Since the 2007 iPhone introduction clogged AT&T’s data network in downtown San Francisco we have had a steady diet of offloading by cellular carriers. What is offloading? It is when a mobile cellular carrier moves your data session from its network over to a local WiFi network. Too many smartphone users all pulling down content at the same time creates a data bottleneck that shows up as long-wait times for data to load and even difficulty making calls where voice and data run over the same cellular spectrum.
Due to rising ire among AT&T’s vocal iPhone users, the first foray into our modern offloading culture began in December 2009 at McDonald’s. AT&T’s offer to subsidize the solution was all the Burger magnet needed to eliminate its $2.99 cost. The following July Starbucks followed suit with another AT&T subsidized program.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the carriers all figured out that many venues where consumers gather were already offering free WiFi. The other obvious locations were home and corporate wireless networks. All that was needed was configuring the phone before it shipped to automatically detect WiFi networks and ask the user if they’d like to connect. Voila! The data transport was off the carrier’s network leaving bandwidth free for other customers. The carriers were happy and the users were typically pleased because their data sessions weren’t mindbendingly slow.
What if LTE is faster than WiFi
This complicit agreement between users, carriers and more than a few unwilling venue and corporate office owners patched the problem and the complaints subsided. The new victims tended to be the consumer venue and corporate IT staffs that would then get complaints from patrons or employees that their WiFi was slow. A good deal for the carriers. It was a very effective resource and blame shifting strategy.
This equilibrium may be about to shift. With the sudden rise in internet video consumption, bandwidth is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. Cisco’s Visual Networking Index which tracks global mobile data traffic confirmed that over 50% of all mobile data is now video. By 2016 Cisco predicts 2/3 of mobile data traffic will be video driving totals to more than 10 exabytes (EB) per month from a mere 0.6EB at the end of 2011.
Even with a robust WiFi capability many venues are restricted by the capacity of their telecom data circuit. Let’s assume you have an HD video being viewed over WiFi at a rate of 4Mbps. For a 20Mbps data circuit you can host up to five concurrent sessions. No one else will be able to get data through the clogged circuit until one of the videos ends or your class of service data policies throttle one or more of the video sessions. Even with advanced compression techniques this would limit you to twenty concurrent users. And let’s face it, not everyone is using advanced compression and fewer still know how to set class of service.
Upgrading your telecom circuit is a much higher recurring cost impact than adding a couple of wireless access points. This will spur venue and corporate office owners to seek alternatives to meet customer or employee demands. It won’t be long before they realize there is a solution close at hand. They can reverse offload back onto carrier LTE networks. [If you have a question about LTE’s ability to handle video, take a look at my post yesterday utilizing LTE to watch streaming video while riding on an Amtrak train. LTE from a fixed position is comparable to a high speed wired network.]
Reverse Offloading onto LTE
For a consumer venue such as a restaurant or store, this is an obvious choice. In fact, since patrons have just been offloaded by their carrier when they entered the establishment, they are likely to reverse the offload themselves if the experience is inferior on the local WiFi. LTE users with unlimited data plans may choose to never turn off their LTE preferring their 20-40Mbps dedicated channel provided by the mobile carrier compared to a shared WiFi connection. The key motivators will be balancing their desire for a good online experience with concerns about limited data plans and potential for overage fees.
Corporations have a different set of requirements that may lead to the same outcome. While many large offices are blessed with OC-1 (50 Mbps) or greater telecom data circuits, many regional offices or small facilities may have 20Mbps or less capacity. As video and large file transfers become more common in business settings, network congestion will increase. Businesses will have clear cost-benefit trade-offs when considering whether to upgrade data circuits and lock into a higher monthly recurring cost or utilize LTE for times when bandwidth spikes may degrade performance.
Given the high data throughput on LTE, enterprises should be thinking about bandwidth planning that considers options beyond wired data circuits. With that said, LTE networks are robust and reliable today in part due to low penetration. As usage increases over the next two years, we may see the carriers again need to push offloading. Today, reverse offloading is a viable strategy.
What do you think about the pendulum swinging to reverse offloading? Comment below on whether enterprises will adopt reverse offloading or stick with the circuits.
[Author’s Note: thanks to Sean Fitzpatrick, network uber guru at Harris, for first sparking a discussions that led to the ideas about reversing offloading in this post]