‘Signalling Traffic,’ not Data, the Bane of Wireless Networks

by Matt Klassen on August 22, 2012

The smartphone boom has brought equal parts blessing and curse for mobile operators, according to a report from technology consulting firm Ovum released last week. On the one hand, the exponential rise in the use of smartphones has brought increased use of data services and more lucrative long-term contracts, while on the other hand the increased demand from these small gluttonous devices has had a deleterious affect on mobile networks, even crippling some.

Contrary to what many of us in the mobile world might think, the report contends that network degradation is not caused by an increase in data usage, but instead “by a dramatic rise in the network signalling traffic generated by smartphones.” [Italics mine] Simply put, its not the amount of content we’re streaming or downloading that is causing networks to buckle, but the number of times our phones are signalling (connecting to) a wireless network.

The bottom line is that network providers will continue to struggle to establish a stable network because to do so requires the participation of the entire mobile ecosystem, meaning next time you feel like blaming your provider for a network outage, perhaps considering blaming your device-maker, platform designer, and app-developer as well.

While many of us have been quick to blame things like streaming video and other data intensive online activities for mobile operator’s ongoing network woes, it turns out that such things may not actually be to blame for this current situation. While network degradation has increased with the exponential rise in smartphone usage, the problem lies in the operation of those devices, their respective operating systems, and the applications they run.

Simply put, whereas data consumption is a contributor to network instability, the larger culprit is ‘signalling traffic.’ Every time you request your smartphone to perform an operation, say checking Facebook, sending an IM, tweeting etc… your device establishes a “signalling path” with the network, and closes the path following the completion of the task to preserve battery life. Now think of how many individual tasks you ask of your smartphone in a day, in an hour, in a minute, and that gives you some sense of how many times your phone establishes a ‘signalling path.’ This constant stream of data requests creates “signalling traffic” that is so far significantly outpacing mobile data traffic.

As the Ovum report argues, “While operators have so far borne the brunt of the problem, continued poor network performance will have a detrimental effect on the user experience of smartphone devices, software platforms, data services, and applications.” This means that while we look to blame our carriers when we experience untimely and persistent network outages, there’s lots of blame to go around.

Of course solving the issue is not that simple either, as getting the entire mobile ecosystem to agree on anything is rare. You have carriers looking to stabilize and monetize their networks, handset makers who want to milk carriers for subsidies, app developers who want to make the next great program, and platform designers (like Google for instance) who seem content to gaze over the entire scene with an apathetic eye.

Nevertheless, while the blame is laid equally across the entire mobile ecosystem, so to the solution must involve the entire gamut of players. As Ovum concludes, “The solution will require a combination of elements, including network technology enhancements, software platform efficiencies, and developer education.” It is only when the entire mobile market can work together, educating each other on each other’s needs and capabilities, that a solution to these ongoing network issues will ever be found…too bad that’s not likely to happen.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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