Encouraging news regarding the success of LTE continues to emerge. According to industry association the GSA, in April 2016, there are now nearly 500 commercially deployed LTE networks, in more than 160 countries. While many have yet to migrate to 4G technology, there’s no doubt that significant progress has been made, with more to follow.
And yet challenges remain. Operators that have already invested in 4G must deliver financial returns to their shareholders. While user adoption remains high, it’s not yet clear how this has translated into commercial rewards. The success of 4G LTE in terms of numbers, increased availability and accessibility are not the same as financial success. In the same way, operators that have yet to move to LTE must be convinced that their peers have made the right decision in order to support their own investment decisions. In this context, there are three key challenges on which attention should be focused. Doing so will help ensure the success of existing investments and make success more likely for investments that have yet to be made.
# Deployment of LTE and VoLTE, on time and on budget
# Ensuring operational performance to deliver the best customer experience of 4G VoLTE services
# Deciding on the best future network investments
Turning Challenges to Success
End-to-end Testing to Ensure Successful Deployment
LTE deployment is an inherently complex task. It requires rapid acquisition of new knowledge and expertise and the need for this does not diminish. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Since LTE does not support a native voice service, an upgrade to support the Voice over LTE (VoLTE) solution is the only alternative to continuing to persist with legacy approaches. Some operators may choose not to deploy VoLTE as an extension to their 4G investments, but by doing so they are effectively placing a limit on the capabilities that they can offer to their subscribers.
But if LTE deployment is a challenge, then VoLTE represents yet another level of complexity. It has been said by more than one operator that deploying VoLTE is the most difficult technical feat that they have managed to date. If we consider the more than 20 years of evolving achievements that have driven the mobile industry, that’s quite a statement. As a result, operators are struggling to deliver VoLTE on time, on budget and with the necessary interoperability both to legacy networks and between the systems that deliver the service.
For example, VoLTE users must be able to call any other users, regardless of the network to which they are connected. Carriers typically have complex, multi-domain networks to manage, which can affect their ability to implement VoLTE successfully, dramatically undermining user experience.
Unless LTE coverage is ubiquitous, user mobility means that individual subscribers will move between coverage areas. Voice services cannot exist in isolation only in the areas covered by the LTE deployment. There must be a means of ensuring seamless continuity as users move beyond coverage areas. Put simply, subscribers expect phone calls to work regardless of the underlying technology or how they move around the network.
This means that operators must be able to manage sessions across multiple domains, both VoIP and circuit switched, with no disruption as subscribers move from one to another. If operators cannot offer such continuity, they risk losing more customers to OTT voice providers delivering services over data connections.
Voice calls must also be delivered to users not in LTE networks – legacy interworking must also be supported. While a key technology enabler that is part of the VoLTE framework, Single Radio Voice Call Control (SRVCC) helps solve these problems, operators need to be sure that SRVCC functions correctly and at scale. Finally, many operators have selected several vendors for mobile core networks and may also select a new vendor for the IMS core. The resulting environment can be extremely complicated.
The solution to these challenges is to perform end-to-end testing to confirm interoperability between heterogeneous networks and the correct functioning of SRVCC. End-to-end testing is the best way to validate and confirm what is important to subscribers: that phone calls work regardless of the technology on which they are placed.
Operators must also ensure that services can be offered when there is heavy user traffic. They need solutions that can perform end-to-end testing of different scenarios as well as load testing to evaluate performance under stress. Such solutions will help operators accelerate the time to implement VoLTE and SRCVV services, saving and money, and ensuring rapid time to market with VoIP service offers.
Real-time Data to Optimise Network Performance and Enhance Customer Experience
Even when LTE and VoLTE deployments have been successfully delivered, operators must ensure that they provide the expected customer experience. To achieve a unified approach is required that spans all network domains and elements. The key to this is the continuous availability of real-time data from the network. If data is only available historically, then operators can understand why problems have occurred but do nothing to prevent them. The acquisition of real-time data from all domains in mobile networks, including VoLTE, is therefore of critical importance. Once available, this data must be spread and shared throughout the operator’s organisation to support Customer Experience Management (CEM) at all levels.
However, access to such information has been impeded by lack of accessibility to this data. Data analytics has previously been a somewhat restricted field and data has only really been open to interpretation by experts. This has now changed. Data analytics has evolved to help support CEM initiatives in the context of 4G / VoLTE, so that the latent potential of data analytics can be realised. This transforms the usability of such data and makes it accessible to more users.
4G and VoLTE have created an absolute imperative to ensure that this data democratisation accelerates. If it does not, then the challenge of delivering a better experience will never be adequately addressed, which, in turn, will mean that operators will lack the necessary insights to manage and evolve their networks more efficiently for the benefit of their subscribers and investors.
Use Insights from Network Data to Drive Investment Decisions
Investments in 4G and VoLTE are an ongoing task. Operators will have to fine tune assets, deploy more capacity and increase coverage. There are clear regulatory requirements to meet, as well as the needs of a distributed population. As such, operators have to choose where to add coverage, where to increase capacity, and ensure that they are able to do so flexibly. For example, transient populations may cause temporary surges in demand. Without insight, operators will be unable to accomplish this effectively, which means capital will not be used efficiently. Such inefficiencies will have an inevitable impact on profitability.
Insights captured from the network will, in addition to creating the ability to offer more effective CEM, enable operators to make more effective investment decisions. They will help them decide where to invest, where to increase capacity and to better ensure that they anticipate user demand based on real information on consumption, behaviour and performance.
Of course, these challenges are not isolated. They are inextricably linked. Successful 4G and VoLTE deployments must be followed by the effective delivery of these services to paying customers. Customers that pay expect a reasonable experience as a result. Good experiences lead to increased demand, which needs to be accurately delivered, and so on.
It is a virtuous circle that needs to be addressed. To do so requires the right tools to aid deployment in complex environments, the right platforms to make sense of real-time network data, and the right insights to direct future investment most accurately against a landscape of ongoing economic constraints.
Being aware of existing challenges and the methods required to address them is important. Most importantly for the long-term success of 4G and VoLTE, however, is to both have a holistic view and also constantly updated insights to anticipate the new challenges that will arise.
Erik Couture, executive vice president Sales and Marketing at Polystar