Network upgrades keep congestion blues at bay

The rise of smartphones and devices such as tablets that heavily consume data via wireless networks are a challenge many telcos have to deal with today. However, rather than measures imposed by phone makers, these carriers are turning to improving their backend infrastructure and tiered pricing to manage network congestion.

Peter Cook, vice president of mobile network engineering at Singapore telco StarHub, said smartphones and tablet devices are “really popular” in Singapore now and, as more consumers adopt these devices, it expects mobile broadband demands to increase rapidly. As a result, the company is constantly evolving its mobile network to support the increasing mobile broadband user base, he noted.

For instance, StarHub had upgraded its network on two levels last year, Cook pointed out. The first was to implement a HSPA+ (evolved high speed packet access) dual carrier system which could potentially double mobile broadband speeds up to 42.2Mbps (megabits per second). Secondly, it utilized a smartphone signaling offering from Huawei that optimizes the way handsets communicate with the mobile network.

“The [signaling solution] effectively halves redundant signaling loads, hence improving mobile broadband connectivity and overall smartphone performance,” the executive explained. “Recently, we have also implemented a new upgrade [to this system] that significantly improves the 3G performance for iPhone 4 users.”

He added that StarHub is looking at Long-Term Evolution (LTE), or 4G, in its next phase of mobile network development.

Rival telco, M1, also identified smartphone owners as its main 3G network users.

To better manage its network capacity, a company spokesperson said that it makes use of various tariff plans that cater to individual’s data usage requirements. She added that most of its mobile broadband plans include unlimited data usage while standard smartphone plans are inclusive of data plans of up to 12GB (gigabytes). Any user who exceeds this limit will be charged, although the bill will be capped at S$30 (US$24.70).

Cook agreed. He said: “We believe that usage-based data pricing may be a fairer and better way to provide adequate returns on our network investment as well as to better ensure network quality for our customers.”

Besides tiered pricing, M1 is also the first local telco to provide LTE following its commercial launch in June this year. The initial coverage will focus on enterprise users within the city-state’s financial district before eventually going nationwide by the first quarter of 2012, according to an earlier report.

Mobile makers’ role in spectrum usage
However, both telcos stressed that they had no part to play in decisions made by platform makers such as Apple and Google to impose 3G data download limits within their mobile operating systems (OSes).

For iOS users, this limit refers to having to rely on Wi-Fi, instead of 3G, to download applications that are 20MB (megabytes) and above. On Android, the limit is “a few hundred megabytes”, according to John Lagerling, director of global Android partnerships at Google.

Explaining Google’s decision to include such a limitation on its OS, Lagerling told ZDNet Asia in a July interview that platform operators often have to manage the balance between making it efficient for consumers to download applications and being mindful of the strain data-intensive apps have on telco networks.

Citing a report by CCS Insight, Research In Motion’s vice president of South Asia, Hastings Singh, added that operators will begin to differentiate their tariffs and device subsidies to prompt users to consider less data-hungry devices and operating systems. “The more strain a device places on the network, the less subsidy it will attract,” he explained in his e-mail.

On its end, the BlackBerry maker has taken responsibility for network capacity constraints by “incentivizing efficiency” through billing and encouraging its handset-maker partners to “innovate with scalability in mind”.