In the third quarter of 2019 there were around eight billion active mobile phone contracts worldwide. For the past five years, global data volume growth rates have never been below 25 percent, reaching over 80 percent in peak quarters. These figures do not even include 5G applications, 5G phones and 5G frequencies for applications, such as IoT and Industry 4.0, which are just starting deployment.
In order to make and keep the mobile networks prepared for this high level of utilization, mobile network operators are - among other things - installing additional base stations, which need to be integrated into the network. In addition, existing stations have to be used flexibly and dynamically, for example to allocate more bandwidth during major events. Holiday periods, certain times of the day or disasters are just some challenges that have to be taken into account for network planning and network configuration in order to ensure that a mobile network is available in every situation.
Moreover, mobile network operators generally rely on network equipment by different suppliers (multi-vendor approach). Consequently, a large number of components has to be combined to create a reliable network. “Every mobile network is a living organism,” confirms mobile communications expert Professor Dr. Mathias Gabrysch, who teaches innovation management at Munich University of Applied Sciences and has worked in the field of network management for leading equipment providers.
Facing similar challenges, Vodafone GmbH was looking for a powerful solution – which it found in COM5.Mobile from MicroNova. Read more about how Vodafone is using COM5.Mobile for mobile network configuration in the interview below.
Mr. Koschella, Vodafone operates mobile and fixed line networks in several countries, managed via the central Network Operations Center, also known as NOC. How does COM5.Mobile help you?
At Vodafone we are continuously working on measures that will give us additional scaling effects. We have global organizational structures at our disposal for this reason. They combine the central functions of all Operative Companies, OpCos for short, i.e. the different legal entities in the different countries. With the NOC we can integrate a number of functions for several areas of our network into one central organization and for all OpCos. These include network monitoring, first level support, back office operations and config management. This results in numerous possibilities for the best possible and most effective deployment of the tools used. COM5.Mobile is used in our Network Operations Center via the so-called Operating Model which organizes our processes and responsibilities. Local teams have been interacting with the NOC for quite some time for Vodafone Germany and jointly they look after “production” and our mobile roll-out using COM5.Mobile, among other things. COM5.Mobile supports both this process and the associated division of work in the best possible way.
When looking at size and scope, questions about automation, zero touch, etc. come to mind almost automatically. What is the status quo here, and where do you want to go?
I’d like to be a little more specific regarding this question. For us, the focus is on digitalization. This includes automation and zero touch, but also the use of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) on all levels of our processes. We are currently working very hard on digitalization options. This concerns the use of bots, which would allow us to have simple process steps completed by a “machine”. We’re also using machine learning to access pattern recognition or to identify anomalies in various application areas, and to integrate them successively into existing processes and procedures. With zero touch and automation, we have already handed over work steps completely to being processed by a “machine” in the context of COM5.Mobile. By now, we have some initial experience of how our technical experts can work with a fully automated process and increase their productivity. What’s most important in this kind of digitalization hub: we create space for development. If competent employees can focus on more complex topics and ultimately solve tasks for the benefit of our end customers, this will bring much more benefit than a purely internal increase in productivity.
You mentioned Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation. What potential and what steps do you expect here in general and in relation to COM5.Mobile?
Currently, artificial intelligence is used maybe a bit hasty and thoughtless as the next logical step towards digitalization. In my opinion, most notably we’re starting to get involved in machine learning. But of course this is not the same as AI – we are still a bit away from comprehensive applications. This can be explained by the fact that we do not yet have any experience where machines have made decisions, never mind that we wouldn’t let them, unchecked as it were, lead to an action being taken in our networks for example. But we have already achieved good results with ML, and have already incorporated some of these results into production. One example of this is the recognition of image patterns. If we look at the potential, especially in the areas of configuration or general production processes, there are many possibilities for automation. Whether it is to enable tools such as COM5.Mobile in that respect and get them further developed, or to migrate analog processes to digital and automated ones.
What challenges do you see, and not just in relation to COM5.Mobile?
First of all, we will succeed in dealing with the technological aspects for sure. One of the challenges rather is the fundamental decision whether we can make selective adjustments to current processes and tools, and consequently achieve initial automatisms and efficiency gains, or whether an overarching redesign of processes and tools is the better approach. Both approaches are equally valid! In any case, the goal must be to develop an end-to-end concept for digital processes and tool design. But we also have to include employees and stakeholders and consider their dependencies ... This means that with a selective approach, we have enough time and freedom to work with our colleagues to design automation and ultimately digitalization, and not to lose them on the way. I am convinced that digitalization starts in the mind and first has to gain a foothold there. A little more time is still needed in this respect. Nevertheless, we want to keep an eye on the overall end-to-end approach outlined above. In the medium term, the complete automation or digitalization of full process and tool chains must be considered. New technologies and the resulting processes should always be seen as an opportunity to apply all digitalization options from the outset. So we already take this into consideration when inviting tenders on new topics. 5G technology will not work without maximum automation. I am certain that COM5.Mobile will keep pace with a growing share.
