Over-the-top giants finally getting interested in network performance

By Caroline Gabriel, Research Director, Maravedis-Rethink

Facebook may be the archetypal over-the-top player, but like Google, it is starting to take an interest in underlying network technologies and how it might harness them to enhance its services.

Recently it has shown a keen interest in certain LTE capabilities, particularly LTE Direct and Multicast. And in some cases it is working closely with the mobile operators which have so often seen it as a rival, and delving deep into their networks to improve performance on both sides.

Operators have long raged at application providers, and even device makers (most famously Apple), which make no effort to understand or support the constraints and workings of a mobile network, leading to inefficient use of the limited resources, poor user experience and congested networks. There have been growing efforts to bring developers and cellcos together, and the more over-the-top giants rely on mobile users rather than PCs, and differentiate themselves via QoS-critical features like HD video streaming, the more they will have to take account of how a cellular network actually operates.

Facebook is showing willing, and this week, the social media giant announced that it had worked with Indonesia's XL Axiata and with Ericsson, on joint development of a new methodology to improve network performance based on application use cases. By combining Ericsson’s network monitoring tools and Facebook’s application test cases, app coverage was improved by 70%, said the Swedish vendor – an important enhancement for operators whose customers often regard social media as their most important, and most constantly accessed, application. It also points to a growing trend for carriers to harness social media to help understand and improve their customers’ network experience.

“We believe this is the first time that an operator, network technology provider and application provider have cooperated on such a project,” XL Axiata CEO Hasnul Suhaimi said.

The partnership not only improves customer experience for both the social app and the network operator, but it shows Facebook looking to corral mobile operators into its way of looking at the mobile web. Over-the-top players need strong mobile network performance as much as the carriers themselves, to drive usage and enhance brand quality. So it is in their interests to use those networks efficiently, but also to involve the network owners in their open web activities rather than keeping them outside the door. For these reasons, the Indonesian effort was under the auspices of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative (of which Ericsson is also a founder member), which aims to bring affordable internet access to the entire world.

The project involved the development of a series of KPIs based on simulated Facebook use cases, which were then measured against real network performance statistics. This process was most successful in two KPIs - time to content, and the number of connections made within three seconds, both of which improved by up to 70%, while upload time improved by up to 50%.

“Recently the use of data services in Indonesia has increased significantly and is expected to continue into the future... We believe app coverage is essential and correlating Facebook application use cases with network-wide statistics has proven to be an innovative and efficient way to detect and address network optimization opportunities,” commented Suhaimi in a statement.

And this is not all about mobile broadband and smartphones – although Indonesia has the fourth largest Facebook user base in the world, 75% of its mobile subscribers are on GSM/EDGE networks. In recent years, Facebook has made many efforts to ensure its mobile sites and apps are adapted for low level connections and for featurephones.

The methodology has been published in a white paper to provide a blueprint for other operators. Chris Daniels, Facebook’s VP for Internet.org, said in a statement: "As part of Internet.org's efforts to connect the two-thirds of the world's population that is not yet connected, Facebook is committed to working with partners to develop innovative tools and share learnings across the industry. With the methodology set forth in this white paper, we have a model for improving network performance that can be applied globally by mobile network operators. This will help ensure we have more efficient use of existing network capacity and resources, which is key to delivering on our mission to close the connectivity gap."

Facebook is getting interested in the mechanics of the network at the 4G end as well as in 2G bases like Indonesia’s, and in both cases the network efficiency of apps will be critical to customer experience. However, its interest in technologies like LTE Direct may send a shiver down the spines of some cellcos, which hope to exploit their control and knowledge of LTE to enrich their own services, including multicast and voice, and so to differentiate themselves from over-the-top rivals.

Facebook’s VP of engineering, Jay Parikh, told Qualcomm’s recent Uplinq developer conference that the company is planning services which rely on LTE Multicast and LTE Direct. The latter is a peer-to-peer technology which supports localized services, within 500 meters of the user, without the need to go via a base station.

This would drive new user experiences and advertising opportunities, said Parikh because the use of licensed spectrum can provide some guarantees that are tough to achieve with unlicensed WiFi – in areas such as privacy and security, for instance. “LTE Direct would let us expose or create user experiences around serendipitous experiences with friends nearby,” he added.

LTE Direct could be another mechanism for Facebook and its advertisers to know exactly where users are, and what they are doing, in order to target them more precisely with promotions and information. For instance, they could find out about impromptu meetings and events more easily.

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