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Data crunch solution: Optimizing the mobile app, not the network

Rather than looking for ways to shove more data onto 3G networks, carriers and vendors are looking at minimizing the impact of the applications themselves

At CTIA Wireless last month, AT&T (NYSE:T) mobility CEO and new CTIA Chairman Ralph de la Vega warned of the coming data crunch. More data customers, holding more sophisticated devices and using bandwidth hungrier applications are generating unprecedented traffic growth on US wireless operators networks. To address this, de la Vega said, operators are doing what they’ve always done: identifying new spectrum and deploying more and faster networks. But de la Vega also identified another possible solution, one that isn’t directly in operators’ control: developing more efficient applications.

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As the Internet and mobile world’s converge, the distinction between the types of applications that run on either is beginning to blur as well. Applications like video that required no optimization for the wide-open pipes of the wireline Internet are taxing the far more limited resources of the mobile broadband network. Though de la Vega didn’t offer any specifics during his CTIA keynote, he made it clear that operators are looking squarely at application developers and Internet content providers to help them keep their network unclogged. Whether the developers and content companies answer the call remains to be seen, but they might need to. Network platform vendors like Aylus Networks and ByteMobile are putting forth solutions that do that optimization within the operator’s core long before its saps the resources of the radio access and backhaul networks.

Aylus: Intelligent Transcoding by the Bit

Aylus has its sights set directly on mobile video, which is becoming an increasingly pervasive force on the mobile network. Cisco Systems’ (NASDAQ:CSCO) recent visual networking index estimated that video will account for two-thirds of all mobile data traffic in 2014, and in a recent analysis of live traffic on its customers networks worldwide, Allot Communications (NASDAQ:ALLT) found 10% of existing mobile data traffic came from one source: YouTube.

According to Aylus vice president of marketing Fred Sammartino, a tremendous proportion of that traffic is extraneous—so many pixels and frames that most handsets can’t support. The problem is the video service provider assumes most devices are just PCs on the network and ship their video under the assumption a large screen and graphics processor is waiting for it at the other end, Sammartino said.

“If you watch a YouTube video, the signaling information your phone sends [to identify its capabilities] doesn’t make it to the content provider,” Sammartino said. The result is YouTube sends a high-resolution, high frame-rate stream down through the core, backhaul and radio access networks. Only when it gets to the phone does the media player render that information into a playable format, discarding megabytes of information in the process, Sammartino said. “The phone is forced to work overtime, sometime tossing out three out every four bits it receives. It not only wastes network and core resources, it wastes battery life since the phone still has to process all that information.”

Aylus is offering what is essentially a transcoding platform, but a transcoding platform with a lot of intelligence. Its Media Switch acts as a middleman between the wireless network and third-party video servers, intercepting and interpreting all video signaling requests between them. If a handset requests a video stream and the video provider is capable of sending a mobile optimized stream, it will request that stream, saving bandwidth from end-to-end. If not, Aylus will transcode the video on the fly, discarding all of the unrenderable data right as it hits the operators core or converting it into a more optimal format. Taking a typical YouTube video stream of 1 Mb/s, Aylus can lop off as much as 85% of the data transmitted to typical handset by separating and individually optimizing the audio and video streams, scaling down the resolution to the handset screen size and converting stereo to mono, Sammartino said.

But the platform does more than just filter bits, it gives operators the ability to manage each video session from end-to-end, allowing them to plug each video stream into its policy enforcement and billing systems. Unlike a deep packet inspection platform, which detects raw video traffic traversing the network, MediaSwitch can delineate between individual video streams or individual service providers, giving operators much more latitude in charging for different types of video traffic, said Ray Pasquale, Aylus managing director of business development. Operators could choose to offer a charge-by-the-view service where each streamed video costs a customer a few cents, or it could use the platform to track videos originating from specific content providers with which it has revenue-sharing agreements.

