Saturday, November 13, 2010

3G And WiFi Can Work Together To Ease Mobile Network Congestion

At a time when we are still waiting with baited breath for large scale 3G services in India, there are markets around the world where the 3G networks are under more stress than they can handle. In fact a Cisco Report this year stated that the average smartphone user generates 10 times as much traffic as a feature phone user. No surprise then that networks in countries like the United States are crumbling under the excessive traffic. At this opportune time 3 Indian Researchers - Ratul Mahajan and teammates Aruna Balasubramanian and Arun Venkataramani are trying to prove that 3G and WiFi connections on a device need not be Mutually Exclusive. The project is called Wiffler.

Should their research ever translate into a commercial product/service it could go a long way in helping the average consumer use data services at affordable costs. Their research is summed up in a paper titled – Augmenting Mobile 3G Using WiFi - a good read if the topic interests you. The basic premise is that a moving vehicle in an urban area will experience intermittent WiFi connectivity. Thus, ideally a user should be able to offload some traffic onto WiFi networks whenever they are available.

As the first part of their research they set out to do a joint survey of areas of simultaneous WiFi and 3G connectivity. They found that 3G was available 87% of the time as compared to WiFi’s 11%. Moreover, in areas of simultaneous connectivity WiFi had higher loss rates. The first part of the study was conducted in a student town called Amherst in Massachusetts. And then extended to Seattle and San Francisco. According to the researchers, they were surprised to receive similar results across 3 cities with vastly differing network usage characteristics.


The abstract idea seems pretty simple. Whenever possible try to offload traffic to any available WiFi network. Easier said than done of course. And if there is no available WiFi – Wiffler uses what the researches have dubbed as “prediction based offloading” which determines when it is likely to be within range from a WiFi hotspot. If this period is less than an acceptable maximum delay period it waits, otherwise it uses the available 3G network. Not all data applications can appreciate this behaviour though – VoIP applications certainly cannot be used in this manner. But something like a mailbox sync wouldn’t really suffer with a small delay.  According to Mahajan, they were able offload data within a delay period of 1 minute.

This concept is further extended to ensure that when both are available simultaneously Wiffler divides the data between the 2 networks. It could result in substantial cost savings for the customer and network decongestion for a carrier. However, I wonder how thrilled they would be given that customer saving translates into less earnings!

For the purpose of the study, they used only Free Public WiFi networks – it remains to be seen how the concept would hold up when it encounters commercially charged and encrypted WiFi’s. Honestly, I hope it doesn’t rely on the Wifi networks being open because in the face of the Firesheep incident people should, and those in the know certainly would, think twice about using unsecured wireless networks. But if they are lucky, and the FCC is able to make good on their “WiFi on Steroids” promise it could certainly revolutionize data consumption on-the-go!

The great thing from our point of view is that even though we are yet to go anywhere near facing the problem of 3G network congestion – a possible solution is already in the works!

Let us know what you think.

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Categories: International, Mobile, News, Technology
Tags: 3G, Arun Venkataramani, Aruna Balasubramanian, Augmenting Mobile 3G Using WiFi, data usage, fcc, india, Network Congestion, prediction based offloading, Ratul Mahajan, researchers, traffic, White spectrum, Wiffler, wifi, wifi hotspot, Wifi on Steroids

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