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Can Apps Really Damage a Cellular Network? 309

schnell writes "In FCC filings earlier this year, T-Mobile described how the behavior of one Android IM app nearly brought their cellular data network to a breakdown in one city. Even more interesting, the US carrier describes how just the 300,000 unlocked iPhones on their network caused massive spikes in data usage. T-Mobile is using these anecdotes as evidence that mobile carriers should be able to retain control over the applications and devices on their network to ensure quality of service for all users. Do they have a point?"
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Can Apps Really Damage a Cellular Network?

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  • No. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Timmmm ( 636430 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:02PM (#33913484)

    Clearly the most they can do is continually use up as much bandwidth as possible. If the networks aren't prepared for that, then that's their own fault.

  • SURE.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:03PM (#33913490)

    Old Ma'Bell used the same argument decades ago when they were trying to force people to continue buying telephones directly from them because the phones were made specifically for THEIR network. It's all a load of crap. They just want control because control = profit.

  • by Assmasher ( 456699 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:04PM (#33913504) Journal

    data plans is biting you in the a** when it comes time to deliver, perhaps you should stop selling people unlimited or huge data plans... Arguing that not being able to control exactly how people use their data plan when you've advertised and sold them on the idea that they can do just about whatever they want seems sort of silly.

    I'm not arguing that these phones/devices don't have the potential to cause huge problems, obviously they do, but you can't have your cake and eat it too.

  • by Just Brew It! ( 636086 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:07PM (#33913534)

    ...they'd be viewing it as an opportunity for additional revenue. Set up multi-tiered data plans and charge the bandwidth hogs accordingly.

    On the other hand, it seems fairly likely the issue is that their network can't handle the bandwidth they've already sold. In which case they just need to upgrade their network and quit whining.

  • Re:No. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:11PM (#33913582) Journal

    If the bandwidth isn't unlimitted, they should stop selling these "unlimitted" plans.

    This equates to me boasting that I could win a hot dog eating contest and then requesting that the contest be limitted to one hot dog.

  • by SCPRedMage ( 838040 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:14PM (#33913606)

    Do they have a point?


    They have a shitty infrastructure.

  • by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:15PM (#33913620)

    Is that the only thing the first post should say is 'No'

    I was thinking exactly what you said, as a Network Admin in yesteryear I can't imagine anyone who says 'the users broke my network by using it!'

    Our network simple handle 'bad users' on its own. To much traffic was simply handled by throttling the user to a safe level when needed.

    Seriously, how can you not have complete control over a network when its this size? I'd have to resign if I was in charge of their network and had to say 'some random user broke it, sorry boss'

    You NEVER trust any part of your network to 'play' nice, even if its under your complete control ... you can make mistakes too. You just assume the end users aren't going to play nice, and go from there, most do bad things without even knowing they are bad so you just plan for it like you would in any other business process.

  • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:15PM (#33913626) Journal

    The trouble is the smartphone, netbooks, what have you are not very useful at all without massive data plans. Without that they are just PDAs and those were never very popular with consumers. The issue here is the carriers need to upgrade the networks.

    I don't what you can do with a smart phone if you are not able to use more than Gb or so transfer a month. You will use that up in just e-mail, web, downloading apps, and maybe some music these days. Lord help you if you want to use video or web radio. Most applications need to be able to do webservice calls and such.

    Really you need to use lots of bytes to have anything like the experience they advertise. Even if they can control device useage to an extent well beyond what most consumers would regard as fair, I can't imagine it will help them. The only control that will is to price it out of reach of all but the least price sensitive customers again, and that is putting a genie back in a bottle; not an easy task.

  • by xiando ( 770382 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:21PM (#33913674) Homepage Journal
    So the carriers in the US must have total control or their network is going to explode, eh? How is it that you can buy whatever device you want and connect it to whatever network you want here in Europe, eh? Why haven't the mobile networks in the EU exploded yet, then, eh?
  • Re:No. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:21PM (#33913682)

    What's that got to do with the carrier as long as we stick within the limits of our data allowance?

    Exactly. If they can't deliver a certain level of service, then don't advertise it. I'm not on T-Mobile, but my data plan is clearly marked "unlimited". To me that means, oddly enough, that there aren't any limits on my data usage. If there was a limit, it wouldn't be unlimited. Likewise, if someone has a 1GB plan, then they should really be allowed to transmit that 1GB however they please. If that's not the case, then it needs to be clearly spelled out in the agreement.

  • do not constitute a reason for me to submit to having which applications I can and can't run decided by a third party.

    Bandwidth should be managed on a user-by-user basis, not an application-by-application basis. If you have an application that sucks up all your bandwidth, then you shouldn't have anymore bandwidth to use. Carriers should advertise burst and long-term bandwidth rates and if you go above the long-term rate you should be subject to having your bandwidth capped at that rate.

