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Self-Organising Networks (SON) 2016 conference report

SON Networks World logoThis niche event hosted in London focuses on Self-Organising Networks, providing an annual checkpoint on progress and developments. Due to a conflict with another event, I was only able to attend partially, but believe I caught the overall atmosphere. I’d suggest SON for mobile networks continues to progress but adoption seems to be at a similar pace to self-driving cars – inevitable in the long term, but nobody wants to be first to hand over complete control at the moment.

General Impressions

The presentation room was packed – almost standing room only at times – but accommodated perhaps 100 people. So while this isn’t a huge extravaganza, it has attracted a few more delegates than expected.

The event has been running for some years, and I had thought would gather more momentum and interest over time. In previous years, standalone SON vendors have taken us through a range of features and optimisations with clear results. This year saw fewer independent SON vendors visible, and the major equipment vendors don’t participate. So instead we saw companies in adjacent technical areas pitching in.

SON Conference Presentation

Some operators still developing their own SON solutions

In the past, we’ve heard from pioneers such as SK Telecom who had developed their own SON solutions in the early days of LTE. With several mature 3rd party SON products available today, perhaps you wouldn’t expect to see this home grown approach still required.

Elisa, a leading and highly innovative operator in Finland, explained how they had done just that. Their own SON platform has given them huge flexibility and responsiveness, allowing them to deploy eight new SON use cases during 1H16 of which the fastest took just one day.

Of course, C-SON vendors who were present, such as PiWorks, would prefer that their platforms are used. Some are making progress – for example, Cellwize have achieved notable success with wider deployment across the Telefonica group. What’s also happening may be that the major RAN vendors have provided enough capabilities for now, but I still believe an independent third party C-SON vendor is an important strategic decision to ensure flexibility of equipment vendor choice in the future. HetNets will comprise products and technologies from a variety of vendors that all need to be co-ordinated.

SON Integration Box

One difficulty when adopting a new C-SON solution is interconnecting it to all the various basestation subsystems, which might include a variety of legacy equipment with older/outdated interfaces. This is also an issue when adding new vendors into the mix.

Comarch, a Polish company with growing operator customer base for their OSS/BSS solutions, introduced their SON Integration Box to solve that issue. It’s a new concept, acting like a router that interfaces between C-SON and multiple different radio equipment vendors. It converts SON messages to support older legacy basestation equipment without the need for the C-SON to directly support such a wide variety of protocols. They explained how some of the OSS interfaces into these systems, especially the older ones, are extremely awkward and non-intuitive. The nirvana of an industry-wide common standard OSS interface remains a utopian dream.

Comarch partnered with Cellwize and support all the major RAN vendors. I was told it would be relatively straightforward to add in additional RF vendors – perhaps simplifying the introduction of new small cell vendors into the wider SON environment of a network.

My concern would be that the C-SON would probably need to know more about the capabilities of each small cell product for maximum system performance, but this could be a relatively quick and easy method of integrating new vendors in the future.

I was much more sceptical about their claim that we may not need passive RF planning tools in the future, forecasting that SON and OSS would provide all those functions.

Performance management vendors growing in scope

SON is primarily about making decisions on what configuration parameters and settings to use in order to squeeze the best performance out of the network. But it can only work with what’s physically installed and assumes that good decisions have been made about where and when to prioritise investments.

Performance management vendors highlight that processing and understanding network performance data is the important first step. Networks have often captured huge volumes of transaction data but not always been able to make sense of it.

Viavi (formerly JDSU) highlighted just how much performance data is available for analysis – they capture 8x more events that Google every day – and can geo-locate every call and session from start to finish. This isn’t for use tracking individual users, but identifying common problem areas such as where lack of capacity/coverage is most urgent. This would drill down to establish whether users in problem areas have smartphones capable of 3G vs 4G etc. Planners could foresee whether deploying extra 4G capacity would have the greater impact – there’s less value in places where everyone still has 3G only capable smartphones.

Several speakers talk about focussing on specific “business outcomes”, with projects investigating particular issues or problem areas with clear financial results. Viavi were also keen to highlight that operators could make far more use of their geo-location data, selling it in aggregate form to those wanting to identify trends and traffic/footfall patterns. For example, it might make it easier to establish the value of a specific billboard or advertising hoarding.

SON applies to backhaul as well as the cellular radios

Andy Sutton, RAN architect at BT (who have acquired EE), shared his views on how urban small cell backhaul would benefit from SON capabilities. Rather than connecting everything on the street canyons through a single nearby macrocell, which would be a single point of failure, he saw greater resilience by providing one or more fibre links and using a self-reconfiguring mesh to adapt to outages and traffic patterns. Where appropriate, in-band backhaul could be used as a fallback.

I’d comment that these ideas aren’t entirely new – backhaul vendors such as CCS have a self-configuring mesh backhaul that automatically reconfigures and adapts in this way. Small cell vendors such as Parallel Wireless and Airspan have in-band mesh solutions. It’s good to see these initiatives matching what leading network operators are looking for, and that BT’s acquisition hasn’t completely moved EE away from using wireless backhaul in the urban areas where appropriate.

Closing thoughts

SON technology is to be found in a wider range of telecom networks today, from Wi-Fi, Small Cells, Macrocells through to the backhaul and fixed wireless/wired connections. Perhaps a dedicated conference on the topic will become less relevant in the future, and the topic will become embedded in other events, but in the meantime it remains a popular enough event to justify continuation. A vendor independent SON orchestration solution seems to me to be important enabler for HetNets.

Small Cell vendors have pioneered many of the SON automation functions in the past, from self-installation, self-optimisation, self-healing and optimisation. It’s good to see these techniques being adopted and become more mainstream, simplifying what otherwise would be enormously complex manual management of the system.

While I don’t see SON replacing the planning side of network expansion, surely it can’t be long before many more of the day-to-day reconfiguration parameters are managed automatically.

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