Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Congestion Continues to Plague Wireless Networks

Any user in the Algoma Distriact who relies on the existing wireless systems, be they mobile (data hubs) or fixed wireless as their principle means of connecting to the Internet realizes that system congestion is at the point where on occasion the network becomes unusable. Part of the reason for this is the existing networks in Northern Ontario were designed to handle voice communications and to a certain extent Short Message Service (SMS) text processing. Wide-ranging data handing capability using data hub technology was almost an afterthought feature that from its onset stressed the network.

The rapid expansion of data intensive applications such as video, VoIP phone service and gaming caught many network designers and engineers off guard in spite of numerous warnings from hardware manufacturers and technology gurus that foresaw double-digit growth demand for data capacity over the last ten years. The result is network congestion that is now having a serious negative impact on how the average customer uses the network.

There have been recent occasions when I have disconnected from my fixed wireless system and reconnected to the Internet via dial-up because it was faster than the congested over-the-air system.  Of course, I lose some functionality on my Local Area Network (LAN) and restrict image download but at least I can get some basic work done in a reasonable period. 

In theory, and it may be a big "if", the Deferral Account based system that Bell plans to activate in selected areas during the summer of 2014 will not have the same congestion issues as the existing networks. The main reason for this is that Bell designed the Deferral Account system from its inception as primarily a network to deliver broadband (high-speed Internet) data connectivity with traditional voice and SMS as a side benefit.

Bell conducted extensive field trails in diverse locations starting in 2012. The network designers adopted some of the observations and results from these trials into the final design. This included the number of towers and cell sites (hereafter sites) needed to service a rural population density ratio, distances between sites and customer locations, number of channels at each site and the need for external antennas at the customer location to name just a few.

In one particular Deferral Account area, there are seven Bell sites while the competition has coverage from four sites for the same area.  Admittedly, there are major differences in frequencies being used, tower locations, antenna design and other technology which may account for some of the difference in the number of sites. On the other hand, designers need to take into account terrain features, population density, and customer demand when deciding on the number of sites covering a specific area at an acceptable level.

At the predicted growth of demand for data connectivity becomes a reality, congestion will continue to be a problem on mobile and wireless based networks unless network providers take steps to reduce its impact. This growth is a worldwide phenomenon as shown in the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) Forecast update.  These radio based systems use a shared spectrum infrastructure and as demand for bandwidth increases, the amount available to each individual users decreases which eventually results in gridlock and ultimately in shutdown of the network.  

Internet Service Providers (ISP) need to address the congestion issue on an ongoing basis and not wait until the situation becomes a crisis.  They need to be proactive, get out ahead of the bow wave and not wait to react to an unacceptable state of affairs. They need to use all the techniques available to them to reduce congestion to acceptable levels. These techniques and actions can include, inter alia, splitting cells, adding new sites, and increasing the number of access points, reassigning spectrum usage, increase backhaul capacity. Rather than pay higher dividends, ISPs need to be prepared it put more money back into the networks to keep pace with advances in technology and customer demand.