Ars Technica has posted an interesting article, speculating that wireless carrier network congestion (especially in the case of AT&T) may not have so much to do with how much bandwidth your device is consuming, but rather how your smartphone is connecting to the network.
Typically, when a phone needs a data connection, it makes a request via a signaling channel on your carrier’s network. The data connection is then approved, opened, and remains open in an idle state when not in use. However, iPhone, Android, and webOS devices have all employed a little trick to help conserve battery life; they drop the data connection when not in use as opposed to allowing it to idle. While end-users see this manifested as increased battery life, wireless network carriers see it manifested as a spike in signal channel traffic, especially in urban areas. “Cell nodes use signaling channels to set up the data connection, as well as signaling phone calls, SMS messages, voicemails, and more. When enough iPhones are in a particular area, these signaling channels can become overloaded—there simply aren’t enough to handle all the data requests along with all the calls and messages,” writes Ars.
It isn’t just American carriers experiencing this issue. U.K. wireless provider O2 experienced a similar problem soon after releasing the iPhone. O2 had to work with network vendors to optimize its network to allow for the dynamic handling of signal requests. However, most European carriers did tend to fair much better than their American counterparts. “Europe embraced heavy text messaging and data use far earlier than users in the US. SMS and MMS messages rely heavily on signaling channels to operate, and so networks were generally configured to dynamically manage changes in signaling traffic,” said an industry expert.
As for AT&T, scheduled backhaul improvements and over 2,000 new cell towers scheduled for 2010 should help stem the tide, but with the iPad and a litany of Android devices in the pipeline… stay tuned.