The mobile data revolution has hit a snag. And the stumbling block comes in the form of so-called ‘quality of service’ (QoS) techniques – or rather the lack of them.
QoS is meant to allow mobile operators, such as Vodafone or Orange, to guarantee service levels to business clients and to prioritise certain types of traffic for certain users. That is hardly revolutionary thinking: fixed-line telecommunications operators have been implementing QoS techniques for years. It is these processes that enable fixed operators to offer wide-ranging service-level agreements (SLAs) to their corporate clients.
But the wireless industry has not yet followed the example of the fixed world. SLAs in the mobile world either contain only low-level guarantees, such as promises that a certain type of wireless device will be delivered on a certain date, or they are not offered at all.
Technology is part of the problem. However much IT directors may request them, operators will only offer SLAs when they are satisfied that they won’t be paying out penalties every month because their services slip below the agreed quality threshold. While wireless systems can deliver data securely and at high speeds, technical difficulties arise when users pass from one cell site to another cell site, which may already be full to capacity.
“Wireless is not inherently unreliable. What makes it unreliable is when the user is moving around,” says Nigel Deighton, a vice president of Gartner, the technology analyst group.
Another factor is that wireless, unlike the fixed infrastructure, is viewed as a shared resource, says Mike Short, chairman of the Mobile Data Association, a wireless industry trade group. Corporate customers are not offered a dedicated portion of the radio spectrum. If a cell site is clogged with traffic, the big corporate customers have to wait to be connected along with ordinary consumers.
“I think that most enterprises have understood that wireless is a ‘best-attempt’ service,” says Deighton. “If there are too many users in the cell site then you won’t get the bandwidth. It’s as simple as that.”
A third reason for the lack of QoS is commercial. QoS specifications are written into the newer wireless network technologies, such as GPRS (general packet radio services) and WCDMA (wideband code-division multiple access), Europe’s preferred third-generation mobile system. Unfortunately, only a handful of operators in Europe have implemented the specifications, and most of them have only done it on a trial basis. In short, QoS is not on the wireless operators’ radar.
Suppliers of service assurance and network management software are frustrated by the operators’ attitude. “The thing that confuses me is what their priorities are,” says Marc Wilkinson, deputy CTO of Micromuse. “Their biggest fear is losing customers. To entice customers in and keep them loyal, operators need to provide compelling services backed up by service-level management.” Eventually, he says, corporate clients may be offered the chance to track the performance of the operator’s network themselves, but not for many years.
The reluctance of operators to implement QoS raises questions about their confidence in mobile data. “Pragmatism is the key word in the mobile industry,” says Deighton. After the huge sums that they have invested in 3G licences and networks, CFOs at the major operators want to see rapid payback before rubber-stamping any new project. And QoS is seen as a low-priority with unclear payback opportunities.
The voice service for ordinary consumers, on the other hand, remains the killer mobile application, and the idea of prioritising data traffic for certain business users is still alien to the wireless industry. For example, although GPRS was originally seen as a data transmission technology, most operators typically allocate seven-eighths of GPRS capacity for voice traffic.
Changing attitudes in the mobile industry will take time. Micromuse’s Wilkinson was recently given a taste of how much work needs to be done while on holiday in New York. In order to save money, he sent text messages back to his friends and colleagues in the UK. But the messages often took more than eight hours to arrive at their destination. “Perhaps the operator wanted me to call home instead,” he muses.