    No telling you which application you are allowed to run and which you aren't. No throttling based on port. If you're a customer, you are promised X bandwidth and no more. The carrier is allowed to deliver in excess of that if they so choose, but they aren't allowed to decide you use it for.

    And the carrier should not be allowed to decide on a per-application basis whether or not you get to exceed the bandwidth cap. It must be based on a global, application agnostic bandwidth usage policy that chooses which customers get the extra bandwidth (if any) based on some algorithm that has nothing to do with what their traffic contains.

  • Re:No. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:31PM (#33913760) Journal

    Clearly the most they can do is continually use up as much bandwidth as possible.

    You sir, are wrong.
    And it's obvious you didn't RTFA.
    TFA isn't just talking about bandwidth, it's talking about connections.
    Poorly coded apps that refresh too often will kill a cell tower.

  • by medv4380 ( 1604309 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:35PM (#33913790)

    Our network simple handle 'bad users' on its own. To much traffic was simply handled by throttling the user to a safe level when needed.

    This is what they are arguing for. They want to have the ability to throttle you in one form or another. They are basally making their case against net neutrality and against cell phones they don't have application control over. Though since they already allow android I don't see how they can stop me from writing my own app software now, but that's besides the point. You argued against them saying they should do what they are arguing that they want to be able to continue to do.

  • by Nushio ( 951488 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:42PM (#33913834) Homepage

    Uhm, hell no.

    In Mexico, we're stuck with overpriced, capped data plans. I went a whole year using less than 100mb a month. You just need to change your habits.
    Youtube? Only use it on Wifi. duh.
    Downloading/Upgrading apps and music? Same.

    IM and Email? Sure, use it. Using moderate browsing, email and IM, I spend about 3MB per day of 3G data. Everywhere I go, there's an Access Point I can hop into, be it Starbucks, McDonalds, the school or at work (Even piggybacking from a wired laptop using NetworkManager's network sharing thingie).

    I recently switched to a 500mb plan and use ~300mb per month.

  • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:47PM (#33913872) Homepage Journal
    As a person who used the networks of yore, I can remember many times when the users broke the network. That is why, for instance, outlook has added so many layers of optional protection' like the blocking of attachments and the like.

    I am not sure why everyone, all of the sudden, is forgetting 10 years of DDOS and worm and virus attacks that used to regularly take down networks. We are protected from this not, partly because of more sophisticated software and users, but also because higher bandwidths and lower ping times make such attacks less trivial.

    But ping time and bandwidth and the sophistication of younger users, and older users with no corporate control, make such an attack more probable on a phone network. Ping times on my cell network at about 5-10X as long wifi. Such times might lead to opportunities for rouge apps to degrade the user experience. Combine with lower bandwidth it might be conceivable that we will see some of the same attacks as we did at the turn of the century.

    I am not saying that networks should be closed like Apple, but that until we learn how to use the tools, such disruptions will occasionally occur either accidentally or deliberately. it will be for us to decide if we want to deal with the dropped calls, as we did with the occasionally site becoming unreachable.

  • Protocols (Score:4, Insightful)

    by iamacat ( 583406 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:49PM (#33913886)

    T-mobile should have a right to establish radio standards and congestion control protocols and require that any device on the network obeys these standards. They have no right to control end user applications as long as the operating system/radio firmware enforces these standards uniformly. In practical terms it means that apps with sustained high data rate or strict latency requirements may not work, or may stop working when network becomes congested. It's fine as long as "partner apps' also exhibit the same behavior.

  • by kuwan ( 443684 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:49PM (#33913892) Homepage

    Set up multi-tiered data plans and charge the bandwidth hogs accordingly.

    Kind of like what AT&T just did for the iPhone and iPad?

  • by reiisi ( 1211052 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:52PM (#33913900) Homepage

    The reason people want money is because they think money will give them power.

    The reason they want power is that they don't have control over themselves.

    No amount of money will bring you real power, just facades and illusions of power.

    No amount of power, whether illusion or real, will bring you control.

    No amount of control over other things, even if such a thing could possibly be anything other than an illusion, will bring you control over yourself. (Generally gets in the way, in fact.)

    That's why rich people and powerful people never seem to be able to get enough.

    That's why this story repeats itself every few years. No, much more often than that. Same story, different players, maybe a different market, etc. Details change, but it's always looking for whatever you want to call it in all the wrong places.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:58PM (#33913930) Journal


    So T-Mobile is saying that they need to be able to have complete control over which apps can be run on devices on their network.They are asking us to accept their absolute control over what we do with our wireless devices.

    Let me ask you all this: Has T-Mobile (or any of the other carriers for that matter) earned the benefit of the doubt to the point that we, as consumers, should trust them with this absolute control? They are claiming that unlocked phones or Droid apps are going to "damage their network". Given their history, is there any reason we should believe them?

