Tablet devices could change user behavior and network capacity planning

Growing use of tablet devices could result in a new kind of network capacity planning that relies heavily on Wi-Fi hotspot and femtocell offload, as bandwidth-intensive applications like video are most accessed while users are in one place rather than on the move.

Wireless operators don’t often have job listings for cultural psychologists, but with the surge of tablet devices about to hit 3G and 4G wireless networks, maybe they should. Depending on the dimensions and weight of the individual tablet, operators should take note that tablet devices could transform user behavior in terms of where people use tablets to access specific applications.

The slower users move, the likelier it is that they can use more capacity, and that has an enormous influence on network capacity planning.

Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp.

Why should operators care? If users tend to access all of their tablets’ features more fully while stationary as opposed to while moving -- watching video at a hotspot or an in-home Wi-Fi network rather than while walking, for example -- then operators may need to adjust their 3G/4G network offload and capacity planning strategies. Where and how subscribers use tablet devices could result in heavier reliance on Wi-Fi hotspots and femtocell deployment, and both options have mobile backhaul implications.

While not a card-carrying cultural psychologist, telecom consultant Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., has become a bit of a mobile behaviorist, arguing that consumers have a different kind of relationship with their mobile broadband services than with their wireline services.

“Certain behaviors encourage the use of certain appliances and vice versa, and both of these affect the demand for bandwidth and the nature of where that demand will occur,” Nolle said. He believes that the slower users move, the more likely they are to use more capacity. “That has an enormous influence on network capacity planning,” he added.

The whole idea behind network capacity planning for tablets is to give users connectivity in almost any situation. When the user is fully mobile, a tablet is more like an oversized smartphone,” Nolle said. “When the user is stationary, it is more like a laptop that uses higher capacity to exploit its capabilities fully.”

In response to a changing market, wireless network vendors are starting to change their network offload strategies as well. Infonetics Research analyst Stéphane Téral said Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) has set up a lab to study the impact of smartphones and tablets on mobile networks, for example. Other vendors are actively gathering tablet-based data. 

Operators on tablet-generated mobile broadband traffic

Traditional cell planning set up a uniform honeycomb pattern of coverage to provide relatively equivalent usage capability across a geography. “But when you start to look at tablet devices or even smartphones, you start to realize that the whole traditional strategy of cell planning is shot to hell,” Nolle said. From his vantage point, tablet strategy and network offload will be one of the hottest network issues in 2012.

In the emerging 4G network planning equation, tablet usage patterns are far from set in stone, and the literal size of the tablet will lead to different stationary and mobile user behaviors. While some wireless operators are already looking at the network changes that tablets could introduce, others are in more of a wait-and-see mode, looking at the tablet as just one more device that consumes bandwidth.

Yasmin Karimli, head of T-Mobile USA’s radio network evolution and strategy, said T-Mobile is already creating use cases for a range of tablets that have different advantages because the operator plans to have at least 25 4G devices available to subscribers in 2011.

Karimli said T-Mobile architected its HSPA+ network to accommodate the flood of mobile data and currently has excess capacity. But even with its current devices, “data traffic is doubling every seven months, and video traffic alone is up 300%,” she said. To move traffic off T-Mobile’s radio network, she said the operator made the transition to fiber backhaul for 80% of its network already rather than circuit-switched lines.

So far, Sprint hasn’t seen network changes driven by tablet users’ behavior, according to Jay Bluhm, Sprint’s vice president of 3G network development and engineering. “We analyze usage patterns, geographies, demographics, applications, and we test everything,” he said. “If we see something new and dramatic, we monitor how that works, and we adjust [the network] as necessary.”

Continued: Early tablet analytics point to need for network offload

This was first published in March 2011

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