We are in the new era of telecommunications networks that covers provisioning of network services, its architecture, engineering and operations, while being upheld by other disparate requirements including increased service quality, flexibility in services to the need to reduce Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and Operational Expenditure (OPEX). Telecommunications service providers have to struggle with massive volumes of operational processes like managing data, controlling costs, increasing business agility, creating new models/services and enhancing business efficiency as they continue to manage continuous integration and deployment of software necessary for network upgradation.
Moreover, as Telcos’ are moving forward with radio network optimization, 4G KPI optimization, 3G optimization to implement 3G, 4G, and more extensively 5G on a broader geographical area, with each passing day to connect more and more people around the world, automation is not just an option but a mandate that will transform their regular processes and orchestrate huge volumes of complex operational processes, coordinating with multitude of data and network domains that would never be feasible with operations carried out by humans.
Low operational costs
Enhanced customer satisfaction
Increased operational efficiency
Reduction in customer complaints
Less processing time
The expansion of 4G radio network parameters and wide-scale deployment of 5G networks has led to an increased number of subscribers making customer-facing operations, planning, deployment, maintenance, optimisation of Radio Access Networks (RAN) very complex. Such repetitive tasks are preventing them to focus on other crucial activities and customer-complaints. But what are the main challenges that are hindering them to move ahead in this process:
No proper knowledge in the technology like RAN automation has imbibed a fear in operators that they would end up in implementing counter productive automation that could lead them to loss in the number of users and poor network quality.
Less experienced staff in new-age technologies such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology.
No sufficient budget allocated for automation on CI/CD based deployments that could significantly result in cost and efficiency benefits.
However, putting RAN automation into action, Telcos’ can follow a certain process to automate their different RAN (Radio Access Network) functions for 4G, 5G networks and reduce their time and cost, enhancing their productivity and delivering broad business benefits.
Some of the use cases are as given below:
5G deployment can be automated
Performance check of cell towers with RAN automation
RAN automation detects sleeping cells on cell towers
Troubleshooting RAN performance with RAN automation
As the number of 5G network sites is growing with an increase in deployment, network operators have been keen on monitoring network performance. For instance, automation can surely help operators come out of this difficult situation as they deploy hundreds of sites with cell towers where validation will be carried by autonomously monitoring key performance KPIs and allowing AI module pass site acceptance whenever a change occurs like upgrading to new RAN software. RAN automation will shift the whole paradigm about critical networks such as 5G and can be easily managed with automated testing, and optimization of networks.
Example, automation can identify new 5G cell sites which are poorly performing for last 30 days since the time of integration and assign auto ticket to deployment team who are responsible for initial integration and acceptance of site. Automation solution can also provide additional information on root cause of failure for engineers to quickly fix the issue.
Cell tower performance needs to be checked at regular intervals to identify any kind of persisting issues and correct it to improve the overall performance. Let’s say, a network provider has 50-60 cell sites and only one technician is assigned to take care of them. Now, it is really hard for a technician to evaluate each and every cell site and recognise cell towers based on user KPIs such as low voice, data and no network coverage signals. An automated system in this regard can assist in identifying top cell towers where voice and data performance are degraded, send alarms, generate reports, take self-healing actions wherever required. This reduces extra effort on evaluating each cell site and engineers can start resolving issues as per the reports and focus on problematic sites, spend their time on fixing these performances issues and optimise network parameters accordingly.
Sleeping cells are the nodes in a telecommunication network of a cell that is transmitted on a broadcast channel. Though it seems to be active, but doesn’t respond to signals like voice calls. Operators deploy RAN automation to take corrective actions that include sending an alarm to the network operations team to notify about the sleeping cell and implement self-healing actions to bring back cells into service.
Cellular Radio Access Networks (RAN) is the backbone for providing connectivity to millions of Internet subscribers in today’s world and is crucial for network management. But in order to achieve high performance, mobile operators must identify factors impacting RAN and diagnose performance problems rapidly.
