Networks on Trial

Users are increasingly scrutinising the quality of their mobile services, especially as liberalisation brings in a choice of providers. Operators are therefore looking to get a more detailed view of their wireless infrastructure and make better-informed decisions on where to allocate limited network resources.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  October 31, 2004

|~|mast1.gif|~||~|It seems an obvious formula that as competition increases; quality of service (QoS) becomes a key differentiator between rival mobile networks. Consumers become less forgiving of patchy performance and dodgy downloading, and operators with established, solid networks can turn that to their advantage. New entrants can also exploit poor perceptions of incumbents’ QoS. Although you couldn’t tell in some cases, liberalisation is therefore pushing operators to base their overall strategy not just on price, but on quality as well. “Testing and measurement (T&M) solutions are needed by operators, even if they are in a monopoly environment. More complex technologies like GPRS and EDGE are also appearing that operators need to make sure are working properly. But competition has started in a few countries in the Middle East and this is really driving the need for operators to certify that they’re performing better than the competition,” says Paolo Trevisan, network & diagnostics marketing manager at T&M supplier, Tektronix. The positive effect competition has on QoS may take time to filter through, however. Liberalisation is still at an early stage in most regional markets. Once it happens, performance is also not always the most favourable arena for a newcomer to take on an existing player, even if it has developed watertight plans for its infrastructure. “Most new networks cannot compete with an incumbent on quality for eighteen months to two years,” says John Fletcher, an analyst at UK-based research group, Analysys. “They are being driven mainly by financiers and investors. It also takes time to get their networks operating on a par with the competition, and live operations are a necessary part of that fine-tuning,” he adds. For existing operators, the link between QoS and customer churn is also not as clear-cut as it would first seem. While vendors are happy to talk up the financial damage poor QoS can do, touchiness about network performance and other factors such as pricing and customer service can vary between segments of users, especially in lower GDP markets. “For every 100 users that make a decision to move from operator A to operator B, twice as many [17% compared to 9%] do it because of quality than because of pricing,” says Neil Jackson, regional director for the Middle East at ADC’s software systems division. “That’s not universal,” argues Fletcher, however. “Business customers, for example, will move network because of quality and are more insensitive to price. Consumers are more tolerant of network deficiencies if they are also getting significant savings. The only people that are totally price insensitive are those that have their bills paid by their company,” he adds. Nevertheless, the business case for improvements in QoS is increasing thanks to the more cut throat environment mobile operators face. A more sophisticated view of how services are performing, for example, has implications that can extend into an network’s overall efficiency and an operator’s ability to predict future trends. “Performance management is a must-have to start with, to meet regulatory requirements and manage the network efficiently,” says Jackson. “As markets de-regulate, operators become more commercially aware and start to look at their spending. Previously, they were government organisations but suddenly there are profit and loss figures to take into account. What operators start to do is not only differentiate themselves through quality, but also provisioning just the right amount of bandwidth in each area of the network, to make sure they’re getting the most dollar out of their spending,” he adds. Furthermore, in markets such as Kuwait, where competition has been entrenched for a longer period and saturation has essentially been reached, mobile operators are more actively wrestling with the impact QoS issues can have. Wataniya Telecom, for example, regularly uses monitoring tools to check up on the performance of both its network and that of its Kuwaiti rival, MTC-Vodafone. The TEMS investigation solution from Ericsson allows it to monitor voice channels as well as data transfer speeds over GPRS and EDGE, which both providers have rolled out or are in the process of deploying. “We do competition benchmarking tests every month and we test our own network every two weeks,” says Ali Al Ostath, planning and engineering manager, Wataniya Kuwait. “We swipe the whole country. We do tests of throughput in ‘hotspots’, both on the move and while standing. That’s a key way in which you can differentiate yourself from your competitor,” he adds. Another QoS-related challenge for operators is the complexity and amount of new measurements that are required when they move voice and data traffic onto packet-switched networks. “In the core network, it gets several orders of magnitude more complicated when you move to GPRS and UMTS,” says Trevisan. “Actions and activities that required ten or twenty messages to be set up now demand hundreds or thousands, and the variety of services grows exponentially. On the air interface, complexity comes with the switch to EDGE and UMTS, where modulation schemes are completely different. The T&M tools that were fine for GSM or GPRS are no longer good enough,” he adds. T&M equipment vendors have also had to react to a growing need for processing power as new technologies are rolled out. “The technology is driven by the underlying needs of the customers,” says Trevisan. “They need the capability to deal with high amounts of data generated by new infrastructure and services, and this is having an effect on the application layer of T&M tools. You can’t do byte-by-byte troubleshooting any more, so you need to implement key performance indicators (KPIs) that provide a high level overview of the network’s behaviour, and then drill down to understand what the problem is. That’s where the T&M market is moving,” he adds. As subscribers’ usage of data increases, it also becomes harder for operators to juggle the resources needed to handle new and old services. Different applications have varying QoS requirements, such as the need for constantly available bandwidth for voice against SMS’ lower sensitivity to a slow-down in transmission. Wataniya, for example, has implemented a system that dynamically optimises its network to take different priorities into account. “If you want to capture all voice and data, then you need to double your resources, which is very expensive,” says Al Ostath. “We saw that voice traffic peaks at different times than data. We therefore dimensioned the system to give priority to voice, because it’s still more important. If data is required and no-one is using voice the channels go back to data. We have ongoing, daily optimisation exercises to make sure that the timeslots are set correctly. It makes more sense than to double the reservation of your timeslots and reduce efficiency,” he adds. Beyond the technology, there is also the issue of managing users’ expectations to make sure that the actual reality of services’ performance measures up. “Generally speaking, there have been a lot of false promises about services, if you think about WAP and so on,” says Trevisan. “The end result is that the expectations of customers are set correctly and they are given what they want. The tendency now is to offer services, not technology, and set expectations appropriately,” he adds. Another trend that is likely to galvanise investment in QoS is a move towards specialised services in the enterprise space. Some operators have started to offer dedicated account management and customer care teams for business clients, but haven’t yet offered service level agreements (SLAs) that would guarantee the quality of the services they use. “The issue of SLAs for operators in a monopoly market is irrelevant,” says Fletcher. “It would appear from our analysis that Etisalat, for example, is offering significant corporate discounts. But I would doubt that there are SLAs because such agreements are a facet of a competitive market. SLAs for mobile networks also don’t exist in the same way as they do in a data network, because they haven’t been designed with the same reliability,” he adds. It also remains to be seen if operators’ reluctance to offer SLAs will actually disappear once competition comes in. “But if operators are sharp, they should be figuring out what they need to do ahead of competition to lock in the corporate business that they have,” adds Fletcher. And while mobile data services, competition and enterprise offerings remain in an early stage of development, it could be a while before QoS as a whole rises to the top of operators’ priority lists. “It’s about how mature a competitive market is. At the moment, operators are using solutions to fulfill regulatory requirements and to get the most out of their network. Most are beginning the journey,” says Jackson.||**||

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