Editor’s note: Jeff Glueck is CEO of mobile browser firm Skyfire. Here, he argues that smartphones are killing mobile carriers’ bandwidth, and that server-based browsers like Skyfire (or, we’d add, Opera Mini) could be a better solution.
2010: The Year of ‘Mobile Warming’: The Inconvenient Truth about Telco Network Bandwidth and How It’s Failing You
Have you or anyone you know ever experienced a dropped call on the AT&T network in a major US city? If so, you may be a victim of mobile warming. Whether you’re a leftist liberal or a die-hard conservative, we all know Mobile Warming is happening now and will only get worse.
Mobile Warming is the biggest problem facing mobile providers and users in the next two years. Wireless networks are melting down. Thanks to the explosive growth of demand for mobile video and data traffic, top metro areas in the US are already full of frustrated users with constantly dropped calls, slow connections, long video buffer times and an inability to connect to mobile apps at peak times. And if you think it’s bad now….just wait. New applications like video calling and the addition of Adobe Flash on some high-end phones mean that networks will feel more strain than ever. A recent research report released by Cisco found that mobile video will represent 66 per cent of all mobile data traffic by 2014, increasing 66-fold from 2009 to 2014.
Operators Drop it Like it’s Hot (Your Call, That Is)
In 2010, as Google and Apple duke it out, with scores of Android and iPad devices coming to market, the heat is on. Anyone in San Francisco or New York with incessantly dropped calls knows that data congestion is only increasing. AT&T even temporarily stopped selling iPhones in New York City and was ripped in the press and at CES for constant outages. Meanwhile, “Fake Steve Jobs,” a prominent blogger, was warned by the FCC after calling for a protest dubbed “Operation Chokehold,” a digital flashmob that the government agency described as a “public safety concern.” Also, according to Reuters, Apple is building a 500,000 square-foot data centre in North Carolina while trying to introduce video calling, which will further strain networks.
In a recent New York Times article, Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s chief executive for mobility, was quoted that video and mobile web browsing have grown wireless data use on their network by nearly 7,000 per cent since late 2006. And as Android phones come to Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, don’t think their networks are immune. It’s not just the iPhone.
Mobile warming is getting worse, not better. No next-generation system, like 4G or LTE, will have a true national footprint until well into 2011. Adding capacity to wireless networks is just too slow and expensive. Furthermore, it’s only adding another lane to a congested highway – 4G and LTE will help for a bit – until drivers start driving more and jams return. Despite long awaited next-generation networks, carriers will still have a hard time keeping up with the explosive growth in demand for data.
According to an Allot Communications report issued in Q2 2009, mobile video data use is growing at a global rate of over 60% quarter-over-quarter. Meanwhile, major telecom vendor Alcatel-Lucent projects that the cost per user for mobile carriers will quadruple between 2009 and 2012. Subscriber demand will outweigh the savings from improving technology.
What’s even worse is that these studies do not account for new ‘bandwidth hogging’ applications coming to market. Adobe Flash 10.1 (full Flash, not Flash “lite”) is rumoured to be on tap for a handful of very powerful smartphones sometime in 2010, especially on Android ‘superphones’ like the Nexus One and the Motorola Droid.
Adobe Flash could open up a host of content that has previously not been accessible to smartphone users, including Flash video, animations, banner ads, and more – but it may further strain networks, and that may mean users experience choppy videos and painfully slow—or crashing—animations and Flash applications. 80% of the video on the web today is encoded in Flash. In the past, Flash content failed to load on cell phones, since the iPhone does not support it and other smartphones could not yet run the powerful program. But, when Flash finally arrives, most video and content will still not be optimised for mobile. Users will even be able to try to click on HD video files. No matter how you encode it, HD video will not be able to stream down congested cell towers. Just trying to download it will jam cell towers.
A few commentators have cited that HTML5, an emerging alternative to plug-ins like Flash or Silverlight, might make Flash irrelevant shortly. I do not believe that millions of web sites will convert to HTML5 overnight, especially because HTML5 video, and the h.264 codec, is not yet universally supported by browsers. Even if HTML5 were to arrive faster, the bandwidth issues would not be solved. HTML5 for now requires publishers or users to pick a “high quality” or “low quality” file, rather than supporting “adaptive streaming” that tailors video quality to what your phone and network can handle, second by second. When users pick “high quality,” or HD video, kiss your your local cell tower goodbye! HTML5 browsers could conceivably develop true adaptive streaming, but it’s not available yet.
Keeping our Heads in the Clouds
If anything will solve data congestion, increase speed, and enhance user experience, it is cloud computing. The mobile industry needs to realise the potential of server-side rendering to ease the data burden on already-strained networks. Cloud servers can respond to mobile phone requests by analysing the content and the device instantly, and compress web video by over 70%, speed video start times, improve user experience, protect battery life by offloading the strain of rendering, and protect wireless networks from meltdown.
Cloud computing solutions can help in both in a Flash or HTML5 context, for the reasons described above. Both will need ways to help networks cope with Mobile Warming.
‘Bars’ Don’t Matter
What mobile users may not understand is that the number of ‘bars’ on their phone only indicates the signal strength from the nearest cell tower. Even with “full bars,” the nearest towers may be overloaded, and so a full signal won’t mean you can pass data through the logjam at the tower. Download speeds will slow to a crawl in actuality, calls will drop and texts will stall.
So just because you have three or four bars, don’t think Mobile Warming can’t happen to you.
The fact is, this kind of meltdown will happen more and more until the carriers realise the potential of the cloud. Mobile warming isn’t going to cool anytime soon. Sadly, it could mean the end of unlimited data plans while carriers try to balance supply and demand. Enjoy the free love and data while it lasts.
Jeff Glueck is CEO of mobile browser firm Skyfire. He was formerly chief marketing officer of Travelocity.