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.

3 Comments

  1. turn.self.off

    02/23/2010 at 4:10 am

    back when sms was new, this was a common problem around special days, like say new years eve, where the number of sms and such would basically flood the control channel, resulting in messages getting delivered as much as a day later.

    i would say that having a special channel set aside for specific uses may have made sense back when gsm was first created. But with UMTS and LTE the need is less there, and so it can probably be part of the general data traffic.

    Reply

  2. smh

    02/23/2010 at 9:48 am

    I don’t think it is the networks that need adjustment, but rather how the smartphones “kill” the connection.

    Data, or rather all non-speak related data, does not take up that much bandwidth on a cell-tower. The process of connecting to a tower takes more bandwidth than most data services, so by connecting, disconnecting, and reconnecting numerous times and on numerous phones slowly kills the tower.

    A system that takes into account that smartphones will kill the connection when they have received all the needed data could be made by marking each (cell)number that belong to these smartphones in each operator’s Home Location Register (HLR), which is the database where numbers are registered/stored.

    The actual screening process to find out whether a smartphone is connected or not, consume bandwidth in itself, but it does not affect the the unmarked numbers as much as the unscreened situation.

    To make it even less strenuous on the cell towers, dedicated channels should be setup specifically for the screening process, so that the screening will not in any way affect the operation of the other phones on the same cell tower.

    So the explanation, from O2, is more whine than fact :P

    Reply

  3. Virtuous

    02/24/2010 at 1:10 am

    This is another example of a company trying to shift the blame. It’s never my fault.

    Reply

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