Mobile operators suffer from an average of five network outages or degradations that impact subscribers each year, costing them around $15 billion annually, according to new Heavy Reading research.
Put another way, that's about one outage every other month. More than 80 percent of those outages affect just one or a subset of networks or services. But given that operators are losing customers and spending an average of 1.5 percent of their annual revenues -- with some as high as 5 percent -- trying to rectify outages, the cause for concern is understandable. (See Outage Outrage.)
Heavy Reading 's new report, Mobile Network Outages & Service Degradations: A Heavy Reading Survey Analysis, looks at what causes outages, why they happen, and what can be done. These are issues that are becoming more pressing for operators as they roll out LTE networks for which expectations are high. (See LTE Brings Myriad Security Concerns and Can Mobile Networks Cope?)
According to Heavy Reading senior analyst and report author Patrick Donegan, the most common causes are physical link failures, network congestion or overloading, and network failures. A chip might melt if the air conditioning breaks, the power could go out, or equipment could break.
What surprised Donegan, who has been studying the mobile security market, was that malicious attacks didn't feature prominently as a cause of network outages. In fact, most operators ranked it last on the list of causes. That may not mean those attacks aren't happening -- operators, even those with network security experts on staff, just don't always have network visibility that is granular enough to discern every root cause.
"Part of the reason for that is many operators actually have little or no visibility of the malicious traffic in the network," Donegan says. "When they do have incidents, often they are not actually aware if it may have been a malicious attack that caused it."
Applications on the network trigger a lot of signaling traffic, and the operator can't always distinguish if that traffic is being generated by a benign form of behavior or protocols or whether it's malicious traffic caused by an outside attacker, Donegan adds. This is something the operators surveyed readily admitted. One commented:
We often have no clear understanding of outages and degradations and what causes them, and our RAN vendors often don't understand either.
To some degree, occasional outages are inevitable when operating a network, but Donegan says there are things the operators can do to minimize and understand the impact. First and foremost is to employ high-caliber people at both the operator and their primary infrastructure vendors and then make sure the two are communicating well. Reaction times can be unnecessarily long when the two are inadequately trained or not communicating.
"There may be one kink in that chain of communication, and you have the potential to cause a network incidence," Donegan says.
Donegan and Heavy Reading will be discussing more ways to gain insight into network outages and prevent malicious attacks at the upcoming Mobile Network Security Strategies, a Light Reading Live event that takes place on December 5, 2013 at the Westin Times Square Hotel in New York City. For more information, or to register, click here.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading