HomeMobile EuropeMobile broadband - Sort it out, or lose customers

    Mobile broadband – Sort it out, or lose customers


    Operators need to meet the high levels of QoS demanded by users, or they risk losing  business. But what steps do they need to take to ensure a quality customer experience? 

    Throughout 2008 mobile broadband saw dramatic growth in subscription levels.  In fact, at one point during that year UK telecoms operator 3 reported a 700 per cent increase in data traffic resulting from the launch of its mobile broadband packages.  They were by no means alone in experiencing this growth.  It appeared that a true alternative to WiFi had entered the marketplace and the future for mobile broadband seemed assured.

    Today however, as we enter 2010, the success of mobile broadband is coming into question.  In October 2009 The Carphone Warehouse CEO Charles Dunstone noted that the company was seeing a decline in customer interest for mobile broadband and a corresponding rise in sales for fixed-line offerings.  He attributed this to the slower speeds and lower quality end user experience provided by mobile broadband.  A report by mirrored these results, showing that 76 per cent of mobile broadband users were unhappy with the speeds provided while 60 per cent thought the coverage was poor.

    Two years ago when the outlook for mobile broadband was much more optimistic than today, many had not taken into account just how successful touch-screen smartphones such as the iPhone would be.  The iPhone has achieved a ubiquity not seen for a device in the mobile phone space since the 1990s.  It has provided an easy method of accessing 3G mobile broadband services and has driven consumption of these services to new levels.  Operators have frankly started to struggle under the weight of demand and the end-user experience has further suffered.  The situation led to the CEO of O2, Ronan Dunne, apologising to customers for the poor performance of its mobile data network in the second half of 2009.  

    Mobile broadband, it seems, needs to improve its user experience if it is to remain a revenue-generating proposition for carriers.  But what exactly is the problem, and how can operators address it?

    A look at North America, where users of mobile broadband services enjoy a much higher quality of experience, is useful in understanding the challenges facing European operators.  From the outset European operators focussed their efforts on marketing mobile broadband services.  This led to an exceptionally rapid deployment and market penetration of 3G ‘dongles' and datacards. It was essentially a hype-cycle that continued to be fuelled as more and more subscribers took up the services promoted so heavily by the major operators.

    In North America, however, operators approached the rollout quite differently.  They concentrated first on ensuring that the backhaul they had in place was sufficient to cope with the rise in traffic at the cell that  mobile broadband would generate.  With hindsight this appears to have been the best approach to take, but at the time it was something of a chicken and egg question – do you create a market and then upgrade the backhaul when you know the market is there, as in the European model, or do you upgrade the backhaul and hope the market will meet expectations as in the North American model?  Neither is risk free, and it is primarily due to the fact that the marketing of mobile broadband was so successful in Europe that the networks are now struggling to cope.  It is clear that European operators must now focus on improving backhaul if mobile data services are to deliver on their promise. 

    The first step is to replace legacy TDM backhaul used for data, with Ethernet.  One of the biggest issues operators face with mobile broadband Quality of Experience is ensuring there is enough bandwidth getting to the cell.  Key to this is to have a platform that can dynamically manage the bandwidth to guarantee that there are no bottlenecks in the backhaul network, the primary cause of poor mobile broadband quality.  Ethernet provides the best solution to this as it delivers both high-capacity connectivity at a low cost and has the intelligence to manage bandwidth effectively. 
    Ethernet, however, presents its own challenges to operators.  Ethernet backhaul for mobile data requires a large number of Ethernet Virtual Circuits (EVCs) to be configured at the cells.  EVCs are highly complex to configure correctly and require a completely different approach to testing than operators are used to in the TDM environment.  Correctly configuring the EVCs and testing to ensure for optimal performance is vital in ensuring that there are no bottlenecks in the backhaul network.  So how can operators do this?

    To ensure that the configuration, testing and management of the EVCs are conducted correctly, operators need to address three areas: circuit turnout, SLA monitoring and troubleshooting.  Once these three core areas have been tackled, the quality of the overall mobile broadband experience will improve dramatically. 

    Circuit turnout testing needs to be carried out to ensure the EVC configuration is correct and that the data bursts run effectively.  There is greater complexity here than in circuit testing for voice which it transmitted in a steady and more predictable flow.  For all mechanisms to be tested thoroughly, around six and a half hours need to be devoted to circuit turnout. 

