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Reader Forum: The subscriber experience is king as mobile operators move to Ethernet backhaul

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reader Forum section. In an attempt to broaden our interaction with our readers we have created this forum for those with something meaningful to say to the wireless industry. We want to keep this as open as possible, but we maintain some editorial control to keep it free of commercials or attacks. Please send along submissions for this section to our editors at: [email protected]

Wireless operators are in the midst of revamping backhaul networks to accommodate surging mobile bandwidth demands. While they consider which backhaul technology to deploy – such as Ethernet or IP/MPLS – the subscriber experience is becoming increasingly important.

Ethernet services are now mainstream, backed by well-established industry standards and strong global acceptance, and mobile backhaul is one of the key applications driving demand. Networking research firm Heavy Reading estimates that more than 75% of cell towers globally will be using Ethernet-based backhaul by the end of 2015.

This market maturation of Ethernet has introduced new differentiation challenges, pushing mobile operators to look beyond simply enhancing capacity when deploying a next-gen backhaul network. While catering to more stringent performance requirements from LTE, and addressing the proliferation of nodes introduced with small cells, operators must ultimately consider how the network enables an optimal subscriber experience.

Speed is the new differentiator in today’s Ethernet services market. This isn’t just in terms of increasing bandwidth – now there is an expanded emphasis on speed throughout the entire service experience to address challenges such as improving service turn-up and change intervals, accelerating problem resolution times and reducing overall subscriber churn.

Mobile operators deploying Ethernet backhaul architectures today – to serve the needs of both subscribers and other operators – need to consider the “triple s” of service delivery, service agility and service assurance, and how these can work in concert to differentiate and deliver an ideal user experience.

Service delivery: Mobile operators need to leverage technology tools to accelerate potentially time-consuming steps throughout the service experience chain. Ethernet technology embedded with automated software capabilities can provide significant strategic value. This begins with plug-and-play installation of remote equipment and streamlined subsequent service activation workflows. As an example, through our field work deploying backhaul networks for a leading operator in North America, we’ve shown that automation can consistently reduce Ethernet switch installation and configuration times by 75%.

A service turn-up process that uses automated software capabilities can reduce costly human intervention both in terms of the highly-skilled technicians that would otherwise need to be deployed remotely on-site and in eliminating potential errors introduced by manual configuration procedures.

Mobile operators also often validate performance by running end-to-end service tests to ensure the network is running with high speed and minimal latency. But testing can be expensive and time consuming since it requires costly handheld test sets that must be used in a coordinated effort between technicians physically present at each test site. The emergence of Ethernet service delivery platforms with native performance testing can significantly reduce operational costs and expedite testing procedures, resulting in faster service turn-up and problem resolution. Embedded generation and reflection capabilities provide the flexibility to perform remote test execution from the NOC, reducing the costs of on-site service technicians and more quickly generating consistent, reproducible test reports. With this approach, service disruptions can also be swiftly resolved while eliminating costly truck rolls.

Service agility: Beyond initial service activation, mobile operators need the ability to rapidly and consistently scale and make continuous adjustments in response to customer needs. This is particularly critical today with the proliferation of service endpoints, insatiable demands for bandwidth and the constantly changing dynamics of network applications.

Inherent consistency of capabilities across a diverse range of Ethernet service delivery platforms enables providers to effectively scale operations. Coupled with automated provisioning using predefined templates and service profiles, service additions and changes can be rapidly accommodated. Additionally, bandwidth upgrades from 1G to 10G no longer require initial overbuild or complete replacement of on-site equipment, but instead can be easily transitioned as needed to meet growing capacity needs.

Also, as operators continue to explore techniques to realize the benefits of converged infrastructure that can carry mobile backhaul traffic along with business services, Ethernet service delivery needs to account for the wide differences in network performance requirements across various applications. For example, real-time and interactive applications such as voice, video conferencing or distance learning require dynamic bandwidth capabilities and impose requirements for minimal loss, latency and jitter. Other applications may be high priority, such as back office transactions or MRI image transfers, but are more delay tolerant. Finally, applications such as e-mail, Internet access and instant messaging are lower bandwidth, “bursty” and easily sequenced using normal Ethernet traffic controls.

Since any combination of applications may be in use simultaneously, operators require fine-tuned quality of service capabilities to prioritize traffic and optimize bandwidth usage. Instead of strictly dividing bandwidth among various applications, or assigning all traffic the highest real-time priority, per-packet class of service offerings allow a more strategic approach and maximize performance efficiency.

Service assurance: With subscribers demanding continuous, high-speed, low latency voice and data services, mobile operators are recognizing that the ability to automatically monitor network health and performance plays a critical role in customer satisfaction.

Monitoring the status of system and network links, measuring the performance of network services, confirming link and service throughput and quality conform to contracted speeds, and distributing this management information across the network, are all crucial factors. Beyond supporting these protocols with scalable hardware-based implementation, visualization tools for real-time performance enable identification of problem areas throughout the network. Upon discovering a network fault or service degradation, the operator can use diagnostic tools in the NOC with proactive service correlation to quickly isolate and correct the issues and provide higher availability for business-critical services.

With direct access to SLA reports via a cloud-based portal, customers are empowered to self-diagnose Ethernet service health and verify SLA adherence, resulting in improved satisfaction and retention. This capability also helps to absolve issues not originating from the provider’s network, and can enable the customer to more rapidly take corrective action within their own network environment.

The market for Ethernet backhaul services continues to grow, but increasingly demanding and sophisticated customers are creating new challenges for mobile operators to deliver a more responsive service experience. In essence, Ethernet services have grown up, and in today’s market, speed is the differentiator that will change the way mobile operators compete. By leveraging the right combination of software and purpose-built platforms, operators can implement an Ethernet backhaul solution that optimizes the network to ensure customer satisfaction, reduced churn, better service quality and introduction of new offerings.

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