    I've noticed that it's possible to hook all sorts of devices to the Internet, which somehow keeps working. We haven't had to resort to "AT&T-approved operating systems, or browsers, or computers" in order to "protect" the Internet (which I'm sure the broadband providers look at as "their network").

    It seems that we need a level of regulation and reform regarding the Internet and wireless networks that goes beyond simple "Net Neutrality". Maybe we should put the burden of proof on the providers to show why connection to the Internet should not be a regulated public utility.

    I think stories like this make it pretty clear what the Internet is going to look like if Net Neutrality laws are not enacted.

  • Re:No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Pinky's Brain ( 1158667 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:12PM (#33914042)

    The app can't close down the connection ... it's the TCP/IP stack's decision whether or not to immediately tear down the data connection when the last socket is closed, it's a slightly retarded decision to make BTW.

  • by phyrexianshaw.ca ( 1265320 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:18PM (#33914068) Homepage

    it's surprising how few people know that a four sector tower only covers about 250 moderately heavy users (think 3G speeds) in a ~50KM bubble. the 100 bubbles you have to cover an entire country (or in many cases many countries) hardly cover the province I live in. (on top of that they don't deploy at ~50km spacing here, our incumbent Telco here maintains a poor sixty three towers: to cover the 650,000KM^2 province. and trust me, they don't have fiber run out to 80% of them, meaning the towers get a single T1 for total bandwidth backhaul's.

    where one telco covers Europe with "decent coverage/speed" for $250,000, one in north america covers one major city for the same budget. there are 160 Cities in Canada alone: that's a lot of dough.
  • Re:what? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by getnate ( 518090 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:19PM (#33914076)
    Generally it's not considered 3G. Here is a good visual representation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Mobile_telecommunications_standards [wikipedia.org]
  • Re:No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by npsimons ( 32752 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:19PM (#33914078) Homepage Journal

    Sounds like a win-win to me. I don't see the problem.

    Maybe this time. I'm actually very surprised T-Mobile didn't just have their legal department send him a cease and desist or outright sue him, or even possibly get him charged with some ridiculous law. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it turned out for the better, but how often do you think that happens?

  • by Brymouse ( 563050 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:25PM (#33914116)

    The issue with all Cellular networks (and any half duplex shared media) is that the time it takes to send 256 bytes over the air is not 1/4 the time it takes to send 64 bytes, it's more like .6 to .8 times. The signaling setup and tear down takes time to transmit packets over the air, which is fixed no matter the amount of bytes you send.

    This impacts the network as the real bandwidth of a cellular network is not in BPS but airtime. If all the airtime is used up for signaling small packets for marginal signal customers, even the customers that have strong signals and want to send a http request will have to wait. Stateless protocols cause the worst problems as once a flow is established the PDSN/HA/etc does not have to do anymore work. With a app that generates a new flow for each data transfer of 10 bytes to say "hey im still online", the signaling bandwidth is used up and the network quickly falls to it's knees.

    This massive use of third party apps and data is still quite new to the providers. This scares them, as you can't just turn on netflow, setup nfsen and see what's going on. Lucent is about the only company out there with a ntop like solution for the providers, but it's new and still being deployed.

    I know the IP people are asking how they don't know what's on their network, but it's not just IP traffic you need to monitor, as all the carriers do so. monitoring the IP traffic only gives you the 10000 foot level view, to actually say how the loading on the radio layer relates to the applications in use is a very new requirement. While you can pull hundreds of data point for voice traffic from each radio and switch, at best you can find an error rate and total transfer for the busy hour on the data counters.

    It's the providers problem for selling a data plan based on bytes transferred , rather than airtime used.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:32PM (#33914162)

    "Because it's a small country" Why wasn't parent modded as funny?
    Germany is a small country? I can maybe understand the argument when it is given against cellular network of Finland (It has half the population density of USA and yet infinitely better cellular network despite all the area with practically no people to cover) but against germany? It has 80 million people for christ sake. How detached from reality you have to be to claim that Germany is small? USA has crappy coverage in places with extremely high population density (such as state of new york) and somehow that's due to shitloads of empty space in midwest. Atleast try to get over your stocholm syndrome already. You are being raped by your providers so much it is not even funny.

    Sincerely Yours,
    Drunk Finn

    P.S. In soviet russia, cellular network damages apps.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:36PM (#33914190)

    It seems to me that the point T-Mobile is actually making is that they need to upgrade their infrastructure to handle modern usage patterns, rather than degrade customer's modern usage patterns to conform to their obsolete data handling capacity.

    The right answer is to advance, not to stall.

  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:39PM (#33914208) Homepage

    Yes. The point they have is that they need to harden their networks. There will always be cracked phones so they should not rely on control of the phones to protect them.

