This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of NGN.
Mobile broadband will undoubtedly be the dominant communications technology of the future. It is both the evolution of mobile narrowband, and the evolution of the Internet.
Practically speaking, and with the exception of a relatively few advanced Western economies, far more people will have access to mobile broadband than to fixed broadband. Even in places like Korea, Europe, and North America where fixed broadband is prevalent, mobile broadband will offer a significantly different experience – one of real-time interactivity, convenience, mobility (duh) and location relevance.
In my last column, I looked at the economics of mobile broadband, including the concerns over congestion and cost per megabyte delivered, but also the larger issue of creating plans that appeal to people with very different budgets, needs and usage patterns. In that I argued that one size fits none and encouraged the industry to create a range of plans that were at once attractive, affordable, and profitable.
This month I want to look at what it takes to operate these networks. They will be very different from fixed networks and traditional 2G/2.5G mobile networks that are dominated by channelized voice and by messaging – with some data services included. And, instructions are not included for those at the forefront of the mobile interactivity revolution.
Mobile broadband networks can be characterized by four important qualities: They are IP. They are contested (shared bandwidth). They support a multitude of VoIP, data, video, and application services. And, finally, in being mobile, they have a demand function that varies according to time and place. Collectively, these have profound implications on performance, management, capacity, cost and pricing.
We need to rethink our notions of service assurance, failures, outages and the like. IP is simultaneously more robust (via automatic re-routing) and more easily degraded (via latency that begins to build quickly even when a network is far below full capacity). Tomorrow’s assurance systems need to look both at network performance threshold, many of which are in place, but also at end-to-end services individually.
Next, IP wireless cells are shared bandwidth, contested among many users and potentially even more services. The nature of IP conspires with bandwidth contention to make things messy and more difficult to predict. Taken together, it means that as the cell fills, existing users’ and existing services’ performance may be degraded. Consequently, broadband mobile networks demand controls to limit incremental users beyond a certain point, as well as methods to arbitrate between various classes of users, SLAs, and services, which have widely varying latency and bandwidth requirements. These are – of necessity – real-time functions that must balance network status, business rules, service requirements, and other factors to maximize profitability, customer satisfaction and fairness.
The third characteristic, the multitude of services supported on a common IP routing infrastructure, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the opportunity it offers consumers and communication service providers and a curse because the performance of each service must be measured individually – either explicitly (an instrumentation-intensive operation) or via sophisticated modeling of each service’s constituent parts. This is the approach endorsed by the TMF service management guidelines and the one which, in this author’s opinion, scales best.
The bottom line is that we need to shift our paradigm from measuring the performance of facilities to the performance of individual services. The kicker is that a service’s performance, as the user experiences it, is the sum of many constituent parts from the broadband RAN to the backhaul, from the core to the servers that define experiences as diverse as reading e-mail or talking via VoIP.
Service proliferation has other implications as well. Beyond its impact on the network itself, it means that the number of fulfillment and catalog items will be far larger. And the sheer number of services on mobile broadband networks means there will be vastly more parameters and more third-party services with which to synch parameters. Further, the sheer volume of changes, as consumers modify their configurations, subscriptions, etc., will be very, very large. The industry has recognized that content- and application-driven services – as well as the participation of third parties in many of these – changes operations. One effort to characterize these needs and a solution under way in the TMF is the Service Delivery Framework, or SDF, project.
Finally there is the simple fact that mobile networks support, well, mobility. Mobility is a feature to the user, but to the network it means something very different. It means that demand for capacity moves around, from cell to cell – higher in some places and at some times than at others. This raises significant questions about average vs. peak congestion, and how to both shape demand and even capacity (yes, it can be done) so that demand for bandwidth and the supply of bandwidth are better aligned.
Operators actually have a variety of tools at their disposal to modify demand. The most obvious is pricing – offering discounts for certain times and places vs. premiums for others. Another tool is modification of policies for bandwidth allocation and admission – based on capacity. Finally, and this is far too complex for this column, there are RAN parameters that can be periodically modified so that capacity shifts slightly at various times of the day or week, in effect moving capacity from areas of excess to areas of need.
Summarizing operations for a technology as encompassing as mobile broadband in 800 words – or even 8,000 words – is a daunting proposition, maybe even foolish. But I hope this foolish attempt gave a flavor for some of the areas where we not only need to change, but where we need to approach operations with a fundamentally different mindset.
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi