Tackling the Mobile Data Storm -Survey says Network Planning Bottlenecks an Issue

By Peter Bernstein August 07, 2012

I plead guilty to being one of those industry observers obsessed with the subject of the coming data storm heading mobile service providers way, and commenting on strategies/options that service providers need to adopt to batten down the hatches. 

Let’s start with the observation that unlike the destruction wrought by acts of Mother Nature, which are as unpredictable as they are devastating, we all know what is coming. In fact, below is a chart that gets reproduced early and often in such discussions. 

The chart comes courtesy of my good friends who produce Cisco’s Visual Networking Index (VNI), which if you are not aware of is something that you might wish to bookmark.   In a word it says, “YIKES!”

 So we know there is a challenge. The chart illustrates that a 20 times increase in data traffic is expected to flow over mobile networks in the next few years. Complicating matters is that it will be a result of the increased use of video on smartphones and tablets. This raises important questions. What are service providers doing about this to prepare? Are they really ready for the task at hand?

Those are questions that Amdocs tasked the research group Rethink Technology Research to find out, and the results are illuminating.

The survey says… 

Below some of the highlights of the survey, Managing the new mobile data network. It covered a global sample of over 65 mobile and converged Tier 1 and Tier 2 service providers and was conducted between April-May 2012, based on an e-mail questionnaire followed up by telephone interviews.

At a high level the study found that service providers are planning to deploy millions of small cells to increase network capacity to handle capacity issues by putting the network closer to heavy users, and to take advantage of Wi-Fi offload opportunities. The good news is that such plans are in the works with 59 percent of service providers expecting to deploy at least 10 times more small cells by 2017 than in 2011. The not so good news is that almost half (47 percent) say the lack of network planning resources is the biggest challenge facing them today, leading to rollout delays.

Other key findings noted in the release of the survey were:

  • Huge increase in mobile data capacity needed: 94 percent of service providers are planning for 20-fold growth or more by 2017. Of these, 24 percent foresee 50-fold growth.
  • New technologies such as 4G and LTE are only part of the solution: All service providers said that the latest 4G and LTE technologies would deliver only part of the efficiencies required. To optimize network performance, they will need sophisticated new network planning and management tools in addition to technologies that are part of the LTE specification, such as Self-Organizing Networks.
  • Network investment continues to grow: 50 percent of service providers expect to increase their capital expenditure by 10-20 percent between 2012 and 2017 and 23 percent plan to increase it by even more. None expect to reduce their capital spending.
  • Wi-Fi offloading expected to help ease data burden: 88 percent of service providers expect to offer Wi-Fi as part of their mobile services by 2016, with 22 percent anticipating they will have Wi-Fi integrated into at least half of their cell sites by the end of 2017.

 Caroline Gabriel, research director at Rethink Technology Research’s take on this was that service providers recognize that the move to 4G LTE at the macro cellular level is only part of solution for addressing the bandwidth problem. In addition, she noted that: “The solution is small cells, which are perfect for boosting capacity and coverage in fixed locations, but the need to add millions of new cells has created a network planning bottleneck and service providers need to find smarter planning tools to speed the process.”

The need to (pardon the expression) rethink how to plan and then execute small cell deployments given all of the moving parts and network modifications that will need to be made was amplified by Rebecca Prudhomme, Amdocs vice president of product and solutions marketing. Prudhomme stated that:  “With service provider budgets under increasing pressure, the huge number of small cell deployments represents a significant investment…They will need to rely on sophisticated and flexible network planning approaches to maximize efficiency and automation in order to remain competitive.”

The lack of internal expertise to deal with the complexities of small cell deployments — which amongst a long list of things includes optimizing the radio network architecture in general, complying with local zoning requirements, placing small cells where power is accessible and connectivity to backhaul —in non-trivial in terms of operators being able to please their customers. They are going to need help which is why Amdocs and Alcatel-Lucent with its recent lightRadio Metro Cell Express offering, are working with service providers to ease the pain and path to enabling efficient, effective and timely small cell deployments. 

There are also the questions that need to be addressed about business models, the mix of cellular versus Wi-Fi from a competitive perspective as OTTs and cable companies look to expand their own network reach, and the other tsunami heading everyone’s way regarding the explosion of signaling traffic on Diameter networks caused by the proliferation of applications on all of those smart devices.

Are the service providers aware of the challenges? Yes. Are they ready for what lies ahead? They can be. This is going to take a lot of rethinking on the planning side and help. Reality is that mobile operators do not just need to ride out the storm, they can and should be able to prosper based on the opportunities small cell deployments represent.  

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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