As tablet device analytics trickle in, bring on the network offload

The early returns on the effects of tablet devices on 3G/4G networks are trickling in and already indicate that network offload – using Wi-Fi hotspots or femtocells – is an essential strategy.

Continued from Part 1: The impact of tablet devices on network capacity planning

Even though tablet adoption is in the early stages, this potentially disruptive 3G/4G device is already generating mobile broadband traffic projections. CIMI Corp.’s modeling shows that 21% of smartphone traffic is offloaded to hotspots while more than 40% of tablet traffic is offloaded.

These technologies are not locked in mortal combat.

Simon Saunders, Chairman, Femto Forum

The message? “The more sophisticated the appliance, the more the operator has to think about the offload strategy,” said Tom Nolle, president of network consultancy CIMI Corp.

Looking at the same issue through a slightly different lens, Femto Forum Chairman Simon Saunders said Forum studies show that at least of 80% of smartphone and other device traffic is generated from indoors. “That’s the underlying reason it works well for operators to focus on offloading that sort of traffic -- because it’s contained and personal,” he said.

Beyond location, Saunders said tablets lend themselves to higher-definition multimedia type traffic because of their larger screen size, which makes them very consumption-based. “Traffic is heavily asymmetric to the user rather than from the user,” he said.

To that point, a 2010 Femto Forum study on the cost of delivering mobile broadband traffic revealed that it could cost $9 to deliver a gigabyte of data traffic, which is over and above an operator’s cost to roll out its radio access and backhaul networks. If the traffic goes over a home or office femtocell instead, the cost of delivering it is reduced by more than 75%.

Choosing Wi-Fi, femtocells or both for network offload

The network offload options are simple: Wi-Fi, femtocell or both. Not surprisingly, Saunders believes femtocells are the most natural fit for offloading tablet traffic, but Wi-Fi works well for certain kinds of traffic.

“These technologies are not locked in mortal combat,” Saunders said, adding that Wi-Fi is particularly useful for carriers offloading over-the-top (OTT) Internet traffic where there is no incremental [monetary] benefit to handling it. He sees additional femtocell benefits because “femtocells come with authentication and can handle voice, data, text and other services you can buy from an operator,” he said.

Tablet traffic or not, subscribers are beginning to understand why operators need to offload broadband traffic from their radio networks since spectrum is a finite resource.

Both Sprint and T-Mobile have 3G/4G network offload solutions in place. Sprint has embraced femtocells as a solution for consumers with coverage problems and is evaluating large femtocell deployments to offload traffic larger areas.

“A femtocell is nothing more than an extension of coverage; it’s a great vehicle for the home and office,” said Jay Bluhm, Sprint’s vice president of 3G network development and engineering. “Femtocells also have backhaul advantages because they provide coverage for both voice and data and are tied to the customer’s broadband connection, so basically the customer provides the backhaul.”

T-Mobile is leveraging Wi-Fi for offloading its radio network. The operator uses the Smart Wi-Fi application from Kineto Wireless that automatically activates the user’s handset when in range of a wireless network and automatically turns on the handset’s Wi-Fi radio, making the switch more convenient for subscribers. Although T-Mobile continues to review femtocells and repeaters, there are no current deployment plans, according to Yasmin Karimli, head of T-Mobile USA’s radio network evolution and strategy.

Others vendors like Ruckus Wireless are changing their strategies, as well. Ruckus is selling its platform to operators as a private offload network rather than as a public hotspot. And NSN has announced a new Smart WLAN platform that will enable operators to manage Wi-Fi access points as nodes on their radio networks.

Return to Part 1: The impact of tablet devices on network capacity planning

This was first published in March 2011

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