How Tech Giants Plan To Avoid Wireless Traffic Jams
Intel, Cisco and Verizon have teamed up on a joint research project aimed at how to deal with the rapid growth of video on mobile devices and the expected flood traffic that could grind mobile networks to a halt.
While today's 3G and 4G wireless networks are bringing voice, data and rich media to souped-up smartphones, the companies are trying to look ahead and prepare for what could be a meteoric rise in mobile video demand. If it continues as it is trending today, smartphone owners may be looking at significant network traffic jams in the near future.
The multi-year research project, called Video Aware Wireless Networks (VAWN), also includes projects at several leading universities.
"We're hoping to develop innovations that give networks new abilities to understand and adapt to the quality requirements of various devices," said Jeffery Foerster, a principal engineer at Intel Labs. "We want to maximize both total capacity and an individual's quality of experience, whether it's live video entertainment, video conferencing, video sharing or live streaming on location."
In addition to financial backing from Verizon on the overall effort, Cisco and Intel are each funding $1.5 million worth of related academic research over three years at the following universities:
- Cornell University will focus on video coding for heterogeneous networks, predictive video streaming and quality-aware routing.
- Moscow State University will explore 2-D/3-D video-quality restoration.
University of California, San Diego will research 2-D/3-D video coding and error concealment, fast mobile adaptations and network resource management.
- University of Southern California will look at novel device-to-device video network architectures.
- University of Texas, Austin will work on automatic video-quality monitoring, wireless video interference management, video network adaptations.
Cisco and other researchers say demand for mobile TV and social media video is spiking the overall growth of mobile video traffic. According to Cisco's annual Visual Networking Index Forecast, overall Internet traffic is expected to grow four-fold by 2014, with mobile video growing at over 15 times this rate.
Add in Morgan Stanley's recent prediction that says more than 620 million smartphones will be shipped by 2013, outpacing PC shipments, and you have the potential for mobile network meltdown.
With wireless networks already constrained by the onslaught of new iPhone- and Android-based smartphones, researchers behind VAWN are convinced that infusing video-smart technologies into the wireless networks and phones may be the answer to fast and stutter-free video.
"The demand of over-the-top video is growing explosively and it is imperative that the industry be able to find technical solutions to manage this video effectively," said Brian Joe, senior planner of content distribution at Verizon Communications in an October statement to Cornell University.
Today, data from the Internet often needs to be broken up and sent down circuitous routes to reach our mobile phones. Flying through these wireless airwaves may be more like chugging through a metropolis grid of stop-and-go streetlights instead of zooming past intelligently timed traffic lights that account for a smooth, efficient ride that saves time, fuel and frustration.
Switching from 3G to 4G might not provide nearly enough capabilities to accommodate the expected rise in traffic as millions of more people keep piling on to the Internet with their mobile phones, Intel's Foerster says. And smartphones aren't the only devices causing traffic jams on wireless networks. iPads, tablets and more sophisticated mobile computing devices such as laptops and netbooks are all pulling data through wireless networks.
The researchers are also trying to figure out how the mobile Internet needs to change to address the traffic and the number of devices coming in the next 5 to 10 years. After faster networks, the research may lead to the need for "smarter," more efficient networks, Foerster says.
Plans call for research teams to answer such questions as: "What gains are possible and practical by optimizing the end-to-end mobile Internet specifically for video content?" and "What new technologies need to be created in order to realize these gains?"
According to Salman Avestimehr, Cornell University assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), the past 2 decades of research in this area have focused on the art of coding to transport bits more efficiently and reliably over networks. But times are changing.
"In contrast, we aim to understand how awareness from the content and users' perception of those 'bits' can revolutionize our networks," Avestimehr said upon announcing the Cornell grant last fall.
Aaron Wagner, an assistant professor at Cornell, also said there is a lot of room for improvement when the grant was announced. "There are many opportunities for efficiency improvements in current networks," Wagner said. "For instance, two people watching the same video on their cell phones currently receive separate copies of the video. It is very inefficient."
Researchers are aiming to make video play smoothly and clearly on mobile network connected devices by building intelligence into the delivery and playback of video. Rather than just focus on speeding up data transmission frequencies, researchers want to embed processing intelligence into the wireless network and design software that can help devices detect video quality as seen by the human eye. These video-smart mobile devices and networks would work together, continuously optimizing how data is received and played.
Video aware networks could also talk to the smartphone and constantly adapt to send the right amount of video data to meet the device owner's needs. The smart device and smart network combination could also be tuned for efficiencies that either help the wireless carrier to lighten the traffic load, or help the subscriber lower the amount of data consumed.
Foerster also explained that having intelligence built into mobile devices and wireless networks allow them to "see" and "know" more precisely how best to send the highest-quality video to the most individuals while using the least possible network bandwidth.
In addition, software on mobile devices can allow the device to take as little video data as possible and restore, correct or enhance the video so it can be viewed in the best quality even in the worst of connection circumstances, like when you're driving through a tunnel and receiving low network signal.
If the VAWN research bears fruit, Foerster believes everyone who has a smartphone or has a business that runs on wireless networks will benefit.
"Consumers would get a better experience," he said. "Carriers could increase the number of video applications it can support at one time. And content owners could benefit from providing better customer experience and would gain access to more users."