20 JULY 2016

Last month, industry analysts at Dell’Oro Group announced that the global RAN infrastructure market is declining at double digit rate. Overall RAN equipment revenues in all global regions have declined for the first time in four years with the total market expected to decline by eight per cent this year. These downbeat figures were said to be in line with expectations – the industry saw it coming.

There are myriad reasons why. The most obvious explanation is simple. Operators are simply not buying RAN equipment at the moment. Instead they are placing greater emphasis on sweating maximum capacity from existing RAN assets. Most carriers aren’t yet at 4G capacity. While operators in the US, Japan and Korea are getting there, most European counterparts have another 12 to 18 months before 4G saturation eats the capacity available.

Things can only get better
Following this logic, and long equipment sales cycles, it’s fair to say that things are set to pick up for the RAN vendors. In order for orders to be contemplated and processed however, operators need to have a clear idea of what they need to do – the equipment they should choose to increase capacity, and the supporting business case that justifies the investment. Most operators have bespoke departments that investigate the potential of new capacity boosting technologies. These same organisations also have teams that scrutinise future network capacity requirements. Up until now, they haven’t been great at talking to each other.

In addition to this somewhat siloed mentality, technology innovation has accelerated. The mobile industry has moved on a great deal from the more simplistic, single dimension age of 2G and 3G capacity planning. In the developing age of GSM, if operators had issues with interference they simply changed frequencies. If they required more capacity from 3G they simply added channel elements. Nowadays, if an operator is looking to enhance 4G capacity it has a plethora of potential solutions to consider – including basic network optimisation, adding a carrier, deploying small cells, re-farming spectrum or looking at cloud RAN among others.

Hurry up and wait
In short, the operators aren’t in a hurry to address 4G capacity concerns because they are yet to bite. Network capacity planners are biding their time and the future technologists are sustaining prolonged trials of potential technology solutions like small cells without really knowing where they are needed most or how much they’ll cost. No small wonder the RAN infrastructure market is in decline and the big vendors are feeling the pressure.

The fact remains that all this is set to change. Dense 4G markets like the US, Japan and Korea will have to make some decisions on how they’ll build 4G capacity very soon. Other global carriers are watching with interest to see which technologies they select in which instances. This has given rise to much more strategic and detailed capacity planning techniques that assess each potential technology on a case by case basis. Such planning emphatically proves the business case for investment against a range of criteria that far exceed basic network data parameters.

Quiet capacity contemplation
Effective and futureproof strategic capacity planning starts with carriers investigating how they get more from what they already have. What gains can be made from network optimisation? Can sectors be effectively split in order to redirect traffic from another site? Once these tweaks and re-calibrations have reached their limits, operators will then consider the additional gains and advantages of technologies like small cells, eMBMS and adding a carrier (LTE-A).

Operators need greater visibility on the best capacity enhancing options available to them with many conducting traffic growth forecasts every three or six months – an illustration on the speed of changing network dynamics and technology requirements. These growth forecasts lead to network design reviews, which are needed to scrutinise the business cases of all technology solutions from a range of different perspectives.

Greater visibility, better decisions
Operators now urgently need to look at the profiles of users in busy cells to investigate the services they are consuming. This view is then combined with network KPIs, user call detail records and geolocated traffic analyses to project an accurate view of existing and future demand on the network. The specific nature of this demand can then be used to specify clear criteria in potential solutions to be installed, tested and analysed prior to mass scale orders. This strategic evaluation can deliver the business case and the confidence in the minds of the carriers that new technology solutions can stand the test of time.

Strategic capacity planning will deliver confidence to operators and boost their ability to make RAN equipment purchasing decisions. It will also sustain new levels of network efficiency as 4G technology continues to advance. Despite all the investment in 4G infrastructure, Dell’Oro Group maintain that overall RAN vendor revenues are actually lower now than they were prior to the iPhone launch in 2006. An unbelievable statistic given the acceleration in mobile data traffic and growth in 4G capacity. This underlines how RAN capacity per dollar has never been better. Strategic capacity planning will help operators ensure it remains so.