|Issue:||Europe I 2013|
|Topic:||Using software mobile cores to help mobile networks match demand|
Andy Odgers is the founder and CEO of Quortus.
Previously Mr Odgers was the founder and Technical Director of Zynetix.
The traditional centralised approach of building networks with large-scale proprietary hardware is being replaced by distributed alternatives. The logic of small cell deployments is now being applied to the mobile network core. Software mobile cores open up a new approach to network intelligence as well as a number of new revenue opportunities for operators.
Mobile networks have evolved over the past two years perhaps more rapidly than at any time since their inception; the catalyst for this being the boom in data usage. Yet despite this obvious success, operators find their networks struggling to match the almost insatiable consumer appetite for data services they helped create. The answer lies in building smarter networks, using lower cost equipment to deliver network intelligence where it’s needed, rather than persisting with an inefficient centralised approach.
Operators looking to augment their networks to meet demand have found the traditional approach of large-scale, high-cost proprietary hardware too expensive and as such, have turned to low-cost distributed alternatives. This change in thinking has to date manifested itself primarily in the radio network with large base stations being supplemented by inexpensive small cells – a shift not unlike the evolution from mainframe computing to the PC era. Operator commitment to this distributed/lower-cost approach is illustrated by the growing number of small cell deployments worldwide and the fact that as of November 2012, small cells outnumber their macro cell cousins.
Software mobile cores
Small cells, however, are just part of a larger trend. This logic is being applied now to the mobile network core which has been distilled into a compact software application that would typically comprise multiple racks of expensive proprietary hardware. These software mobile cores can be installed on lower-cost off-the-shelf hardware significantly reducing the cost of core networks.
For operators this is a huge boon; they are able to easily, at relatively low expense, bolster their core networks to better manage their traffic. Distilling the mobile core in to a low cost application also opens up new opportunities for other groups. For instance, MVNOs and smaller regional operators for whom core network upgrades may be almost prohibitively expensive now have the choice of installing these software mobile cores on to commodity hardware at a fraction of the cost without compromising on functionality.
Software mobile cores, however, do much more than just lower costs – they can open up a new approach to network intelligence. These applications can even be installed at small cell sites, shifting core intelligence to the network edge. This creates a new generation of ultra-smart small cells capable of acting as complete mobile networks. In doing so, operators looking to build-out their networks can deploy small cells – such as outdoor metro cells or femtocells – equipped with core network intelligence, and do so at a dramatically reduced cost compared to that which traditional approaches would incur.
Moving from the orthodox centralised approach to one that embraces distributed intelligence yields a number of other benefits. Handling core functions at the edge – such as call-switching and data-caching – leads to reduced usage of backhaul and the traditional core. In a world where backhaul represents mobile operators’ single largest Opex, this has the potential to generate significant savings on operators’ costs. Likewise, by handling local calls and data at the cell site, latency and network congestion are reduced, improving the overall user experience.
The increased cost-effectiveness of software mobile cores also opens up a number of new revenue opportunities for operators. Mobile services in rural communities have long been considered uneconomical due to their small and diffuse populations coupled with their distance from existing network infrastructure. This is no longer the case if you deploy a solar-powered small cell with edge-based intelligence in the form of a software mobile core. Using satellite backhaul where necessary, rural communities such as isolated African villages can have access to mobile voice and data services, caching data content locally – such as weather reports and updates on market prices for produce – which is particularly important to what tend to be largely agricultural communities. By turning small cells into complete mobile networks, the concerns associated with the low RoI that provisioning for these groups usually brings are alleviated, expanding operators’ reach while also narrowing the digital divide.
Opportunities for the enterprise
The second setting where this technology can be particularly useful is in enterprises, an area operators have had trouble successfully targeting. By putting core network intelligence into enterprise femtocells or picocells, traffic can be intercepted before it goes to the traditional network core and where required, directed to the enterprise’s own communications products. Thanks to this, a regular mobile phone has access to all unified comms features ranging from the basics such as extension dialling to the more complex such as click to dial and dual ringing. Suddenly the cell phone – with no need for any downloaded client – is the equal of any other IP extension and users no longer have to sacrifice functionality whenever they use it. Furthermore, when using enterprise apps, traffic can be redirected straight from the small cell to the on-site servers, thereby avoiding the mobile core altogether and speeding data access considerably.
The virtue of this solution is that it satisfies the needs of SMEs and operators alike. Organisations can turn mobile handsets into powerful IP extensions without yielding control to operators: IT departments stay in charge. At the same time, operators can offer a genuinely appealing enterprise proposition for the first time while also offloading traffic from their network, thereby lowering costs.
Consumer appetite for cellular services and the public’s reliance on mobile devices worldwide continues apace. As such, operators are compelled to search out more elegant solutions than the traditional heavy-iron approach to managing traffic which is proving to be neither practical nor economical. Condensing the mobile core into a software application neatly navigates the challenges that operators are facing: allowing them to bolster their core network without exorbitant costs as well as place core intelligence at the edge, where it’s needed, to create an altogether more efficient network.
At the same time, this change in approach is also creating new revenue opportunities for operators through a new generation of ultra-smart small cells powered by edge-based network intelligence. These small cells are already making their first steps in to the wild with a few deployments, particularly in enterprises yet this just the start of something much bigger. As operators fight against the data deluge and continue to hunt for new sources of income, expect them to abandon the big boxes and base stations of old and embrace a smaller, software-based future.