By Phil Bull, Product Marketing Manager at Amdocs
With more people consuming large amounts of data on their smartphones there is a growing gap between the amount of spectrum and network capacity available today.
The overall challenge facing operators is the lack of human resource to plan both short- and long-term solutions within the same time frame.
I say solutions because no single solution will be enough – a combination of 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi will be required to unclog networks.
At the same time the majority of operators – especially those in developed markets – have done little large-scale network planning for several years.
It is not that the skills have been lost but the systems in place need urgent review.
The problem therefore hinges on how to roll out and manage a heterogenous network that comprises a macro layer for wide umbrella coverage, and a separate layer of small cells, often in a different band, to handle high capacity hot spots.
Specifically this means planning for a huge growth in small cells, which will rapidly outnumber traditional macro-cells by a factor of 10:1.
Small cells, which will be such a dominant feature of mobile data networks, present both familiar and new planning challenges compared to traditional cell sites.
These can be broadly grouped into four categories.
- Finding sites in the right position and planning their location relative to each other and other networks - securing small cell sites in the right location was rated as the most urgent challenge by 24% of respondents to a survey carried out by Rethink Technology Research.
- Planning backhaul for small cell sites
- Reporting effectively to support intelligent data delivery
- Integration with the macro and core networks without interference - small cell network interference is a major concern for operators as a macro cell radius is about 200 metres while small cells radius is about 30 metres. This leaves a challenge as distances of under 50 metres add little capacity but plenty of interference. Another issue is how close the small cells are to competitor networks that can result in inhibiting phone signals.
Further, cost management is key when operators increase their Radio Access Network (RAN) and backhaul capacity so massively and rapidly.
The typical operator forecasts only a 5-10 percent increase in its backhaul capex budget, and up to 20 percent in the RAN, while opex constraints will be even tighter.
These factors will make it essential to the business case that the new networks can be managed flexibly and efficiently, to deliver the greatest possible capacity where it is needed, and with a high level of automation - hence the intense interest in tools to reduce the manual overhead of planning and running networks, or to allocate capacity more efficiently.
Indeed, the requirement for improved network planning is pressing if service providers are to avoid the risks of turning to manual planning method that often attempt to collate the required data on basic office tools such as spreadsheets.
The new tools required include planning and dimensioning tools specifically geared to small cell and mature self-organising network (SON) tools.
There are other frameworks that need to be in place to deliver affordable small cell backhaul options and a legal framework for leasing small cell sites.
With service provider budgets under increasing pressure, the huge number of small cell deployments represents a significant investment.
They will need to rely on sophisticated and flexible network planning approaches to maximise efficiency and automation in order to remain competitive and to map capacity to returns.