O2’s CTO Derek McManus on mobile data exceeding voice traffic, the limitations of 3G and the hopes for the data-capabilities of 4G

Could demand for mobile broadband services bring the airwaves to a halt? That is the question on most expert’s lips after it emerged that, for the first time, more data is passing over mobile phone networks than voice.

The tipping point came in December, according to figures from Ericsson, and is being widely attributed to people checking email being joined by social media users sending messages, posting updates and communicating with their ‘buddies’ while on the move.

The potentially alarming point for the mobile phone networks is that this has been achieved with an estimated 400m mobile broadband users around the world, compared to 4bn voice users.

O2’s iPhone experience

Certainly Derek McManus, CTO of O2 confirms that data now exceeds voice on its 3G network and that this has been a long term development he has witnessed through the past two years, pretty much since the network signed a two year exclusive for the iPhone which ended in January this year.

“As the exclusive provider of the iPhone for 2 years, we have unrivalled insight into changing customer behaviour and the impact of intensive mobile applications,” he says.

“We experienced a 20-fold increase in data on our network over the last twelve months. And traffic continues to double every four months.”

This raises many challenges for any network, he points out, and not just in dealing with the extra traffic. One of the challenges is ensuring infrastructure and systems can cope with short, sharp and rapid burst of demands for data which are very different from voice conversations.

“The challenge is not limited to increased demand,” McManus says.

“Data services like Facebook and Twitter generate multiple and concurrent requests to the data network (once every eight seconds) – we call them ‘chatty’ applications.

We are suitably building ahead of this curve by adapting our network and cleverly focussing network investment. The issue of mobile coverage is no longer about simply covering the land mass with mobile masts to meet a percentage target, but rather about depth and quality of experience.

Bigger ‘pipes’ and ‘processes’

Hence, the future, McManus believes, is going to be dominated by the twin challenges of not only moving from 3G to 4G but also developing infrastructure which is suited to the short, rapid burst data requests made en-masse by mobile apps.

“In terms of the immediate future of 3G networks, our priority is to re-dimension infrastructure in anticipation of changing customer behaviour,” McManus explains.

“We’re challenging the industry (including our infrastructure partners) to develop solutions that will suitably support the behaviour of mobile apps. It is no longer just about ‘volume’ (making the pipe bigger) but about the ‘process’ of data handling.

“More long term is the evolution of new technologies, such as 4G. We are currently running ongoing 4G (or LTE – Long Term Evolution) trials with Huawei, which offer speeds up to 150Mbps. Incredibly, our modest 4G trial network in Slough already has the data carrying capacity of the entire live 3G network, which illustrates the vast step change expected of this next generation of technology.”

Source: Sean Hargrave for Samknows Broadband)

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