Improving Mobile Networks
Is the mobile web ever going to live up to our expectations? As soon as we got “super-fast” 4G on our phones, we realized that raw speed alone wasn’t all that we wanted. Yes, average download speeds were greatly improved, but the delays and video buffering soon became frustrating. Network operators have caught on to this agenda and are hurrying to deliver both high bandwidth and low delay. How will it be done?
The trend to virtualization
First, we need to talk about one of the major trends in mobile networks. Increasingly, the technology used to build mobile networks looks like the cloud, with generic IT hardware running software-defined solutions that have access to large amounts of computing power and storage capacity. This change in architecture has allowed networks to scale their capacity in a way that is very efficient in terms of the cost per gigabyte. However, there is a second benefit from the shift to software-defined architectures: Network functions can be virtualized, allowing them to be run from anywhere within the network.
How does this help reduce delays?
Over-the-top (OTT) applications providers like Google and Facebook run their applications on their own cloud networks, with users accessing their data from across the mobile network. The distances from user to application can be large, increasing the opportunities for congestion, bottlenecks and delays. The simplest way to reduce transport delays will be to move the applications closer to the user, at the edge of the mobile network. If successful, this close proximity to the user would eliminate video buffering and deliver faster search and more reactive real-time gaming.
Ultimately, OTT applications likely will have to be merged within the mobile networks to take a “slice” of the available capacity and run as virtualized functions. This is starting to happen on a case-by-case basis, but is by no means universal. This is a radical change that requires mobile network operators (MNOs) and OTT providers to reach commercial and technical alignment on a combined technical solution that’s core to both of their businesses.
These are multi-billion dollar organizations, whose success is very closely linked to the way that services are delivered to users. The technical resolution will be long and complicated, requiring new open standards and processing centers. In the meantime, there is plenty of opportunity for any company brave enough to jump in and move ahead of the curve with pre-standardization solutions that can deliver big gains in market share to the winners.
There is a very effective short-term solution to the buffering problem, which is to cache data near to the mobile edge. This takes out a lot of the variability in transport delay across the wired networks to give a smoother user experience. Whenever there is a temporary loss of data capacity, the application data rate dips, but then recovers relatively quickly. This works because the data cache smooths out the short-term variability in data capacity without triggering an overreaction from the much slower transport protocol mechanisms.
The result is a consistent user experience, but there is a complication: Valuable content is highly likely to be encrypted to protect the intellectual property rights of the owner. Caching solutions rely on inspection of data packets to operate, and this is not possible when that data is encrypted. Data protection is often applied to content like music, film and television, all of which are the type of high-bandwidth, time-sensitive applications that are most sensitive to buffering. A new class of “intelligent” networking products will have to infer protocol behavior based on self-learning when the data encrypted and packet inspection won’t work.
Mobile networks will have to deliver faster data rates and lower delays in order to satisfy the needs of modern users. Cloud-like technology will enable more responsive applications closer to users. Ultimately, there are opportunities throughout the value chain for companies to innovate and gain market share.
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