Email puts a much heavier load on 3G networks than web surfing or peer-to-peer applications, according to Alcatel-Lucent's research wing, Bell Laboratories.
Mike Schabel, a research director at Bell Labs, said on Thursday that P2P and web surfing account for much of the volume of data carried by mobile broadband networks, but inefficiently managed applications, such as email, are the biggest resource hogs.
"In wireless data, there is a false belief that high-volume users will use a lot of wireless resources, and low-volume users will use less," Schabel said at a roundtable event in London. "Every wireless application uses resources with different efficiencies. Operators can't just focus on how much traffic is sent — they have to consider how the traffic is sent. We need to be much smarter about how we deliver the bits and bytes and handle the transactions."
According to Schabel, email hits networks hard because of phones constantly polling the server to check for new messages. Mobile email consumes around 69 percent of a wireless data network's signalling resources, despite only accounting for around four percent of the volume of data carried by the network, he said.
Web surfing, on the other hand, accounts for around 70 percent of wireless network data volume, but uses only around 12 percent of the signalling resources, Schabel said. He added that P2P applications — frequently thought of as resource-intensive — are in fact highly efficient.
"Email is more resource-intensive," Schabel said. "Peer-to-peer is the most efficient application running on wireless networks today. This is not to say it's not an issue with volume, but it's very efficient."
Schabel added that many new smartphone applications — such as location-based services, weather updates, stock tickers and secure transactions — look to the network "like email" because they also constantly come in and out of the network. "This is a very challenging problem for wireless operators," he said.
According to Schabel, in the past 18 months wireless network operators have experienced "a deluge of data", due to the emergence of new devices such as netbooks and smartphones — for example, the iPhone. Faster network speeds and the rapidly growing number of rich mobile applications also encourage people to use 3G networks, he said.
He pointed out that, while operators are seeing increasing data revenue, network congestion is worsening the customer experience and causing support costs to rise. "Sometimes the answer is capacity-building — but the right capacity, for the right reasons," Schabel said.
Bell Labs sells a network-monitoring box called the 9900 Wireless Network Guardian (WNG), which is designed to give mobile operators a clear picture of how network conditions and IP traffic interact with each other, thereby making it easier to diagnose customer experience issues. Only one operator, Canada's Bell Mobility, has publicly announced its use of the 9900 WNG, but there are several other customers, Schabel said.
Schabel gave examples of 9900 WNG in use, including an operator that had noticed a sudden 25 percent increase in its network load. The culprit, the operator found, was the Conficker worm. Laptops and netbooks using the 3G network had been infected, and the malware was trying to propagate to the neighbouring IP addresses being used by smartphones. It could not succeed in this, due to the fragmented nature of mobile operating systems, but its frequent, repeated attempts were clogging up the network.
The operator in question was able to use this information to contact the infected users and offer them a targeted antivirus rollout, Schabel said.