Today’s consumer has an insatiable demand for the Internet, and with mobile carriers moving to more restrictive (and more expensive) data plans, those consumers are turning to Wi-Fi to support their habit.
We see this playing out on the Boingo Wi-Fi network, with Q1 data consumption on mobile devices up 40% over the same period last year. And it’s not just the same people consuming more data. Overall connects are up too – growing 23% year-over-year for the first quarter.
Interestingly, while more and more users are participating in data-intensive downstream activities such as watching video and listening to music from online sources, the fastest growing segment is upstream consumption, which would include activities like sharing photos or video on Facebook and using the network to sync files or backup devices to the cloud. Q1 data uploads on the Boingo Wi-Fi network more than doubled over the same period last year.
While it’s easy to get your head around increased usage and downloads, what’s less obvious is the impact these “upstream” activities – particularly backing up/syncing – can have on a network. An article from The Economist highlights the challenge – namely that they consume significant amounts of bandwidth without the user being aware of the load they’re placing on the network. One conference presenter rendered the show’s 50 MB network unusable during his presentation, as his sync software was updating his laptop during his presentation to the crowd.
Managing these challenges requires creative solutions. To begin with, well-managed networks can help ease the network burden for all users by assigning each user a set allocation of Internet access – what’s frequently referred to as “bandwidth shaping.” That way, only that user is affected by their online activities. Two people with the same allocation may have radically different experiences on the network, depending on their bandwidth consumption both downstream and up.
You can see this being played out today in the hotel industry, where people travel with multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices and engage in data-intense activities (Netflix, anyone?). Here bandwidth shaping is being used to deliver tiered levels of service: basic access for free and higher-speed premium service for a fee. This ensures the demand for bandwidth is distributed more evenly and has the added bonus of generating revenue for the venue to stay abreast of ongoing investment in hardware and bandwidth upgrades.
Even with shaping in place, the growth in the number of devices overall means venues must increase investment in bandwidth. According to an article by USA Today, restaurants like Panera Bread wrestle with the prospect of balancing capacity demand with generating positive returns to the store. Full tables and slow Wi-Fi certainly don’t create the optimal visitor experience.
However, leveraging the Wi-Fi as part of larger marketing initiatives may prove to be mutually beneficial. Loyalty programs that provide the company with specific information about a customer in return for special perks like free Wi-Fi can increase customer frequency and generate higher revenues that can support the regular bandwidth upgrades. Network operators can play a direct role in designing and implementing these types of digital-store integrations.
The demand for mobile data won’t abate any time in the near future. Meeting that demand will require more bandwidth, more hardware and more creative solutions that help regulate the demand, while still providing value to customers and enhancing their experience.