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UCalgary engineers develop software solution for congested cellular networks

In what should have been a day solely focused on the return of the Calgary Stampede parade and parade marshal Kevin Costner, the 2022 nationwide Rogers cell service outage caused headaches for parade visitors and merchants across Calgary.

People were left for hours being unable to contact anyone with their cell phones, and merchants across the city had to scramble to find alternative forms of payment than cell-backed debit services—or simply had to turn customers away.

That outage was eventually blamed by Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri on a maintenance update that caused key hardware routers that manage network traffic to fail.

“That’s how the idea kind of started with this project,” said Alexandra Glodzinski, a recent UCalgary Schulich School of Engineering graduate, who along with her team, developed a software-based solution to manage congested network traffic.

The students, which included Glodzinski, August Sosick, Maram Elsayed, Mathew Pelletier, Andres Caicedo, and Chloe Bouchard, developed a way to manage the amount of data that cell phones are provided, and what that data can be used for, without the need for expensive dedicated cell service hardware devices.

The project came about as part of their engineering capstone class at UCalgary connecting with a senior Telus engineer.

“They were getting a little bit concerned about some congestion on network towers that could bring down service in particular areas,” said Sosick.

“One of the senior engineers identified that within Telus, and then they decided it would be interesting because Telus in general is shifting away from hardware. They are more interested in getting everything into software because it’s cheaper to run. It’s more dynamic.”

Software could provide savings, improved service for people and cell companies

He used the example of someone using their cell phone to watch a Netflix program as an example of how their software solution works, versus the one currently in operation.

“There are all sorts of different hardware in Cisco switches that can identify traffic from one user to Netflix, for example, but that’s all done in hardware. Traffic, people’s actual video content, is now flowing through our software instead of a hardware switch,” Sosick said.

“So we’re identifying you’re going to Netflix and the traffic’s pretty heavy or the tower is pretty congested – let’s turn you down. We’re doing all of that in software… they don’t have to buy whole new machines, they can just send out the code and the code starts dynamically adapting to the network conditions.”

The first advantage is reducing the number of purchases of what the cell industry calls COWs, also known as cells on wheels, to provide coverage in high-demand areas like concerts, sporting events, or festivals like the Calgary Stampede.

“Even with the extra cellular power, it’s still very congested. Everyone needs to know where others are, they’re texting, they’re searching for stuff. It’s horrible,” said Elsayed.

“I think this would make a difference especially during like big events like Stampede since it actually prioritizes who has better service than others. Lowering the bandwidth for other users that don’t need it as much, it does give more space for others to send wherever they are in case of emergencies.”

Using the Netflix example, users wanting to watch a program at the Stampede grounds where traffic is heavy would have that video content rate limited, freeing up bandwidth for other services like texting, emailing, and calls using data.

Solution to addressing cell outages during emergencies

The second major advantage, said Sosick, was that because the solution is software based it can be dynamic to changing conditions.

“They can just change the configuration immediately. So if there’s a disaster, and say half the cell towers get wiped out.. and if you’re going to Netflix, you get zero bandwidth,” Sosick said.

“Then we give a priority tier to people who might be on the EMS network if they need to be downloading data files or something on the go. And ambulances, they get the most amount of bandwidth. Everybody else gets a lower rate, no video traffic but they’re still able to text people and get basic internet searches.”

The team said that while the project is just at the proof-of-concept stage now, it has received positive feedback from Telus.

Elsayed said that they were able to show their solution to senior executives within the company and that there is a potential for further development in the future to move it from a proof-of-concept to a commercialized product.

“I think it just needs a couple of years and more of an intact team to actually approach that solution,” Elsayed said.