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August - 2011 - issue > Cover Story
Unjamming The Mobile Data Network
Vimali Swamy
Monday, August 1, 2011
The mobile industry today is at a cross road. While on one hand, the network operators are reveling in the increased subscriber growth, on the other hand they are struggling with the sudden explosion in data consumption driven primarily by video centric applications on high end portable devices like smartphones and tablets. Networks are choked like never before, leading to embarrassing network outages at some of the tier 1 operators such as AT&T (U.S.) and O2 (UK). “Data offloading” is one of the most promising technological innovations today that addresses this problem. It is this unconventional solution that IntelliNet Technologies offers.

Anjan Ghosal founded, Melbourne, Florida headquartered IntelliNet Technologies, a provider of network convergence and mobile data offload solutions that accelerate the deployment of next generation data applications and services. With its patented technology and wide product portfolio, IntelliNet helps network operators to direct and offload their data traffic over a Wi-Fi instead of 3G spectrum, thereby keeping the network uncongested. In a very short span of five years, the company has forged strong partnerships with the telecom industry's leading network operators and suppliers of network equipment, application software, and hosted services.

“Mobile data continues to grow at a phenomenal rate in countries that have already deployed data centric 3G networks. AT&T for example has noted a data growth of over 5000 percent in just three years. Most of this growth is attributed to high bandwidth video related services like video chat, IP TV and access to video content over internet sites such as YouTube and Netflix. . The continued price pressure on data rates together with an unprecedented growth in demand has created a major challenge for operators around the world,” explains Ghosal, Founder and CEO, IntelliNet Technologies.

From Spectrum to Wi-Fi: The changing scenario

The past decade was quite tumultuous for the telecom operators. In early 2000, wireless data services were non-existent and telecom operators focused entirely on voice capability. Data made its foray into cellular networks around 2002 with 2.5G networks. While there was an abundance of data applications on the internet the lack of “user friendly” devices continued to thwart its growth. The initial uptake of these GPRS and CDMA-1xRTT networks was slow which lead to the untimely demise of a number of promising startups focusing on wireless data services. However, all that changed in 2005 with the appearance of the iPhone which allowed the consumer access to a trove of video and data services already available via the internet. Over the next three years data usage on wireless networks exploded as OEMs bombarded the market with smart devices, leaving operators scrambling to expand their 3G networks to support this unprecedented growth. Yet this was only the start of the data deluge where the infrastructure is finding it hard to keep up.

Solving this conundrum requires an understanding of the underlying mobile data realities. Mobile data network architecture mirrors the voice networks. The mobile device communicates to the radio tower (often referred to as the Radio Access Network) using licensed spectrum (900MHz/1900MHz). From there the data is backhauled over fiber/copper to the operators core network where it is processed by a number of data elements (often referred to as the Packet Core) before the packets are routed to their end destination – either within the operators network or the internet. While in 2/3G there are independent paths for voice and data in 4G networks they are combined as voice is delivered as data packets.

Hence this unprecedented growth impacts the network at multiple points – radio, backhaul and the packet core and operators have been exploring a variety of solutions to address the various choke points. With over 45 percent of mobile network revenues coming from data services, operators cannot ignore this problem and are urgently searching to invest in alternate solutions to address this problem. There are several ways operators can address the challenge. Increasing capacity in underserved areas can be done by building new cell-sites. Addressing traffic demands can be offset by technology upgrade such as HSPA+. However these options come at a high cost to the operator.

Augmenting and improving backhaul capacity can also mitigate this problem. Additional T1/OC3 lines can be linked to cell-sites to increase data capacity. The flow of traffic on the pipe can also be controlled using packet inspection and service level policy. Caching the overall content can also help to smooth the flow of traffic. Radio technology continues to improve the efficiency of transmission and reception increasing throughput, but there are limits to how many bits can be packed into a radio stream.

Another solution is a ‘small cell’ approach where operators deploy femtocells in locations with poor cellular coverage. The data is backhauled via the existing broadband network using standard IP providing a more cost effective data coverage.

But the alternative solution that is gaining favor is to enable the Wi-Fi radio on the user’s smart phone and deliver data over the Wi-Fi interface rather than over licensed spectrum like UMTS/3G.