    The second foundation stone of high-quality mobile broadband service delivery is SLA monitoring.  For this to be effective monitoring needs to be conducted on the service layer as well as on the physical layer.  As with TDM, multiple EVCs require highly granular service monitoring in order to be able to effectively calculate availability.  Operators must be aware that the way in which the Operations Administration and Maintenance (OAM) mechanisms are architected is just as important as the service and infrastructure build.  Each plays an essential role in allowing operators to provide high levels of service quality that can be measured against SLAs.

    Effective OAM is an integral part of delivering mobile broadband.  Operators need to manage mobile backhaul solutions, both network elements and services, end to end in an integrated fashion. The right OAM solution is an essential tool for element and service provisioning, network maintenance, and fault management, with service visualisation to enable the identification of customers or services affected by network troubles.  By managing network elements and tracking individual services across multiple products, operators will be able to manage broadband services more effectively and ensure their customers get the quality they require.

    Finally, trouble shooting is another core requirement.  Operators need to be able to look into the network to ensure packet prioritisation is taking place.  Without this ability, operators have no way of understanding why a data service does not run at the required speed and jitter-free.

    Forward looking operators across Europe are making the move to an all-Ethernet backhaul infrastructure, but the migration route must be planned carefully.  Network timing and synchronisation will become increasingly important over the next few years.  Timing and synchronisation is mission critical to stop handover and interference within cell sites, and new technologies, currently in development, will mean that this important area of mobile broadband delivery will function more effectively than ever before. 

    With any telecoms service, there is always room for unforeseen disruptions to the network.  With voice the damage was always limited to a dropped call and slight inconvenience to the end user.  Mobile broadband is a different proposition altogether, however, and results in much greater disruptions for the end user – loosing email, social networking tools, or video downloads can be a lot more stressful that a dropped call. 

    Network resilience and protection are critical to applications based on Carrier Ethernet services, and a full feature suite is required for resilience and protection of wireless backhaul using 802.1ag, Y.1731, G.8031, and other emerging related standards. Combining resilience and protection methods with OTN-based performance monitoring and fault sectionalisation in the metro network optimises mobile backhaul availability and guarantees uninterrupted service for end users.  

    However, the backhaul networks do not operate in isolation. To work efficiently and leverage Operational Expense (OPEX) advantages, the mobile core network also must evolve as the access network migrates to Ethernet. 

    Building a Carrier Ethernet network infrastructure (using standards defined by the Metro Ethernet Forum) provides operators with a long-term, low-cost strategy to replace their existing SDH infrastructure while maintaining carrier-class reliability. 

    As operators have invested heavily in their current mobile networks, they cannot afford to simply tear out and replace current legacy equipment. It's crucial that their mobile backhaul and core network strategy still supports legacy traffic and services while allowing them to gradually transition to next-gen infrastructures that are more scalable and economical.

    By combining a hybrid electrical/optical Reconfigurable Optical Add/Drop Multiplexer (ROADM) with Ethernet aggregation and switching in a single chassis, operators can enjoy more cost-effective metro packet/optical transport. The resulting platform enables the convergence of mobile backhaul with residential and business services traffic on a unified metro network, allowing operators to deliver high quality mobile broadband services while gaining huge savings in OPEX. 

    Fixed telecom operators are already benefiting from the migration from TDM-centric to next generation Ethernet centric networks. Mobile operators must now also manage the transition to next-generation Ethernet to maximise the investment in existing mobile and network infrastructures while maintaining a quality of service that minimises subscriber churn.

    In summary, demand for mobile broadband is growing, with consumers requiring support for rich multimedia and higher bandwidth. Yet consumers remain price sensitive and are not willing to pay more for higher speeds. At the same time, consumers view current speed and quality as the main disadvantages of mobile broadband compared to fixed broadband solutions.

    The challenge facing operators in the mobile space is how to reduce the total cost of running the network while increasing the bandwidth (capacity and speed) and offering superior quality of service.
    This highlights the need for operators to focus their investments in specific areas of next-generation network infrastructure to improve existing offerings, accommodate increasing bandwidth demand – while offering more competitive services and maintaining profitability.

    This article was co-authored by: Vinay Rathore, senior marketing director, Ciena,
    Reza Vaez-Ghaemi, Americas Market Management and Technology Research Manager,  and Jay Stewart, Director Ethernet Service Assurance,

    both JDSU.