Mobile networks today are pretty static creatures. A grid of cells cover our cities and towns, and as we move through them our phones connection is passed from cell to cell. But on Monday, SingTel announced it has breathed a little life into its Singapore 3G network with the help of network equipment maker Ericsson.
Ericsson has upgraded Singtel’s HSPA network with its self-optimized network (SON) system, which allows the network to react to the changing demands for coverage and bandwidth as subscribers move throughout the network.
Instead of rotely handing a device on to the next tower when it reach’s the cell edge, base stations will perform a constant capacity calculus to determine how to best distribute the network’s load. If the neighboring cells are all crowded, the base station could hold onto its subscriber a little longer. If a cell goes down, nearby towers could expand their cell radiuses to fill in the coverage hole.
SON technology is particularly useful for 3G networks, in which operators are often running multiple cells — called carriers — on different frequencies in the same physical space. If a bunch of subscribers are grouped close to the cell’s centers while others are grouped farther away, the network can assign those two groups to different carriers, ensuring the closer users get greater data speeds, while the farther users get expanded coverage.
As SON technologies become more advanced they will become almost self-aware organic systems, following users as they move through the network by dynamically growing and shrinking their cells. One company pioneering such technology is Intucell, which recently sold to Cisco Systems for $475 million. In a profile on Intucell last year, I described how such a network could maintain a constant high-bandwidth connection to a moving vehicle:
Take the example of city bus with a 4G connection distributed to all of its passengers through Wi-Fi. Normally passengers would experience huge fluctuations in bandwidth as they moved from a cell’s center to its edge and crossed over into neighboring cell’s edge and so forth. But by anticipating where that hotspot-on-wheels is going, the network could grow the cell it’s driving through, keeping its edge well ahead of the bus and thus maintaining its high-bandwidth connection. Meanwhile, SON intelligence would also tell a neighboring cell running on a different frequency to expand, so that both cells overlap. When it’s finally time for the first cell to relinquish its connection to the second, the bus would already be well within that second cell’s perimeter and instantly have access to a much higher-bandwidth connection.
We’re starting to see the first SON deployments in the Europe and Asia, and AT&T has tapped Cisco-Intucell’s technology for its 3G and LTE networks. And the reasons are plain. Ericsson and SingTel said that the SON upgrade can boost network speeds by 20 percent in the most crowded cells, but SON also creates make more resilient networks, ensuring fewer calls are dropped and fewer data sessions drop to dial-up speeds.
Ericsson got a leg up in SON technologies when it bought Optimi in 2010, but all of the major vendors have similar technologies in the works. And an increasing number of startups are innovating in the space. Today I profiled an Austin company called M87 approach SON from a different angle: instead of optimizing networks, it’s optimizing how the devices within them connect.