User mobility, interference, traffic pattern, network coverage, equipment failures, unoptimized configuration radio network parameters, inefficient algorithms are some of the key factors that impact RAN performance. Multiple base stations clubbed with user mobility and shared radio media access make it quite difficult to assess its performance. As different teams are involved in their own set of tasks, like RF team, modem team, or the call processing team, there are certain times resulting in disagreements on who should handle the ticket raised. In addition to that, even after extensive troubleshooting, most of the problems can recur. RAN automation can certainly automate RAN diagnosis and assist in radio network optimization in 5G KPI, 4G KPI optimization, 3G optimization, with reduced efforts of the workforce and accurate results to deliver high-network performance to network subscribers. This can be achieved by defining business process flows and building automation work flows.
Telecom operators perform tests on 4G, and 5G mobile networks on lab environment where in test engineers maybe located remotely. Traditionally, whenever a software of base station upgraded, RF Test engineers needed to perform large number of regression test cases requiring significant time effort and this is mandatory to ensure there is no impact to services or performance degradation by deploying new version of software on live network. For instance, it would take about 1.5 months for three RF engineers to perform testing around 600 test cases for a RAN software upgrade. Any major bugs reported during this testing phase on new software versions would further extend testing and retesting majority of test cases. Hence, there is a business need to reduce this testing time efforts to as short as possible and release new software to market at the earliest to benefit the mobile users and build a strong competitive edge in the market.
Automation platform such as RantCell, is an Android-based solution that can automate repetitive testing activities at a minimal time with less manual effort. Having said that, it means using RantCell platform can reduce this 1.5 month of regression efforts down to just three days. In addition, it has remote testing capabilities that will enable operators to perform 5G network tests on remote RAN lab, abiding by work from home norms and without visiting the cell tower site in situations like COVID-19.
A specific cell can be locked to perform drive test. As an example, 4G LTE cell at a test location with a selected bandwidth like LTE 40, LTE 25, and so on Check the method below to unlock cell lock / band lock feature on your Android smartphone and execute test with RantCell solution:
Below is an example showing reduction in time efforts (in days) applying automation testing benchmarked with manual testing.
The above graph shows the number of days required to execute 600 test cases in each of testing as mentioned.
Here, we have assumed 600 test cases to be performed by 3 RF engineers in 1.5 months whereas performing it via RantCell automated solution can reduce manual efforts to just 3 days.
Automation and operational efficiency require Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment (CI/CD). From a Communication Service Provider’s perspective, automation of software update deployments is becoming a critically important aspect to consider in ongoing operations efficiency. This is leading to an increase in the adoption of CI/CD technology to manage networks in a more organised manner. With Continuous Integration (CI), all network software configuration is done in bits instead of large batches ensuring cleaner code, less integration bugs, short time-to-market of new products, and delivery of Virtual Network Functions updates on a predictable and reliable schedule. On the other hand, Continuous Delivery (CD) is being used to automate repetitive, toilsome configuration tasks in networks and management operations to make the network delivery life cycle in a predictable and manageable way.
As demand for 5G networks is accelerating, CI/CD framework becomes critical for continuous software configuration testing and validation of networks. Leveraging CI/CD automation in 5G will let telcos manage tasks even higher complexed ones with same amount of people enabled with different capabilities resulting in less operational expenditure, enhanced software quality and expedite its deployment. Telcos need to adapt themselves to the agile method of working leaving behind their traditional methods to enable rapid transformation and reap business value. A case in point, Swisscom, a telecommunications company partnered with Ericsson and embraced CI/CD automation solution to expedite 5G rollout with continuous measurement of 5G KPIs on 5G radio access network. As a result, it reduced OPEX by 65%, improving the software quality and quickening deployment of the applications.
RAN automation capabilities are yet to be unfolded as still 56% of MNOs are not well versed with the power of automation in their networks. RAN automation platforms with cutting-edge technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) are paving the way to achieve maximum automation maturity and can map technical requirements to end-to-end network functions service chains, delivering customized fit connectivity to each user. Leveraging automation and use of CI/CD technology, MNOs will be able to expand their capabilities and give the best of network services with telecom automation testing tools to play a great part in this race and become one of the best mobile network service providers.
Though there are several challenges associated with RAN automation, deploying it in the right way can be beneficial in terms of various use cases as discussed above. Further, having real-time automated telecom operations model like CI/CD to monitor network operations can not only fasten operators’ key operational processes and reduce their manual efforts but also give better customer experiences being connected to the unparalleled network, flourishing their growth and bringing more revenues. Early adopters of automation and strictly adhering to a structured framework that clearly showcases their business objectives and customer requisites can go very far in the long race.