Optical/IP Networks

Can SON Relieve 4G Broadband Opex Pressures?

The short answer is yes – probably – and for that reason, self-organizing network (SON) technology is high on the list of must-haves for many soon-to-be-desperate 4G mobile operators drowning in network complexity.

Operating multi-band, multi-mode and multi-standard networks will shortly be the order of the day for mature market operators. Add to that complex Long Term Evolution (LTE) deployments using femtocells, picocells, indoor cells and a host of new 4G devices, and you have a strong operational cocktail bound to give many mobile broadband CTOs a serious hangover. No wonder SON spells relief.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple task of installing a 4G base station. With SON plug-and-play, LTE radio equipment can be installed in minutes rather than hours. To plan networks and optimize performance, operators tune hundreds or even thousands of radio parameters for each base station – another task that SON promises to do away with through automation. And SON proponents already have a solution for service blackouts: Detect the blackout and tilt neighboring antennas to cover the blacked-out zone. It is called self-healing, and it already exists – at least in theory. All this is intended to reduce the rising cost of operating mobile broadband networks.

According to the latest Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider, "SON: A Paradigm Shift in 4G Network Operations," opex must be cut soon, otherwise 4G operators could be in trouble or forced to consolidate further. Perhaps the strongest SON proponents can be found within the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance of operators and vendors. The NMGN has produced a list of 32 use cases – specific operational applications – that they would like SON to sort out. Meanwhile, the 3GPP is working hard trying to standardize SON, and it has been at least in part successful, although the advance of SON is still seriously challenged. Nobody is sure what final architectural form SON should eventually take, and 3GPP standards are sketchy and suggestive. The standards roadmap is thus far only loosely laid out.

Meanwhile, a slew of purported SON vendors are pushing SON hard. For the telecom layman – and even for the expert – it can be hard to discern what is and what is not SON, and some have cleverly jumped on the SON bandwagon pitching all manner of SON-related 4G systems.

Although many companies may be trying, today's SON market is ruled by the big LTE systems vendors – Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Nokia Networks , Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and their ilk – and smaller companies have little chance of being allowed in. Some are trying to occupy a technological SON niche – probably in the hopes of being acquired by one of the networking giants – and full marks to that entrepreneurial spirit.

So where is SON headed? The big vision, pushed by the NGMN and others, heralds SON as the basis for autonomous 4G networks using self-configuration, self-optimization, self-healing and self-whatever-else-you-need. But it may take a long time before the utopia of a "zero-operations 4G network" materializes, if ever. Meanwhile, the buzz surrounding SON – and a very eager SON vendor community – is still very much keeping the drive alive.

— Claus Hetting, Contributing Analyst, 4G/LTE Insider

This report,"SON: A Paradigm Shift in 4G Network Operations," is available as part of an annual subscription (6 issues per year) to Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.heavyreading.com/4glte.

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