The telecommunications industry finds itself, once again, at a crossroads. The move from 4G to 5G is a giant leap in terms of network infrastructure and investment, and companies cannot afford to make the wrong choices in planning their rollout.
5G relies on higher bands of frequencies than current cellular networks, which means it has a shorter range. To enable pervasive 5G coverage, providers will not only need to upgrade their existing base stations but also build many more in new locations. The construction process is extremely expensive, so companies need to plan carefully to ensure return on investment. Placing a 5G base station in an area where few customers have 5G-capable phones, for example, is a poor choice.
This might sound like a solved problem – after all, telcos have successfully managed similar rollouts for 3G and 4G networks. However, the increased density of the 5G cell network means that demand forecasts need to be much higher resolution, which makes the forecasting process more complex by several orders of magnitude.
Moreover, making the right decisions on 5G investments – and on many other aspects of network planning and management – has become enormously more difficult due to COVID-19. Relying on historical data to forecast future demand patterns is problematic because the behaviour of both consumers and corporate clients has changed dramatically since the pandemic began. And while the current lockdown conditions and other restrictions may not exist forever, it is likely that some of these new behaviour patterns may persist and become the new normal once the crisis has passed.
1. Increased network traffic
Internet interconnection hubs across Europe have seen a huge increase in demand since the crisis hit, with record spikes attributed to events such as releases of popular online videogames such as Fortnite and Call of Duty. With most of the population staying home, videogames and video on-demand services have become a central part of people’s lives, and a vital morale booster when most normal social activities and entertainments are not an option.
The rapid uptake of video conferencing services such as Zoom for both professional and personal communications is also putting pressure on the bandwidth of current networks. As businesses pivot to remote working and schools and universities extend their use of virtual classrooms, the increase in demand is likely to continue both during the crisis and afterwards.
2. Changing utilisation patterns
While the volume of traffic is increasing overall, the utilisation patterns for different types of communications services are also shifting. As people work from home instead of coming to the office, domestic networks are busier, while corporate connections are underutilised. And since people are spending more time at home, within range of their domestic Wi-Fi networks, there has been a significant fall in demand for mobile data.
Customers are also using data at different times of the day. Instead of the usual evening peak in domestic traffic when people come home from work and switch on their TV to watch Netflix, we’re now seeing peaks during the working day. Remote workers are doing Zoom calls instead of face-to-face meetings, children are at home watching the Disney channel, and people who have been furloughed or lost their jobs are spending more time online.
3. Pressure on service levels
As access to online services becomes more and more critical to people’s mental well-being and business productivity during the crisis, telcos need to redouble their efforts to maintain service levels. People who are working from home will have very little tolerance for dropped calls or network outages, and providers who can’t guarantee a fast, reliable connection are likely to see customer churn increase.
4. Increasing security and fraud risks
As businesses move to deliver more of their services online and make it easier for their staff to work remotely, there will be greater opportunity and incentive for fraudsters and other criminals to attack their IT and communications networks. Telcos will have a key role to play in detecting suspicious behaviour and preventing criminal activity through network monitoring to protect their infrastructure and their customers from cybercrime.
5. Crisis response
Telcos can help governments and other organisations respond to both the current pandemic and any similar future public health emergencies. The response to COVID-19 in countries that had experienced prior epidemics, such as SARS and MERS, was much faster and more effective than that of most European countries. These countries had already identified the need for protocols for contact tracing and testing. In the future, we can expect every country to mobilise much more quickly if a new outbreak occurs, and telcos could potentially play a key role in distributing contact tracing and disease monitoring apps to the population and managing the collection of data. Future network design should, therefore, be planned with these use cases in mind.
The role of intelligent decisioning
For all these reasons, the COVID-19 crisis is both placing new pressures on network management and planning and exacerbating tensions that already existed. To respond effectively, telcos should harness data to make smarter choices about how to operate and expand their networks both now and in the future. In particular, they will need to industrialise the process of recalibrating their demand forecasting models to provide more detailed and accurate results, taking the new realities of a world after COVID-19 into account.
At SAS, we’ve seen clients adopting an approach that we call intelligent decisioning. This means embedding automated analytics and decision support technologies into their network management and planning processes to provide fine-grained insight. For example, when one of our clients was upgrading its network in Spain from 3G to 4G, it found that its existing forecasting strategy, based on aggregating data from a dozen provinces, was no longer accurate enough to guide its decision making. By using intelligent decisioning, our client was able to increase the number of monthly forecasts from 20 to 200,000 – providing extremely detailed insight into where and when it should roll out the new 4G technology.
A critical advantage
In conclusion, intelligent decisioning can help you improve your insight by several orders of magnitude. This is a critical advantage not only for planning your 5G rollout but also for adapting every aspect of network management to the new realities of a post-pandemic world.
Moreover, beyond the network itself, intelligent decisioning can help with a range of other telco industry challenges. If you’d like to learn more, check out the other two blog posts in this series, where I discuss the benefits of intelligent decisioning for digital customer experience and collections management.Intelligent decisioning can help organisations make smarter choices about how to operate and expand their networks both now and in the future. Click To Tweet