Over the past several years, the Internet and mobile communications have dramatically changed the way people communicate, stay informed, and are entertained. As these elements combine to create the mobile Internet, mobile operator business models are quickly evolving to address the burgeoning opportunity provided by enhanced communications. As this evolution continues, we are seeing three major disruptions in the industry:

  • Mobile broadband: EDGE/WCDMA networks are evolving to HSPA, offering broadband speeds of 3 to 14 Mbits/s today—and soon 28 to 42 Mbits/s, with Long-Term Evolution (LTE) not far behind providing speeds over 100 Mbits/s. With HSPA and LTE, mobile networks finally reach true broadband speeds.

  • Consumer-friendly billing plans: Billing models are changing from usage-based to flat-rate and/or service-based models to keep up with changing market dynamics and competition. This results in increased network usage and a diversification in applications running over the network.

  • Multimedia device usability: New multimedia devices and services offer drastically improved usability, providing mobile subscribers with easy access to a wide variety of applications on the network.

When combined, these disruptions will fuel data traffic usage beyond expectations and place unprecedented pressure on the packet core network. The non-HSPA packet core networks in place today were designed to handle EDGE and WCDMA services that peaked at 384 kbits/s. But with the multi-megabit performance of HSPA, the increasing availability of smart phones, and an ever-growing number of mobile subscribers, the packet core network must evolve and become a multimedia core that is designed to handle this increasing demand. The packet core network must change drastically to provide the intelligence, performance, and scale required for HSPA mobile broadband with always-on services—not to mention to be ready for LTE.

Technology and Market Disruptions

The mobile world is moving from hundreds of kilobits per second to multi-megabit rates long before the mass market commercialization of LTE. The multi-megabit rates include both downstream and upstream bandwidth as the mobile Internet is migrating from e-mail and basic Internet access to mobile TV, video on demand, and advanced gaming services. As a result, the evolution of EDGE/WCDMA networks to HSPA, HSPA+, and LTE is a major technology disruption offering speeds to mobile devices from 3 to 14 Mbits/s today with HSPA, 28 to 42 Mbits/s with HSPA+, and finally more than 173 Mbits/s with LTE.

The average traffic per subscriber is expected to grow dramatically for each of the technologies. While WCDMA is expected to provide twice the average traffic per subscriber compared to EDGE, HSPA is expected to see average traffic per subscriber increases of six to 14 times in contrast to EDGE. As services become richer and more varied, the core network becomes increasingly strategic for service providers as they shift from a communications-centric to communications- and media-centric solution.

Combine this increase of traffic and services with the large growth in subscriber numbers, and it is clear the packet core network is about to see a tidal wave of demand. If the right packet core is not in place for HSPA, there will be trouble.

Also, the introduction of flat-rate data plans is a market disruption that has increased the consumption and variety of data services. With flat-rate plans, users don’t have to constantly monitor usage, giving them more freedom to use new, innovative services that will consume the mobile broadband bandwidth. Usage patterns immediately change with flat-rate billing, and the network must be prepared to address unprecedented pressure on the packet core network.

The market disruption with potentially the greatest influence on stimulating traffic growth is the improved usability of mobile devices and services. Users now have devices that make it significantly easier to access content and applications on the network. This has shown to be a major market disruption on the network and has opened a crack in the floodgates of mobile Internet demand. Recently introduced multimedia devices are merely the start of the trend as all phones, laptops, and other emerging mobile devices will dominate the market in the years to come.

The combination of new easy-to-use multimedia devices, a promise of mobile broadband connectivity, and a wide array of multimedia services is accelerating demand for HSPA networks. The projected number of worldwide HSPA subscribers is expected to surpass 1 billion over the next five years, and traffic growth will be an order of magnitude higher. HSPA moves from a minor portion of the network to the dominating technology for multimedia core networks. However, today’s non-HSPA packet core networks are designed to handle EDGE and WCDMA services that peaked at 384 kbits/s.

Scaling HSPA Networks

One scaling option is to continually “stack” additional 2G/2.5G platforms at the problem. While providing a temporary fix, this option makes the network more complex and expensive and provides inferior “just good enough” performance, without addressing long-term network needs. While stacking may work for traffic growth of two or three times, what happens when this is off by an order of magnitude?

Using non-HSPA optimized elements prevents operators from lowering the cost per byte/session as the network scales. The signaling and performance limitations of such platforms cause additional platforms to be “stacked” before any savings can be realized. Just when the point arrives to start realizing cost savings, a new platform is required.

The enormous projected growth of traffic for HSPA and LTE requires a platform optimized for high-bandwidth data services. There is an emerging traffic, cost, and revenue challenge in the industry. Traffic is increasing at a rate larger than revenue. To maximize profit, operators must look at HSPA and LTE products and technologies that lower the cost of the network as traffic grows.

For service providers, making the wrong choice in HSPA infrastructure equipment will limit LTE deployment options. The HSPA platform must be designed to scale from HSPA to HSPA+ to LTE or directly from HSPA to LTE.

Summary

A tidal wave is about to hit your packet core network, driven by three major disruptions occurring simultaneously to mobile operator business models: massive increases in bandwidth from mobile broadband technologies; consumer-friendly billing plans that result in unwieldy and potentially unprofitable network traffic demands; and improved device usability and application availability, or the “iPhone phenomenon.”

While your network may be ready for an increase of two times in your traffic by going to HSPA, are you ready for 20, 30, or even 50 times? A next-generation multimedia core platform is required to optimize the profitability as networks migrate to HSPA and eventually to LTE. It is very important to select a next-generation platform for HSPA to meet your subscriber’s expectations and network demand. The same platform must evolve to support LTE without changing out or introducing new hardware.

You cannot wait for the deployment of LTE radios to evolve the packet core. The decision for the LTE evolved packet core network needs to be made today. It is the HSPA decision.