In recent months we at Mobile Europe have noted an increasing amount of noise around the automation of network processes - whether that's for planning, optimisation or management. In this guest post, Thomas Neubauer, Managing Director of Symena, an AIRCOM company, explains why automation will be essential for the efficient and economical operation of LTE networks and where automated processes can deliver the most value.
Network automation - a necessity for LTE
With the massive investment and rising customer expectations around 4G capabilities, operators must ensure that LTE delivers on its promises – and as profitably as possible.
LTE represents new technology and completely new thinking. It introduces network design parameters that haven’t existed with previous 2G and 3G network evolutions. Operators must also contend with the changing pace of the network lifecycle. In the past, operators could undertake network planning, deployment and optimisation sequentially. Owing to the current demands placed on network infrastructure and the rising expectations of mobile users, this is no longer possible.
Automating these fundamental network processes and functions has become vital in enabling operators to react to rapidly changing network circumstances and deliver optimum network performance. These new levels of network automation will become commonplace across LTE networks as operators look to drive operational efficiency. Operators will have the ability to automate key network design and configuration processes that will be instrumental in maximising LTE network coverage and capacity. This includes identifying where advances such as MIMO can have the biggest impact, how active multiband antennas and different offload techniques can be leveraged.
Delivering on LTE’s promises
The advantages LTE delivers are well known. The technology is spectrum efficient, carries lower transmission costs, delivers higher network throughput and at lower latency. For all of these attributes to be properly maximised, however, operators will need to adopt many new radio network design parameters.
As the latest iteration from the GSM family of technologies, LTE is directly compatible with GSM, UMTS, W-CDMA and HSPA. LTE is being launched in dense urban areas, with operators looking to create 4G hotspots on top of legacy 2G and 3G networks. This is leading to increasingly complex investment roadmaps. As a result, operators must adopt a multi-standard access network strategy that can support all these technologies, including CDMA, in unison. This must also include provision for innovative new hardware, such as software defined radio (SDR) base stations, and MIMO, to maximise network performance.
Managing all these network parameters and configurations manually is simply not viable; operators have to look to automate network optimisation processes. This is especially true given the fact that most new LTE radio products incorporate self-configuration and self-optimisation features. These have the potential to further simplify network rollouts, reduce costs and allow a network to effectively re-tune itself. Some of these features, such as Automatic Neighbour Relations (ANR), are already in use, with many more expected to be adopted as network architectures mature in the future. It is therefore essential that these capabilities are taken into consideration in the early LTE planning phases to ensure they can be maximised to drive optimal network performance.
Changing nature of the network lifecycle
LTE interconnects network planning, deployment and optimisation phases – each influencing the other and taking place simultaneously. This creates challenges in relation to how the radio antennas are managed and how the network traffic is managed to ensure the network is adaptive to rapidly changing conditions.
The biggest advantage of LTE is its flexibility and ability to adapt to unknowns during deployments. However, in order to take advantage of all the available options, operators need to have the capability to plan and optimise the radio configuration for the adaptive modulation and coding techniques. This will ensure that the network is always delivering the maximum throughput and capacity under any given conditions. It is essential that this adaptability is considered from the inception of the network design to ensure flexibility is available where and when it is needed.
Managing radio antennas
Operators deploying LTE already have 2G and or 3G networks that are using individual or shared multiband antennas. Shared multiband antennas enable individual electrical tilts for each band as a means to target network coverage and capacity where it is needed most. New active antenna innovation offers the potential for LTE capabilities to be added to this multiband equation as a means for operators to maximise existing investment and drive spectrum efficiency. To achieve this, however, operators must plan all of the radio networks in tandem, to ensure they are fully optimised.
This is also true for operators contemplating MIMO for its network capacity gains. MIMO promises massive gains that are however highly sensitive to network interference. Crucially, MIMO has a role to play in helping operators maximising network throughput and capacity, but these benefits can only be realised if its deployment is preceded by careful planning and optimisation.
Managing network traffic
The second challenge associated with LTE deployments, and arguably the largest, is managing the network traffic. This includes how the traffic grows, how it is distributed and how it is shared.
Operators have to accommodate an ever increasing complex traffic mix that is not only different in markets across the globe but also changes due to local network demands. In addition, the nature of the local traffic determines a number of management and optimisation options that need to be considered and managed. These include the handover between different radio networks, the offloading capabilities, and which services can be shared by the various radio technologies.
Automation is a necessity, not a luxury
Automating key planning and configuration processes is an absolute necessity if operators are to drive optimal network performance – maximising coverage, capacity and quality.
Not only can automation drive performance improvements of more than 25 per cent versus manual configuration, it can also reduce network planning timescales by up to 80 per cent. Combined with the performance improvements, network automation can also reduce capital expenditures significantly by squeezing more out the investments, and operational costs by more than 30 per cent due to process automation.
Operators are being forced to accommodate rising complexity in network technology and architecture. They must also continue to innovate and fend off intense competition. The goal is to deliver differentiated service quality that will enable them to retain customers. Network automation delivers the operational efficiency that operators need to maintain market share and boost profitability.