Operators Push for LTE Automation
Mobile operators want LTE networks to be self-configuring and self-optimizing. To use the technical term, they want Self-Organizing Networks (SONs), which covers a range of automated management tools for network planning, deployment, operation, and optimization. (See Self-Organizing Networks & LTE.)
Vendors, though, can only meet some of their demands in early product releases.
Operators are serious about SONs now because they can potentially reduce network operating costs in the next-generation mobile broadband networks. Stuck in a situation where service revenues are not keeping up with the surge in data traffic on their networks, operators are forced to find opex savings wherever possible.
In addition, rolling out LTE will pile on the complexity for carriers' network operations, because they'll have to configure and optimize at least three different networks: 2G, 3G, and LTE. Operators want better tools to handle that complexity.
Tarek Salem, head of automation and tools at T-Mobile International AG , made it quite clear what operators want from SONs by putting up a blank PowerPoint slide in his presentation at the LTE World Summit in Berlin last week.
"The starting point is nothing," he said. "No effort in planning, no effort in optimization. This is something a machine can do for us and something it can do much better than us."
At the same conference, Marc Fossier, executive VP of corporate and social responsibility and former Group CTO at Orange (NYSE: FTE), called for more work to be done on SON standardization.
"SONs could save opex," he said. "But [they're] still to be developed."
But disappointment looms for carriers, because they won't get all the SON features they want in the first releases of LTE equipment. Equipment vendors will add features over time, in stages.
"What the operators want is very difficult to provide," says Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown. "Operators want everything, but it's hard to develop. That's why SONs will be implemented in phases."
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body has already started work on SON specifications for LTE. Some features are included in the recently approved set of specifications, called Release 8, while others are earmarked for future releases.
Two of the early features operators will get sooner rather than later are base station auto-configuration and automatic neighbor relations (ANR), which detects nearby cell sites and makes the required adjustments to suit the network topology.
In T-Mobile's vision, an LTE macro base station should be as easy to install as a femtocell, according to Salem.
"There should be no pre-planning sites," he said. "Once installed, an [eNodeB] automatically connects to the network… The site is auto-configured."
Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) demonstrated some SON capabilities in the first release of its WBR500 LTE base station, which is due out later this year, at the Berlin conference. Motorola's first LTE equipment will automatically discover neighboring cells (the ANR feature), reconfigure around network failures, and automatically optimize radio parameters. (See Moto Launches SON for LTE.)
Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) is also striving to deliver on SONs. "We think this is incredibly important to minimize opex and guarantee high quality of service," says Thomas Norén, head of the LTE product line at Ericsson, adding that the Swedish vendor will also support ANR and base station auto-configuration in its first LTE product releases.
And there's more to SONs than just adding intelligence to LTE base stations. According to Heavy Reading's Brown, SONs are in many ways an extension of a vendor's network management systems.
Marc Rouanne, head of radio access at Nokia Networks , told Unstrung that the vendor is adding SON capabilities into its WCDMA as well as LTE equipment, but stressed the importance its NetAct operations support system (OSS) will play.
"The other thing we see is that a lot of customers are demanding, not only SON capabilities, but also network management capabilities," he said. (See Nokia Siemens Bags OSS Smarts .)
As LTE develops, Brown says, there will be a need for operators to add a centralized SON node to manage the SON tools across multiple vendors' equipment.
— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung