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Are Wireless Networks Ready For The Next Gaming Craze? Featured

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Are Wireless Networks Ready For The Next Gaming Craze? Image Credit: Vasona Networks/Pokemon GO

Like happy zombies, teens, millennials and more are taking to the streets, private property, places of business and even remote areas in a new quest. The glow from smartphone screens is illuminating their happy faces as they swipe toward a common goal: catch as many Pokémon as possible. With expectations high, they are taking for granted that their mobile broadband service will be available anywhere their new quest leads them.

Pokémon GO was an instant smash hit. Forbes reported one in 10 Americans plays it daily, according to App Annie, and SurveyMonkey estimates that the game is hauling in as much as $6 million a day from in-app purchases in the U.S. alone. It is currently available in 37 countries.

Wireless operators caught a lucky break this time around. A game more heavily reliant on data would have wreaked havoc on already congested networks. The next gaming craze might not be so kind. And as we saw with Pokémon GO’s overnight success, it could strike at any time. Will operators be ready?

In a matter of a few short weeks, Pokémon GO flipped the mobile network bandwidth equation on its head. An operator we spoke with this past week marveled at how this new game eschewed previously predictable traffic trends. Where typical app traffic is 90% Wi-Fi and 10% on the network, it’s the opposite among Pokémon GO users.

As the game grows and copycats come along, mobile network operators must prepare for a future where the next app craze may suddenly overwhelm networks.

Consider how the integration of video could create further complexity, and it’s easy to see why preparation is critical. A game like this will create a universe of broader implications among gaming companies. Surely, any gamer could wax poetic about the next generation that could combine augmented reality with video sharing, team interaction, competition and more. It’s easy to imagine people racing to play an interactive mobile version of The Bourne Conspiracy where players run and fight alongside Jason Bourne with augmented reality placing them at the center of it all. Tied in with a movie release, the peak could be astronomical.

Despite Pokémon GO’s minimal data demands (for now), it still poses threats that will need to be monitored. While the game is not continuously streaming, it is always on, creating continuous session volume. Repeat that for dozens of active users moving concurrently within the same cell and suddenly, the gamers threaten the integrity of other sessions within that cell because of the sheer volume of active sessions.

For mobile operators, proven traffic management strategies combined with emerging technologies and standards provide a path forward. As operators determine how to address evolving types of game traffic, they should focus on how to best deliver the necessary quality needed for individual game sessions. They must do this with no impact to other experience-sensitive sessions, such as video or VoLTE, all while maximizing throughput. With this in mind, the industry’s fast-growing interest in edge computing initiatives couldn’t have come at a better time.

Operators and vendors are exploring movements like Mobile Edge Computing for IoT and 5G. But there are edge techniques that can immediately address evolving demand and also create a bridge for steady advancement toward future initiatives. This could mean adding location context to application traffic performance, which would bring unprecedented granularity of insight for better planning and management. It could also mean making decisions that balance traffic to achieve the best gaming experience in certain cells, while simultaneously managing and time shifting bandwidth allocation to prevent gaming apps from unfairly hogging bandwidth.

Then there are considerations for how users handover between cells, especially when playing a game that encourages mobility. As this augmented-reality session traffic hops from cell to cell, operators need to be ready to ensure the integrity of the streams.

When video content is incorporated into augmented reality experiences, the bandwidth utilization skyrockets. That is often caused by the same content being accessed by different players. Pretty soon, it's not just the access networks that get flooded. Even the core can start to fill up with redundant copies. The servers from which the content is sourced can also be overwhelmed.

For the most popular content at a given moment, caching on an intelligent and versatile edge platform can provide massive alleviation across these vital resources. There are further advantages if that caching is done using multiple adaptive-bit-rate profiles so that access network congestion is considered in determining which version to stream.

These strategies require management of traffic cell-by-cell, based on time of day and application. They also require the ability to continually and flexibly tune the network as subscriber needs and app demands fluctuate. Approaches will vary by operator, region and by desired experience. Operators would be well positioned if they add the ability now to implement this type of control. For most, it’s not a matter of whether or not they will need it to protect the experience of all subscribers, but how soon.

How responsive can an operator’s network be in order to adapt to unexpected and major demands? Perhaps unsurprisingly, T-Mobile US moved like lightning to capitalize on the Pokémon GO craze, announcing that data consumed while playing will not count against subscribers’ data allowance.

The right network preparation now can ensure that operators around the world are able to stay ahead of any curveball the app ecosystem may throw out there. Even if it is completely unexpected. 

Rui Frazao is CTO of Vasona Networks and leads the company’s technical innovation, supporting mobile network operator efforts to provide subscribers with the best broadband experiences. He works with Vasona customers worldwide on advancing mobile-edge software solutions. Rui spent nearly 15 years with Vodafone, most recently as director of network engineering for efforts across Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary and the Czech Republic. 

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