Referring back to what has been said so far, what are your expectations and plans, and what are the challenges for the 5G roll-out or network expansion?
5G will make it possible to explore new horizons. New services and applications will emerge. I’m thinking, for example, of industrial applications that will allow production processes to be more flexible than previously imagined. 5G is also the key to self-driving vehicles. I also see potential in the end customer segment: completely new worlds of experience will become available to users, for example via augmented reality. At Vodafone, we have already implemented some of these new 5G-based capabilities. Many other services will soon follow and present us with new challenges and new potential. We intend to rethink our operating model and our production processes and focus on the corresponding requirements of services and users. It’s an exciting and far-reaching task: in fact, we will become part of our customers’ core processes. We’re also expecting very high expansion figures for the network infrastructure in the coming years. We will meet this challenge by further optimizing our production speed, with automation certainly being a key pillar.
One last technical question: how would you rate Software Defined Networks (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) in the 5G context?
SDN and NFV form the fundamental architectural basis of 5G standardization through 3GGP. The concepts introduced years ago from the “traditional” IT environment are increasingly changing telecommunications providers’ network infrastructures and systems. Approaches for software-based networks, such as the virtualization of systems and network components, cloud computing or mobile edge, create the foundation for getting to grips with the flexibility and new services called for by 5G, both from the point of view of operating costs and capital expenditure. At the same time, operational processes will have to adapt to these conditions and be automated as far as possible. The use of AI methods to secure future 5G services will play an essential role. Of course, it’s a constant process, and further network topologies must be introduced. We will also rely on appropriate tool support, such as COM5.Mobile, for example. Because such tools are there to reconcile functionality and cost.
With zero touch and automation, we have already handed over work steps completely to being processed by a “machine” in the context of COM5.Mobile. By now, we have some initial experience of how our technical experts can work with a fully automated process and increase their productivity. Klaudius Koschella, Head of Central Optimisation & Config Center, Vodafone GmbH
MicroNova won the contract with Vodafone against rival bidders with its Common Planning & Configuration Manager (renamed in: COM5.Mobile) - a mobile network management solution offering advantages for both mobile network providers and customers. For example, the tool supports operators in continuously improving network quality and minimizing the number of dropped calls.
COM5.Mobile has been in use in the field of mobile communications for more than ten years and has been continuously developed in close collaboration with network operators. The focus has always been on a high degree of practical relevance in order to make the daily work of managers and staff engaged in network planning and configuration easier and more efficient. Vodafone Germany was the first organization within the global telecommunications group to choose MicroNova as its supplier, which led to the introduction of COM5.Mobile.
One of the many advantages of COM5.Mobile is the speed at which new networks can be integrated into existing infrastructures – a significant competitive advantage when expanding a network. It is irrelevant who manufactures the equipment or which technology is deployed, as COM5.Mobile generates the OEM-specific configuration data for all suppliers of GSM, UMTS, and LTE technology. Furthermore, the solution offers a high degree of flexibility and process support.
Vodafone and MicroNova have divided the introduction of COM5.Mobile into two phases. MicroNova was not only responsible for supplying the software components, but it also integrated the solution into Vodafone’s existing processes. The integration of COM5.Mobile into the existing mobile communications network – radio access network, or RAN for short – which consisted of equipment from a number of suppliers, was completed in October 2014. Since then, Vodafone has been using COM5.Mobile to monitor and optimize the configuration of its active network and to define centralized guidelines
MicroNova launched the second phase of the project in parallel in October 2014 in order to integrate the COM5.Mobile network management solution into Vodafone’s system environment as well as to connect it to planning and optimization tools. This now enables Vodafone to configure RAN planning data from a single system and upload them into the live network via an automated process.
“We are delighted that Vodafone Germany chose our solution,” says Georg Kieferl, Director Telecommunications & Network Management at MicroNova. “Thanks to its cross-vendor approach that covers a range of technologies, COM5.Mobile meets the high demands of leading mobile network operators. Reliability and future viability are thus guaranteed.” Georg Kieferl, Head of Telco Solutions at MicroNova
Thanks to MicroNova’s COM5.Mobile, Vodafone is able to continuously monitor and optimize its mobile communications network in Germany. Network parameters can be configured more easily and uploaded to the live network. The rapid integration of additional network equipment makes a significant contribution to current and future customer satisfaction. Vodafone enjoys all these benefits via a centralized, consolidated solution.