5G technology may be brand new, but the rollout processes that operators use to deploy networks must also evolve.
Operators hope that 5G can transform not just user experiences, but also their own business models. Although some shy away from the term, there’s no doubt that there is a race between operators to deploy 5G, on multiple fronts. There is a straight race for the most extensive geographical coverage, but also for the fastest throughputs, as well as for the best indoor and dense urban customer experiences.
This race to establish network supremacy will, it is hoped, bring with it the best customer experiences and the most customer engagement – driving existing customers to upgrade to 5G, attracting new customers from rival vendors, and establishing new B2B and B2B2C business models that exploit 5G’s network as a platform.
But for all this to happen, operators must out-perform their competition as they deploy new 5G sites across their target footprint efficiently, accurately and at speed.
Operators are spending valuable capex on deploying 5G sites, but they are encountering a lot of deployment related challenges
A further key challenge for operators is that 5G involves, or soon will involve, network densification. This is certainly true for those operators, such as major US players, that are deploying in mmWave bands. But it is also true for operators planning midband coverage in densely populated or high traffic areas where they will need to infill around the current macro grid to meet customer expectations.
More sites, more complex technology from a wider variety of vendors, new connections and upgraded site logistics all introduce the potential for more to go wrong at a site install.
An issue for too many operators is that the methods and processes they use to plan, deploy, commission and optimise cell sites are out of date, inefficient and inaccurate. This risks delaying rollout times, increasing the cost of deployments and damaging initial customer experience.
Vikram Prasad, Director RAN Services, Amdocs Open Network division, says, “Operators are spending valuable capex on deploying 5G sites, but they are encountering a lot of deployment related challenges.”
That’s because, Prasad says, a typical network rollout is still based on a classic manual driven process from planning to optimization and is tracked via a spreadsheet-based workflow management process. This introduces delays and haziness over ownership and responsibilities.
Tracking and accountability
Prasad: “The rollout process spans from design to optimisation, involving planners, designers, different equipment vendors, site acquisition specialists, zoning specialists, tower and field crews, Network Operating Centre (NOC) technicians, site test and drive test engineers. All of them are going to be responsible at some point for the design and deployment of that particular 5G site.”
“So when you look at accountability, transparency and governance, the operator must not only understand at which point of the rollout there is a choke point, but also know who’s responsible, what that specific vendor’s performance has been versus other vendors, if this is a common occurrence and so on. All that needs to be evaluated and figured out so that they can fine tune the process as they move forward.”
Prasad says that moving from a manually-controlled process to more automated workflows, with automated test and site acceptance tools, will be key to transforming that operating model.
“At the moment you have a project manager tracking everything from planning to design and then construction and optimisation by checking many spreadsheets. That often leads to a lack of transparency, ownership and misrepresentation of data. There are no clear SLAs that are defined and no defined change of ownership of a process, and no tracking capability across those multiple teams.”
“We have solutions that have been able to drive efficiency by tracking the process right from site visits all the way to deployment and tuning – with proper accountability and ownership at every phase.
“How we do it is by having guided tasks that provide timely notifications and reminders and avoid missing SLA obligations, leading to error free execution. Then there are easy ways by which we can approve or reject each stage, and then when it moves to the next phase, the process changes the owners and re-starts the clock. So that provides the operator with transparency and visibility as to how the project is moving on and where the pain points are.”
Automation from planning to acceptance
As well as this overall automation of the workflow, Prasad says that individual processes within the deployment cycle can be automated – from planning to post-construction testing, acceptance and fault-fixing. This is a critical element to driving efficiency in the process, cutting truck rolls, and increasing efficiency.
He says, “Starting at the site itself, we have valuable tools to help construction crews deploy and integrate the sites at a much faster pace. Traditionally, construction crews just construct and then you need to dispatch a qualified field technician to come in to do the integration, the scripting and turn-up of the site.”
Automation can actually help to have the tower crews use tools themselves to commission and integrate the site
Instead, using a mobile or web app, the tower crew themselves can run tests and scripts at the site, and then when they are done submit that work to the process, which then moves on to the next stage and team responsible.
“Automation can actually help to have the tower crews use tools themselves to commission and integrate the site – with a remote alarm clearing team working to clear alarms. This avoids having to dispatch a technician..
“More often than not, what happens is that once a field technician is on the site they find out that there is another alarm that is actually not cleared, and that requires the tower crew to return to the site to troubleshoot. That leads to additional delays and truck rolls.”
An automated process of alarm clearing at the NOC can instead replace this iterative, manual process.
Automated drive test analysis and driverless test
Before a site goes live, operators will schedule intensive drive testing, with captured data then taken and analysed for optimisation issues.
Prasad says, “That process entails logging into and fetching KPIs from the OSS, and then preparing reports for the health check of the site. So this entire process can take a very long time.”
Driverless, automated test solutions have reduced costs of this part of the process by 60%
“And then in the post-deployment phase, you know, operators have extensive drive test teams that perform their tests and then go back to the office and process that data. This is another area that can be further automated, by having driverless solutions and also with faster analysis of the data that is captured where you do have drive tests.”
Driverless solutions use call trace data to build up a picture of the RF environment, capturing events such as call drops and poor throughput. Engineers can then troubleshoot issues without leaving the office. Prasad says that driverless, automated test solutions from Amdocs have reduced costs of this part of the process by 60%.
Time to automate
Prasad says that although there are some leaders, the majority of operators have scope to streamline their 5G deployment processes considerably.
The operators do have a chance you know, there’s still time for them to catch up.
“A lack of process automation is definitely something we see in the majority of operators. Some of them do have some automation in place, and that is where they have looked at their entire process to figure out where exactly the choke point is and have tried to automate those processes.”
“But most operators need to look at their entire rollout cycle, see where the pain points are and adjust accordingly by automation. Now, there may be issues related to process and governance, for example, and that might be the only area where they need to automate those things. Or they might have issues in and around site turn-up or post-deployment tuning and optimisation.
“Amdocs’ “5G Fast” portfolio of services are powered by software driven automation backed by a highly skilled pool of talented people equipped with a comprehensive multi-technology and vendor agnostic software tool set to support high quality deployments. Amdocs provides this as a service to operators, driving automation as our service enabler.”
Prasad says that with the majority of 5G rollouts still in their infancy, the time to act is now. “The operators do have a chance you know, there’s still time for them to catch up,” he says.
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