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Data centers built into cellsites could boost mobile Internet speed

July 24, 2014
Cell Tower

Growing demand for mobile data connectivity has prompted device makers and networks to kick their speeds up a notch, especially with rich content like video conferencing and video streaming. However, even with increased bandwidth, there is still the problem of latency, which is mostly due to the lag in connectivity between the cell sites — radio towers that communicate with mobile devices — and the data centers that actually process and deliver the content.

In the UK, mobile carrier Vodafone is experimenting with hosting small data centers directly at the cell sites, in a project done in collaboration with the computer science department at the Imperial College in London. With the project, the aim is to improve the delivery speed by reducing the physical distance between the radio tower and the data center.

According to sources familiar with the project, bringing the data centers closer to the base stations is intended as a means to improve services through a change in the infrastructure — something that other carriers are looking into, as well. This was actually prompted by a joint project by IBM and Nokia Siemens Networks in developing what is called an “edge computing” platform that involves hardware that can run applications directly within a mobile base station. Vodafone is “still in testing phase at the moment,” with regard to the use of the IBM and Nokia Siemens developed platform.

Reduced latency will play an important role in delivering rich content especially when the demand is high. For instance, this could be very useful in sporting events, concerts or other major spectacles, during which a big influx of data usage is expected from social media access, video streaming, calls and texts. In such case, “[t]here will be good response for the tens of thousands of people taking photos and videos and sharing them on social networks, as well as uploading, downloading, and watching videos,” says Alexander Wolf, a professor at the Imperial College’s department of computing.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which sought comments from representatives of mobile companies, the executives do admit a surge in demand during mass spectator events. Given this, there is a need to improve the infrastructure, in order to prevent outages or slow-down of services. If the project goes well, then we can perhaps expect other carriers around the world to also implement on-site data centers, at least in high-density areas.