Service Assurance In Mobile Backhaul Networks

Patrick Donegan

By Patrick Donegan, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

As some of the world’s leading mobile operators continue to remind us in their quarterly results, the roll-out of packet backhaul has been key to mitigating potential cost escalation associated with the transition from a voice centric to a data centric revenue model in mobile services. Many operators that are making that transition successfully draw attention to the critical role that is being played by the transition to packet backhaul.

As of the end of June 2011, Heavy Reading estimates that there were more than 350,000 cell sites in live service with Ethernet backhaul – more than 10% of the global total. We predict that 3 million cell sites, or 78% of the global total, will be in live service with Ethernet backhaul by the end of 2015. While this is good news in itself, it’s worth considering that most operators are at a relatively early stage in making the transition to packet backhaul. Many have only deployed it to a sub-set of their high capacity sites. Many have introduced it alongside TDM rather than replacing TDM altogether. And most have yet to get the most out of packet backhaul in terms of layering additional revenue or margin enhancing services and capabilities on top of it.

Now that basic packet backhaul services are becoming increasingly commonplace, mobile operators and their wholesale backhaul providers alike are looking to add value to them by gaining better visibility into the network, generating real-time reports on network performance, and leveraging those reports to verify SLA commitments as well as proactively anticipate potential customer performance issues and address them before the customer is impacted by them.

Just as no-one could doubt that the initial era of “all you can eat” mobile broadband pricing  would give way to more tiered pricing so few mobile operators seriously believe that introducing  different speed tiers can be done just by throwing more bandwidth at the problem rather than by introducing end to end  QoS mechanisms. And as mobile operators roll-out this next generation of tariff packages, they will need live real-time visibility of the service quality they are actually delivering in order to be able to keep calls to customer care centers down to a minimum and accurately distinguish reasonable and unreasonable customer complaints that performance has fallen below the level paid for.

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Backhaul wholesalers that can deliver an advanced suite of service assurance capabilities to their mobile operator customers will in turn have a competitive advantage. Up until recently, the best a mobile operator might hope for by way of backhaul service reporting was a spreadsheet detailing retrospective  performance on E1 links over the course of the previous month. By contrast new generations of IP-based solutions can monitor and report on service performance on Carrier Ethernet links according to any number of performance metrics in real time. So if the mobile operator can see that it is seeing particularly high and increasing capacity utilization in the backhaul at a particular location, a pro-active decision can be taken to add additional capacity before the end user ends up being impacted.

Service assurance is increasingly relevant in mobile networks. As leading mobile operators roll out 3G and LTE and grow their mobile broadband subscriber bases, collecting and correlating network performance metrics and then socializing them internally and with partners will play a key role in driving revenue growth and sustaining margins in the mobile industry.

Donegan has more than 20 years of experience as a telecom market journalist, analyst, and strategist. His in-depth knowledge of wireless technology issues is critical to Heavy Reading‘s expanding coverage in this area.

Donegan also authors Heavy Reading‘s Ethernet Backhaul Quarterly Market Tracker, a special quarterly research service. Donegan joined Heavy Reading after five years at Nortel Networks, where he was a senior manager of strategic planning for the company’s wireless business – spanning GSM, CDMA, UMTS, WiMax, and other wireless technologies. Prior to Nortel, Donegan spent two years in business research for Motorola’s Corporate Strategy Office in EMEA and two years as a wireless analyst for the Yankee Group.