4G wireless network planning: A guide for network operators

This 4G wireless network planning guide helps network operators determine what moving to 4G means for network design and traffic handling practices, and how to adapt as necessary.

Network operators are deploying 4G wireless networks to effectively deliver next-generation broadband services to an expanding base of smartphone- and tablet-packing consumers eager to experience media-rich applications and service offerings. But even as they go about their 4G wireless network planning and make significant infrastructure investments, operators know that the combination of more users firing up more devices to access more bandwidth-intensive services could spell disaster for revenue-per-bit and traffic management.

Service providers looking to reduce transport costs want to unburden their 4G networks by either re-routing 4G traffic to Wi-Fi hotspots and femtocells through the radio access network (RAN) or using mobile backhaul options to direct 4G wireless traffic to wireline networks. Those costs might prove steep as well, especially if providers have eschewed RAN infrastructure upgrades over the years and still depend on traditional—and costly—base stations.

Plus, as tablets become more prevalent, consumers will figure out where and how they prefer to use their new gadgets to access 4G wireless services, which could have major implications for RAN setup and backhaul strategy. And if the setup and strategy don't translate into users getting the services they want at the speeds they're paying for, carriers could be left holding the bag and facing higher rates of customer churn.

Navigating the challenges of 4G rollout isn't easy, but careful 4G wireless planning at the outset can pay major dividends down the road. This guide to 4G wireless network planning looks at several important issues for operators working their way through 4G deployments.

The following collection of resources offers critical information and expert insight to help carriers determine what the upgrade to 4G wireless means for their existing network design and traffic handling practices, and how to adapt as necessary. These resources also explore why paying attention to customer experience management during 4G rollout is crucial, and how increased consumer and enterprise interest in tablets could shift providers' traffic burdens and affect network management strategy.

1. 4G network offload: Radio access network and mobile backhaul solutions

The first problem that network operators face in a 4G wireless network planning endeavor is the increasing disconnect between broadband traffic, which is growing exponentially and very quickly, and broadband revenues, which are not.

If wireless infrastructure ROI stagnates or declines, mobile operators will have less incentive to plan for and launch new wireless services, which limits consumer options and stalls innovation. Pursuing 4G network offload could give operators two potential sources of relief—RAN offload through hotspots or femtocells, and backhauling wireless traffic to metro networks.

Read more about 4G network offload solutions.

2. Goodbye, base station: Rebuilding radio access network architecture

Relying on RAN offload to alleviate 4G wireless network traffic jams makes sense if your network is equal to the task. For many carriers, though, a thorough reboot of their RAN architecture—which telecom consultant and Uncommon Wisdom blogger Tom Nolle calls "the most important but most problematic part of mobile broadband"—is long overdue.

Alcatel-Lucent claims that its lightRadio portfolio is just what the doctor ordered, lowering RAN architecture expenses, improving performance and eliminating base stations. Does lightRadio represent a move toward a new, more sustainable model of handling increased wireless traffic? Or does such a streamlined, more flexible approach just shift the carriers' burden and create a new set of 4G wireless network planning and management problems to solve?

Read more about revamping radio access network architecture.

3. 4G tablet devices could change user behavior, network capacity planning

Do tablet users on your network favor smaller devices, like the 7-inch HTC Flyer and Samsung Galaxy Tab models, or larger ones, like the 9.7-inch Apple iPad 2 or 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom? Do they use their tablets like smartphones, accessing a relatively limited number of essential services and features while on the move? Or are they more likely to set up in one spot, as when using a laptop, taking advantage of more offerings for a longer period of time?

The answers to these questions matter a great deal to wireless network operators, who must make sure that their 4G wireless network planning adequately addresses the likelihood that users are more prone to eat up capacity by accessing applications like video when parked in one location than when on the move. As the devices used to access next-generation networks evolve, so too must the strategies deployed to prepare for their arrival.

Read more about how 4G tablet use could change network capacity planning.

4. 4G wireless networks and customer experience management

While it's understandable to focus on the complex technical elements of 4G wireless network planning, the TM Forum's Martin Creaner reminds providers that they "can't just look at 4G in a vacuum as a cool new high-speed network." They must ensure customers get the right services at the right price; otherwise, the user base won't be sufficient to provide a strong ROI.

Carriers have to emphasize high-quality customer experience, utilizing real-time measurement and tracking to not only be aware of users' 4G questions and problems with increasingly complex service portfolios, but to get ahead of them and provide solutions before complaints roll in.

Read more about the importance of customer experience management in 4G wireless network planning.

This was last published in June 2011

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