3G Networks at the Breaking Point- and it can only get worse!

iPhones Overload AT&T 3G Network, NY Times


Apple’s iPhone is a data guzzler. Owners use them like minicomputers, which they are, and use them a lot. Not only do iPhone owners download applications, stream music and videos and browse the Web at higher rates than the average smartphone user, but the average iPhone owner can also use 10 times the network capacity used by the average smartphone user.  Google first reported this phenomenon over one year ago, when iPhone traffic swamped their Mt View, CA municipal wireless network.

There seems little question that Apple iPhone user behavior is very different from that of other smart phone users that every carrier has to be concerned about what happens as more devices like the iPhone are sold to end users. If most of them start to behave like iPhone users, carriers are likely going to have serious bandwidth problems.

The result is dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds asAT&T’s cellular network strains to meet the demand. Another result is outraged customers.

More than 20 million other smartphone users are on the AT&T network, but other phones do not drain the network the way the nine million iPhones users do. Indeed, that is why the howls of protest are more numerous in the dense urban areas with higher concentrations of iPhone owners.

“It’s almost worthless to try and get on 3G during peak times in those cities,” Mr. Munster said, referring to the 3G network. “When too many users get in the area, the call drops.” The problems seem particularly pronounced in New York and San Francisco, where Mr. Munster estimates AT&T’s network shoulders as much as 20 percent of all the iPhone users in the United States.

Alcatel-Lucent studies show that Web browsing consumes 32 percent of data-related airtime but 69 percent of bandwidth, while email uses 30 percent of airtime but only four percent of bandwidth.

We don’t think that current mobile data usage model can continue. Either there will be changes to unlimited mobile data plans, such as higher prices, as well as blocking high bandwidth video sites and not permitting tethering (where iPhone acts as a modem for a notebook/netbook).  This would better match network traffic to the mobile network provider revenue stream. Customers won’t be happy about that.

Owners of the iPhone 3GS, the newest model, “have probably increased their usage by about 100 percent,” said Chetan Sharma, an independent wireless analyst. “It’s faster so they are using it more on a daily basis.”

Mr. Sharma compares the problem to water flowing through a pipe. “It can only funnel so much at a given time,” he said. “It comes down to peak capacity loads, or spikes in data usage. That’s why you see these problems at conferences or in large cities with high concentration of iPhone users.”

When thousands of iPhone owners descended on Austin, TX., in March 2009 during South by Southwest, an annual technology and music conference, attendees were unable to send text messages, check their e-mail or make calls until AT&T installed temporary cell sites to amplify the service.

AT&T says that the majority of the nearly $18 billion it will spend this year on its networks will be diverted into upgrades and expansions to meet the surging demands on its 3G network. The company intends to erect an additional 2,100 cell towers to fill out patchy coverage, upgrade existing cell sites by adding fiber optic connectivity to deliver data faster and add other technology to provide stronger cell signals.

As fast as AT&T wants to proceed with its cellular network upgrade, many cities require lengthy filing processes to erect new cell towers. Even after the towers are installed, it can take several months for software upgrades to be completed, which would result in faster operating speeds for subscribers.

The company has also delayed bandwidth-heavy features like multimedia messaging, or text messages containing pictures, audio or video. It is also postponing “tethering,” which allows the iPhone to share its Internet connection with a computer, a standard feature on many rival smartphones. AT&T says it has no intention of capping how much data iPhone owners use.  The upgrades are expected to be completed by next year and the company has said it is already seeing improvements.

However, AT&T is limiting future investment in its HSPA based 3G network in favor of LTE.  At a September 15th 4G World keynote speech in Chicago, Kris Rinne, AT&T’s senior vice president of architecture and planning, said AT&T may not proceed with upgrades to evolved HSPA (or HSPA+), which would boost current 3G network capacities by a factor of six.  Instead, the carrier’s plans call for proceeding directly toward 4G (LTE) in 2010.

“Our plans on the infrastructure side focus on LTE, rather then HSPA+,” Rinne said. AT&T isn’t writing the technology off, she said —the network operator will continue to follow the technology and support its network and handset suppliers in development and standardization efforts, but it no longer has any specific plans or timeline for HSPA+ deployment.  But how quickly can AT&T deploy LTE and shift all its 3G subscribers over to that network?   Note that new devices as well as network infrastructure equipment will be required for LTE.


AT&T  is hardly alone.  Once smart 3G phones are available for other 3G networks, they will most likely experience the same problems AT&T has now.  As we have opined in previous articles and blog posts, we believe that it is make or break time for 3G networks.  Whether it is new data pricing plans, topology tricks, additional cell towers, or other means, the net result will be very unhappy customers.

What’s the solution?  A forklift upgrade to 4G- either LTE or mobile WiMAX.  As almost all 3G operators are committed to LTE, mobile subscribers face a very uncertain future.





0 thoughts on “3G Networks at the Breaking Point- and it can only get worse!