Business Case for Data Offload

Data offload provides the most compelling mitigation strategy for operators today. The majority of the data is generated by smart phones that have both 3G and Wi-Fi interfaces. Studies have shown that most of the mobile data generated by consumers are in in-door settings within Wi-Fi coverage area. This makes Wi-Fi the most appropriate offload network.

While other network optimization methods address specific choke points in the network, Data offload helps alleviate multiple choke points including the spectrum, radio equipment, the backhaul and the core network.

What is even more interesting is the economics around data offload. The cost to deliver a single bit of data over a Wi-Fi network is 1/6th that of 3G networks – with about 2/3 of the cost savings being on the RAN. For an operator with 7.5M illion subscribers who is able to offload 22 percent of their traffic to Wi-FI the CapEx cost savings could be well over 90 percent! For spectrum starved operators like in India, data offload is a necessity.

Little wonder that ABI recently projected that the amount of data offloaded is expected to expand by 100-fold by 2015. Data Offloading: The IntelliNet Way

Until recent years a typical solution for an overcrowded cellular site was to add another mobile base station, which can be mounted to a tower or to a building, effectively doubling capacity. However, base stations are expensive, ranging from $250,000 to $1,000,000 in an urban environment not including cost of land acquisition, making it a financially unviable growth strategy.

Combining an intelligent application on the smart phone with a carrier grade wireless gateway, IntelliNet’s solution ‘offloads’ the data traffic from the operators spectrum to the nearest available hotspot and transfer data over the Wi-Fi network. The application on the smart phone automatically detects the presence of WI-Fi access and seamlessly initiates this transition. The IntelliNet Wireless Services Gateway (WSG) is a carrier-grade platform that can support both standards-based and innovative approaches to interworking with cellular networks. The WSG builds routing intelligence on traffic from a Wi-Fi path based on operator-provided policy. The traffic can be extended either to the cellular core network or to the Internet. Since the operator’s core network requires trusted device access, the WSG also enables authentication to the core network and secure transport access. Since the company has strong partnerships with some of the leading network equipment manufacturers, the operators can be assured of a seamless connectivity across all hotspots.

IntelliNet provides various offload options depending on the operator’s needs.

1: Unmanaged Offload: Cellular devices i.e. the phones detect the presence of available carrier or partner hotspots and automatically connect to them after authentication against the operator’s subscriber database (using EAP-SIM). Traffic is routed directly to the Internet using the Wi-Fi operator’s infrastructure.

2: Managed Offload: Post authentication, the traffic is routed via an ‘edge’ device that is managed by the operator. This edge device allows the operator to ‘control’ the subscriber’s internet traffic without having to route the traffic back to the core networks. It allows operators to implement volume based billing, enable prepaid subscribers, perform legal intercept, and enforce traffic shaping and policy controls.

3: Wi-Fi/Cellular Converged Offload: In addition to the above establish seamless connectivity with the core network – so that as required traffic can flow between the two. This enables carriers to deliver premium content and walled garden services to their subscribers via the Wi-Fi interface. This is extended to provide seamless handoff between the two networks.

An excellent example of IntelliNet’s efficient solution is the recent engagement with Movistar, the Telefonica mobile network operator in Venezuela. The cell site that included the main campus of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas was being choked by the demand for mobile data. Blackberry smart phones had become popular among students and the demand for data exceeded the available 2G/3G capacity.

Considering the expense of deploying an additional base station, Movistar decided to look into offloading the data usage to a campus-wide Wi-Fi network. The initial solution of providing user name/password to the students did not work well since it required manual intervention by the users. The need clearly was for an integrated solution that would be transparent to the end user. With IntelliNet’s solution Movistar was able to validate the mobile device transparently by authenticating the SIM information both for their prepaid and postpaid subscriber base. The Wireless Services Gateway set up a secure “tunnel” between the mobile device and the core network of the wireless operator. This allows subscribers to have access to “walled garden” services, such as music and video downloads, ringtones and other proprietary services that are not available through the Internet directly. Movistar recently successfully tested this functionality and is in the process of deploying this service wherever they have data capacity issues.

