledge hunger.

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A few years back when Blackberry was booming the smartphones’ market with their -by then- innovative products, the operators learned many technical lessons from this in the hard way. The network engineers until then focused only on delivering enough bandwidth to supply the subscribers’ traffic demand, saw how the push messages and always-communicating nature of the Blackberries boosted the number of sessions established in the networks while having the same PDP context established. This in example increased the Transactions Per Second (TPS) in the signalling plane of their network elements and business to values never seen before, leading to service downtimes and traffic outages, creating a huge change in the scaling and sizing paradigms and methods for the networks. The introduction of Blackberry devices in masses leaded to multiply those TPS for the same traffic, and the technical effects were also seen in other areas. In example after having a maintenance in the networks, and all the devices re-connected to the operator at the same time leading to transactions bursts, among many other examples I am sure any operators’ network engineer for that time can provide. All of this was traduced on massive revenue losses, which are usually the main triggers for immediate changes in the operators’ methods. As the years passed and more and more devices appeared having this same always-connected or always-communicating behaviour (e.g. pretty much all of the smartphones today), the operators adjusted all of their systems and methods for ensuring no problems were seen for this matter. Whether improving the sizing and scaling techniques, or applying Policy Management and Enforcement tools (PCRF/PCEF), or signalling routers, or traffic control agents, or simply adjusting profiles and timers for a more efficient sessions’ handling, among other methods.

Similar challenges have been seen when OS updates are made available for the smartphones. Since a big part of the subscribers tends to accept the update once the notification is received, typically happening around the same time. So again creating an unexpected increasing traffic (this time in both bandwidth and TPS) in the networks. Situations like these are also seen during important events, like the football world cup finals, etc. and most of the operators today make the scaling and sizing of the systems considering these events.

In other words, in today’s world the communication between the marketing and engineering teams of an operator is more important than ever. Announcements like the ones from Apple next week and the ones from Google must be closely monitored, as these represents new challenges, and -do not get me wrong- also new opportunities for business. In example, the subscribers are having freedom to connect liberated devices into the networks for browsing, or selecting which OS to download and install in the handsets, and this modifies the traffic and usage patterns seen in the networks. We saw this also with the introduction of the electronic books and tablets, and we will keep seeing this in the future with the new devices like the smart watches, or the smart glasses, etc. This represents challenges to meet the changing demands, but also new opportunities for monetizing the new network usage profile, etc. The role of the Business Intelligence (BI) and Analytic’s platforms are becoming critical. The extension of these towards more intelligent models like Predictive Analytic’s for performance of the networks and the systems, plus the actual business indicators of the networks, are and will be a key in the operators’ efficiency and the telecom business profitability.

A. Rodriguez

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Wi-Fi services re-invented

Since the first Wi-Fi networks appeared near the year 2000, the technology has been evolving according to the Wi-Fi Alliance and the IEEE standards for 802.11 and its family of protocols. During the last years the most common standards for Wi-Fi has been 802.11b/g, and more recently 802.11n, operating in the 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies and allowing browsing rates of up to 600Mbps. In the near future, the standard 802.11ac should be also popular in the Wi-Fi capable devices, operating in the 5GHz frequency and allowing browsing rates over 1Gbps… and so on, the evolution in the Wi-Fi technology devices is most likely to continue.

Nevertheless, despite the evolution commented, we have seen the services offered by the network operators for Wi-Fi in the last decade were pretty much the same originally offered since day one. The Wi-Fi was typically seen as a technology that allowed the subscribers connecting from their homes and/or offices, without being able to monetize the usage any further than a flat rate, nor providing any interesting services for the subscribers outside these places. Mainly because of the lack of control for the subscribers’ traffic in their homes and offices, due to the original access technology used (e.g. ADSL, cable, fibre, etc.), and because offering Wi-Fi in public areas was not profitable nor feasible in business and technical terms.

Luckily this situation has being changing in the recent years, and let me say it was about time. The network operators and service providers are realizing the potential of the Wi-Fi, and the impact it has in the subscribers’ life. The fact that more than 70% of the total data traffic currently done is accessed over Wi-Fi networks is a solid reason to support it. The hotels, stores, and coffee shops were the first to realize about this opportunity, allowing their customers free Wi-Fi access as a way to attract consumers, among other strategies. The operators also started to be creative in the Wi-Fi offers, making sure solid business opportunities exists for supporting the investment in Wi-Fi access points in public places. The classical example is the open zones, as the ones from BT in the UK, covering high usage density zones and subway stations, etc. with free Wi-Fi for those customers who already have a service contracted with BT, this as a way to reward loyalty, reduce churn, or however you prefer to call it.

Recently, a more creative and innovative strategy is being used by operators like O2, also in the UK, allowing any user (from any company) to use their Wi-Fi network composed by hundreds of access points deployed in the main districts of London. Their business in this last case is directly with the stores and companies in these districts, where O2 offers them a chargeable service to have access points near their stores locations. Attracting customers for them and providing them with the detailed statistics of the usage done by these subscribers in the Wi-Fi networks, as a way to provide targeted commercial campaigns, etc. This service is still improving O2 service image and recruiting churners from other companies… and I would say while still rewarding loyalty (here). Another example could be Google, who proposes another approach in their recent agreement with Starbucks. In this case they are taking over the access provided by AT&T in more than 7000 branches, and replacing it with an incredibly faster Wi-Fi service by increasing the backhaul capacity 10 times, rewarding people for consuming at Starbucks while Google’s image is improved, without mentioning the obvious economic agreement benefits (here).

The Wi-Fi opportunity is not only for increasing revenue from a service provider or an operator point of view, but it can also be used as a way to encourage evolution. The recent example is South Korea, where the government has announced they will expand their current free Wi-Fi network coverage to provide nationwide service in the next 4 years. A Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning official said, “Expansion of Wi-Fi areas will ease financial burdens on consumers and help narrow the information gap between people in Seoul and other cities” (here). Examples like this and the deployment seen during the Olympics in London last year, show how the technology, and particularly the Wi-Fi, is becoming a need for the users in today’s connected world.