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The New Balancing Act

Thu, 01/31/2008 - 9:03pm
Craig Kuhl

Operators are now driving reliability like never before, especially because of data.

The influx of data and video traffic over wireless networks, coupled with the shifting usage patterns of consumers who consider wireless to be their primary means of communication, are pushing the network reliability envelope like never before.

Customers expect fewer dropped calls, greater and faster access to data and video services, with near-perfect reliability. The result is a relentless search by wireless carriers for the Holy Grail of networks – 24/7 reliability. And the search is intensifying.

RELIABILITY AS AN ASSET
“Networks will require more reliability and higher performance,” says Todd Day, industry analyst for mobile and wireless at the research firm Frost & Sullivan. As technology advances, data traffic continues to increase and customers are becoming more accustomed and more reliant on higher levels of network reliability, Day says. “Reliability is an asset and key differentiator for wireless carriers,” he says.

Although reliability is baked into a wireless carrier’s DNA, today’s more complex, sophisticated networks and the data explosion have changed the reliability/performance paradigm, according to most experts.

“Reliability expectations have been growing for 10 years and are at the top of the customer experience list,” says Dave Flessas, Sprint Nextel vice president of network operations. “It’s more dependent on the wireless data explosion now, and messaging throughput has grown exponentially. We’re being defined by our reliability and performance,” he says.

Yet Sprint, which plans to develop a 4G broadband mobile network nationwide using mobile WIMAX, has no illusions about the value of its network reliability, and what it will take to increase that value.

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the fundamental science hasn’t changed, like planning, capacity management, engineering and operating to those plans. But the big difference is in the management and engineering of the air interface,” says Flessas. “All the things you do to improve reliability is in that. The key is to push reliability early in the lifecycle and continue to improve and add simplicity to the networks,” he says.

IP MIGRATION
Verizon Wireless, whose strategy early on was to distinguish itself as a reliability leader, is pushing reliability deeper into its network, while simultaneously keeping a close eye on its migration to IP.

Tony Melone

Melone: Carriers need
to pick up the pace with
regard to reliability.

“The core of our network is evolving to IP, so we can use the same network for voice and data,” says Tony Melone, Verizon Wireless network vice president. “It allows us to take advantage of protocols like dynamic routing, scaleability and more. But it’s an evolution,” he says.

An IP-based network is expected to elevate a network’s reliability, but in the meantime, carriers acknowledge they must continue to press the reliability issue. Adds Melone: “The technologies for a reliable network are available to everyone. It’s how carriers view reliability as a strategic advantage. Now, there are more business and engineering decisions to be made. And with more people using wireless, our game needs to pick up.”

The game for Verizon already may be picking up, at least in the reliability arena. The company, Melone notes, is now executing 5 million data tasks around voice and data, and its “test men” are logging 1 million miles a year, 24/7 at 150 locations while performing 200,000 data tasks a day.

“Our mission in 2008 is to monitor and enhance the network’s reliability. The challenge will be satisfying the customers’ insatiable appetite for data,” he says.

That goes for Verizon Business as well, notes Kelly Brown, group manager for emerging services product marketing for Verizon Business. “From a reliability perspective, business customers expect access to mission-critical aspects all the time. We have to make sure they are always connected.”

VOICE & DATA RELIABILITY
For wireless networks to reliably deliver both voice and data, however, there are inherent challenges that can affect both reliability and network performance.

Mike Schabel
Schabel: Security choices affect reliability.

“The addition of data services to wireless networks is triggering carriers to re-think architecture and management to meet customer demands. As we add data to wireless, there’s lots of learning going on. We’re learning that we can’t predict what will be thrown on to a network. So, how do carriers best manage their networks and maximize reliability? There’s not a clean answer,” explains Mike Schabel, senior manager at Bell Labs.

Nor is there a clean answer for the lurking security issue. “Wireless networks must now absorb the impact of security threats. But reliability has become such an ingrained bit of what we do to enhance networks, it’s implicit in all talks about network performance. It’s the fundamental purpose of discussions in the first place, and it’s an evolving story because network demands are evolving,” Schabel says.

The reliability story also stretches to include manufacturers in the network reliability equation. And for a growing number of manufacturers such as Alcatel-Lucent, it’s all about reliability and network performance.

“Data reliability is becoming very important and the lines are blurring between wireless and wireline. Today, 20% of our revenue comes from data. So, reliability is the key to our strategy. Current networks must transform from ‘can you hear me now?’ to ‘can you see me now?’ And it goes all the way down to the base stations. If wireless networks are better engineered, they’ll be more reliable,” says Sandip Mukerjee, vice president of strategy for wireless networks at Alcatel-Lucent.

For AT&T and its 45,000 Cingular cell sites, reliability is not only paramount, it’s the company’s new mantra.

“We’ve had to address reliability and have fully integrated the sites, built new ones and eliminated others. Now, we have to measure the reliability and performance with data on the network. So, we’re monitoring and adjusting by sectors, not each site. The challenge is to meet the demand and plan for the network’s future. It’s a business discussion, and reliability is a key part of it,” says Ritch Blasi, director of AT&T mobility network services.

Ditto for Alltel, whose new data-core infrastructure is 90% complete. “We’ve added tools and network visibility at the edge. Customers now want data, office and home services, so to give them greater reliability, we’re giving them tools for real-time information,” said John Norman, vice president of network services for Alltel.

Despite the flurry of activity around network reliability, some tricky issues and challenges remain, Norman admits. “From an equipment standpoint, reliability is there. But from a network standpoint, some third-party applications and content are out of our control, so reliability is an issue. The technology is there too. Now, it’s integrating it with options within standards and with data. Also, there are more vendors and manufacturers to rely on, so that adds to the reliability challenge.”

Nevertheless, companies such as Sycamore Networks, TESSCO and others are looking at the wireless network reliability space as a fertile one.

“Wireless carriers are under pressure to increase reliability and reduce costs. We believe that by introducing intelligence into the networks, reliability will increase as they become more IP-friendly,” says Kevin Oye, vice president of systems and technology for Sycamore Networks.

And the reliability of a network will be the determining factor for wireless carriers, concludes Tom Foster, vice president of RF propagation for TESSCO, a wireless network equipment provider.

“Wireless is moving ahead of wireline, so systems must be tweaked and reliability upgraded. There’s a whole evolution from voice to data, and the sky’s the limit,” he says.

And network reliability is likely to open up those skies for video, voice and data. “All of the carriers are now taking a pro-active approach to reliability and performance,” concludes Day. “But they also need to be profitable. There needs to be a balance.”

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