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Asia telcos lack insight into subscribers' data usage

Region's operators need to have in-depth understanding of subscribers' data usage in order to better cope with growing data influx and improve customer experience, says executive.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Asia's telecommunication operators lag behind their European and American counterparts in understanding how subscribers are consuming data, and this is hindering them from better coping with increasing data flowing through their broadband networks, an executive noted.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia in an interview Friday, Cam Cullen, vice president of product management at Procera Networks, said the region's telcos are, in general, still lacking insight into how users are consuming data, and what devices they are on while consuming information, among others.

This is unlike Europe and the U.S. The former has enacted the Bill Shock law to prevent exorbitant data roaming fees, while the latter has introduced tiered data pricing to curb 3G broadband usage, as a result of understanding how data is being circulated, he noted.

"Mobile operators, for example, don't really understand data and how it is being consumed. Two years ago, mobile online usage was confined to BlackBerry e-mail access and a small amount of Web browsing. This has since changed with the introduction of [Apple's] iPhone and how it has altered consumers' mindset of going online with their mobile devices," he said.

Studies done appear to back up Cullen's point of increasing mobile Web usage. The U.K. telecom regulator Ofcom, for instance, revealed in a study released Thursday that broadband take-up in the country grew by 3 percent between the first quarters of 2009 and 2010 to 71 percent, with mobile broadband the driving force behind the increase.

In order to have real-time, granular insight into their networks, telcos would have to invest in technologies that would allow for deep packet inspection (DPI), Cullen suggested. Procera Networks, for one, is a provider of DPI products that allow businesses to inspect every byte of every packet that passes through the network, down to the level of packet headers, types of applications used and the actual packet content.

According to the vice president, Spanish telco Yoigo is one that is using the company's products to identify who its users are, what apps they are employing to access the Web and where they are connecting to the network. This way, Yoigo can optimize its users' connection and give quality of experience a boost, he noted.

Bandwidth challenges in APAC
Daniel Sloan, the Asia-Pacific technical director for Procera Networks who was sitting in the same interview as Cullen, further illustrated the challenges faced by regional telcos, particularly in matured markets with saturated subscriber bases such as Singapore.

He said these telcos are experiencing difficulties in providing consistent service standards for their users because as more people link up to the finite number of 3G towers, service is bound to "degrade".

What is holding back telcos from deploying DPI techniques is the costly "backend overhaul" they have to go through to integrate the technology, Sloan pointed out.

"Regional telcos know they need [to overhaul their systems] and are looking into the problem. What they are not so sure of is the business case and how efficiently DPI technologies can be deployed without disrupting their networks," the executive revealed, although he declined to name the telcos that Procera has been communicating with.

An earlier ZDNet Asia report had stated that regional telcos have already identified increasing bandwidth demands, driven in part by Web 2.0 sites such as video streaming sites, and are making use of bandwidth provision technologies to cope with the demand.

Operators had been transitioning to MPLS (multiprotocol label switching), which is touted to help applications perform more smoothly by prioritizing which packets of data get delivered faster over the network, according to the report.

As for developing markets, operators face a different set of problems and challenges, Sloan said. Countries such as India are just rolling out its 3G network and the telcos there do not know how to charge their users for mobile broadband access as they do not know users' Web traffic patterns, he noted.

"I spoke to engineers [in these markets] and they have no idea what's going to happen once [the telcos] switch on the broadband network. They are worried that the networks might go crazy once users with handsets that support 3G get onto the network," he said.

Capping wireless broadband access
Benjamin Teh, vice president of Asia-Pacific and Japan for Procera Networks, also told ZDNet Asia that "use-all-you-want" data plans are a cause of concern for the region's telcos.

He said that besides facing difficulty in weaning customers off such plans, operators that still have unused bandwidth spectrum will have less incentive to offer up tiered data plans to customers for fear of losing them to competitors that provide unlimited mobile broadband access.

"The three telcos in Singapore, for example, are currently asking the government to split the remaining 3G spectrum among themselves instead of offering it to a fourth operator. But getting more bandwidth is only a stop-gap measure and not a long-term solution," he said.

That's not to say that other countries are not offering tiered data plans, as operators in Malaysia and Thailand have already done so, Teh noted.

In the U.S., AT&T and Verizon had earlier announced plans to end unlimited data plans for their customers in a bid to better manage the overworked wireless broadband networks in the country.

The two American telcos had also joined the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) in order to increase Wi-Fi uptake among mobile Web users as a means to reduce the load on their 3G networks.

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