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Self-Organizing Networks & LTE

Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst

The idea of self-configuring, self-optimizing wireless networks is not a new one, but as the mobile industry moves toward commercialization of next-generation "4G" systems, the ability to automate the management processes has emerged as a key technology requirement.

The idea is to minimize the lifecycle cost of running a network by eliminating manual configuration of equipment at the time of deployment, right through to dynamically optimizing radio network performance during operation. The ultimate aim is to reduce the unit cost and retail price of wireless data services.

The belief among operators is that 3G represents a missed opportunity to automate network processes, and that much of the ongoing cost to configure and manage Node Bs, radio network controllers, and core network elements is accounted for by the need to allocate expensive technicians to mundane, yet cumbersome, tasks.

Operators are thus increasingly vocal in their determination not to forfeit the benefits of automation in the move to Long Term Evolution (LTE) and are working to enshrine self-organizing network (SON) principles in vendor roadmaps and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards process. This is being done most notably through the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) initiative, which has produced a White Paper on "Use Cases Related to Self Organizing Network." More formally, SONs as they relate to UTRAN LTE are the subject of a 3GPP Technical Report issued earlier this year, entitled "Self-Configuring and Self-Optimizing Network Use Cases and Solutions."

SONs are also required domain expertise for hotshot executives in the CTO office and increasingly a feature of technology conference keynotes, as leading operators evangelize the message to the wider technology community.

At Light Reading's own Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators: Europe event last week, Arnuad Cauvin of Orange SA , representing the NGMN as backhaul project manager, spoke about the importance of self-optimizing backhaul for converged LTE/3G/GSM networks. Elsewhere, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) has been vocal on the subject with Kenny Graham, head of new technologies and innovation, highlighting the crucial role of SONs for metro-zone LTE deployments (see Vodafone Dreams of Metro Femto.)

T-Mobile International AG , arguably the operator pushing hardest for SONs through its work in the 3GPP and NGMN, is equally forthright. Emin Gurdenli, T-Mobile UK's director of technology, recently described network automation as critical to investment in next-generation wireless technologies at a London conference.

That's all good, of course. But is the SON concept attainable in the near to medium term? Or are operators getting ahead of themselves? And is the never-ending drive to cut the cost of infrastructure really compatible with the R&D investment required to make SONs viable?

What I'm hearing from the vendor community privately is that there are some relatively easy kills to be had, but operators are overly optimistic when it comes to the hard stuff.

2G and 3G femtocells, which are unmanaged by definition, are likely to be the first area in which SON techniques are applied commercially. And there are significant improvements to be made in terms of auto-configuration of new base stations at site setup, as well as to network management systems to automatically reconfigure live networks, instead of having to manually re-tune the network each time a small change is required.

Taking the SON concept to its logical conclusion, however, and expecting self-organizing, self-optimizing radio networks in multi-vendor environments, in multi-layer topologies, to work in a plug-and-play fashion that's challenging, to say the least.

Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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