    AT&T (the real one, not the present imposter) once used essentially the same argument against permitting "foreign" equipment to be plugged into their newtwork. Didn't work.

  • Re:what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by obarthelemy ( 160321 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:52PM (#33914298)

    do you know where the bottleneck was at ? backhaul ? servers ? airwaves ? interconnections ? was it a bandwidth issue (at which stage ?) or a processing issue (same question).

    i can show you how to send an extremely fast server into a tailspin over a very fast connection, or a verly slow one... it's a variation on
    10 goto 10

  • by MrEricSir ( 398214 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:52PM (#33914304) Homepage

    Hi, I'm a representative from your ISP and I noticed that you're not posting from an approved web browser. Also you have some applications on your computer that are not approved.

    Due to these violations, we're going to be disconnecting your service.

  • Re:No. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by obarthelemy ( 160321 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @07:53PM (#33914308)

    until they started selling .. internet access ?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 15, 2010 @08:00PM (#33914360)

    If switching to another network were a matter of going into Android Settings and picking "Sprint", "Verizon", "AT&T", "US Cellular", "Metro PCS", or some other company from the dropdown, agreeing to their rate structure, validating your credit card, and ending your relationship with T-Mobile on the spot... you might have a point. Except, it's not. Regardless of whom you use for wireless service in America, you're chained to them by a relatively expensive phone that's a de-facto doorstop on the other carriers (with very, very few exceptions), plus beaten into passive acceptance by punishingly expensive early termination fees and lube up your ass all over again for the new company.

    I don't think there's a single wireless carrier in *AMERICA* where you can use a gigahertz-class Android phone -- unlocked, unsubsidized, or otherwise -- without either being an existing customer or agreeing to a minimum 2-year contract. T-Mobile is at least nice enough to give you a $20/month discount if you bring your own phone, but NONE of them will let you casually establish service that includes 3G data speeds without at least an initial contract. The carriers do everything they can to make the market for wireless voice and data service as inelastic as they possibly can, and deserve no pity or compassion from the American public whatsoever.

  • Re:No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Pharmboy ( 216950 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @08:17PM (#33914450) Journal

    Regardless, the point is that cell providers were never meant to be Internet providers.

    If I want internet access at home, the cable company charges me around $40 extra.

    If I want internet access on a cell, the cell company charges me around $40 extra.

    At what point are cell providers NOT internet providers if they charge the same thing and claim to deliver the same thing? Will they have growing pains? Sure, and we can suck it up from time to time while they deal with things they couldn't have anticipated, but in the end, if they are going to walk like duck, and quack like a duck, then they should act like a duck.

  • Of course not (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Raul Acevedo ( 15878 ) <raul&cantara,com> on Friday October 15, 2010 @10:06PM (#33914926) Homepage

    If you say it's ok for mobile carriers to restrict apps on cell phones, then you implicitly say it's ok for Comcast to dictate what you can have on your PC.

    This is another reason why iOS and Apple's ridiculous idea that they can tell you what you can do with your property is a horrible precedent: it's my device, not yours.

  • Re:what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by obarthelemy ( 160321 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @10:32PM (#33915026)

    so DDOS attacks are the servers' fault ?

    I'm wildly guessing, but I seem to remember, for example, the iPhone handling either wi-fi or 3g data keep-alive in a weird way, like not keeping connections alive but requesting orders of magnitude more connects/disconnects than other phones.

    I'm certain there are perfectly standard-compliant ways to do something stupid or malevolent and overload one specific stage of a perfectly well configured and sized network.

  • Re:what? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:11PM (#33915188) Journal

    EDGE is not counted as 3G anywhere I've lived. Is it seriously considered that in the USA??

  • Re:No. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:13PM (#33915194) Journal

    Europe and Asia have no problems with iPhones as they've gone to a dynamic bandwidth control channels because of the popularity of SMS. North America until recently didn't need to.

    So why don't they just do the same thing that Europe and Asia did that works for them, and be done with it?

  • Re:what? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by keeboo ( 724305 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:47PM (#33915312)
    Don't you find amusing how they perverted the meaning of "G" (meaning "generation")?
    It's sort like saying "a 0.75 order of magnitude" or "we released our 2.4932154nd product".
  • by mweather ( 1089505 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:58PM (#33915352)
    All this proves is that the cellular networks have oversold their capacity, and have to resort to crippling their phones to keep the whole house of cards from collapsing.
  • by uglyduckling ( 103926 ) on Saturday October 16, 2010 @04:09AM (#33916000) Homepage
    This is a stupid as is was back in the dialup days. I remember being with an ISP at our office, where they put a cap on the amount of time you could stay connected. So I had a script on our NAT box that would redial after 30 seconds when the line was dropped. Always-on Internet, just with a 30 second dropout very 6 hours. How they thought those 30 seconds would help with their bandwidth issues I never knew.

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling