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Bridging the Mobile Data Generation Gap

A conversation with Keynote’s Mohammad Zaman

Mobile has made the switch from a voice- and messaging-centric technology to become a predominantly data channel. It’s happened so fast that wireless networks are barely able to keep up, and growth will continue to compound for the foreseeable future. Wireless carriers & mobile operators are employing a variety of tools to help their networks handle data more efficiently and quickly, but none is as significant as the transition to fourth-generation technology, 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE). This new standard not only ratchets up capacity and speed, but also will serve to unify previously disparate networks. Benchmark recently talked at length with Mohammad Zaman, North American sales director for Keynote SIGOS, a division of Keynote Systems, Inc., about the incredible surge in mobile data traffic and the wireless world’s transition to 4G LTE.

Benchmark: Mobile data is a hot topic today, both in terms of excitement about the possibilities and concern about keeping it flowing. What’s your perspective on the state of mobile data?

Mohammad Zaman: Obviously mobile data is the big thing now – it’s definitely the growth segment of the industry. In wireless, it used to be voice was king because all the carriers made money off of voice minutes. Now, it’s changing to the data side. The ARPU, the average revenue per user, is now being driven more by data than voice. It’s definitely a big area for carriers to focus on to differentiate themselves.

Data is expected to grow 30 times over the next five years. I’ve seen some numbers – for example, fifty-seven percent of Facebook subscribers update their status via mobile. On YouTube, there are 400 million mobile views a day. Data is up three times over last year. By 2014, we expect to be consuming something like 3.7 million terabytes of data per month worldwide. You get the picture.

Benchmark: One report says that 85 percent of mobile traffic is now data.

Mohammad Zaman: Yes. One of the huge trends is video. There are more and more video downloads, and video hogs your bandwidth. There are more video applications, streaming movies, TV, etcetera. I’ve seen projections that 70 percent of Internet traffic will be video-related by 2014. And you’re tying up that channel when you’re downloading a video – you’re literally hogging that channel, so that’s why it bogs down the network.

Benchmark: One solution we keep hearing about is 4G, or 4G LTE – the terms seem to be a bit squishy. What do 4G and 4G Long Term Evolution really mean?

Mohammad Zaman: Part of it is marketing. LTE is the thing that should really be called 4G.

Benchmark: That’s the true 4G?

Mohammad Zaman: Yes. LTE really is the fourth generation of networks, if you will. We have had GSM. We have had CDMA. Those are 2G networks. Then you have EVDO, which is a CDMA network. That is 3G. And then on GSM you have HSPA, again 3G.

To back up and provide context, there are two parallel tracks in the world for wireless technology. There is the CDMA track, which was born and raised in North America. Qualcomm invented CDMA technology. A couple of the big operators deployed CDMA, including Sprint and Verizon. These are the major, big ones. And then Cricket, Metro PCS, US Cellular – a lot of the second tier operators. In the rest of the world, there were a few countries, in Asia-Pacific especially, that deployed CDMA networks.

Then there’s GSM technology, which started in Europe back in the 80’s. For the most part, globally, the world deployed GSM-based networks.

So what happened was, when American subscribers on a Sprint or Verizon network went to Latin America or Europe, they couldn’t use their phones anymore, because in these countries they mostly have GSM networks.

Benchmark: But here in the U.S., AT&T is GSM?

Mohammad Zaman: Yes, they are GSM-based carriers. T-Mobile is also a GSM-based carrier.

In GSM, there are different standards for higher data rates. HSPA+ can be considered 4G. T-Mobile, for example, calls their HSPA+ 42 network, which is 42 Mbps, 4G. AT&T also considers their HSPA+ network 4G. Sprint has ownership in a company called Clearwire that has a network that they consider 4G. In fact, Sprint calls themselves the first 4G operator, because they were the first ones to deploy WiMax about three or four years ago. That’s branded as Clearwire.

But true 4G I would say would be LTE, and Verizon has the largest 4G LTE coverage today. AT&T is next — they have deployed in several markets too.

Benchmark: Even as these carriers adopt true LTE, do we still have dual standards going on? GSM and CDMA?

Mohammad Zaman: Yes, but now that’s the beauty of LTE, that it’s finally converging. The world is finally converging. With GSM, you had this one track, HSPA, HSPA+. On CDMA, you have EVDO. That was this other track going on. Now, these operators said they were having trouble roaming overseas. The CDMA guys, especially. The GSM world and the CDMA world, are now finally merging, converging, and LTE is the common network technology that merges the two.