Ultimately, Asylus hopes operators will position its technology as the gateway for all video traffic onto the 3G network, offering up an application programming interface (API) all content service providers hook into, Pasquale said. “The carrier has to take control of this data,” Pasquale said. “They can’t just leave it up to the best intentions of the video providers.”

ByteMobile: As-Needed Congestion Management

ByteMobile is taking a broader view of optimization: rather than optimizing all traffic, ByteMobile’s Unison platform tinkers with the application data stream only when needed based on the real-time conditions of the network. If a cellsite is clear, and there’s no congestion in the backhaul or core networks, why mess with the application, asks Joel Brand, vice president of product management for ByteMobile. But if the network is even slightly congested, Unison can start removing extraneous bits from the data stream to smooth out the flow of applications across the network.

“What makes us different is we’re actually terminating TCP,” Brand said. “We have visibility into congestion all the way to the individual user.” If a customer is in an uncrowded cell streaming video, the ByteMobile platform allows full video quality to go forward unabated. “But as soon as we start seeing congestion we start removing frames,” Brand said. “We can do dynamic rate-shaping based on the current conditions of the network.

ByteMobile is focused on more than just video, though. It utilizes various techniques depending on the application. For large file transfers, it will throttle back throughput, slowing down the download until network conditions improve, at which point the channel opens back up. For any kind of multimedia streaming , Unison will send the data only at the rate it is rendered, preventing buffering from consuming unnecessary capacity at the front-end of the stream. One particular bandwidth-hungry app is the auto-update, or the process by which phones bring down and install new versions of applications.The proliferation of apps has created a huge increase of auto-updates, which fly through the network at all hours of the day, regardless of network conditions, Brand said. But since an update isn’t being immediately accessed by a user, there is no time sensitivity to its delivery, allowing ByteMobile to spread updates over several minutes or even hours during peak use times.

Brand estimated that ByteMobile’s optimization techniques can be applied to 90% of all application traffic, adding as much as two-fold increase in capacity to the network. The remaining 10% is stuff operators don’t want to touch anyway, such as enterprise VPNS and VoIP, Brand said. The nice thing about the solution is it effects everyone equally—when the network is overloaded everyone’s video quality goes down and everybody’s download speeds slow—it doesn’t discriminate against any application. The exceptions would be services the carrier offers directly to the customer, which it can prioritize, or premium data plans, which give certain customers the right-of-way for their applications.

Optimization versus Open Access

Though operators have started talking about the need to optimize applications, they’ve been relatively quiet about whether they plan to do the dirty work themselves. Aylus hasn’t announced any customers for its Media Switch, though it has revealed it is deploying the transcoding platform for with an unnamed Tier 1 US operator for the purposes of video optimization. ByteMobile has hundreds of customers around the world for its mobile Internet servers and gateways, including Vodafone (NYSE:VOD), T-Mobile (NYSE:DT), Sprint (NYSE:S) and parts of Verizon Wireless’ (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD), but the vendor cannot say if those operators are using the platform specifically for application optimization.

If they do choose to embrace optimization and traffic shaping, operators do have an ace in the hole: they can deny or restrict access to content that isn’t optimized. AT&T already does this with the iPhone, selecting favored multimedia providers such as Pandora and Slingbox to stream over its 3G network, while restricting other applications to the iPhone’s WiFi radio. It just made a similar deal with Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) for the iPad. Whether that favored-apps status was conferred because the providers agreed to optimize their apps, or because of a business arrangement, or both, remains to be seen.

While AT&T can pick and choose applications, operators may not have the choice in the future if net neutrality and open networks initiatives take hold. Verizon Wireless recently entered into a partnership with Skype, giving the VoIP provider access to its CDMA voice network although not its 3G data network. But it won’t have the choice for 4G. The 700 MHz spectrum it’s building its long-term evolution network comes with an open access requirement. VZW may not be able to discriminate against specific service providers, but it might still be able to impose optimization requirements as long as it imposes them universally. Verizon has interpreted open access as meaning it must allow any application so long as it doesn’t harm the network. It could make the argument that raw unoptimized traffic ultimately is harmful.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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