By Ari Banerjee Senior Analyst Heavy Reading
Markets and services are evolving and growing. Carriers are expanding their portfolios and networks to compete head-on with others across all major sectors, including voice, video, data and mobile, as well as entering new sectors such as interactive services.
Mobile operators today are faced with three key investment challenges: increasing network capacity, increasing network coverage and lowering cost and power per bit. There is a shift in mobile operators' strategies as they move from traditional connectivity-centric strategies to focus on economically supporting mobile Internet service distribution, by capitalizing on the pervasiveness of IP. With mobile Internet comes the convergence of Internet, communications, media, mobility and machines, which significantly expands the opportunity for service providers but disrupts the status quo of the traditional mobile industry. Smartphones rely on Internet connectivity, so, as smartphone usage grows, more users are experiencing connectivity issues. LTE dramatically increases the bandwidth available but reduces the area covered by a base station. Large cells are easy to manage and provide good coverage within a defined area, but are expensive. Small cells are less expensive and can be used to improve coverage and network bandwidth, but are difficult to manage.
By shifting to a heterogeneous network with a mix of larger and smaller cells (femto-cells and picocells), carriers can address all three challenges. The general belief is that small cells only solve coverage problems and increase performance, but our research shows that strategic deployment of small cells can lower CAPEX and OPEX costs and help solve capacity-related issues. Solving metro-zone coverage and capacity issues are becoming the most sought-after objectives for deploying small cells, along with providing optimum service at locations where high-value users concentrate, such as malls, enterprise campuses, hospitals, etc. Accurate network planning, trending and optimization are becoming areas of critical importance for the following reasons:
- Ephemeral nature of the network. The dynamism and accuracy needed to optimize the existing network infrastructure will require dedicated solutions that will provide a sufficient arsenal to business users as well as IT users to plan, predict and optimize use of their existing resources. Hence, it becomes critical to bridge the gap that exists today between operational systems and planning and capacity management systems. Other major concerns for most communications service providers (CSPs) revolve around freeing up of existing resources when services are deactivated or turned down. Many CSPs do not have robust mechanisms to free up existing resources like ports when services are turned down. As a result, stranded and unused assets often become common place in an operator's environment.
- Managing RAN congestion. RAN congestion is emerging as a major problem for service providers. Backhaul is also a major problem area that results in congestion issues. Yet another critical issue is smartphones — not just for the amount of bandwidth they consume, but for the signaling traffic they generate. Capacity management with the aid of advanced analytics has the potential to play a pivotal role in this context by being able to receive real-time feeds from network and back office systems to adjust network resources, load balance traffics and also help adjust customers' services, rate plans, tiers, etc., so as to help CSPs maximize revenue from network assets.
- Dynamic data bandwidth allocation across both services and customers. Next-generation architectures and IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) promise to change the dynamics of bandwidth allocation and management. Bundle or individual services such as rich media content, IPTV, video-on-demand (VoD), gaming and other next-generation services will impact IP network resources significantly.
At this year's Mobile World Congress, held in February in Barcelona, I had the opportunity to discuss with number of wireless operators key issues which keep them awake at night. One thing most wireless operators shared with us was that they find themselves cash-strapped during challenging economic times and when facing an insatiable consumer appetite for bandwidth-heavy applications (video in particular). For them, the central challenge is to find ways to balance network resources with an eye toward customer experience and profitability.
Mobile operators are equipped with a finite asset (network capacity), and the cost of growing that asset through greater equipment spend on base elements like macro-cells can be prohibitive. With customers' dynamic behaviors, some network infrastructure elements will falter under increased strain at unpredictable times and for unpredictable reasons, making effective capacity planning even more daunting. Analytics-driven network planning and capacity management solutions can play a pivotal role in combating this problem.
Given the fact that adoption of self-optimizing networks (SON) is still in its infancy stage, the load balancing mechanisms operators have today are inefficient, manual and fraught with inaccuracies. Next-generation Network Planning solutions can help CSPs understand the load on cells by correlating traffic and subscriber information to better understand the current situation, and also perform a ”what if” type of sensitive analysis to forecast the growth of traffic in the near future. Through such calculations, the range of unloaded cells can be extended to take traffic load away from a neighboring overloaded cell based on profitability of subscribers, traffic patterns, location, etc.
With data traffic continuing to grow, this load balancing will help CSPs optimize their network resources and ensure that they can deliver the expected quality of experience with a view on subscriber profitability.
For more on this topic, check out one of our recent video posts here.