InfoVista looks at mobile backhaul performance challenges
Mobile backhaul is already a massive challenge for mobile network operators today, as the demand for coverage and capacity that can handle data has exploded at a breakneck pace over the past several years. Assuring quality is only poised to become even more difficult with the onset of new convergent technologies and the brewing-storm that is widespread “5G” adoption on the horizon.
Mobile traffic trends
According to the June 2015 Ericsson Mobility Traffic Report, LTE mobile subscribers will show a growth of 40% compound annual growth rate from 2014 to 2020. It’s expected 3G networks will still be the dominant access technology by 2020 – and 2G will still be common in many developing regions – but new connectivity networks will also be coming online in the next few years that will put greater pressure on the already pressed global market.
The gap between traffic and revenue
The problem with this proliferation of data usage in relation to backhaul is the financial pressures that are already weighing heavily upon network provider capabilities. Despite accounting for almost 85% of network usage, data accounts for only 40% of network revenue.
An even more startling picture of the gap between traffic capacity and revenue comes to light when considering from 2008 to 2013, data traffic grew 46-times over while revenue from data over the same period only saw a three-fold increase.
The fact LTE networks natively don’t carry voice traffic is a contributing factor to the challenges network operators face when dealing with this traffic explosion. Providers need to find a way to share investments being made into LTE backhaul with voice (circuit-switched) services, while making sure this reallocation can still assure quality of service in a convergent scenario.
The real test for network providers is going to come with the arrival of 5G. The challenge stems from the fact not only will more customers the world over demand data-centric plans, but the bandwidth needs are on track to balloon well beyond current network capabilities. Research has indicated peak bandwidth per device may reach up to 1 gigabit per second on average, which is much greater magnitude than what LTE networks can deliver today.
If that was not enough, new 5G use cases such as “tactile Internet” will require extreme real-time communications, demanding backhaul networks deliver end-to-end latency as low as 5 milliseconds, which is an order of magnitude less than what the best LTE networks can deliver today.
What it means for tomorrow’s backhaul networks
It’s not as if existing “legacy” networks can be simply replaced or deactivated. In fact, mobile operators face a scenario where network complexity will only increase in the long run, as next-generation LTE and 5G access networks are coming down the pipeline. That, in turn, means legacy networks will co-exist with new technologies for the foreseeable future, adding yet another dimension to network operations that engineering teams need to handle when operating and assuring the quality of the network.
In fact, because of all these factors combined, mobile backhaul operations are becoming larger and less predictable to manage with traditional tools. In the past, 2G networks were predominantly voice-oriented and deployed on top of traditional, extremely reliable TDM/SDH backhauls. In 3G, we often see hybrid deployments where TDM/SDH co-exist with IP/MPLS, ATM and even Ethernet-based backhauls.
The arrival of LTE, LTE-Advanced and newer technologies such as voice over LTE heralded some more drastic changes to the way operators approached backhaul. Many mobile operators decided to migrate the entire backhaul to fully convergent technologies such as IP/MPLS and carrier Ethernet, effectively transporting all voice and data traffic on top of packet-switched networks.
With a larger and less predictable backhaul to manage, “up” or “down” indicators became evidently insufficient. The very fact different backhaul domains (access, aggregation, metro) and even different backhaul network layers could greatly affect each other’s performance – as well as the overall quality of service parameters – meant monitoring and troubleshooting the mobile backhaul with multiple disconnected tools became impractical.
The perspective: if the mobile backhaul already looks complex today – being composed of a litany of vendors, technologies and topologies – it will become even more complex, with both real and virtual networks devices poised to coexist in 5G software-defined networking and network functions virtualization native architectures – not to mention new network architectures will need to co-exist with the legacy for a long time. After all, subscribers by 2020 will still rely on 2G and 3G to access for both data and voice services.
How to deliver on future mobile backhaul expectations
From whatever angle you look at it, mobile backhaul is becoming larger and more complex to manage in the coming years. Yet, as daunting as this forecast for the next few years may seem for mobile operators, there are tools available that will help mobile operators support this increasing complexity while maintaining exceptional QoS.
Real-time, multi-layer troubleshooting – the ability to monitor all layers of the mobile backhaul in real-time – will play a key role in managing voice and data quality of experience in the new mobile landscape, reducing time to repair and increasing network uptime.
Providers will also need to rely on automated network topology discovery. A modern performance management tool must automatically handle these changes, so that the network operations center and software operations center can actually focus on monitoring the network, rather than expending time and energy manually cross checking and correcting grouped KPIs.
Equally important is to have end-to-end cross-domain visibility, where operation teams can see the performance of the radio access network, backhaul and core in one single plane of glass. This is also important to enable different teams (ex: RAN and transport) to work together and accelerate the time to resolution of these more complex cross-domain scenarios.
And with network capacity expectations on pace to boom, providers need to always be ahead of the game and have a plan for future fluxes in capacity. A performance management tool will need to monitor traffic KPIs evolutions and trends, extrapolate historical data and act proactively to adjust (right-size) backhaul links as they see fit.
Ultimately, a unified performance management tool can help operators increase the quality of experience of mobile subscribers, resulting in less churn and revenue protection. It also brings a series of other capital expense and operating expense gains, with a reduction in the number of tools and their associated costs.
In fact, these business benefits can be quantified and measured, and past experience has shown even more complex performance assurance consolidation projects can pay for themselves (return on investment) in 12 to 24 months (depending on the case).
Some mobile operators are reluctant to make the investment, in part thinking traditional assurance practices and tools they have used up until today can handle the job. But as we discussed, the network size and complexity, as well its statistical behavior, will demand the adoption of modern unified performance management tools.
If that was not enough, there are clear business benefits in doing so, resulting in a clear ROI for the investment. Even for those mobile operators with capex restrictions, there are windows of opportunity to make this necessary move, especially in view of new cloud-based performance management solutions that allow operators to switch to an opex-based model and expedite the ROI even further.
Those mobile operators that act decisively will prosper; those that hesitate are likely to find themselves playing catch up.
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