Smartphones too smart for dumb networks?

Interesting article out of Ars Technica looks at “How smartphones are bogging down some wireless carriers”. Turns out the problem may not be capacity, but the way current smartphones, including but not limited to the iPhone, manage their connection to the network, as explained by a representative from UK carrier, O2.


…to squeeze even more battery life from the iPhone, Apple configured the radio to simply drop the data connection as soon as any requested data is received. When the iPhone needs more data, it has to set up a new data connection.

The result is more efficient use of the battery, but it can cause problems with the signaling channels used to set up connections between a device and a cell node. Cell nodes use signaling channels to set up the data connection, as well as signaling phone calls, SMS messages, voicemails, and more. When enough iPhones are in a particular area, these signaling channels can become overloaded…

The concept is similar to a Denial of Service attack, in which a target is hammered with communication requests. Thus, poor data connectivity in tight urban areas, such as New York or San Francisco, may be less about network capacity and more about too many users hitting a node at once.

At first glance, it would be easy to blame the software for disconnecting and reconnecting too frequently, but with users moving about and alternating between checking email and doing nothing, a constant connection simply cannot be maintained. Move between nodes and connections change. Users not accessing data need to make room for those who are.

But above those concerns is battery life. Smarter smartphones burn through battery life faster than those of the previous generation. iPhone, Android, WebOS, etc., must manage their connections strictly, cutting data connections when inactive in order to conserve power. Better batteries and greater efficiency may eventually solve these problems, but given the problems plaguing AT&T in certain cities, I’m leaning toward the need for smarter networks designed to handle the behavior of current smartphones.