A recent study documented the data usage of 1.1 million subscribers of a European mobile network over a 24-hour period and found that 1% of subscribers consumed 50% of the downlink data volume. Arieso, an advisor of mobile operators in the United States, Europe and Africa, conducted the study.
Arieso (Newbury, England) performed the same study in 2010, which found that the top 3% of the users were consuming 40% of the data. In the 2011 study, the top 3% of users were consuming 70% of the data, demonstrating that these top data users are using more and more bandwidth . The 2011 study also found that the top 10% of data users consumed 90% of the bandwidth.
Users of the iPhone 4S demanded three times as much data as iPhone 3G users and twice as much as iPhone 4 users, who were identified as the most demanding in the 2010 study, according to Arieso. In a finding consistent with 2010 results, it also shows that Google Nexus One users make twice as many data calls as iPhone 3G users.
Of the hungriest 1% of subscribers, 64% were using laptops, 35% were using smartphones and 3% were using tablets. According to the report, this usage suggests that users are consuming data in one location, or in a few very distinct locations.
Having extreme users consume data in a stationary location or a few distinct locations makes using microcells a logical option to the bandwidth challenge. One Tier-1 European network provider had to add 250 microcells to its network in order to offload data traffic from extreme users.
According to the Arieso, the microcell strategy would involve replacing a users 3G device with a 4G device and installing 4G microcells close to where they consume the most data. This may seem like a huge feat to undertake - monitoring where each subscriber consumes data and installing a microcell - but, this would only have to be done for 1% of the subscribers, and according to Arieso, would double the network capacity.
“By doing this you’re going to be doing two things. First of all, accomplishing the very short-term goal of offloading and making more capacity available for more ordinary, less extreme users, and the second is you are setting a long-term path,” says Michael Flanagan, CTO at Arieso and the study author. “That is you are really looking into the future and try to secure a course that is going to be able to do the best you can in getting base stations as close to actual subscribers as possible.”
Another approach Arieso addresses has to do with more aggressive data tariffs, which means network providers could reduce the data transfer rates or increase fees once a user has exceeded the data volume limit. This strategy, according to Flanagan, can be seen as a short term solution to the increasing bandwidth  problem.
“It is absolutely the case that the industry is making use of more aggressive tariffs,” says Flanagan. “I would argue that as time marches on our technological powers as an industry increases and we will have the ability to better deploy small cell technology. What I would predict is not only would the small cell deployments increase overtime, but that there would be an increased relaxation on tariffs because there will be other ways to address the challenges.”
Strategies such as microcell deployment and aggressive tariffs are solutions that the industry can implement right now. In the future telecom operators will begin to look to other technology, such as small cell deployment, to solve the growing data demand.
“Microcells that are deployed now are technology that is readily available,” says Flanagan. “In the future, it will be much more important to supply these very small footprint cells to accomplish capacity objectives and not just the coverage objectives.”