Just like Movistar, today, thanks to IntelliNet, operators worldwide are able to provide improved data services delivery and QOS harnessing higher bandwidth, reduce the cost of deployment compared to additional investment in RAN and Core Network equipment, improve subscriber experience and retainership and provide seamless charging and bill services over Wi-Fi.

What Next?

Today, the company is reveling in the strong interest evinced by the majority of the top operators in both U.S. and India in this technology. India in particular is of great interest to the company thanks to the exponentially growing telecom market. “Indian operators have a great track record in generating significant revenue from VAS services like ring back tones, music downloads, SMS and a variety of downloadable applications. Most of these services are offered through a strong web portal as ‘premium services’,” observes Ghosal. With the recent rollout of 3G, one can assume that a lot of these services will be supplemented by high bandwidth services like video sharing, mobile TV, multi-player high-definition gaming and videoconferencing which can become a major revenue generator for them.

Another important factor that is likely to drive up data traffic in India is general Internet access from mobile devices. With the rapidly growing mobile subscriber base and, the relatively lower penetration of laptops and personal computers the primary source of Internet access are likely to be mobile devices. Whatever be the driver, the focus on mobile data is likely to become a double edged sword, quickly outstripping network capacity. These factors, coupled with the limited spectrum allocated to operators in India, may lead to a ‘perfect storm’ where the networks get overwhelmed and hence the need for data offload.

“Having established the value proposition of data offload our primary objective now is to make it easier for operators to commercially deploy this technology. To this end we are partnering with leading Wi-Fi access point providers to enable a completely clientless solution that will work out-of-the-box with most wireless devices” says Ghosal. “In addition, we are excited about adding Femto Gateway capabilities to our next generation WSG, with which we can support operators that are looking at deploying multiple small cell technologies of the same platform, something none of the others are able to claim today. Also with 4G next in line to be rolled out in the US commercially, the market in the US provides great opportunities for IntelliNet.”

“For a small company like us to directly sell to large players given the current environment of severe consolidation both on operators and OEM’s is challenging,” says Ghosal. That’s why IntelliNet has forged strong partnerships with the OEMs like Nokia Siemens, Motorola, Ericsson, Huawei and others. The company in the future seeks to expand via the partners. Also it eyes to strengthen its market hold by eyeing M&As with companies that promise to complement its product portfolio and help it keep the edge over competitors.

Though the time ahead promises to be challenging, for now Ghosal is delighted with the sweet spot that company has created around its products.

The birth of a technology company

Armed with deep telecom knowledge gleaned at Bellcore, MCI and GTE, Ghosal launched IntelliNet Technologies in 1992 to provide complex technology and solutions in telecom network infrastructure. One of the early engagements was to develop in building wireless system that would cost a fraction of the macro networks. Unfortunately, at that time the technology did not exist to drive costs down to the point the solution would make commercial sense. But early 2000 saw a shift in the sector when IP started to proliferate the market replacing expensive data transport mechanisms, giving IntelliNet a second chance to revive its business. Ghosal and team started to observe the market, figuring a way to leverage IP to deliver wireless telecom services in-house. IntelliNet became an early player in the Femtocell market – a reincarnation of in-building wireless. Using a large OEM as a channel and lessons learnt from the past IntelliNet delivered the first Femto Gateway. By 2005, the company already had a strong foundation in gateways and modified its solutions and re-entered the space by engaging with end operators and multiple OEM’s. “Though Femto is a compelling technology it operates over licensed spectrum requiring direct involvement from operators which has its limitations,” says Ghosal. It was the same time when Wi-Fi was being looked upon to deliver mobile service. Though there were multiple hurdles to be overcome in this regard, still the option was cost effective and seeing a potential, IntelliNet seized the opportunity. What encouraged the company was that over time the market interest in Wi-Fi had changed from voice to data which has a much stronger business case. Fortuitously, around the same time Aziare Networks – backed by over $55M in venture money and a pioneer in wireless data offload was up for grabs – and Ghosal jumped at the opportunity. IntelliNet acquired the company in 2008 and by merging its solution in its existing gateway developed the product that has today changed the data offload market forever. “Very few companies successfully transition from being service focused to product oriented. It is much harder than it may seem. I am glad to say that we are one of the few that have done so and without a penny of outside capital along the way” said Ghosal.

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