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Up, up, and away - mobile phone speed and how we use it

  • Internet users sick of slow loading times
  • Mobile data traffic will increase 78% p.a.
  • Providers must learn to deal with heavy data usage
Written by Mikaella Clements
07/03/2012

Between Telstra unveiling their 4G network and the National Broadband Network rolling out, we're getting used to the promise that internet speeds are fast and will only get faster. The days of dial-up are behind us, and using our broadband at home we're used to minute waits on individual websites, fast downloads, and faster loading speeds when we're streaming video online. For smartphone users surfing online, expectations are similar.

smartphone power

A recent study by Google engineers has found that people's patience for slow loading internet is wearing thinner, with most people finding even 400 milliseconds (the same time it takes you to blink) too slow for a webpage to load. Subconsciously, we reject such delays, and search less, which has the Google engineering team striving to create faster loading websites, as "every millisecond matters" (Arvind Jain, Google engineer).

For those browsing on their smartphones, the internet is slower. Most smartphone users expect and accept this, for the added advantage that portable internet gives them. However, software engineers foresee that this will change. Akami Technologies is a company that helps websites optimise their site for fast loading times, and will introduce specifically mobile-orientated software for exactly this purpose later this month.

Akami co-founder and chief scientist Tom Leighton said: "Users' expectations are getting shorter and shorter, and the mobile infrastructure is not built for that kind of speed. And that's an opportunity for us."

They are not the only ones jumping onboard, as Google have recently launched their "Ready to go mo?" site. The website offers critique for any site based on accessibility from a smartphone viewpoint.

Engineers embracing the online world's need for speed may sound like a great thing, but it comes with hefty concerns and setbacks. A new study from Cisco predicts that mobile data traffic will increase by 78 per cent a year from 2012. By 2016, the study claims, the annual amount of mobile data traffic will be 130 exabytes – equivalent to 33 billion DVDs, 4.3 quadrillion MP3 files, or 813 quadrillion text messages.

Cisco vice president of product marketing Suraj Shetty highlighted the importance of networks being able to keep up. He said: "By 2010, 60 per cent of mobile users – three billion people worldwide – will belong to the 'Gigabyte Club', each generating more than one gigabyte of mobile data traffic per month. By contrast, in 2011, only one-half per cent of mobile users qualified.

"This impressive growth in mobile traffic will be driven by more powerful devices, notably smartphones and tablets, using faster networks, such as 4G and Wi-Fi, to access more applications, particularly data-intensive video."

In many ways, this massive growth in data consumption on mobiles is what networks like Telstra's 4G were built for. Other providers realise this, too, as Optus announces its intention to offer its own 4G network for wholesale. Telstra themselves recently signed up the first wholesale customer for their own 4G network – iTelecom Wholesale, itself a wholesale company. Hopefully this means that we'll soon see a lot more consumer choice in the market for 4G.

Telstra Next G

Similarly, broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have realised the importance of creating easy WiFi connections, with some providers even offering free Wi-Fi modems in their deals. However, while ISPs are chirping "all's good!", there is danger around Australia's fast growing data consumption.

Analyst firm IDC reported that over 2011 while mobile download speeds rose 10 per cent (to 3279Kbps), upload speeds dropped 30 per cent (to 860Kbps).

IDC Australia's associate research director Dustin Keho said: "Carriers are stepping up their game and we are seeing faster downstream speeds and latency has dropped too by 25%, but the news is bittersweet. Upload speeds are nearly one third slower... Despite operators putting more investment into the network, the results suggest some challenges in supporting the explosion of smartphones and media tablets."

The study showed that speed is unfairly balanced in different areas of the country, too, with internet users in Sydney having access to download speeds nearly 18 per cent faster than Melbourne's.

The result is a lot of providers looking at different ways to manage Australia's oncoming burst in data usage. Wi-Fi offloading is one option that Cisco have been looking into – where mobile phone lines will be able to rout some of their online traffic into Wi-Fi hotspots through the city.

Another possibility is through setting up 4G networks, which use an LTE service to offer faster data transfer rates across longer distances. However, the 4G LTE networks are as of yet untested against the surging growth in mobile data traffic, and only time will tell how capable a solution they may be.

Some people – like Frost and Sullivan ICT's research industry manager Marc Einstein – have begun to question how well providers will be able to deal with increased mobile data needs. In the US, where smartphones are at 50 per cent penetration, Einstein has highlighted the fact that mobile networks are not coping well: "Think about what it's going to be like in three years when smartphone penetration is at 100 per cent."

Australian mobile providers have been handling the traffic well so far, but with the ongoing unchecked growth in smartphones connecting to mobile networks, we may see some teething problems spring up. Wi-Fi offloading and new network technology like 4G remains as of yet untested, and even further measures like shutting off old 2G networks to balance the workload may not help.

Einstein said: "Telcos will have to deal with pretty expensive equipment for 4G peripheral for quite a while. Utilising fibre [networks] as much as possible makes a lot of sense given radio spectrum is a finite asset."

For all the doom and gloom, this is an exciting time for the mobile phone industry. Ultimately, too, mobile technology will keep up. It's simply too big an industry to suddenly collapse because of an unexpected data surge. It's important, however, to keep the limitations of mobile technology in mind when we hear anti-NBN sentiment that protests that Australians don't need fibre as mobile wireless broadband will be able to handle the load. Clearly, it won't.

However, with everything building up speed, now is a great time to realise those smartphone dreams of yours! Have a look at some of the plans available for some of Australia's favourite smartphones: the Apple iPhone 4S 64GB, the Apple iPhone 3GS 8GB, or, to try something different, the brand new HTC Velocity 4G. Or call Optus, who have great deals on the latest smartphones from Nokia, Apple, and more, on 1300 137 897.

To talk about new plans for your current phone, or if you're wondering how to sign up for a plan that will include a new phone, give us a call on 1300 850 518.

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