Mobile operators face an unprecedented growth in data traffic stemming from a long- awaited growth in data services along multiple dimensions — subscribers, devices, applications. But simply adding more macro base stations or upgrading to new technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE) will not suffice to meet the data growth challenge.
Operators need to adopt a new approach to expand network capacity and utilization — one that requires new topologies, new technologies, new hardware form factors and new traffic management tools. Heterogeneous networks provide operators with a more flexible set of tools that will allow them to implement deep changes in how they think about their networks and how they deploy them. They will also allow operators to move from what still is a voice-centric cellular network to a truly Internet protocol– based data network.
However, no single paradigm for deploying heterogeneous networks across markets exists — and we don’t expect one to emerge. Rather, mobile operators need to first understand what the specific drivers of traffic growth are and address them one by one with the most suitable solutions. Network enhancements have to be tailored to the specific requirements of different environments within their networks.
In the radio access network (RAN), new LTE networks, further spectrum allocations and further macrocell deployments will provide network-wide capacity increases. Specific challenges from indoor-generated traffic in public and residential locations and from high subscriber concentration in urban outdoor hotspots require additional solutions, such as small cells, femtocells and Wi-Fi offload.
In the core, mobile operators have the opportunity to deploy tools that increase the utilization of the existing RAN resources, enabling them to extract more value from what they already have invested in. Content optimization, policy and tiered services are some of the most valuable tools in managing content and user experience in more- sophisticated ways, and they strike the right balance between lowering the per-bit cost of transporting traffic and maximizing the revenue opportunity across market segments.
With the transition to heterogeneous networks, mobile operators have to face the coexistence and integration of multiple air interfaces, base station form factors, network layers and traffic management solutions — and get used to managing more- diverse and complex networks. The evolution requires more than incremental changes — i.e., more capacity and more base stations. It entails deep and difficult changes in the operations and overall corporate culture. As a result, the pace of change is slower than technology and product availability allows, and it is different across markets, often as a function of the competitive environment pressures to innovate.
Change is under way, however. Mobile operators have a powerful toolkit first to understand what the sources of data traffic’s increasing are and how they change over time and across parts of the networks, and then to implement tightly focused solutions when and where they are needed.