University of Calgary Engineers Develop Software Solution for Congested Cellular Networks

On a day that was meant to be focused on the return of the Calgary Stampede parade and parade marshal Kevin Costner, the 2022 nationwide Rogers cell service outage created numerous challenges for parade attendees and Calgary merchants.

For hours, people struggled to make phone calls or send messages due to the cell phone network being down. Consequently, merchants throughout the city had to quickly come up with alternative payment methods to replace the cell-backed debit services or unfortunately turn away customers.

Eventually, Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri identified a maintenance update as the cause of the outage. This update had led to the failure of critical hardware routers responsible for managing network traffic. Alexandra Glodzinski, a recent graduate from the UCalgary Schulich School of Engineering, along with her team, developed a software-based solution to address the issue of congested network traffic.

Glodzinski explained, “That’s where the inspiration for this project originated.”

The team, comprising Glodzinski, August Sosick, Maram Elsayed, Mathew Pelletier, Andres Caicedo, and Chloe Bouchard, devised a method to efficiently manage the flow of data to cell phones and regulate its usage, all without requiring expensive dedicated cell service hardware devices.

The collaboration between a UCalgary engineering class and a senior Telus engineer led to the inception of this project. Sosick explained, “The Telus engineer expressed growing concerns regarding network tower congestion, which had the potential to disrupt service in specific regions.””The Telus engineer found it fascinating because Telus is actively shifting away from hardware solutions. They prioritize the adoption of software-based systems as they are more cost-effective and energy-efficient.”

Software could provide cost savings and enhanced service to individuals and cell phone companies.

Sosick drew a comparison between their software solution and the existing approach by using the example of someone streaming a Netflix program on a mobile device.  

“In current systems, Cisco switches rely on hardware components to identify and handle traffic from individual users streaming Netflix. However, our software solution takes a different approach,” Sosick explained.   “With our software, the actual video content of users flows through our system instead of relying on hardware transitions. We can identify that a user is accessing Netflix, but if there is intense traffic or tower congestion, we can deny their request. All of this can be accomplished through software. There’s no need to invest in entirely new devices. By simply sending out the code, it can dynamically adapt to the network conditions.”  

The primary advantage of this approach is a reduction in the need for COWs (cells on wheels) to provide coverage in high-demand areas such as concerts, sporting events, and festivals like the Calgary Stampede.   “Despite having additional cellular capacity, congestion is still a significant issue. Everyone is texting and searching for things, needing to know where others are. It’s a terrible experience,”

Elsayed remarked.   “I strongly believe that our solution can make a difference, especially during large events like the Stampede. It prioritizes those who require superior service by reducing bandwidth for users who don’t need it as much. This creates more space for others to send emergency messages from anywhere they are.”  

To illustrate, let’s consider a user at the Stampede grounds who wants to stream Netflix while experiencing heavy network traffic. With our solution, their video content would be rate-limited, freeing up bandwidth for essential services such as texting, emailing, and data calls.

Solution to cell phone disruptions in emergency situations

.Sosick highlighted the second significant advantage of the software-based solution, emphasizing its adaptability to changing circumstances.   “They have the ability to instantly modify the configuration. So, in the event of a disaster where half of the cell towers, for instance, are destroyed, Netflix would have zero bandwidth,” Sosick explained.   “In such cases, we allocate a priority tier for emergency medical services (EMS) network users who need to download critical data files or other information while on the move. Ambulances receive the highest bandwidth allocation, while others receive a lower rate, with no video traffic, but still allowing texting and basic internet searches.”  

The team has reported positive feedback from Telus during the proof-of-concept phase of the initiative.   Elsayed mentioned that they were able to showcase their solution to senior executives at Telus, indicating the potential for future development to transition it from a proof-of-concept to a commercial product.   “It will likely take a few years and a larger, more cohesive team to fully implement this solution,” Elsayed stated confidently.

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