Mobile communications is exploding. As people increasingly incorporate smartphones and tablets into their daily lives, networks are tasked with handling more video, more music, more games, and more social media. In fact, as data traffic on mobile devices exceeds an exabyte worldwide, the growing demand for mobility is straining resources and threatening to completely degrade the customer experience.
The bottom line for operators is that quality issues are unacceptable; they must provide a great user experience or customers will quickly take their money elsewhere. As a result, mobile operators face a difficult question: How do they fuel explosive demand for mobile services in order to generate revenue without spending every penny on the infrastructure needed to support it?
Many organizations are betting on 4G/Long Term Evolution (LTE) and its promise of increased capacity and speed at a lower cost. However, simply adding bandwidth may not be the answer. In Europe, for example, limited spectrum availability is making it difficult to deploy 4G/LTE in the region at all. The fundamental reality is that an operator cannot simply flip a switch and move all its traffic over 4G; new technologies must fit within the existing mobile environment. Also worth noting is that additional bandwidth may not improve quality at all if operators lack a true understanding of network and application performance, as well as resource utilization and customer experience.
Step 1: Understand the true customer experience
A critical, but often challenging first step for operators is to understand how a smartphone user actually experiences mobile communications. In the past, operators would include a monitoring system with each new technology or service they deployed. One monitoring tool might report voice quality and another might check the radio links between individual phones and mobile towers. This approach, however, is no longer viable in today's smartphone environment, where applications can utilize multiple services and network technologies in a single transaction.
Take the simple, everyday example of a saleswoman heading to an important meeting. Just outside the building she receives a crucial piece of information for her meeting from a colleague via email. As she walks toward the building she begins to download the file. Unfortunately, there is only General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) coverage inside the building (LTE and 3G RF cannot penetrate the walls). Her handset switches over to the much slower service and she cannot download the information in full before the meeting starts.
From a network-centric viewpoint-supervised by separate silo-based monitoring systems-everything worked perfectly. The handovers operated as specified and bandwidth was allocated properly. However, the operator has an unhappy customer, even if it doesn't know it.
Luckily, a new breed of customer experience management and service assurance solutions has emerged. Taking a more holistic approach to monitoring mobile communications, these comprehensive solutions capture and correlate data across all technologies, services, and applications to provide an end-to-end quality analysis for every communications transaction. More important, they provide metrics from the customer viewpoint, enabling operators to understand the subscribers' experience with each application and network resource used. These metrics, for example, report on whether a subscriber could successfully read email while walking from a 4G hotspot to a parking lot with Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) coverage, detect problems associated with users attempting to upload pictures to their Facebook page, and reveal the impact of streaming issues on subscribers who are using a new music application.
Gaining a complete picture of the customer experience is the first step to assuring it.
Step 2: Maintain quality in a busy world
In the real world, the saleswoman from our example is accessing a network that simultaneously supports millions of users attempting to successfully upload photos, chat with friends, get driving directions, order flowers, and more. With demand for bandwidth at an all-time high and continuing to increase daily, network resources are strained, a condition that can lead to degradation of network quality and a poor customer experience.
Careful investment is the key to maintaining quality-and profitability-under such demanding conditions. Rather than simply over-provisioning and waiting for networks to clog, mobile providers must proactively pinpoint how and where resources should be deployed. For instance, a simple mapping of applications to network resources will reveal chokepoints where degradation of quality can occur. If video is consistently performing poorly in a specific area, optimizing that portion of the network will generate significant, positive results. Similarly, validating communications transactions across different pieces of the network will reveal interoperability issues. By simply improving handovers between different network protocols, operators could significantly boost the overall quality of the customer experience.
Proactively monitoring the customer experience from end-to-end in a holistic manner will empower mobile providers to quickly identify service-impacting issues, troubleshoot to find the cause of the problems before they affect customers, and optimize the quality of the experience.
Step 3: Find the balance
There is no doubt that maintaining a great customer experience in the mobile world is complex. Simply managing the handovers between different technologies, the variables in Quality of Service (QoS) metrics for different applications, and the way different smartphones communicate with the network is extremely difficult. Not to mention that, every day, users are downloading new applications and chewing up bandwidth at an unprecedented rate.
In the end, however, subscribers don't care about hardware issues-they simply want a service or application to work when they want it to work. A recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive revealed that, whether right or wrong, nearly half of smartphone users blame their Mobile Network Operator for service problems. Clearly, the burden is on service providers to ensure that everything operates smoothly and seamlessly.
Luckily, next-generation holistic service assurance solutions offer a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture. They provide a true understanding of the customer experience since they utilize the wide range of devices and mobile applications available today. Because these tools correlate such a vast amount of data on network utilization, they also provide operators with the intelligence needed to optimize their infrastructure investments and ensure bandwidth availability.
In the end, device explosion will not stop at the next iPad or Droid release. Every day, mobile communications becomes a greater part of our daily routines. To be successful, operators must leverage every resource at their disposal to continuously assure a great customer experience and capitalize on the tremendous potential of mobile communications.