Industry Blog

Apps v Browsers and Trends in Encrypted Data

When was the last time you visited YouTube’s website from a mobile browser? Like the majority of users it was probably quite some time ago. The YouTube app however, is a different story. Mobile video is currently growing at an incredible rate. With recently released figures suggesting that 34% of video plays are now taking place on a mobile device, most of these will be through apps and not web browsers. However, as content providers switch to encrypting traffic, mobile networks come under increasing strain as they try to optimize both encrypted and unencrypted data.

Mobile video grows

One of the biggest challenges in mobile is the growth of video. Whether it is watching a music video on YouTube, an ad on Facebook or the latest episode of Game of Thrones, mobile devices are rapidly becoming the dominant platform that we watch video on as revealed in the links above. This is a double-edged sword for mobile operators. As Vodafone reported in 2013, 75% of the data traffic it was transporting was from video and web browsing.

It is not only the growth of video that is having an effect, but the type of video too. More content than ever before is being shot and watched in HD and in long form (10 minutes or more), meaning that the bandwidth required for video transport is soaring. Add to that, the fact that the proportion of encrypted data is increasing rapidly, meaning less control and a reduced capacity to manage that traffic - and the story gets tougher.

Encrypted data

Already encrypted data is now making up almost a third of all traffic carried over a mobile network. And with more content providers following Google and Facebook’s lead of switching to secure protocols, this trend is only going to accelerate. Encrypted video is a huge problem for mobile operators, whose network infrastructure is often not capable of identifying it, much less optimizing it. Unencrypted data has been around long enough for carriers to purchase, install and set up optimization solutions.  Encrypted data on the other hand is relatively new and networks have not been adapted for it.

As it stands, video content from providers such as YouTube and Facebook is often not optimized, leading to network congestion, higher operating costs and a less than desirable end user experience. Making this all the harder is the fractured nature of how users access mobile video.

Apps v Browsers

With an 86% share of users’ time spent on a mobile device, apps have a strong grip on mobile data. In fact, Apple alone paid app developers $10 billion last year from sales from its App Store, supporting over 600,000 jobs in the US alone. The app industry is clearly huge and growing, with the average US subscriber using around 27 apps a month. Already Apple is encrypting the data on its iPhones. That makes the data from one of the world’s most popular devices a serious headache for most mobile operators to manage.

What’s more, 14% of a user’s time is spent in a web browser. Meaning that mobile operators need to optimize this traffic too. This split in usage causes problems for mobile optimization as data is spread across different apps and different types of encryption.

Maintaining privacy and speed

So what can be done to optimize the growing trends of encrypted data and ever-larger media files? Well, the two parts of the network that are most amenable to optimizing are the transport layer and the application layer. Optimizing both allows carriers to dramatically increase the speed of both encrypted and unencrypted data from web browsers and crucially apps too. Traffic such as HTTP and HTTPS, which makes up a large section of the TLS / transport layer can be optimized to help reduce the amount of bandwidth needed.

Optimizing the application layer too will further improve the user experience with faster app downloads and audio and video streaming. By doubling up on the optimization, operators will also see significant data savings on encrypted traffic without users having to worry about their privacy being compromised.  In addition, new solutions for managing secure traffic can now recognize the fingerprint of high data objects such as HD video, games and apps, and therefore focus on optimizing only the payloads that need attention – further improving the subscriber experience.

How will this play out?

The fact is video, encryption and app usage are becoming major issues for mobile operators. As traffic continues to switch away from web browsers and is increasingly encrypted, operators will need to look at new optimization techniques. Smart operators however will turn this into a win-win situation for themselves and their subscribers. The right optimization will boost download speeds, preserve privacy and crucially free up bandwidth. Operators who stand still will soon find themselves drowning in data.

Article first published in the June 2015 edition of CommsMEA (page 22).