Birdstep tries to corner cellular into “losing its religion”


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If you ask anyone technical in cellular what is the best way to understand what’s going on, on a cellular device, they will tell you that the viewpoint you need is from the network. They are wrong and this is why they fail to understand their customers. They are a little bit right too, but mostly wrong.

It is this almost religious belief in “the network” that pushes many decisions inside MNOs in the wrong direction. And we have a great example of this.

Cisco had a glaring omission a few years ago in its Visual Networking Index (VNI), and because of it, it claimed that WiFi only brought 22% of the data that was used on a smartphone. Of course a cellular network cannot see how much data is coming from another network, it can do all sorts of clever things, like working out which part of the network is under stress, and which customers are not getting their requested cellular data rate. But it cannot see sideways into another network.

Cisco fixed this by putting some software onto some smartphones and then measured that 65% of all data was being delivered by WiFi after all (it’s gone up since then) and without so much as an apology or acknowledgement of the problem, Cisco, in the traditional of a research analyst, simply changed its current and forecast numbers and hoped no-one would notice.

Perhaps Birdstep discovered this same truism, that while it is okay to measure what is going on inside your network and it has a value, attaching religious fervor to those measurements is a mistake. Which is why this week Birdstep has totally upgraded the analytics on its smartphone client , which it calls its 3rd generation of SmartAnalytics. It’s not just a product announcement, it gives cellular a chance to lose its religion and at the same time get a spy into the “other camp” or WiFi.

We first met Birdstep CEO, Lonnie Schilling at one of those oh so necessary, but rather worthy tech conferences in some Eastern European capital, and I think we were sitting next to one another when we heard another apocryphal story from a French MNO techie. It basically told how Apple phones raced ahead of real time, to download Youtube clips, to get them out of the way, while Samsung phones just tried to keep up with the real time rate. That way Apple phones used more data, even if the Youtube clips were killed after 5 seconds of viewing, the entire clip had downloaded.

Ever since then, whenever we hear Apple CEO, Tim Cook say that Apple users use more data, and he smiles and there is a round of applause, as if he is proud of that fact, what we hear instead is that Apple is wasteful of MNO data, because it doesn’t respect the MNO and its problems, whereas Samsung does. Maybe Apples has stopped this now, maybe not.

We don’t know if it was at this moment or even this conference when Schilling realized that the way to measure data was on the device, or even if it was actually his idea rather than one of his techies or board members or clients, but it will have certainly affected his thinking.

Birdstep is best known for its ANDSF implementation, a method for dynamically selecting the right network, at the right time, based on network conditions and a centralized MNO policy. It can switch between all the Gs (2G, 3G and 4G) and different types of WiFi.

But in order to achieve this, Schilling’s clients have been telling him they need a far more granular approach to taking these decisions.

“We had an analytics platform and did some decent data collection, but the visualization was not what our customers wanted,” starts Schilling, “We decided to regroup with a couple of key accounts and redefine what our clients needed.” The technology business is like this constantly. Build something, sell some, ask if it does the job, then improve it.

Now he is billing it as analytics for hetnets, which means that naturally it includes WiFi – whether that is carrier class WiFi which the same operator owns, localized free WiFi, or paid-for WiFi from an offload partner. Each case is separated out so that operators can really begin to understand the behavior of large data sets, like video, when it is travelling across any network or multiple networks.

What’s interesting is that operators don’t have to buy into this for ANDSF network selection, they can buy into it purely so they can start to get a 360 degree view (a cliché we know, but in this case justified) of the activity of their customer, not purely the activity of their own network. They need to do both things, keep their network healthy, but also separately keep the Quality of Experience of the customer paramount, whatever network he decides to be on.

Because of the examples we have cited above, and because all of the discussion we at Faultline have had with OTT video and video testing companies, we think this is radically important. The QoE of apps is the Holy Grail – more religious connotations.

Simple details like how rapidly video starts playing, whether or not it buffers, even if it didn’t need to buffer due to network congestion, but it does it for some other reason like how the data is structured, or the way the App in question deals with it.

“We can look at all of that,” said Schilling, “we can take a peek into the OS, and see what happens at the network driver level. We can correlate with the API from the network so we can see how much of what’s going on can be seen from the network. We are not only helping MNOs understand the flow of data, but how the device itself performs with that App on it.”

Some people will test Apps prior to them being deployed, but this idea of testing them while they are out there also needs to be done, especially apps which are altered through constant downloads.

I remind Lonnie of the Apple problem downloading all of the YouTube file before playing it. “SmartAnalytics would be able to tell you that was happening,” he said, “and we could tell you how to change the App to speed up the output.”

He expects to be able to advertise this, as it deploys with a number of operators, by shining a light on the way mobile devices are really used, offering new research data which will show what’s really going on, on a handset. We look forward to that, a bit like VNI, but this time accurate.

“We’ve been approached by App vendors for this too, not just MNOs. People just have not had this level of on-device reporting ever before.” We asked who its competitors were, and while we know it is another kind of cliché to say you have no competition, he couldn’t think of any. If we find some, we’ll let you know.

We then slipped into a tariff discussion. “Some operators we have spoken to want to use this to decide which network the consumer runs on all the time.” We baulked at this, worried that MNOs would drag consumers off WiFi and then charge them the earth.

“The MNO can’t do that if it means charging the customer more, and they can’t affect the data cap by shifting networks with that kind of control. But we have some MNOS thinking that perhaps what they’d like to do is charge for a particular service – actually drop access fees entirely, and charge for each service which is supplied, regardless of what network it is delivered across. Then it makes more sense to move them onto the best network.”

“At least this type of tool is beginning to get MNOs into that type of discussion,” he said. And it may in the process, help some of their techies lose just a little bit of their religion.

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Mr. Fellah, is a Senior Analyst and founder of Maravedis with 20-year experience in the wireless industry. He authored various landmark reports on Wi-Fi, LTE, 4G and technology trends in various industries including retail, restaurant and hospitality. He is regularly asked to speak at leading wireless and marketing events and to contribute to various influential portals and magazines such as RCR Wireless, 4G 360, Rethink Wireless, The Mobile Network, Telecom Reseller to name a few. He is a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) and Certified Wireless Technology Specialist (CWTS).