  1. People seem to be addicted to their iPhones (and maybe G-Phones – http://www.viodi.tv/2009/06/12/efficient-video-production-with-the-g1-phone/).

    Everywhere you go, you see people fondling their iPhone, caressing it like a loved one. In one sense, maybe it is a substitute or an extension of our loved ones, as it provides connections to our real and virtual loved ones. Maybe this emotional attachment is why people are willing to spend so much on data plans for their phones that, just a few years ago, would have been hard to believe.

  2. I predict that AT&T, as well as other operators,will impose data caps on most cell phone plans. This opinion is also shared by Professor Andrew Odlyzko – a former AT&T Researcher who exposed the myth of exponential (wireline) Internet traffic growth back in 1998 – just prior to the dot com bust and optical networking melt down.

    For more on Professor Odlyzko’s thoughts on this subject, see:


  3. During his keynote at 4G World in Chicago, Clearwire CEO Bill Morrow Morrow said that only a “4G” network like Clearwire’s CLEAR could exploit the true potential of Apple’s iPhone. Morrow showed video clips of two iPhones mounted side by side in a moving car, each accessing Google Earth and streamed videos. One iPhone was linked to AT&T’s high-speed packet access network, while the other connected to Clearwire’s WiMax network via the iPhone’s WiFi connection and a Clearwire 4G router. Though the AT& -linked iPhone was getting speeds as high as 1.1 Mb/s, the multimegabit speeds coming from WiMax showed a clear difference—Google Earth’s flow was more choppy, and while the 3G link supported video streams just as well as the WiMax connection, its lower bandwidth and higher latency caused a much longer buffering delay.

    “I don’t want to talk badly about any of our competitors, but the reality is the 3G network is not built for the broadband data speeds we’re talking about,” Morrow said. User experience with wireline (cable, fiber, DSL) broadband has caused wireless customers to become impatient with delays in accessing content, and after a few seconds of waiting, customers often give up accessing a site, multimedia file or application. Morrow cited studies showing that half of the data usage on the iPhone came from its WiFi connection, not its 3G connection. “Are we really enabling the full power of the mobile Internet if we’re restricting ourselves to the 3G network?” he asked rhetorically.

    Morrow also said that the applications of the 3G world are just as applicable to “4G” networks (like CLEAR). In particular, he said, smartphones have quickly outgrown the 3G network.

    Do you agree or disagree? As no smart phones have been announced for mobile WiMAX, what’s Morrow’s point about exploiting its potential on CLEAR?

  4. “We don’t think that current mobile data usage model can continue. Either there will be changes to unlimited mobile data plans, such as higher prices, as well as blocking high bandwidth video sites and not permitting tethering (where iPhone acts as a modem for a notebook/netbook). This would better match network traffic to the mobile network provider revenue stream. Customers won’t be happy about that.”

    The changes I would like to see the carriers implement on 3G would be called “traffic management”, more than the intrusive Deep Packet Inpsection and app blocking. It’s no business of the carrier’s what apps and services the subscriber is using, it is only their business that the individual customer not create so much data traffic as to stifle the traffic of other users.

    Thus, bandwidth shaping, traffic management are probable in the near future, but I hope that they will be agnostic as to the application (P2P, tethering, video, web, or email) and related to the traffic (stream, chatty, batch, total transfer, peak hours).

    From a consumer perspective, if I pay for 5GB/mo at best effor speed, then I bloody well expect it. Don’t filter, block, or impede my P2P of Slingbox use. If I’m not in violation of my ToS, then leave my packets alone. That’s a neutral network.

    Net neutrality doesn’t mean “anything goes”. You can manage traffic and still remain a neutral network. It just means that there is no prejudice against the app that generates the traffic (Sling vs. Opera) or the server that is being used (Youtube vs. Vcast). Packets from all sources and all apps are managed equally based on network performance implications.

  5. A Wi-Fi Alternative When the Network Gets Clogged

    In the last year, millions of people have snapped up new smartphones, filled them with apps and promptly found out that they couldn’t actually use them.

    The problem? Either the much-hyped 3G pipeline was clogged with other users, or the cell connection wasn’t even good enough to ring the 3G bell in the first place. AT&T users have had it the worst, thanks to the network’s iPhone data hogs.

    Carriers are quickly adding high-speed network capacity, but in the meantime, AT&T and T-Mobile are throwing another lifeline to customers in the form of Wi-Fi. Both are making it easier to connect to wireless hot spots with their phones, in an effort to deliver fast data and clear calls in areas where neither might be possible.

    In this respect, AT&T has been the most aggressive of any carrier. The company said this month that customers with a Windows Mobile phone could now connect freely at any of the company’s roughly 20,000 hot spots.

    AT&T claims to sell more Windows Mobile phones than any other carrier, and with the introduction of Windows Mobile version 6.5 next month and new Windows phones like the HTC Touch Pro2, it stands to sell more. Now all Windows Mobile users can duck into a Starbucks, among the many other locations with AT&T Wi-Fi, and the phone will automatically route data and calls over a high-speed Internet connection.


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