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Alcatel-Lucent Puts Apps on 3G 'Watch List'

The mobile applications driving the most data traffic and signaling on 3G networks are the ones you'd expect -- the most popular video and social media apps -- but those that could soon become culprits are not the usual suspects.

Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) is putting these apps that have a high cost per user, defined as their average volume and signaling per user across sample networks, on a "watch list" because an increase in popularity could send them into the "naughty" quadrant of high-impact apps. Those apps include Tango, Nimbuzz, Palringo, Office 365, Zynga, Netflix, Pandora, Pinterest, Facebook Channel, Kik, and Skype.

Alcatel-Lucent says the way these apps are designed and used creates a heavy load on the network, device batteries, and data plans. Pandora, for example, has only a 1% share of subscribers, but is among the top 20 apps in terms of network impact.

These are apps that wireless operators will want to keep an eye on, but there's a number of apps that are already causing them heartburn. Alcatel-Lucent's name-and-shame awards go to:

  • Highest network impact on bandwidth and signaling (how often the app pings the network to receive data): Google Search, Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and YouTube
  • Highest data volume impact: iTunes, Instagram, Pinterest, Apple Maps and Pandora
  • Top battery drainers: Nimbuzz, Yahoo Messenger, BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook Messenger, Kik, Viber, and Palringo
  • Top data plan guzzlers: YouTube, Netflix, Facebook Video, Pandora, and Instagram Video

Apps Behaving Badly
AlcaLu maps out the network impact of the top 39 apps based on the amount of volume they drive and their signaling chatter on the network.
AlcaLu maps out the network impact of the top 39 apps based on the amount of volume they drive and their signaling chatter on the network.

This is the first time Alcatel-Lucent has conducted a study of this size using data collected from its Wireless Network Guardian software that measure signaling and data volume impact from apps used by 15 million subscribers on 3G networks in North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East.

It did also look at LTE networks, but Josee Loudiadis, AlcaLu's director of network intelligence, says the network data varied so much that no averages could be found. She attributes the wide differences to how far along LTE rollouts were, how 4G was priced, and cultural variances. In general, however, the trends tend to mirror the 3G networks but with more of everything, especially signaling. (See MW13: Tekelec Warns of VoLTE Signaling Storm and LTE Signaling Woes Ahead?)

It's easy to see why network operators should care about these apps: They affect their networks and their customers' experiences (and they'll probably take the blame). But what they can do about it? Loudiadis suggests a few things:

  • Plead with apps developers to reduce signaling in their app updates, that is, if they can get them to care. (See Operators Urge Action Against Chatty Apps.)
  • Optimize traffic during peak hours.
  • Track apps and degrade their performance when they exceed typical volume levels.
  • Integrate analytics with customer care to help resolve data usage and low battery life call.
  • Find the low-impact apps and strike a zero-rating deal to optimize and promote them free to users, waters into which some operators such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) are just starting to dip a toe. (See AT&T Toll-Free Data: Innovation or Rip-Off?)

"Zynga, for example, is a low-impact app," Loudiadis says. "Its per-subscriber cost is still high on the data side, so why not connect with Zynga and package them with a data plan? Why don't I say, 'give me a low-res version of your file to have less data traveling. You can change the resolution on the screen depending on the device screen size, and do things to help reduce of impact of the app."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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nasimson 4/30/2014 | 9:58:21 AM
light on device @Sarah: It's the first time I am seeing such a comprehensive list. The suggestion at the end of the blog is very useful. To relate to it, I'd like to share that I have begun to use Opera instead of Android native browser to surf Light Reading as it is more efficient that way. I think its also light on the network
Sarah Thomas 4/30/2014 | 10:01:57 AM
Re: light on device You're right, nasimon. Opera is an example of a developer that built its app to be network friendly and lightweight.

And you bring up the good point of whether consumers will change their behavior based on how the app affects their data plan or battery life. My guess was not really to a large extent. They are loyal to the apps they like, but in some cases, like browser, maybe there is an opportunity there to encourage people to switch for those added benefits.
mendyk 4/30/2014 | 10:33:31 AM
Re: light on device Are we assuming that network operators don't want to see apps that are data-intensive (i.e., creating lots of traffic for them to charge customers for)?
Sarah Thomas 4/30/2014 | 10:35:33 AM
Re: light on device Not necessarily, unless they take down the network. I think they want to form (force?) partnerships with them too, to get more a cut of the action than just data fees.
nasimson 4/30/2014 | 10:43:32 AM
YouTube and Skype are not topping the list I am actually surprised to see that YouTube and Skype are not topping the list. I thought the video apps (streaming or peer to peer) would be more taxing on the network.
MarkC73 4/30/2014 | 11:15:27 AM
Re: light on device For carriers, I'd think that keeping the network congestion free and customers happy are more cost effective than getting users capped or charging for bits.  With that said, most games will not run significant data when you are actively playing them.  Messengers on the other hand are crazy battery drainers when you have active feeds, but most have settings that you can control.  So I'd think carriers would think of ways to get better usage per bit over the spectrum, and users care more about not using up their data plan and responsiveness.  For me, I guess I never really come close to my data plan ceiling so it's more of the latter, and that can be affected by a lot of things phone type, network, etc.

As someone already mentioned the graph does display and interesting relationship between mass usage and media bandwidth requirement.  Youtube is pretty high, but you see the search engines driving the top spots.
kq4ym 4/30/2014 | 11:25:20 AM
Re: light on device I can see operators giving away "free" data for the most efficient apps, and thus encourgage those more hungry bandwidth eaters to cut down or improve on the past behaviors. Whether charging more for the big data eaters or slowing connections is going to be the game plan is going to be interesting to see. I doubt customers will not let that happen without a fight. 
Sarah Thomas 4/30/2014 | 11:34:34 AM
Re: YouTube and Skype are not topping the list Me too, but apparently Google Search is used constantly, so when averaging them all out, it's impact was greatest across all the networks studied.
Sarah Thomas 4/30/2014 | 11:36:13 AM
Re: light on device I'm in the same boat of not tracking because I don't come close, but a lot of it is up to the user. They can change their settings on notifications and apps running in the background to cut down on signaling. A lot of signaling you don't realize is happening, but a good operator app should tell you what your data usage, battery drain, etc is for each app and suggest easy ways to cut down on it...
Sarah Thomas 4/30/2014 | 11:37:56 AM
Re: light on device Seems that's already happening, but only for the top 1% (5%) of users. Operators have talked about their mechanisms to throttle them. But, for the "normal" heavy users, that wouldn't be acceptable even if in the terms agreement. I'm still on the fence about toll-free pricing, but it is one more realistic solution.
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