Here is the worst-kept secret in the entire telecoms industry: small cells are going to play a critical role in network evolutions over the next several years. A lesser-known reality is that, as a direct consequence of the growing number of small cells deployments, the lines between network planning and network optimization are blurring. They will no longer be two separate, distinct processes handled by different teams. Instead, they will become one process – network planning and optimization – as they are inextricably linked. This unified process will act as a foundation for a more proactive and agile approach to managing mobile networks, with small cell deployments at the heart of it all.
There once was a good reason for the distinction between network planning and network optimization — the workflows were based around different sets of engineering software that often required a long series of manual steps. The focus was mainly on delivering network coverage to high-paying customers and reactive issue resolution. Today, we see a different story. The main goal for network planning and optimization efforts is to help mobile operators cost-effectively deliver the quality of experience (QoE) that customers expect in order to reduce churn. Mobile operators also need to match rapidly changing customer demands with adequate capacity. They face the dual challenge of managing the evolution to large, multi-technology networks while also controlling OPEX costs. As network complexity increases, mobile operators need unified systems rather than individual tools for specific tasks — systems that provide properly synchronized network data and plans across multiple technologies, and instant and accurate views of network coverage, quality and performance throughout the whole network lifecycle.
Mobile networks are evolving at a rapid-fire pace unlike anything we have ever seen before because subscriber expectations and demands for data are increasing like never before. While dealing with the challenges associated with constant network evolution, it is important to remember that this is actually a very good thing. Mobile operators have been raising the bar in terms of quality of service (QoS) and QoE to better serve their customers. As a result, subscribers are using more mobile data and expecting fewer service interruptions. They continue to raise their own expectations, and while the ever-growing adoption of mobile services in society is a great cause for celebration, it also means that there’s no time for mobile operators to rest on their laurels — especially when over-the-top (OTT) services threaten their revenues.
With the right platform, mobile operators and RF engineering teams can get direct access to up-to-date network intelligence, allowing them to automatically generate usage and coverage simulations based on current network intelligence. The network planning and optimization process can be streamlined so that new capacity and technology deployments are made strategically, at the right times and in the right places. This allows operators to leverage predicted traffic loads based on the traffic development in the network, and gives them the opportunity to identify evolving hotspots and prevent issues in the network before they are noticed by subscribers. Such a proactive approach is critical if mobile operators expect to improve QoE and stand out among their competition, while improved accuracy in network analyses and shorter turnaround time leads to both CAPEX and OPEX savings.
Like I mentioned earlier, customer expectations are growing, and as network technologies advance and networks become more complex, the network planning and optimization processes will become one and the same.
So where do small cells fit into all of this? While micro, pico and femto cells have been around for a while, it’s only in the last few years that small cells have really risen to prominence as a tool for mobile operators to substantially expand their network capacity and improve their coverage. Operators in all markets are showing interest in various small cells solutions, spanning from residential solutions to large deployments of outdoor metro cells. For example, mobile operators in Korea have focused early on LTE small cells, while major US carriers like Verizon and AT&T have outlined their plans to deploy large numbers of small cells in 2014 and beyond, and others are guaranteed to follow suit.
We already know that small cells are capable of expanding network capacity and coverage, in turn enabling operators to deliver a better level of service and user experience, provided they are used in an efficient manner. Analysys Mason estimates that moving forward three to four small cells will be deployed per macro cell and other estimates go even higher. And there’s the link between network planning and optimization and small cells. Small cells and heterogeneous networks (HetNets) will be much more complicated to manage and, without a unified network planning and optimization approach, OPEX will skyrocket. Essentially, the prevalence of small cells is causing the lines between network planning and network optimization to blur, making a single, unified process all the more critical.
The reality is that mobile technologies and networks are constantly evolving. There isn’t a beginning and an end in the traditional sense. And, no matter how well operators plan their networks, the need for network optimization will always exist as subscriber bases grow, their usage behaviors change and their expectations increase. This non-stop evolution means that network planning and optimization must be an ongoing endeavor following a strategy that is regularly updated to address increasing subscriber expectations and technology enhancements operators are facing.
This brings us back to the relationship between network planning, network optimization and small cells. Small cells are one of the best solutions available today for mobile operators to expand their networks and simultaneously improve QoS and QoE for their customers. But, in order to reap those benefits, mobile operators must unite the siloed network planning and network optimization tools into a single network planning and optimization system that engineering teams can use to fuel the strategic deployment of small cells.