Mohammad Zaman: It is good news. We finally have a global, seamless technology. You don’t have this GSM versus CDMA anymore. That was a big problem.

Benchmark: On the user side, the big plus for 4G LTE is speed. Is it really that fast?

Mohammad ZamanFierce Wireless ran a recent report comparing the speeds. AT&T LTE actually came out ahead of Verizon LTE for download speed, at about 9.56 Mbps versus Verizon LTE at 7.35. On the uplink, Verizon did a little better, 5.85 Mbps vs. AT&T’s 5.15 Mbps.

Benchmark: That’s very fast for mobile.

Mohammad Zaman: AT&T and Verizon claim their average LTE speed to be about five to 12 Mbps. T-Mobile – who also calls themselves a 4G network with their HSPA+ 42 network – their average is 5.53 Mbps. So it’s pretty good.

That’s why they can get away with saying 4G. Because T-Mobile’s position is, what does a consumer care what is 4G and what is 4G LTE? If the speed is comparable, what do they care? They take liberty in marketing as 4G because it is comparable to the LTE speed.

Benchmark: So with these incredibly fast download rates now – some of those numbers for AT&T and Verizon are comparable to a lot of people’s wired networks at home – and with unlimited data plans going the way of the dinosaur, it seems like people could burn through their data allowances in a matter of days.

Mohammad Zaman: This is where it’s going. The ARPU, average revenue per user, is now being driven more by data service than voice, so the carriers are hoping that if people use more data, that they’ll make more money off of them. Except for Sprint, who said that they will continue with this unlimited data plan right now – they’re launching LTE mid-2012, and they say they’re keeping the unlimited data plan. But they’re all going to move more toward these data plan ‘buckets.’ I don’t think there is any way around it.

Benchmark: It’s obvious that the situation is only going to get worse. Nobody is buying a feature phone anymore. Everybody’s buying a smart phone. More people are buying tablets. The demand is going to be there. Do you foresee, as happened with voice, that we’ll start getting into some real price competition on data?

Mohammad Zaman: Absolutely. There will be more competition on the data side, more pricing pressure. Look at T-Mobile. They sell unlimited data, whereas Verizon and AT&T are selling by buckets – because they are spending more on new networks and because they have the iPhone. They have more users. As Sprint launches LTE with unlimited data, and T-Mobile will launch LTE next year, certainly the market will drive that price down and make it more competitive.

There is also the possibility that the carriers who are offering unlimited plans will move toward the buckets. Because unlimited is not sustainable, really. What happens is, these carriers have to be able to handle that much data flowing through their network, and for that you need a better backhaul. The backhaul is the connection back into the wired Internet world.

Some of these operators don’t have a good backhaul – the pipes, if you will, are small. You have to build a bigger pipe in the backhaul, on the network side. As use increases, there’s a limit to how much you can handle.

Benchmark: The carriers are in a race to get their LTE networks built out. Verizon and AT&T are advertising broad coverage already. They make it sound like they’re getting close.

Mohammad Zaman: At this moment, Verizon LTE covers a population of about 200 million in the U.S.. By the end of 2012, they will cover 260 million people – they call it ‘pops’ in the industry. AT&T, on the other hand, only covers 74 million pops with their LTE network. Now, they already have their 4G network, if you want to call it that – their HSPA network. That covers a much bigger footprint. It’s the equivalent of Verizon in terms of their HSPA 3G/4G network.

That’s why T-Mobile tries to play in there with the big boys, because their HSPA network also covers 184 million pops. That’s equivalent to Verizon in terms of LTE coverage, 184 million versus 200 million. And then AT&T with 74 million LTE, but when you add in HSPA, there’s over 200 million pops.

Benchmark: That seems like pretty broad coverage. But how many users are actually using LTE?

Mohammad Zaman: As of April 2012, there were 64 commercially deployed LTE networks in the world, about 70% more than a year ago. However, North America – the U.S. and Canada – is leading the pack for LTE deployments around the world. LTE subscriber-wise, North America has about 87% of the global LTE subscribers. Verizon announced in April 2012 that they currently have 8 million LTE subscribers on their network.

Benchmark: So right now the numbers say Verizon can cover 200 million LTE pops, but only has about 8 million LTE subscribers. Is this a cart-and-horse scenario, waiting for the handsets to catch up?

