Driving drive testing into the future

Features

One way mobile operators test the coverage and capacity of their networks is by the drive test. This literally involves a man in a van with a couple of test mobiles sending and receiving calls and a laptop recording what's going on. If you add in some complex algorithms to test certain frequency aspects of the call, you can gain some insight into the actual quality of the call (essentially its audibility) as a user might experience it as well.

The problem is for the operators, most quality audits are carried out as you might an accounting audit. That is on a campaign, one-off basis. So for two weeks or a month or so there is intensive activity, often carried out on a mobile operator's behalf by a test or quality assurance or network specialist. What this then gives the operators is a snap shot at a particular time of lots of different locations. So, for instance, we know that the coverage and call quality on the A40 at 2pm on Friday was this, but what was it like at 5pm, or the next day? We don't know. Because our man in the van has moved on.
The other problem is that it is also a relatively expensive way to carry on, which is why most operators restrict such activity to infrequent campaigns.
So now one company, Sensustech, which is part of network infrastructure specialist Alan Dick has developed a solution that it says "industrialises the process". Sensustech has developed a little black box, no more than 10x15cm that incorporates a combined GSM/GPRS/GPS module. This box, Sensustech says, can be installed cheaply in any number of fixed or mobile locations. For instance, a bus, taxi, or postal fleet could be equipped.

The boxes carry out functions as a test mobile might, making and receiving voice or data calls and recording the quality --- and can be remotely programmed to behave as the operator requires. For instance, an operator could programme in heavy call activity to simulate peak conditions, or instruct the unit to activate when it is within certain locations, using the GPS capability to pinpoint that location. The information is buffered and then sent back to a back-end server over GPRS. Or in the case of a GSM-only network a disc can be physically removed.
Sensustech claims there are several benefits. The first is cost. The company claims the boxes would come in at around 5-10% of the cost of a traditional drive test campaign on a like for like basis. Secondly, the operator can receive information continuously, all year round, giving it a complete picture rather than a snapshot. If a post van drives a route every day, in theory an operator could collect statistics for that route every day rather than just once. The units can also collect information on all the networks present in a location, without the operators themselves being able to do anything about it. All that is required is the relevant SIM.

This then gives the operators the potential to harvest large amounts of competitive information about call quality on their rivals' networks.
Robin Burton, head of marketing at Sensustech, says that the solution fits right into many of the current concerns of operators. One is that operators in saturated markets are beginning to compete on quality --- and claims and counter-claims about network quality are often contentious. Monitoring on this scale, and he envisages thousands of devices going into a network, could prove or disprove many of those claims. As an aside, Burton claims that a couple of regulators have expressed interest in the technology, for carrying out their own independent verification that operators are meeting license service requirements.
Burton is also keen to emphasise that the solution has implications beyond the technical staff within an operator. He wants to grab the attention of the marketing department, the product management people who may exploit the value of the information provided. One example would be being able to provide proof to a corporate customer of the superiority of your coverage or inferiority of a competitors in certain key locations.
At the moment Sensustech is still in early trials with operators, or at the talking about trials stage with others, but it has completed a large amount of Beta trialling to define the product and claims it has always met with positive response within operators. Its place within the AlanDick company means it can draw on that company's global presence, scale and network knowledge. Burton envisages the company initially bidding for the network quality assurance contracts that operators award, which AlanDick already bids for, combining the automated approach with a certain amount of targeted drive testing.

It should be pointed out the solution has no diagnostics capability, it can only flag where there are problems. But then the operators have a clearer idea where to send their technical staff from where it can carry out diagnostics and take corrective action. Also, as yet, the back end server that collects and processes all the data is stand-alone, meaning it is not integrated with existing network management and fault management views. Burton said the plan was to proceed with such integration in the future.
Another potential drawback will be operators getting nervous about who is getting the information. Burton admitted that several have hinted at some sort of exclusive arrangement, stopping Sensustech working with their competitors, but Burton said exclusivity was "not likely although not impossible".
Sensustech is launching publicly at 3GSM, with a presence on the Alan Dick stand. Burton, known to many in the industry for his former role with billing specialist Cerillion thinks his new stable has a winner, and Mobile Europe wouldn't bet against it. With a bit of technical integration and lateral thinking, operators could do a lot with a cheap means of collecting so much network information.