Mobile monitors

As mobile data use surges, operators will increasingly rely on precise network performance data to improve their services.

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Mobile monitors MTN Group worked with Arieso to prepare its network for the FIFA World Cup, which led to a broader deal between the two companies.
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By  Roger Field Published  September 13, 2010

While network optimisation techniques have brought major benefits to mobile operators in recent years, methods of actually testing and monitoring their networks have remained stubbornly crude.

Indeed, so called ‘drive testing’ remains the most common means of testing network capacity, although the technique gives only limited insights into a network’s efficiency – or lack of it.

But this is a situation that one UK-based company is keen to change. Arieso, which is headed by CEO Shirin Dehghan, offers a new breed of mobile network management software that allows mobile operators to monitor the flow of all the traffic on their networks, giving them a rich source of data on how to improve quality and efficiency.

While Arieso is best known in its native Europe and the US, where it has numerous tier-one customers, it is also making inroads in developing markets. And after signing a deal with South Africa’s MTN Group in July, the MEA region is now well within Arieso’s sights.

But for Dehghan, the challenges that mobile operators face are in many respects universal. A surge in data use, driven largely by smartphones, and increasingly unpredictable usage patterns have created a need for more precise ways of monitoring the flow of information on networks.

Dehghan says that in the next “three to five years” mobile operators will have to monitor and run their networks in a far more “customer-centric” way, which will mean a shift away from methods such as drive-testing to more precise means of gathering and interpreting network data.

“[Drive testing] has been fine so far because operators have primarily had to deal with voice and SMS, and voice has been a service that has been fairly predictable in terms of busy hours,” Dehghan says.

“But with more data applications and smart phones, patterns of usage have changed dramatically between different groups such as business users, consumers and teenagers. They have their own peak times and the dynamics of the traffic is such that operators can’t rely on just sending a van out to check performance.”

This is something that Arieso claims its software achieves. “Our software essentially taps into the messages that are being transmitted back and forth between the
base station and the mobile handset, and gets an understanding of the mobile experience at the time they are making the call,” Dehghan says.

However, Dehghan adds that the “golden nugget” of the software is that it also allows operators to see where all of the calls on their networks are being made from, without the need for GPS in the handset or the need for location-based information to be transmitted with the call.

“Our technology uses the standard information that a call needs to be transmitted and held, to locate where the user is at the time of the call,” she says. “By using a statistical capability of millions of calls taking place in the network, we are able to present the operator with a very accurate view of the network performance, including where the data hotspots are, where the roamers go, and what types of handsets perform better than others according to subscriber experience.

“This is extremely useful to the operator because so far they have been almost blind as to what is going on in their networks with the exception of some drive testing.

“The idea is to use every call to understand where the coverage holes are, because if I am inside the building and there are a lot of people getting poor coverage, that will show up in our software.”

Operators can also input subscriber data into Arieso’s software to gain more specific data on network aspects such as specific user groups and geographic areas of the network during certain times of the day.

The software will then “come up with suggestions” as to how the operator could improve the configuration of the network in order to use their assets more efficiently, or whether they need to do something more drastic, such as invest in WiFi technology to offload traffic in certain buildings, for example.

Given the level of data that the software provides, it is surprisingly simple to install, Dehghan says. “In terms of installation, it is server-based. It is an enterprise solution that is installed on specific hardware. Sometimes the operator provides that hardware and sometimes we do.”

Arieso extracts the data from the OSF (operation systems function block) of the operator’s network, if the infrastructure vendor supports it. Alternatively, it can “tap straight into” the IUB interface of a UMTS network and extract it from there using hardware probes.

Common issues

Given that the software allows operators to look at their networks in a holistic way, they can select specific aspects of the network to be monitored. For example, an operator might want to monitor the experience of iPhone users compared with Blackberry users, or to see the performance of the network for corporate users of a specific company or organisation.

While the types of problems that the software reveals vary between operators, roughly 40% of the issues occur at the radio-end of the network, according to Dehghan.

Typical issues on the radio side include too much demand, with some cell sites coming under huge pressure from data use. Here, operators need to understand when and where the peak usage occurs, so that they can expand or improve the capacity.

Growing base

Arieso, which is headquartered in the UK and has offices in Hong Kong and Atlanta, works with about 60 operators worldwide.

In terms of Arieso’s client base, MTN has been the biggest customer win so far, and the Middle East and Africa is a region that the company is “targeting very aggressively”, according to Dehghan.

Arieso has “many other tier-1 customers” using its technology in developed markets, predominantly the US and Western Europe.

In a sign of the strain that smartphones are placing on networks, the operator that was the first adopter of Apple’s iPhone in the US used Arieso’s technology to help improve its network, Dehghan says.

After signing the MTN deal, Dehghan is optimistic about the developing markets’ potential.

“There are some interesting networks and there is often a very entrepreneurial approach in the developing world,” Dehghen says.

“Operators in developing markets are trying to expand and there is still a lot to go after. It creates an atmosphere for good ideas and new technology,” she adds.

“Just like MTN – they want to be at the forefront and to be able to do things in a more cost-effective manner, and we give them the means to do it.”

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