Mohammad Zaman: Exactly. The handset is another story. One of the problems with LTE is that everybody is deploying in a different frequency band. Verizon deployed it in 700 MHz. AT&T has 700 MHz, but they also have the AWS 1700 MHz band. Sprint is deploying LTE in the PCS band. So the problem is you need devices for supporting different bands. That’s one problem.

The other problem is, when you have so many frequency bands, it makes it harder for the device vendors to support all of these bands, because it’s not uniform. They have to support multiple bands in their phones.

The other challenge is roaming. You have to have roaming agreements as well with all of these operators, and right now there are no LTE roaming agreements in place. They’re in the works. But the challenge is the different bands – it’s harder to make those roaming agreements because you’re not in the same band.

If Verizon is deploying in 700 MHz LTE, and they want to roam on Sprint, which is 1900 MHz, now you have to have a phone that can support both bands.

These are some of the challenges that device manufacturers are facing, and also why you don’t have a lot of devices yet in the market.

And LTE is just data right now. There is no voice on the LTE network yet. When you make a call, the call gets handed down to a circuit switch – it’s called circuit switch fallback (CSFB). By late 2012 and beyond, we will have voice on LTE network, what is known as VoLTE.

Benchmark: So it’s really getting more complicated, even as it’s converging?

Mohammad Zaman: Yes. For a while, it’s going to be. In three to five years, though, this is the best thing that could happen in unifying the world, syncing the world. There will be more devices and there will be more roaming agreements between operators, and you will be able to move in and out of networks with one technology.

Benchmark: As the 4G networks get built up, the carriers still have to maintain what they already have. Not all users are going to go to LTE, and as you point out, the networks still have to handle voice. How does that impact the network operations teams?

Mohammad Zaman: Yes, so the voice calls are handed down automatically to the legacy network – the 3G network. In that case, they have to make sure that that experience is still good. Even though they have an LTE device, the customer doesn’t know that it doesn’t do voice. The experience has to be seamless. They have to be able to handle the circuit switch fallback when a voice call is made.

They also have to be able to handle, when a user starts in an LTE network, say he’s doing a data transfer, sending a 10 Mb file. He’s driving or he’s moving. Now he reaches a spot where there is no LTE signal. So that data session now will go down to an EVDO- or an HSPA-class network, depending on the carrier.

That’s why the carriers have to continue maintaining these 3G networks, so that they are seamlessly handling voice and data sessions for 4G users. Also, they have to continue to improve their backhaul, the pipes, so they can handle all this high-speed data that’s coming down the pipe. They need to do that, even with 3G. In fact, they were doing that with HSPA. AT&T, T-Mobile, all those guys have been investing a lot of money in backhaul.

Benchmark: How does that impact ongoing testing and monitoring? Are you looking at greater challenges? Greater need for monitoring the 4G networks in particular?

Mohammad Zaman: Absolutely. As you build these 4G networks, you’ve got to be able to do this seamless transition, seamless handoff – the circuit switch fallback between these 4G and 3G networks. You need tools to do that. You want to make sure that you can monitor the customer experience, the quality of service of the network, so that the user doesn’t know what’s going on – so that it’s transparent to them.

That’s where Keynote solutions come in, whether it’s Keynote Mobile Device Perspective (MDP), or the Keynote SIGOS SITE solution that can do this network monitoring and quality of service testing between 3G, 4G, and even 2G, in some cases. If there is no 3G, then you’ve got to go down to 2G.

We have several platform solutions from Keynote that can allow you to measure and test quality of service and customer experience within these different-generation networks.

The same thing goes for roaming. We have the Keynote SIGOS GlobalRoamer testing service, which can do global inter-carrier roaming testing for 2G, 3G and 4G. Voice, data, SMS, MMS – all these services have to be tested. GlobalRoamer gives wireless network operators access to our global network of SITE test probes in 225-plus locations worldwide, covering nearly 600 operators in 177 countries to perform international roaming testing without investing in any hardware infrastructure. There is no CAPEX expense involved for the wireless operators with GlobalRoamer service, so operators can focus on LTE network rollout and improving the customer experience.

All of our customers in the US are looking for solutions for testing LTE deployment, as well as for testing inter-carrier roaming. They are going to set up these roaming agreements where they need a solution to test the quality of service between the carriers, inter-carrier, to make sure if they put a roaming agreement in place, they are meeting the SLA conditions, the service level agreements.

