Wireless operators should consider remote possibilities

Date: Mon, 11/29/2010 - 20:36

As wireless operators look to lower their expenditure in a frosty financial environment, John Baker, Vice President and General Manager, Network Solutions, for CommScope’s Andrew Solutions, explains how remote monitoring can save time and money

Wireless operators should consider remote possibilities John Baker, Vice President and General Manager, Network Solutions, for CommScope’s Andrew Solutions

The perfect economic storm may be abating, but the telecoms industry is still struggling to keep its head above water after the financial tsunami of 2008-09.
Globally, wireless operators face increased capital and operational expenditure (CapEx, OpEx) to support the rollout of next-generation network infrastructure. Meanwhile, the pre-existing issues facing them, such as market saturation, increased competition and regulatory intervention, have all been exacerbated by the recession. A recent report from Ovum highlighted that “revenue growth is in decline for many mature market operators and slowing for those in emerging markets”.
For operators worldwide then, 2011 and beyond will be about driving efficiencies, increasing performance and reducing costs. However, as wireless networks continue to grow in size and complexity, so does the cost of maintaining and managing them to ensure peak efficiency. Larger and more widely dispersed network infrastructure also means that operators face greater difficulty in identifying areas where such savings can be made.

Minimising site visits
One major area of expense that wireless operators should look to streamline is their dependence upon network site visits. Currently, experienced technicians must regularly visit each site to configure equipment, perform maintenance and implement repairs. This inefficient use of a technician’s time is often costly, as is the added expense of subsidising their travel.
If operators adopt the ability to remotely monitor and control base station functions, they can vastly reduce the need for physical inspections. “Soft alarms” can warn operators when equipment begins to fall below optimum performance – allowing them to choose the best time to respond and thus enabling multiple problems to be solved in one visit. The ability to make remote adjustments, like altering thermostat settings, also completely negates the need for visits just to change infrastructure settings. For example, the remote tuning of antennas means orientation adjustments can be made as many times as necessary without any additional site visits. This also allows for inexpensive fine tuning to optimise network performance.
Currently, technicians often need to visit a site a second time to complete repairs, since they may not know the specific fault it is experiencing until they physically asses it. This knowledge gap means that they often lack the necessary equipment or replacement parts to effect repairs on a first visit. However, with remote systems in place to monitor everything from smoke alarms to generators and site temperature, operators will have a far greater understanding of the specific problem that has occurred and technicians will be better prepared to solve faults immediately.
By remotely tracking equipment failure patterns and the maintenance associated with individual sites, wireless operators can also achieve huge savings. For example, an operator might know that a particular backhaul antenna has failed twice in the last six months and therefore choose to decommission and replace it, rather than effect another repair – heading off the need for a future site visit to maintain clearly faulty infrastructure.
By enabling technicians to remedy problems more quickly, remote monitoring and control can even help operators to improve overall service quality. The early detection of impending problems before they become critical can have a substantial effect on reducing the quality problems that subscribers are able to perceive. In an increasingly competitive and crowded market, maintaining an excellent service level is essential to avoiding customer churn.

Improving security
Theft and vandalism continue to be a costly problem for operators worldwide, particularly those with networks supporting isolated base stations.
In many African countries the unreliability of the national electricity grid has meant that operators often rely on diesel generators to provide the primary power for network sites. However, the unstable power supply has also raised the value of power generating equipment, increasing the incidence of generator, diesel and transformer theft. Another common target of theft, and by no means limited to emerging markets, are the expensive copper co-axial feeder cables and other components connecting base station antennas. The soaring price of copper has made many elements of telecoms infrastructure an ideal target for thieves.
One way for operators to efficiently reduce their losses from theft and vandalism is to implement remote monitoring solutions like IP cameras, motion detectors, generator fuel management and door access control systems. These systems can play as large a roll in deterring crime as in criminal detention, apprehension and prosecution. For the highest value sites, remote monitoring can even be used to implement additional security protocols, such as requiring the visual verification of personnel before remotely unlocking a door.

Reducing energy consumption
As energy costs continue to rise, operators cannot ignore the need to maximise their power efficiency. Often a site temperature setting reduction of just 1 degree can create significant savings in the power used to cool equipment over the long-term.
Unfortunately, technicians often alter the temperature settings of network sites by many degrees to make it more comfortable to work. This can create significant costs if the thermostat settings are not returned normal when the technician leaves. If operators are able to monitor the temperature of their sites and remotely adjust thermostat settings, such unnecessary drains on OpEx can be eliminated.
By utilising energy and fuel more efficiently, operators can also greatly reduce the environmental impact of their networks. For example, every site visit expends fuel. The more trips taken, the more fuel burned - which translates to the more CO2 produced. By deploying remote control solutions across a network, the number of site visits required can be significantly reduced, thereby lowering an operator’s overall carbon footprint.  This is increasingly important given that organisations in every area of business are coming under mounting public and governmental pressure to lower their carbon emissions.

Holistic network management
While all of the areas discussed above can generate great savings for operators, the effective holistic management of network sites is not easy to achieve. Operators must be able to monitor high-value assets widely dispersed across hundreds, or even thousands, of network sites to ensure on-going network efficiency.
Clearly, implementing separate systems to manage antennas, dry contact alarms, temperature control, power management and a host of other variables would not be possible. In order to accomplish this in a practical way operators require a turnkey system designed to fully manage site equipment from one central location, which can track alarms and equipment status, as well as configuration and maintenance.
Managing network sites in a consolidated way will not only reduce software and hardware expenditure, but also increase reliability, maintainability and efficiency while reducing the cost of training personnel, as it reduces the number of systems staff must become familiar with.
Given the huge investments made in telecoms networks, it is essential that operators introduce processes to streamline the management of cost-saving activities wherever possible. In confronting these challenges, remote asset management and maintenance tracking are often overlooked weapons in an operator’s arsenal - yet they may also be their most powerful ones.

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