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Challenges in Uptake: Key issues in the deployment of T&M solutions

October 20, 2015
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The National Telecom Policy, 2012 mandated the testing and certification of all telecom products for conformance, performance, interoperability, health, safety, security, etc. for the seamless functioning of existing and future networks. However, over the past few years, telecom operators have not earmarked significant capital for deploying test and measurement (T&M) solutions to address the growing complexity in their networks. Low ARPUs, substantial outgo on spectrum acquisitions and the high price of T&M equipment have compelled operators to opt for renting and leasing of non-calibrated or technologically less advanced equipment, over making fresh purchases.

On the vendor side, test equipment companies have faced challenges in attempting to improve test capabilities and reducing testing time because of  the excessive pricing pressure exerted by operators. T&M products typically require high capital investment, and these costs escalate further as the equipment needs to undergo constant upgradation, given the rapidly changing wireless technology environment. Cost escalation also occurs when drive testers fail because invalidated data is collected and several testing processes need to be redone. Another challenge that test equipment vendors usually face is the successful provision of a testing solution that is suited to the skills and capabilities of end-users. Most companies lack the specialised labour needed to achieve this objective.

Renewed opportunity and new challenges

The large-scale roll-out of long term evolution (LTE) and LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) technologies has resulted in a renewal of interest in the T&M space, with operators increasingly looking to deploy advanced solutions for assessing and addressing the complexities associated with the network. To this end, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) and Bharti Airtel have awarded 4G network testing contracts to US-based T&M equipment provider Keysight Technologies. The contracts are reportedly worth Rs 1 billion each.

While the deployment of LTE and LTE-A offers significant opportunities for the T&M market, there are major challenges that need to be overcome in order to fully exploit the market potential. Ensuring the operational readiness of LTE networks is imperative, not only during the initial technology launch but also as the network and LTE services continue to grow and mature. Compared to the former networks, LTE technology offers greater speeds, higher spectral efficiency and lower cost of ownership. Consequently, testing the components of a 4G network requires more comprehensive test coverage of radio frequency, protocol and system-level elements, including base stations, cell sites, handsets and network infrastructure. Further, given that the voice segment still accounts for a major share of service revenues for operators across the world, ensuring backward compatibility of LTE networks with legacy technologies is a challenging task.

A key challenge in the testing of LTE networks is the lack of spectrum harmonisation for 4G services. Globally, operators are using different spectrum bands for time division duplex-LTE networks. For instance, companies in the US use spectrum in the 70 MHz and 1800 MHz bands while those in Europe utilise the 2.6 GHz band to provide 4G services. Similarly, operators in India use the 2.3 GHz band while those in Japan use 2.1 GHz. These bands conform to and operate on different standards and configurations. This requires equipment vendors to manufacture a wide range of testing instruments, each specific to different standards. The LTE-enabled T&M equipment available at present can cater only to a limited number of spectrum bands, which are used in mature markets, as they were the early adopters of the technology.

The way forward

In order to ensure an enhanced user experience, telecom infrastructure will be upgraded to adopt IP/Ethernet technologies. This will result in opportunities for the mobile backhaul testing equipment segment to get involved in the optimisation of networks.

Going forward, the critical success factor for T&M equipment vendors will be the provision of cutting-edge solutions, which can help reduce testing time and offer strong technical support across the product portfolio. Further, the government’s recent focus on addressing the issue of call drops will result in operators being compelled to look for ways to continually improve their quality of service. This is further expected to add to the importance of the T&M segment in the Indian telecom industry. The government’s emphasis on domestic manufacturing with its Make in India initiative could also bode well for the T&M market in India by increasing its relevance. Government policies like preferential market access and the mandated testing of imported products have also widened the scope for the adoption of T&M.

However, sustaining revenue growth will continue to be the main challenge for vendors, given the cost sensitivity at all levels of the industry.

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