It’s alive! AT&T’s networks become self-aware

AT&T (s t) is using Intucell’s self-optimizing network (SON) technology to turn its mobile broadband networks from what are now static collections of cells into the networking equivalent of an organism. Rather than meekly pass subscribers back and forth, AT&T’s 4G cells will become aware of the network as a whole, expanding and contracting to meet the capacity needs of its subscribers as they move throughout.

Sounds like science fiction, but this is real technology commercially available today. Israeli startup Intucell has already deployed it in its home country with operator Pelephone and is engaged in multiple other trials. AT&T, however, is the big fish, and Intucell is hoping its nationwide launch of the technology across its HSPA and LTE networks will validate SON for the rest of the world.

I detailed how Intucell’s dynamic SON platform works in December, but in short, it uses a distributed network intelligence to track the network’s health and levels of congestion. It then adjusts the transmission power of each cell in the network to create the best possible configuration for both coverage and capacity. Quite literally cell towers start following you, expanding their cell radii as you move closer to their edges, while neighboring cells recede. By moving the network around you as you yourself move through the network, SON can find the optimal overall topology at any given movement to provide the best coverage and capacity to thousands of users within a cluster of cells. It’s pretty cool stuff.

So what’s the benefit? According to AT&T, its initial trials of the technology over HSPA networks in two markets resulted in a 10 percent reduction in dropped calls. That is a tangible benefit, but it is nothing when you compare it to SON’s impact on mobile data capacity. AT&T isn’t releasing any numbers on how SON improved data performance, but Intucell pointed to data it has collected from other trials.

According to Intucell CEO Rani Wellingstein, the technology can reduce cell congestion anywhere from 10 to 40 percent depending on the configuration of the network, allowing operators to pack more capacity onto less infrastructure. Those capacity increases are also passed onto the consumer in the form of faster speeds. SON can boost the average throughput by up to 15 percent of the network’s theoretical limit, which in many cases could equate to a 1 Mbps or greater increase in downlink speeds.

“AT&T is perceived as the operator with the highest data crunch problem,” Wellingstein said. “It has the highest penetration of smartphones and the highest penetration of iPhones. It makes sense that it would be the first operator in North America to deploy dynamic SON.”

SON has other benefits. It can make networks self-healing. If a cell site is down — which, according to Wellingstein, is the case for 1 to 2 percent of the world’s cells at any given time — the surrounding cells can expand their radius to fill the hole in the network. When the site is repaired the cells retract to their normal size.

AT&T is moving aggressively with the technology. It started trialing Intucell’s platform last April, but it plans to have the technology in all of its networks nationwide by the end of the year. Intucell and AT&T did not disclose the financial terms of their deal, but Wellingstein said deploying SON is a fraction of the cost of adding the same capacity through new radio infrastructure. He said a U.S. operator could add basic SON functions to a nationwide network for around $50 million. Not exactly cheap, but in a country the size of the U.S., even the most modest network deployment can run multiple billions of dollars.