Controlling heavy mobile broadband users

Nathan Burley/Ovum
17 Nov 2009

Just a few years ago mobile operators were seeking to drive data traffic onto their networks by launching attractively priced flat-rate mobile data service offerings.

Now the landscape is very different. Mobile broadband connections and traffic have grown at an extraordinary rate and operators are seeking to control heavy data users on their network. To this end fair-usage policies with volume allocations are now common across the board, with few operators still offering true unlimited data without speed or application limitations.

But what does an operator do with a user after their fair-usage is exceeded? How operators answer this question is emerging as a key competitive criterion. Several methods can be used to control heavy mobile broadband users after fair-usage data volume is exceeded.

The first option, throttling, is used in a large number of mobile broadband plans. After a user exceeds his usage allowance, the peak-bit rate is reduced to a predetermined low peak speed (30-256 kbps, with 128 kbps the most common). This downgrade is performed independently of the actual load in the network. The advantages of this solution are price certainty for the user, and potential revenue upside if user decides to reset the data volume count with extra payment. It also limits total data use for the user and releases capacity for others, although this is not specifically directed at peak periods or actual congestion points. The solution is also generally less useful if network performance is already poor.

The most common solution used by mobile operators today is the second option, additional charging. Here a user incurs a fee for excess usage beyond an allotted amount (for example $0.1 per MB). This results in tying revenue to traffic, producing a revenue upside for the operator. The downside is from a user point of view the potential for extra charges creates a fear factor that reduces the attractiveness of the service and discourages usage. This option is, however, effective at controlling usage.

Third, throttling with policy control downgrades a user's peak-speed during peak hours based on historical information. Like throttling its advantage is that it offers price certainty to the end-user but deals more directly with peak-period demand. However, it is based on historical information, rather than real time, where mobile broadband traffic can be unpredictable. Different policy control implementations can also be made based on various criteria. This solution is still emerging and the number of operators using it is small.

Finally there is lower-user priority where a user's traffic is tagged with a lower priority/QoS rating after exceeding the allocated amount. Therefore, if the service is used when there is congestion the user may receive lower speeds or in extreme cases no service at all, as traffic from other users is given priority.

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