Deploying any new technology, service or infrastructure component affects service provider operations on multiple levels, and the evolution of 4G wireless networks is no exception. The transition to 4G will have an unusually significant impact on network operations. Fortunately, the problems and risks can be largely eliminated through careful advance wireless network planning.
Operators are finding that 4G wireless network deployment is influencing infrastructure design and deployment in four primary areas:
- The radio network
- Service interconnection
- Content management
While each area has operational considerations, there are also operations issues between areas, as well as general operations issues relating to 4G services overall.
4G's impact on the radio network requires scaling to handle small cells
The primary impact of 4G radio network changes on network operations is the commissioning and support of new cells and in linking adaptive radio behavior down into the network layer. Self-organizing radio frequency (RF) networks aren't necessarily going to organize at the backhaul and connectivity level, so it's critical that radio management not only provide operational support system (OSS) and network management system (NMS) interfaces to current operations platforms, but that those interfaces support process automation between radio layers and the rest of the network.
Not only does the 4G rollout mandate changes in the radios themselves, it means that operators need to support "small cells" (whether they are called femtocells, picocells or microcells). These small cells will be installed primarily by users and registered with the provider, but obviously there is a security risk if cells aren't authenticated. In addition, management visibility into the cells may be essential in troubleshooting customer problems.
Normal cellular networks might consist of tens of thousands of cells in an entire service geography, but there could be millions of small cells, which creates a major management surveillance issue and even threatens database scalability.
Recommendation: It is critical to review your operations database and your network operations processes to insure that they can scale to the number of cells expected.
4G backhaul requires operations support for direct fiber connections
4G backhaul is almost always supported through direct fiber connections to major tower sites rather than by hopping on a TDM network at a convenient central office, so each of these fiber paths have to be managed. For critical cells where backup from adjacent cells isn't practical, dual connections to the tower will mean network operations procedures are needed to manage failover in case of problems and recommissioning when service is restored.
Because metro Ethernet will be used for most 4G backhaul, Ethernet standards for Operation, Administration, Maintenance and Provisioning (OAM&P) are evolving, it will be important to secure operations software support for the end-to-end Ethernet management evolution, which is already in evidence through vendor participation in standards activities like the Metro Ethernet Forum.
Operators are also finding that 4G paths within their metro networks will require special network operations support. Quality of Service (QoS) requirements on these paths is often higher because of the need to manage delay and packet loss for voice and video, something that may not be a practice for normal carrier Ethernet services. In general, operators believe that 4G backhaul will require a more stringent service-level agreement (SLA) than even most enterprise Ethernet services would have.
Recommendation: Review operations processes and policies for metro-area Ethernet services to ensure that these services don't steal capacity from 4G during periods of congestion or failure.
4G wireless service interconnection requires monitoring interfaces
The service interconnection issues for 4G network operations will focus largely on the gateways to provider content services and to the Internet. 4G offers much higher bandwidth per user and much higher per-cell capacity, which can create choke points deeper in the network where service connections are made. 4G services can even generate a higher rate of access to subscriber Home Subscriber Server (HSS) databases (the 4G evolution of a Home Location Registry) for service authentication and billing activity. And finally, traffic generated by 4G devices is much more "bursty" than that generated by earlier devices, and thus harder to plan for.
Recommendation: It will be critical to monitor the service interfaces within the 4G network to ensure that customers aren't running into congestion there, and to ensure that future capacity plans properly consider usage patterns that emerge.
4G wireless content management is the most critical operations issue
Content management is perhaps the most critical operations issue for 4G. Most operators realize that inefficient content routing to mobile 4G devices could have a major impact on network performance and profit. As a result, they are planning more complex content caching strategies. The components of these content systems require individual management, but more significantly, the performance of content management components will impact Quality of Experience (QoE) for users and thus must be monitored to respond to customer issues.
In an operations sense, the sum of these issues means a radical increase in the number of elements that require management. It is a shift in technology from managing transmission/connection devices to managing hosted service elements, along with the introduction of more demanding Classes of Service to support real-time voice and video traffic.
Recommendations: All of these content management issues are likely to increase the need for service automation in response to problems, which mean management system scripting and event policy management tools will be critical for 4G operations. It will also be important to introduce system management tools and interfaces into the network operations center (NOC) to deal with the much larger role of servers and service delivery platforms in 4G deployment.
4G wireless creates need for data roaming among operators
Over time, it is likely that 4G will create value in data roaming among operators, in which case some of the content and service connection strategies deployed within each operator network may need to interwork with comparable facilities in the networks of roaming partners. This generates a need for management-level cooperation between providers, something that is being addressed slowly in standards bodies, but is far from mature. This should be a topic of conversation with management vendors for any operator planning 4G migration. Adding it to the list helps future-proof your 4G wireless network operations approach.
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his SearchTelecom.com networking blog, Uncommon Wisdom.