Benchmark: It’s pretty clear that consumer demand for data is going to keep going up, especially as more and more users view video on mobile. Obviously LTE is one thing that’s going to help capacity. Are there other technologies or strategies that can help carriers to keep up with demand?

Mohammad Zaman: If you are in a Wi-Fi network, the operators are offloading their 4G to Wi-Fi. It’s called Wi-Fi offloading. The carriers don’t want this big volume of streaming all the time on their network because it slows their network down. Wi-Fi offloading is big, and it’s going to continue to be big.

The other thing they’re focusing on is indoor coverage, because believe it or not 70 percent of mobile calls are generated indoors. Even when we’re sitting at home, we’re probably talking on our cell phones.

Wireless is RF technology, a radio frequency signal. Sometimes these signals don’t penetrate buildings very well, depending on the buildings. Because it’s such a large component of the subscribed services, they are paying a lot more attention and spending a lot of money on in-building coverage solutions.

Benchmark: With things like femtocell?

Mohammad Zaman: Exactly. They’re going to deploy more customer premise equipment. They’re putting indoor DAS, Distributed Antenna Systems, in big warehouses like Costco, large university or office campuses, or big sporting venues like football and baseball stadiums. In-building is going to be another big focus for the operators in the coming years.

Benchmark: How will faster, bigger data networks impact the players involved in bringing a rich data experience to their subscribers? The content providers, like an ESPN?

Mohammad Zaman: I saw recently that ESPN has launched a Verizon device. It’s an ESPN-branded device, so instead of you downloading an app, it’s basically going to have a lot of ESPN-rich features built right in – sports applications, sports news, things like that. So yes, there will be a lot of companies trying to capitalize on it. I can see Netflix doing something like that, maybe, and Facebook and the social media companies.

Benchmark: How about for the average website, or even an above-average website? Let’s say you were a digital media company, Reuters.com or an e-commerce player like a Nordstrom. What does it mean for you, other than the fact that your site’s going to be able to load faster for people?

Mohammad Zaman: They will have to go beyond just showing up a couple of things on a pared-down mobile site. It has to be more feature-rich. The experience can no longer be, ‘oh yes, they would log on to the Web version if they wanted to see more content.’ The content has to be customized more for these different types of devices – desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.

Benchmark: And what about consumers? What do you see happening with consumers’ relationships to their various devices as these higher-speed data networks come online?

Mohammad Zaman: Well, the phone becomes the primary device, and the primary way we interact. There are already many people who don’t have a landline anymore. The smartphone becomes a primary device. And the tablet replaces the laptop.

The other thing is the seamless global network. That’s the beauty – in three to five years, we no longer have to deal with the CDMA and GSM network wars of different, competing technologies. You have one seamless global LTE network. You can use one SIM card and travel all over the world.

The other area that’s growing is M2M, machine-to-machine applications. The automobile industry is putting more and more mobile applications in cars, for example. M2M is a big growth area.

Then there is voice moving into the LTE world. It becomes VoLTE (Voice over LTE), or just LTE. The future is good. It’s very exciting, the idea of seamless networks. The world is truly shrinking.

Benchmark: Yes, and that’s a good thing. Do you have an LTE phone?

Mohammad Zaman: I have an iPhone, but I don’t have an LTE phone yet. I have an AT&T LTE hot spot.

Benchmark: And is that pretty fast?

Mohammad Zaman: Yes, it’s pretty fast. On LTE I’ve seen, believe it or not, up to 16 Mbs speed, which is incredible! But even if only I get five, six Mbs, it’s not bad.

Benchmark: Enjoy it, because we’re coming to clog your network soon!

About Mohammad Zaman

Mohammad Zaman leads the North American sales team for Keynote SIGOS, a division of Keynote Systems, Inc. Keynote SIGOS is the global leader in automated, active QoS (Quality of Service) monitoring and testing of mobile, fixed and VoIP networks. He is a wireless industry veteran with 18 years of global experience. Mohammad has held sales and technical leadership roles at large wireless infrastructure and device manufacturers, focused on mobile messaging and location platforms, m-commerce and portal applications, RF Path and indoor DAS solutions, and network test & measurement systems. He holds a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from SUNY at Buffalo, and an MBA from the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech University. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife and 3 kids.

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