Although the global rate of mobile data traffic is due to double every year through 2013, according to Cisco Systems, wireless carriers still have limited insight into the user experience surrounding data consumption -- except when customers complain. New deep packet inspection (DPI) software for carrier networks from Compuware Corp. and NetScout Systems promises a peek into users' individual sessions, marking each stop along the route from base station to application.
"Everyone is trying to figure out how to move [carriers] from [being] a dumb pipe and adding some intelligence. This is really where they can add intelligence," said Sheryl Kingstone, a research director at Yankee Group. "You need to tie [mobile data traffic analysis] to the subscriber in any way, or else it's going to get aggregated and you can't really improve the overall customer experience."
Since the launch of the Apple iPhone on AT&T's wireless network, carriers have acknowledged that their networks were unprepared for the impact of traffic shifting from voice- to data-centric via Internet Protocol (IP). One iPhone or BlackBerry produces as much traffic as 30 basic-feature phones, according to a mobile data traffic forecast released by Cisco earlier this year.
The ensuing strain has sparked customer complaints about slow download speeds and has incited marketing wars over network coverage and performance. But analysts say that the truth is that no one in network operations or call centers really knows how smoothly that Google Maps app runs or why it crashed on a customer's smartphone.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Kingstone said. "[Carriers] are not really dealing with the problem now. They are when it comes to basic service management and network management … but they need to get the subscriber-level detail and tie it to the overall customer experience."
Deep packet inspection software offers savings, revenue prospects
Until recently, mobile data traffic solutions have focused on network monitoring -- link health, router utilization, high-level traffic reporting.
But DPI software releases from Compuware and NetScout provide a window for carriers to see each user's individual sessions with a unique identifier to catalogue the date, time and duration and what happened when the user's specific device requested data from a particular Web server.
The analytics also track the route the packets in that session took and any trouble they ran into along the way at cell towers and routing areas.
"The packets themselves are meaningless because they're being captured on the wire as they're going. It's like looking out on the freeway and watching the cars go by," said Steven Shalita, vice president of marketing for NetScout, which recently updated its nGenius Subscriber Intelligence platform. "We're all the way down into that [individual session] level, so you can say, 'This cell tower doing this application had this performance error.'"
Both vendors' mobile data traffic solutions also store and sort historic data usage to highlight performance issues for network operations.
"I can essentially filter this data to say … I want to see all HTTP failures, and maybe I want to filter it down again to see if it's only happening with a certain type of cell phone or at certain cell sites," Shalita said. "We're producing data within our instrumentation points on the network that essentially tracks every single one of these transactions on the network."
Both solutions also offer call centers real-time views into individual sessions to help troubleshoot problems and aggregate data to gain broader insight into customer behavior for sales and marketing teams.
"For call centers, it takes four to five times longer to solve a data problem over and above voice," said Ian Clark, global director of telecom strategy at Compuware, which recently released Vantage for Mobile. "This is going to give [carriers] new capabilities to measure and drive new customer satisfaction, and ultimately more profitability with value-added services associated with data."
With deep packet inspection software come privacy issues
To remain in compliance with privacy regulations, analysts said, the DPI software solutions release only aggregate data traffic analysis for sales and marketing purposes, such as noting that 30% of subscribers downloaded a particular application in the past month and the rate is trending upward.
Carriers can use that information to monetize beyond the basic calling services, said Rebecca Watson, a program manager at Stratecast, a telecom strategy research project at Frost & Sullivan. With those customer behavior analytics in hand, Watson said, carriers should be able to better anticipate and sell their own apps or at least partner with third-party developers for commission.
"These analytics are very important for the operators so they know what type of services they can real-time market to their customers," she said. "It needs to feed into sales and marketing."
Meanwhile, carriers should not run into any legal trouble reviewing an individual customer's session when that customer contacts a call center for troubleshooting purposes, Watson and Kingstone agreed.
As wireless carriers migrate to 4G networks, they said, those on every network tier will have to use this level of DPI software if they don't already.
"We have to move it from a 'nice to have' to a 'need to have,'" Kingstone said. "[Once] the pain points hit and they really start getting swamped by the poor data experience … they're going to cry uncle."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer