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Smartphones outpacing tablets in data consumption

Study by Arieso shows smartphones trumping tablets for the first time in data consumption, putting further pressure on mobile operators to better strategize their network coverage and management.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

A recent study has shown smartphones overtaking tablets amid increasing data consumption among users, which mobile operators should note to more intelligently and cost-effectively manage their network and subscriber base.

The study released Monday by Arieso, which specializes in mobile network optimization, found that for the first time, smartphones consistently surpassed tablets in consumption of mobile data. The top three mobile devices that were the "hungriest" data consumers of 2012 were all smartphones--Apple iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S3, and HTC Sensation XL.

In comparison, the top three in 2011 comprised only one smartphone, the iPhone 4S, even though it was ranked number one. The Apple iPad 2 and the original iPad took second and third place respectively, said Michael Flanagan, Arieso CTO and author of the study, in an interview with ZDNet.

Arieso carried out its third annual study during the fourth quarter of 2012 with data from a Tier 1 European operator and examined around 125 devices, for which each device had at least 1,000 users. But, according to Flanagan, the study's findings are relevant to operators worldwide because data consumption patterns associated with the corresponding device users remain similar between geographies.

The difference should be in applying the insights from the results to the local or regional market conditions where the mobile carrier operates, he added.

More data deluge, more regulatory scrutiny
That smartphones trumped tablets in data consumption presents some key lessons for any carrier to note, including in Asia, the CTO said.

One lesson is that the "data crunch [issue] is alive and well", so operators have to be fully prepared to satisfy this appetite of users. "It is not going to taper off. We're not going over a hump, we're going over a cliff of data consumption," Flanagan said.

The data deluge also means telecom regulator intervention could potentially increase, as authorities step in to ensure companies fulfill their quality of service (QoS) terms, he added.

Flanagan noted that in Asia, which is home to a variety of "uber data societies, those not yet data-mature, and the middle road", carriers in the respective categories will have different priorities. For instance, telcos in South Korea, an uber data society, are mainly concerned with capacity problems and how to satisfy customers using the advanced LTE (long-term evolution) or 4G network.

Telcos in markets which are in the middle road between 3G and 4G such as Singapore, are in a "tough spot" because they deal with growing LTE traction, even if coverage is not yet fully ubiquitous, whilst also catering to 3G subscribers. Negative customer sentiment could arise where users question why they pay more for a LTE-capable device but are often on a 3G network, on which they would also be using with a cheaper handset, Flanagan cautioned.

Pinpoint strategies to tackle data demand
Another significant takeaway from the study is that network operators can relook their data rates and plans for tablet subscribers to better balance between data pricing and consumption behavior of tablet users, Flanagan said.

Generally speaking, operators tend to be careful not to overly "liberate" tablet users for data consumption, so there is less demand on their network. They set data caps that come with sometimes "extreme" penalties, he said. All these make tablet users reluctant to go over the limit, and also miss out on the user experience of a tablet vis-à-vis a smaller-sized smartphone--which happens to account for most of the data consumption that is already taxing the network.

Flanagan recommended that operators consider increasing the data limit on tablets. While carriers will not likely make more money directly from this step, the benefit is tablet subscribers are happier with their data experience, and that minimizes user churn, he explained. "You could make it [such that] subscribers pay penalties for exceeding [a higher] limit, or attempt to cause behavior that discourages greater data usage, but will also likely lead to churn."

Data consumption is only going to grow more aggressively in the near future, so from here on out, network operators have to be "as intelligent as possible for their investments in their network" to get around the issue, said Flanagan.

One way is to identify exactly where the greatest amount of data growth, consumption or performance issues are, right down to the building level, and then swiftly make provisions at that location to accommodate demand or solve the problem, he pointed out.

He emphasized that "identifying surgically where the demands and drops [in performance] are" is simply more cost-effective than spending money to blanket an area.

Using small cells, for instance, is inexpensive compared to traditional cells or base stations that also take a longer time to install, he said. "The range of a small cell is by definition smaller, but with the marriage of the small cell with the ability to accurately determine where [the problem areas are], operators can put the small cell exactly where it will do the most good."

In addition, operators need not procure and place numerous small cells, since they only put them where they are needed, which makes for easier network management too, Flanagan explained.

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