The future of network validation and optimisation is in the lab. Think about the plane industry: 100 years ago no one was using flight simulators to build and fly planes. Try for a minute to imagine the A380 being commercialised without going through intensive flight simulation. Would you board that plane?
And it’s not just about the risk linked to the plane’s performance; it’s also a fantastic way for the manufacturer to save costs when the environment is reproducible and controllable.
The telecom industry is set to follow the same path, firstly to ensure that the Quality of Experience of end-users is up to expectations, and more importantly to reduce costs in the context of increasing technology complexity and reducing ARPU. State-of-the-art developments in network emulation have enabled us to build very accurate flight emulators for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).
Increasing complexity, migration from legacy products, pressure from competitors, levels of investment and ensuring optimal network performance, plus the effect of performance on end-user experience, are just some of today’s challenges for MNOs. MNO costs are increasing, ARPU is decreasing, and user expectations for fast connections and real-time applications are growing. The rapid adoption of smartphones and other connected devices means networks are now flooded with huge quantities of data. This also means that the amount of signalling needed in networks has dramatically increased.
The race to have LTE networks ready for commercial deployment as soon as possible is being driven by MNO competition in a bid to capture market share. LTE has already paved the way for the rapid deployment of ‘always-on’, bandwidth-hungry applications and services to become commonplace, such as data-rich Voice over LTE (VoLTE), live streaming, gaming and Video on Demand (VoD). The added capabilities means that MNOs need to ensure that the underlying network infrastructure can handle the exponential growth of mobile data traffic, without sacrificing security, Quality of Service (QoS) and Quality of Experience (QoE), and at the same time still maintain a profitable business.
It has been, and continues to be, a complicated transition for MNOs, which are struggling to achieve global optimisation due to a lack of common language throughout their entire organisation, encompassing the RAN, core network, IP and applications. Network emulation helps MNOs to obtain an authentic validation platform enabling bridges between the teams to achieve global validation and optimisation.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges, and yet essential for the success of LTE deployments, is for MNOs to validate their network prior to rollout. MNOs need to be aware that they can’t roll out an LTE network with the same tools and methodology they used on 3G. With growing LTE complexity, CAPEX and OPEX will explode if nothing changes in the approach. For example, Drive Tests are a major cost for MNOs. Continuing with the same philosophy regarding Drive Tests on LTE as MNOs had on 3G will result in a further increase of deployment and optimisation costs, with no guarantee of results. MNOs need to minimise Drive Tests by doing more validation in the lab.
Self Organising Networks (SON) are being increasingly relied on and are highly promising features for MNOs, however there are still many questions for the validation of SON solutions. To fulfil the full operational cost saving potential from implementing SON functions, test methods and metrics need to accurately reflect user experience to be considered reliable.
Network validation with network emulation
An accurate, efficient and global approach to validate and measure key network parameters is critical. Due to the ‘on-the-go’ nature of LTE-enabled devices, and the network implications of multiple new technologies, services and deployments, MNOs must emulate their networks prior to rollout, imitating multiple UE, mobile characteristics and signal activity, as well as ensuring their networks function to the required standard of quality and performance. To maximise on the potential that LTE networks bring as the industry evolves, validation and measurement methods and KPIs need to evolve alongside them, or MNOs run the risk of their CAPEX and OPEX increasing dramatically.
In order to save costs, the future of network validation and optimisation is in the lab. Lab testing using a network emulator allows MNOs to manage and reproduce real life conditions in a controlled environment with realistic traffic mixes, radio and mobility conditions, which will enable them to realise the full capability and saving potential of the network, and avoid the risk of launching prematurely. Using this approach, networks can be fully optimised without the investment required for expensive field testing. The field effect can be reproduced in a controlled environment, speeding up the trouble shooting and optimisation time. Problems in the network can be identified before being eliminated and the network revalidated against the same test conditions.
With a network emulator, MNOs benefit from:
- A way to accurately model the external environment (thousands of users, radio frequency conditions, traffic mixes, and mobility, with connection to real network elements)
- A methodology of reporting relevant KPIs that help identify and solve many issues
- A way to minimise Drive Test by a factor of 50%
- A way to reduce field trial time by six and costs by 50%
Looking to the future – advice for MNOs
As MNOs move to adopt LTE they need to be sure they buy the network equipment that meets their business objectives depending on their network environment, user expectations and the way their users consume data. With multiple vendors offering multiple solutions, having a way to benchmark the vendors will reduce trial time by a factor of six and OPEX by 50%.
To save time and minimise costs MNOs need to fully validate their networks in the lab in a reproducible, controlled environment prior to rollout. With the right tool and processes in place, MNOs can thoroughly test network performance and preempt any potential problems in any scenario.
The future of LTE could be very bright for both consumers and businesses. With increasing interoperability and the cloud enabling fast access anywhere, MNOs need to be prepared to collaborate to handle the pressure and address user experience requirements.
LTE is the vehicle carrying the ongoing load brought on the network by a combination of new services and bandwidth-hungry applications. One thing is certain – bandwidth demand is only going to increase and the networks have to cope with that pressure. The investments MNOs must make are huge. The reward for satisfying and delighting their customers are also high. But equally important is the penalty of failure. They must be sure of where they invest, to get the best returns. This is why Real Life Network Emulation is becoming essential, more than ever before.
LTE technology holds the future for the mobile world we all want. LTE actually stands for Long Term Evolution. But perhaps in the planning stage it should stand for Let’s Test Efficiently.
Yannick Dupuch is CEO at ERCOM, based in Paris, France