With mobile operators keen to implement impending network upgrades in the most effective manner, Colin Garrett explores how they can limit network planning costs in the face of the economic downturn
Mobile operators are under increasing pressure to provide the best service to their customers at the most competitive rates. The next 12 months will see operators across Europe struggling to strike a sensible balance between the need to roll out the latest network upgrades and avoiding passing additional costs on to the end user. With the difficult economic situation affecting industries across Europe, all eyes are on reducing costs across the board, and for mobile operators this means reviewing spend involved in the initial planning stages of the network through to the training of customer-facing staff.
With the rise in popularity of the smartphone device during 2008, consumers and business users are demanding improved mobile data speeds to access more content via mobile. The race is on for mobile operators to boost data speeds by rolling out HSPA and LTE networks as soon as possible. The first step in upgrading existing mobile networks is to gather sufficient network data to identify areas of high mobile penetration and expose any areas that may be lacking in coverage and capacity before choosing which areas of the network require the most urgent upgrade work.
A common cost-effective approach to test the network is to seed drive test tools in business van fleets. Drive test systems enable wireless operators to view their own and their competitors' wireless voice and data services from the perspective of the subscriber by providing critical quality-of-service (QoS) measurements. Network designers can then use portable test transmitters to verify optimal antenna positioning and as a low power source for testing the design and functionality of RF repeaters and base stations. This allows operators to limit infrastructure costs by identifying the correct products for network upgrades.
It has become widely accepted in the ICT industry that the correct method for analysing the cost of a vendor's products or services is to do a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) analysis. Rather than focusing solely on price, buyers of ICT products and services must consider the additional, often hidden, costs of training, operating, managing and upgrading their purchases. Addressing only the purchase price will not sufficiently make a difference.
TCO is more than the original cost of purchasing the system. We have found that more than 70 per cent of the TCO is involved in non-purchasing activities. It must include all direct and indirect costs associated with mobile network data gathering and drive test systems. Drive test systems have a typical life span of five years. At some institutions this life span may be more like ten years, but in both cases the older units are removed and abandoned as redundant because they cannot be used to test and measure the latest network infrastructure upgrades.
There are many factors and elements that make up the TCO for mobile network data gathering with drive test systems. Over the last ten years, the TCO for drive test tools has continued to increase due to technological advancements, drive test product limitations and increased Mobile Network Operator (MNO) competition. Those institutions that have already addressed and developed strategies and programming to reduce the cost of ownership of mobile network data gathering systems are now seeing benefits. Institutions that have not yet addressed this issue are probably not seeing a cost reduction. In fact, institutions and companies that have not addressed TCO are continuing to experience out-of-control cost increases for mobile network data gathering and drive test systems.
Sweeping changes and improvements in technology continue to challenge the mobile industry to reshape and redefine how best to deploy mobile network data gathering systems. Individual organisations will find that it can prove expensive to stay current unless they have a handle on what it takes to acquire, implement, and support drive test tools. By addressing the components that make up the TCO, an institution will be in a position to take full advantage of the latest innovation in mobile network data gathering techniques. It will become very difficult, even impossible, to implement an institutional mobile network data gathering and drive test methodology aimed at including HSPA results if an enterprise is using a bespoke technology and frequency limited system.
Introducing the wrong drive test systems to your network can be very costly. Being aware of the TCO components is the first step in lowering your mobile network data gathering cost. We have found that limiting choices and setting standards are the best methods for starting to get control of your drive test systems cost. Whereas ensuring that all parties use a single type of system is usually the fastest way to bring mobile network data gathering and drive test systems costs under control, it is not always easy to implement when both individuals and group networks have developed enough expertise and knowledge to be able to specify and utilise their own drive test systems.
The implementation of "soft standards", including significant economies of scale, simplified purchasing procedures and centralised training support, will work best in bringing the entire enterprise to accept a standard and limited choice. Nevertheless limited choice should still offer enough variety to cover the end user's requirements, including engineering (optimization and integration), special coverage groups (in-building and special coverage projects), marketing (benchmarking) and management (key network performance indices).
As already established, institutional TCO consists of more than simply the original purchase of hardware and software. We have defined seven different base elements that make up the cost components for drive test systems. These base elements are purchase price for all hardware and software, staff training costs, installation and implementation costs, support services and update costs, cost of required functional upgrades, technology upgrades, interoperability costs. Each of these base elements includes several types of expenditures.
The purchase price includes all direct and indirect purchases for a drive test system, namely the drive test tool hardware, software, data collection supported devices, and log file (output) manipulation. The price should also include warranties, extended warranties and maintenance agreements.
Training costs will include all direct and indirect expenditures for training activity required to effectively run the drive test system. Formal and informal training usually occurs with the installation of the drive test system. Costs and methods vary according to vendor.
Installation and implementation costs include all direct and indirect expenditures involved in ensuring that the system is installed correctly and meets an institution's standard operating procedures. This may vary from tools needed for hardware installation to server configuration to accommodate the storage and access of log files.
Support services costs include all staff costs incurred in providing adequate personnel support to the drive test system. This includes on-site technical support, as well remote support via telephone, e-mail and the Internet. Installers, troubleshooters and skilled support staff are all involved in maintaining the system.
Functional change upgrade costs comprise both direct and indirect expenditures necessary to make ongoing changes to the drive test systems operation. This will allow the institution to increase its drive test efficiencies, including the deployment of the latest software updates, the addition of extra parameters, and the improvement of data displays.
Technology upgrades costs should take into account both the direct and indirect costs involving in acquiring new tools or upgrading the current system to be compatible with new mobile devices as well as the latest mobile technologies, i.e. CDMA 1x to EVDO or HSPA to LTE.
Through a careful step-by-step consideration of each of the elements that constitute the TCO for a vendor's drive test system, mobile operators can reach an informed decision as to the cost effectiveness of a vendor's tool set. Although wireless network data gathering comprises only one aspect of the network planning process, an accurate TCO evaluation for drive test systems is a great place to start in order to ensure maximum cost and performance efficiency across an institution's entire remit. At a time when businesses need to evaluate every area of their spend in order to retain the highest possible competitive advantage in a saturated market, mobile operators cannot afford to base buying decisions solely on purchasing price, but must instead consider all aspects of TCO across their wireless networks.
Colin Garrett is Product Manager, Test and Measurement Systems, Andrew