The way wireless carriers treat data traffic, the big growth driver in the industry, may change with a device Alcatel-Lucent announced Monday.

The Alcatel-Lucent 9900 Wireless Network Guardian tells carriers how different kinds of traffic tax their networks, according to Michael Schabel, general manager at Alcatel-Lucent Ventures in Murray Hill, N.J.

So far, carriers have focused on the amount of data their subscribers download, and priced plans accordingly. They generally charge by the kilobyte or let subscribers download a certain amount of data in a month. Carriers have also prohibited some data-intensive applications.

"These pricing plans are a reflection of the fact that they don't have an insight into what's happening on the network," Schabel said.

The strains data subscribers place on the wireless network don't match the amount of data they download, Schabel said.

The new device will tell carriers that some types of traffic, such as e-mail and instant messaging, consume up to 1,000 times as much air time as file downloads.

"If I look at mobile e-mail, one megabyte takes two hours of air time," he said, because the mobile network needs to repeatedly set up and tear down the connection.

In contrast, a one-megabyte file from a peer-to-peer file-sharing network takes about 30 seconds to download, he estimated.

Workers on the go who connect to their company intranets via so-called virtual private networking consume large amounts of air time, even if they aren't sending or receiving any data, because the VPN software maintains a "heartbeat" that keeps the connection open, Schabel said.

The Alcatel-Lucent device is similar to traffic-shaping tools used by internet service providers on their landline networks. Such equipment allows the provider to determine what customers are using their internet connections for, then apportion the appropriate bandwidth, depending on the usage.

The new device, however, isn't set up to connect to billing systems. Alcatel-Lucent sees it primarily as a tool to help carriers figure out how to deal with usage — and to build on existing technologies that prioritize data traffic to avoid congestion.

Nadine Manjaro, an analyst at ABI Research, said the new product could take carriers' understanding of their traffic to a new level.

Peter Jarich, research director at Current Analysis, said it could prove critical for carriers dealing with as-yet-unknown "killer" applications that may create very different traffic patterns from current ones.

The device is the product of three years of research at Bell Labs, the invention engine of the Bell System phone network and the birthplace of the transistor.

France-based Alcatel took over the New Jersey-based research centre with the 2006 acquisition of Lucent Technologies Inc., a successor to AT&T's equipment-making arm.

Bell Mobility, the second-largest cellphone provider in Canada next to Rogers Wireless, is trying out the system, with a focus on seeing if it can help smooth traffic flows, spokesman Jason Laszlo said.