Self-Organizing Networks (SON) technology has been in the background for years, but over the past couple of months the noise surrounding it has grown, as operators discover the powerful impact that it can have on their network.
SON reduces the complexity of networks by automating the provisioning, configuration and reconfiguration of the Radio Access Network. It utilizes various network elements including user equipment and base stations as probes to collect intelligence. SON uses this intelligence to decide on parameter changes that it makes automatically to the network. This in turn optimizes coverage, capacity and performance of the network. It means far less manual optimization for engineers, but more importantly a far better user experience for subscribers who benefit from improved mobile broadband speeds, greater capacity, and fewer dropped calls.
However, there remains a flaw with many of the SON systems available today, and that is their inability to optimize both 4G and 3G networks from a single solution. In developed markets and indeed a number of emerging markets, the proliferation of 4G rollouts means that many operators around the world are simultaneously managing 4G and 3G as well as 2G networks, meaning there is already a large degree of complexity in network management as it is, without needing to manage two separate SON systems. In order for SON to become integral to a multi-network operator strategy, SON solutions need to “up their game” and optimize both 3G and 4G from one central point.
Traditional Distributed SON (D-SON) can only optimize 4G networks. Therefore, when SON is discussed, especially by OEMs, there is often a heavy emphasis on 4G, leaving 3G out in the cold. However, there is huge value in utilizing SON on 3G networks, bearing in mind that 4G data consumption accounts for less than 3 percent of global data usage according to ABI Research estimates. Whether an operator has a 4G network or not, using SON on its 3G network makes absolute sense – and this is where many of the SON implementations are currently happening.
This is where Centralized SON (C-SON) comes into play. C-SON can enable operators to increase capacity, improve and maximize existing 3G networks. That means that SON technology is automatically balancing the network traffic on 3G small cells and macro cells, increasing capacity and speeds and ensuring the subscriber receives the best experience possible – all on the network access technology that is under the most pressure. Yet, unfortunately, many C-SON solutions do not yet manage 4G networks.
It is vital that network equipment providers in particular move towards providing SON that works across multiple access technologies in order to provide an “all-in-one” solution - further simplifying network optimization for operators. Network technologies need to work together in order to provide seamless connectivity. Optimizing the entire network from a single control point will ensure that the entire network has optimal coverage and can guarantee seamless handover between cell towers and access technologies.
Another issue with multiple SON solutions working on the same heterogeneous network is that there is a risk of conflicting commands being authorised. In a worst-case scenario, conflicting actions could potentially damage the entire network, causing outages that could last hours or even days. However, if a single solution is controlling the optimization across different technologies this greatly reduces the likelihood of conflicting decisions being made.
There are also external pressures on OEMs to provide SON across 3G and 4G networks, in the form of standardization projects such as SEMAFOUR. SEMAFOUR’s ultimate goal is to create a unified self-management system to manage and operate complex heterogeneous mobile networks. This will require solutions that have multi-access technology control and optimization.
Failing to provide multi-network SON, OEMs are in danger of being side-lined as operators will find alternative vendors capable of 3G and 4G optimization in one package. Although the future lies with 4G and beyond, 3G networks will still remain part of operators’ strategies for a long time to come. In this data driven world, capacity and coverage maximization is pivotal across all access technologies and with the SON ethos being to simplify network management, needing two implementations to manage both 3G and 4G goes against the whole simplifying spirit of SON.