08 Jul 2016

Mobile Network Metrics - what they mean

Cam Cullen of Procera Networks explains all about the key mobile network metrics, what they are and how to use them effectively.

What’s the biggest concern for mobile subscribers today? The answer used to be coverage. But after the major operators got a firm grasp on this several years ago, and following the shift from 2G to 3G and on to LTE, consistent and reliable access to mobile data has taken over as the primary concern.

The average user wants to upload images to Instagram the second they’ve snapped them, stream high definition YouTube videos on the go, and browse the web quickly and easily from anywhere via their smartphones.

The days of network coverage being the sole deciding factor over which operator subscribers ultimately choose to sign up with are gone. In its place, network performance has taken over, which means the operator capable of delivering a consistent high quality experience will be the one that’s crowned king.

Yet measuring network performance and effectively communicating that to subscribers remains a problem, since nothing has appeared to replace coverage as a metric for today’s data-driven market. Operators now face two associated challenges as a result – maintaining a consistent Quality of Experience for existing subscribers at all times while also demonstrating the quality of their network in new and innovative ways in order to attract new users.

The network differentiation challenge

Part of the problem operators face is the way in which mobile services are currently marketed. Unfortunately network speed, like coverage, is no longer a good sole indication of overall performance. And with today’s subscribers placing emphasis on the apps they use over traditional operator voice and messaging services, it’s becoming all the more evident why a fresh approach is needed in order to reduce churn.

Given the current mobile environment, with every operator focused on shouting about their 4G data speeds but offering little indication into how that infrastructure translates for real-world performance, it’s no surprise they are struggling to differentiate their service offerings and stand out from the competition. Operators are faced with using an outdated set of metrics to talk about advanced data functionality. Coverage, speed, and traffic volumes continue to be the primary forms of measurement, yet today’s subscribers are not only asking ‘who has the best network’ but also ‘who can deliver the best customer experience?’ Ultimately, the issue is that subscriber expectations have changed. This is especially true when you consider how mobile networks are now being relied upon to regularly support VoIP, gaming and, crucially, mobile video.

Mobile video’s network impact

The rise of Netflix, YouTube, and countless other online video services has created an environment primed for streaming content on the mobile. Operators have long been faced with growing demand in this regard, yet it’s only in recent years that expectations for mobile video have taken a considerable leap forward and created fresh challenges when it comes to meeting subscriber needs. It’s now reached a point where on demand video represents one of the biggest Quality of Experience challenges faced today, which goes far beyond the use of 4G speeds as a marketing tool and places QoE at the very heart of future mobile marketing.

The additional challenge presented by mobile video is that it applies further pressure to ensure a consistently high quality experience for subscribers when accessing this type of media content. Yet it’s a problem that’s also compounded by the fact operators cannot afford to neglect other forms of traffic in the process. This is vital, not least because other users do not want to see overall network performance suffer at the hands of bandwidth hungry video traffic considering the network and impacting their own mobile experience.

If operators are to avoid service disruption and customer churn in such a complex environment, it is essential that they are able to manage the impact of video traffic on their networks with complete control. With this in mind, and with mobile networks under greater strain than ever before, having the right tools in place to effectively monitor and analyse the subscriber experience has never been more important. After all, it’s only by having access to a more advanced form of network performance measurement that operators can truly hope to improve their overall QoE and positively impact their bottom line by living up to the expectations of today’s subscribers.

Maintaining a consistent QoE has become the Holy Grail for operators in the OTT-focused world they’ve found themselves in, yet it’s become all the more difficult to manage for this very reason. The influx of mobile apps and streaming video they now need to contend with has placed extra strain on their networks, and created the potential for a small subset of heavy data users to impact on the experience of the masses, which flies in the face of managing subscriber churn and existing operator marketing efforts.

Unlocking the network’s true potential

Delivering a consistent QoE, then, depends on having a complete end-to-end view of what the network is capable of supporting at any given time. With more devices connected than ever, operators need a much more granular view – one that’s capable of delivering insights into the service, application, and subscriber session at any given time – which can be achieved by rating network performance based on the QoE of individual services.

This ‘scorecard’ system makes it possible to drill down and reveal the root cause of service degradation and QoE issues based on a variety of factors, and will be all the more important for retaining subscribers and helping to differentiate service offerings in the future, especially as apps and data services continue to evolve and new ones appear.

There’s a benefit to this approach for effectively communicating network performance to subscribers, too. Certain subscriber sets may be willing to pay a premium for a tailored package that plays to what they want and need out of their data connection. From a marketing perspective, this opens up new revenue streams instead of relying on an outdated approach to service provider promotion. This in turn will push the industry to follow suit and better the experience for all subscribers.

Not only this, but as mobile network functions are increasingly virtualised, measuring the needs of new applications and providing an accurate assessment of network performance at any given time can become a competitive differentiator. Data pulled from the network and analysed in this way can help operators to prioritise their investments into new technologies and expansion, achieving maximum ROI by identifying what changes will have the biggest positive impact on the overall subscriber experience.

The role of data analysis

Yet the use of this information to lets engineers drill down and analyse the appropriate action to take on different parts of the network is only one piece of the puzzle. Once collected, structured, and assessed, data that’s traditionally used to inform the subscriber experience can also be shared with other stakeholders, beyond the marketing team, to drive new commercial opportunities.

Making all this a reality depends on operators choosing the right partner that can not only collect but also amass and structure network data for it to be transformed into actionable intelligence, thereby empowering them to make informed business decisions that will ultimately improve QoE. It’s only by adopting this approach that they will be able to tackle the next network performance challenge to arise, whenever that may be.

Although adding in another piece of infrastructure may be seen as a step backwards, laying the foundations in infrastructure is an investment that will pay dividends in the long run. By either investing in physical or virtual DPI based solutions in their network, operators will be able to measure performance by location, subscription type, and even device.

In the long run this saves time and money, which can then be funneled into pushing the boundaries, innovating, and staying ahead of the technology curve. Whilst this seems like the obvious avenue to go down, it is often overlooked in favour of developing innovation before application. But in a highly competitive marketplace such as this one, filled with mobile operators, it is crucial to success.

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About the author

Cam Cullen is the Vice President of Global Marketing at Procera Networks. He is responsible for Procera's overall global marketing and product management, and is an active evangelist for Procera's solution and general market trends as well as an active blogger for Procera. He joined Procera as VP of Product Management to execute on product strategy and to expand the company's product offering. Prior to Procera, Cam held senior Product Management and Marketing roles at Allot and Quarry Technologies/Reef Point Systems, where he was VP of Product Management and Marketing, and held various roles in business development, marketing, and sales at 3Com. Cam was a captain in the US Air Force where we worked at the National Security Agency and the Air Force Information Warfare Center, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Alabama.

Since its inception in 2002, Procera Networks has become a leading subscriber and network intelligence provider and has revolutionized the way operators monitor, manage, and monetize network traffic. The ongoing development of Procera’s award-winning ScoreCard and eVolution technologies, in addition to the benefits its solutions hold for data insights, traffic management, and policy control, make it possible for Procera to deliver the future of subscriber experience, and meet the ever-changing needs of service providers both today and the heavily virtualized future.

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