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Testing Technologies: Opportunities and challenges for T&M players

October 20, 2014
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With the proliferation of smartphone devices, the demand for high speed data is growing exponentially. Network operators, meanwhile, have been deploying advanced technologies to meet this burgeoning demand in a more efficient manner. Currently, long term evolution (LTE) is the fastest growing mobile technology with operators around the world investing in it. According to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), as of July 2014, a total of 318 operators had launched LTE networks across 111 countries. Of these, 51 networks have been launched as of July 2014 and the total number is expected to touch 350 by the end of the year.

As network operators look to widen network coverage and operate at lower costs, the launch of LTE-based 4G services is gaining traction. To ensure that networks strive for customer satisfaction, operators and vendors need testing solutions. The testing and measurement (T&M) market, therefore, stands to gain with the large-scale deployment of 4G networks.

Testing enables insights into operations, customer experience and troubleshooting. Typically, it takes place in three phases. The first of these is done when tower sites are set up, covering basic cell functionality and testing uplink and downlink speeds. The main purpose is to search for any kind of interference that may be caused by internal or external reasons. The second stage involves testing for attributes such as call functionality and general network coverage. The third phase typically involves looking for options to optimise a cluster of cell sites to ensure that the entire cluster performs well. Testing at the pre-launch and post-deployment stages helps operators validate their cellular networks to improve the quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience.

New technologies, new challenges

The telecom industry is a highly competitive space, with operators always hoping to grab a larger share of the market. To do this, they have to look for methods to cut costs so that they can offer lower tariffs. In such a scenario, greater T&M solutions assist in increasing efficiency by reducing costs.

The industry is moving towards 4G cellular wireless standards, with most operators looking to upgrade their 2G and 3G networks to 4G. According to Juniper Networks Research, 4G LTE will represent more than 20 per cent of all globally active mobile connections by 2019. The number of active connections, meanwhile, is expected to cross 1 billion in 2017 and 1.8 billion in 2019. Worldwide, players like AT&T, Alestra, NTT Docomo and Telenor have launched 4G networks across countries. The Indian scenario is in line with these developments, with most operators having launched 4G, albeit partially. Airtel had launched its 4G services almost three years ago. Initially restricted to Bengaluru, Pune and Kolkata, these services have now been expanded to include Chandigarh, Mohali, Panchkula and Gurgaon. Another major player, Aircel has been expanding aggressively, with its most recent 4G launches in Tamil Nadu and Jammu & Kashmir. It had already launched these services in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Odisha. Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited is also planning to re-enter the market by launching 4G services in the first half of 2015.

A related development is the rise in LTE-enabled devices in the market. According to the GSA, 168 manufacturers have announced 1,889 LTE-enabled user devices as of June 2014, with 941 launched in 2013 alone. T&M services are used by device manufacturers as well and the market is poised to grow with this segment witnessing significant growth.

The telecom industry is now taking another step and experimenting with LTE-Advanced (LTE-A), which is said to be the best solution for providing true 4G and even 5G speeds. LTE-A combines multiple input, multiple output and carrier aggregation technologies to deliver enhanced bandwidth and high bit rates in a single carrier. As technology becomes more complex, the need to test it before deployment and provide support after deployment attains greater importance.

Another emerging trend in this market is offering voice over LTE (VoLTE). According to GSA, 66 operators across 35 countries are investing in VoLTE studies, trials or deployments. This includes operators in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the US, who have commercially launched high definition voice services using VoLTE. But when it comes to its successful implementation and delivery, there are significant engineering considerations that need to be taken into account. Real-time monitoring and network analysis tools need to be put in place to provide operators with a comprehensive view of their network and service performance. The deployment of these services on a larger scale would require more and more T&M solutions.

While the deployment of LTE and LTE-A offers renewed opportunities for the T&M market, there are significant challenges that need to be overcome to fully exploit market potential. The biggest challenge is the fact that the market needs to continue evolving to keep up with advances in LTE technology. As networks advance, they become increasingly complex and heterogeneous. They are no longer limited to macro sites but are also starting to integrate Wi-Fi for traffic offload and small cell coverage for targeted capacity. Therefore, in addition to testing macro sites, it becomes important to test the relationship among the various components a cell site integrates. This necessitates the incorporation of new features in testers for LTE, thereby demanding greater investment in research and development.

Another significant challenge is the fact that service providers across the world use various frequency bands to offer 4G services. For instance, companies in the US use spectrum in the 70 MHz and 1800 MHz bands while those in Europe utilise 2.6 GHz to provide 4G services. Similarly, operators in India use 2.3 GHz while those in Japan use 2.1 GHz. This has led to the development of handsets that conform to a range of frequency bands in addition to integrating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and FM radio. This complicates the radio frequency design of a handset. Testing these bands and their combinations and the interference between them takes a lot more time and pushes up the overall testing cost, which product developers may not be willing to foot.

While T&M solution providers need to make greater investments, they face pricing-related pressure from operators and product development companies. Burdened with tight budgets, the latter are not willing to invest in this segment to the extent that the industry requires.

Moreover, the market for T&M is centred in the North American region, with the European and Asia-Pacific regions yet to make significant gains. India has been witnessing a rapid rise in mobile subscriptions but the uptake of 3G has been slow. If this trend continues, the uptake of next- generation technologies like 4G will likely remain flat. This is likely to adversely affect the T&M industry.

The way forward

There has been significant growth in the Indian telecom industry in the past few years despite the fact that it was restricted by factors like regulatory hurdles, scams and extremely high competition. However, the contours of this space are changing with the introduction of technologies like LTE and LTE-A and the successful spectrum auctions conducted in the first half of 2014. Network operators are looking for ways to continually improve their QoS, resulting in the introduction of next-generation network technologies at a rapid rate. These newer technologies are much more complex, necessitating the need to additionally test their complexities. In addition, the need for scalability and VoLTE is also expected to drive the T&M market and continue offering vast opportunities in the  segment.

Industry experts also feel that the recent focus on domestic manufacturing could bode well for the T&M market in India by increasing its relevance. There is additional scope for the wider adoption of T&M practices through government policies like preferential market access and the mandated testing of imported products and components.

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