What is Situational Awareness and Why do Mobile Network Operators need it?

  • Posted by teragence
  • February 21, 2018 10:43 AM GMT
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As we move to 5G, networks need to become more externally focused and aware, a fundamental shift from current paradigms of network analytics and automation. This paper lays out how this can be achieved and the measures which can be taken to move towards a more "situation aware network"

‘Situational awareness’ is a military concept. It is perfectly summarised by the U.S. Coast Guard Training Manual: ”Situational awareness is knowing what is going on around you.”

But how does it apply in business? A business that is ‘situational-aware’ is one that understands its competitors and their market position, recognizes environmental factors that drive demand, and is always aware of every aspect of its own operation, organization and supply chain. More importantly, it is aware of them all the time, in real time.

No business is totally unaware of its situation. But some sectors have excelled at the game, developing real-time situational awareness through Big Data, Analytics and Machine Learning. Retailers, in particular, have led the field—they use location data to obtain insight into their own footfall and that of their competitors; they use weather data to predict footfall and sales; and they use real-time systems to scan developments in taste and demand to steer their internal supply chain.

So how do mobile telcos, specifically their network operations, compare? ‘Mixed at best’, is the unfortunate answer.

In the networks space, situational awareness efforts are predominantly internally focused. Choose any buzzword or acronym–Network Analytics, CEM, SON, SDN or NFV–they all boil down to the same principle: collect data on internal operations and feed it into various automated control, management and optimisation mechanisms by utilizing the core capabilities of real time information processing, analytics, AI and machine learning. The implementation of these tools and methods is well under way in most operators.

When it comes to external situational awareness, the picture is less advanced. The sum total of external situational awareness is typically delivered through occasional drive tests and an infrequent benchmarking exercise conducted by external agencies. There is little to no effort being applied in understanding competitor’s activities or relevant changes in the environment.

The reason for this imbalance is that, until very recently, external situational awareness did not matter. Revenue was growing, quality expectations were low and there was sufficient amount of slack in the technology to cover any eventuality. So why dig any deeper when a simplistic approach seemed to be working?

But times have changed. Capacity demands are rising while revenue is either flat or declining. Consumers demand a quality network experience—wherever they go. Poor network experience is in fact the number one reason for consumer churn. The current surge in capacity and quality demand is pushing radio networks to their limits, and this trend will only accelerate as we move to 5G. To keep up networks have to move on from their current brute force, ‘one size fits all’ approach and transform into a giant load-balancing machine, directing resources to where they are most needed. To do this effectively, network operators need to know where demand will occur, how external drivers of their performance will evolve, and what their competition is doing in that area.

As an example, a situationally-aware network would access real-time data to map out consumers’ movements. This data, combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence, helps network managers judge if these movement patterns are ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’, and adjust its infrastructure accordingly. In a second step, by using predictive analytics, operators can foresee when and where a demand concentration will emerge next and prepare proactively, moving from a ‘feed back’ to a ‘feed forward’ paradigm.

Understanding and predicting weather conditions and patterns will become essential to maintaining network quality. Weather impacts where and how people gather together densely–anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam on a rainy day will understand this. It also directly affects radio network performance and this is bound to be more pronounced when we move to 5G. Granular Identification and prediction of rainfall and other changes in weather conditions will enable operators to optimize their networks more effectively.

Real-time insight into a competitor’s network, knowing how their network is performing at any given time and location, is another key component. It should play a central role in all network planning and optimisation efforts. Teragence, for example, has been working with several operators to develop an ‘Intelligent Site Fix Prioritiser’—a mechanism to help prioritise radio trouble tickets based on customer impact and the performance of competitors in the vicinity.

The case for building an external situational awareness capability is clear. So how to go about it? First of all, it requires accessing highly granular, real-time data sets on the external environment (e.g. human movement, weather conditions, geography and competition). These data sets are available today, but are not necessarily within the four walls of an operator. So external data acquisition strategies will need to become part of the toolset. The second component consists of next-generation capabilities in analytics, machine learning and AI, to extract relevant information from the acquired data sets.

These two elements need to be combined with internal data sources and automated control mechanisms, such as SON and SDN capabilities, to create an automated, situational-aware network management capability.

Becoming a situational aware operator is a fundamental paradigm shift– moving from a ‘one size fits all’ networking approach to a finely-tuned, load balancing approach and shifting from ‘feed back’ to a ‘feed forward’ management principles. Network managers can optimise their network to deliver the best possible service where and when it matters most, increasing customer satisfaction and differentiations. As we move from the mature 4G stages to the emerging world of 5G, mastering situational awareness will become a key competitive differentiator. What’s more, this kind of capability is self-reinforcing, giving early starters access to a long-term sustainable competitive advantage.

Progressive and modern minded operators and vendors are starting to bring the elements together to slowly form a coherent whole: a fully capable Situation-Aware Network.

The only question is: who will get there first?

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