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October 2, 2018

An Explainer: Network Management Improves Your Wireless Experience .

An Explainer: Network Management Improves Your Wireless Experience

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Tom Sawanobori
Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer

We’re here with an explainer blog to share how providers manage their networks to deliver a dynamic mobile broadband experience for their customers.

Delivering dynamic and seamless mobile broadband services to millions of consumers over a vast – and largely unseen – communications ecosystem requires significant network management. Your mobile experience – and all those wireless services you enjoy – wouldn’t be possible without providers managing their networks to deliver the connectivity you want and need.

Efforts to evaluate wireless network performance serve little practical use if they do not account for and reflect the realities of network management. Wireless providers manage their networks and that is a very good thing, because otherwise we wouldn’t have the service you love.

How Wireless Works and What Impacts Your Mobile Broadband Experience. Today, you can send video, voice, texts and email – wireless data – over hundreds of miles in fractions of a second. That’s pretty remarkable, and here’s how that works, in essence:

The data you send travels over spectrum – or radio airwaves – to a nearby cell tower or small cell. The network equipment at the cell site receives your data, and sends it on to a switching center that connects to the internet. Your data is routed across the network and out to the internet or through a transport network to another operator’s network to an end user device.

Your mobile network experience can be affected by three core elements: mobility, capacity, and consumer choice. How a wireless provider manages their network to be able to evolve and work for the benefit – and the choices – of its subscribers is called network management.

Network management is really about addressing these three primary elements in a way that ensures all users have the best possible mobile experience that meets their specific needs. Let’s go into more detail on each of these elements:

  • Mobility. By their very nature, mobile broadband services are highly dynamic and operate in a continuously changing environment. As you move about, your mobility can change the qualities of your connection – things like packet loss, corruption, latency, and jitter – and considerably so from moment to moment based on network and spectrum congestion, fading, interference, propagation path loss, and a variety of other factors.
  • Capacity. Wireless providers continuously seek to improve the quality and expand the reach and capacity of their networks. And continued demand for everything wireless contributes to Americans using an ever-increasing amount of mobile data. In fact, a record 15.7 trillion megabytes of mobile data crossed wireless networks in 2017 – an amount that nearly quadruples 2014’s levels and that represents 40 times the traffic volume of 2010.

    At the same time, mobile networks depend on a limited resource – spectrum, the invisible airwaves that enable your data to be sent wirelessly – and face other capacity-constraining factors.

  • Consumer Choice. Intense competition and service differentiation remain at the core of the mobile broadband experience. This differentiation provides extraordinary benefits for consumers.

    Instead of service commoditization and uniformity, providers offer different services – and service levels/network qualities – that meet different users’ needs and different mobile application requirements. For instance, real-time applications like video teleconferencing and gaming benefit when wireless service offerings reflect the network demands these services require.

    Consumers can also choose from unlimited data plans, plans that optimize bandwidth-intensive mobile video, and other plan options that offer options on network use and service quality.

Where Network Management Comes In. As mobile broadband consumption continues to increase and those consumption patterns change – often dictated by consumers’ choices and application requirements – providers need flexibility to manage their networks. They strive to do so in a way that strikes a balance between delivering a high-quality mobile broadband experience and avoiding negative impacts, like traffic congestion.

Today, the FCC defines reasonable network management as practices “appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.”

To that end, wireless providers have highly developed network architectures that manage data traffic. Managing those data flows involves a number of parameters, including arranging the flows vis-à-vis other traffic and service offering choices. This helps ensure the quality of service (QoS) level that these applications need and that users demand.

The Benefits of Network Management/Traffic Differentiation. Reasonable network management, including what’s known as traffic differentiation, yields a number of pro-consumer benefits.

  • Enhancing Everyone’s Network Experience. Traffic differentiation – the act of “[a]nalyzing traffic flows, implementing traffic polices, and acting upon the traffic flows,” as Peter Rysavy has described – can provide consumers access to additional network resources and capabilities that would otherwise be unavailable. In doing so, all consumers’ mobile broadband experience improves and becomes more reliable and more consistent.

    The prioritization of certain mobile traffic over others does not mean other traffic suffers. In other words, differentiating wireless traffic is not a zero-sum scenario; network management and traffic differentiation for some data flows can improve the experience for all network users. As the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group has noted, “When differentiated treatment of traffic is applied with an awareness of the requirements for different types of traffic, it becomes possible to create a benefit without an offsetting loss.”

  • Optimizing Consumers’ Data Packages. Traffic differentiation techniques can help optimize data allowances, particularly given the competition-driven unlimited data packages that many wireless providers offer today. To protect against network congestion for the benefit of all subscribers in an area, many mobile data plans, especially those with unlimited data allowances, can slow down traffic after a user reaches a certain amount in a given month.

In an effort to optimize consumers’ data allotments, some mobile providers deploy what’s called Mobile Video Resolution Control (MVRC) functions. That’s in large part because the primary driver of mobile traffic growth is video. In 2016, 64 percent of U.S. traffic was video, and 67 percent of consumers watch videos via mobile daily.

In essence, MVRC limits video resolution on mobile networks to DVD quality, which saves data consumption but doesn’t make a material difference in your mobile device viewing experience. MVRC is another example of providers seeking out a balance between offering robust data plans while ensuring that their subscribers are not negatively impacted if other users’ data consumption exceeds a cell’s capacity.

Protecting Consumers Through Transparency. The new open internet rules put in place by the FCC in December 2017 require all internet providers to disclose their network management practices, including “congestion management [and] application-specific behavior.” These disclosures are thorough and comprehensive. Mobile providers disclose information regarding speeds, prices, data caps (where applicable), and network management practices.

In addition, mobile providers also voluntarily adopted a best practice of notifying wireless customers with data allowances when they approach and exceed their plans’ allowance for data usage and will incur overage charges, without charge and without requiring sign-up to receive the notification. This best practice is now included in CTIA’s Customer Code for Wireless Service, which is abided by major U.S. wireless providers.

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The bottom line is that reasonable network management practices are key to providing the best possible wireless experience to consumers – on today’s networks and the 5G networks of tomorrow. Transparency helps ensure that consumers are informed and empowered to make the best decisions that meet their wireless connectivity needs, and that’s an approach that has and will continue to yield benefits for all mobile users.

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