Mobile World Congress, Day 2: Testing the Network

-March 08, 2013

Spain is an interesting country to visit professionally.  You can attend a trade show all day, catch up on email, write a draft report, and then still have time to go out to dinner.  With restaurants staying open well past midnight, there is no excuse not to sample the local cuisine.  As my jet lag fog ceded to a second wind around 11pm, I found myself sipping a Ribera while ordering patatas bravas and Jamon Iberico.  What a country!  However, the cruelty of the professional world comes knocking the next morning as the trade show opening times make no leeway for the late nights.  Downing a supercharged cup of freshly pressed coffee, I made my way to the packed metro.  Another day at Mobile World Congress had begun!

Those who read my Day1 coverage of Mobile World Congress observed the announcements of new capabilities to test the latest products- whether chips, cell phones, or base stations.  Today I will be focusing on the network- and the respective testing required.

Small Cell Forum

First stop was a presentation by the Small Cell Forum.  Snap Quiz: where would you find the most cellular base stations deployed today? a) towers, b) building roof tops, c) living rooms.  

The answer is c, living rooms.  That's right, 56% of the base stations deployed are "femtocells", small residential cells typically located next to the residential gateway in a home for backhaul.  6.4 million were deployed in 2012, with 10.8 million more expected this year.  By 2016, 90% of all base stations will be "small cells", which include residential femtocells, but also metrocells in stadiums and shopping centers.  Even enterprises are deploying small local cells. By deploying small cells at congestion points, not only is the user experience improved for those nearby, but by unloading the macrocells, the user experience of the macrocell subscribers are improved too. It's all about capacity, coverage, and cost.  

You can imagine there are challenges with this approach.  Traditional network management methods cannot be scaled to meet the number of cells.  Big handover issues appear as a user walks from one cell to another.  When to off-load to Wi-Fi, and when to a small cell?  Those challenges notwithstanding, small cells are on a steep rise.  We will see that there are many implications for test.


My next stop was Anite.   Anite is a leader in UE (User Equipment) protocol conformance testing, such as for LTE handsets.  They were one of the very first to support GCF (Global Certification Forum) data throughput testing for LTE and 3G.  As carriers fight to attract and retain customers, performance testing becomes critical. It is more than "does it work?", it is knowing "how well does it work?", and in real world conditions.  This was the reasoning behind Anite's recently announced acquisition of the Propsim product line from Elektrobit, focused on channel emulation and fading.   Combined with their existing product line, Anite is now able to offer a base station and RF channel emulation combined.  Coincident with MWC, Anite announced LTE-A (LTE-Advanced) performance testing of peak data rates for up to 4x2 antenna configurations and 20+20 MHz carrier aggregation, something they achieved by working with some of the leading silicon vendors.  While 10MHz carriers are the norm today, Anite's support up to 20MHz is a good indication of where the industry is headed.

Tektronix Communications

The first of the network test and monitoring visits was with Tektronix Communications.  You won't find an oscilloscope in the booth, as MWC is Tek Comm's chance to shine in the sun.  Tek Comms is well known in the service assurance business, and they guided me through the hot topics they saw for the industry.  One is Diameter. You may think of Diameter as an SS7 equivalent for the packet switched network.  In the LTE world, 100% of the carrier revenue runs on a Diameter signaling network as Diameter handles the AAA (Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting) messages for LTE.  Monitoring this network allows carriers to pinpoint network anomalies, prevent outages, and avoid signaling storms.  Signaling storms are a particularly insidious side effect of LTE networks.  Outages are directly related to lost revenues, so Tek offers monitoring tools that report the behavior of DRAs (Diameter Routing Agents).  The tools can detect and isolate an outage within a minute, while most tools require upwards of 15 minutes.  That's money in the bank.  These tools are part of Tek Comm's value proposition of a 4D (4 dimensional) view of the telecoms world: subscriber behavior, services, the network, and technologies.


Next stop: Ixia.  Ixia is well known for the testing of IP and wireless networks in the lab.  But they are also branching out to the deployment and optimization stages since their 2011 acquisition of Veriwave.  A good example is Carrier Wi-Fi, where a mobile operator offloads data traffic seamlessly onto a Wi-Fi network. Think of a large sports stadium, and you can see the advantage of offloading the telecom network.  But it must be seamless- no logons, no passwords, just transparent operation.  This is where the iXVeriWave tools come in.  They can perform real QoS (Quality of Service) testing of a Wi-Fi network, not just measure power output.  The QoS is critical because the operational system of the stadium itself runs over the same network. 

Ready for some cyber-warfare?  Ixia is, with their acquisition of BreakingPoint.  Well named, the BreakingPoint products simulate DOS (Denial of Service) attacks by generating up to 256 protocols simultaneously. Virus simulations are also on their menus.  But the most intriguing part of my conversation was when they described being the "Red Team" in multiday cyber-warfare simulations.  They relished being the bad guys, and are pretty good at it.  I just hope we keep them all on our side!


Next, I crossed the exhibition floor to arrive at EXFO.  EXFO is well known for their OTDRs (Optical Time Domain Reflectometers), and has expanded into network test and service assurance with their acquisitions of NetHawk and Brix.  Much more than just an OTDR, the recently announced FTB-880 NetBlazer is a multiservice tester housed in the handheld FTB-1 platform.   Of particular interest is its recent support of CPRI/OBSAI and SyncE/1588 services.  The former brings RF to the radio head through an optical digital stream, while the latter provides the tight timing required of cellular networks.  It is all integrated together in nice little handheld package.

While the FTB-880 is targeted at field technicians, EXFO also introduced a sophisticated portable network analyzer called the TravelHawk Pro.   Portable, the instrument captures and analyzes packets on the GbE and 10GbE links found within the LTE EPC (Evolved Packet Core).  This allows the instrument to collect and analyze live signaling sessions plus user-plane data for troubleshooting and improving network quality.  


I could feel the jet lag creeping back, so it was off to the espresso booth for a triple, and then to JDSU.  Last year JDSU announced a revolutionary product called PacketPortal.  Readers may recall that JDSU had placed a custom ASIC into the SFP pluggable optics commonly found within network elements.  The idea is that it would monitor the network as well as performing its basic transceiver function, and report back during the data gaps that occur over ethernet.

JDSU is at it again.  This time they are focusing on an end-to-end small cell assurance solution.   This makes a lot of sense, since the scale of small cell deployments demands a cost-effective but scalable monitoring solution.  For this application they have developed a new ASIC that actually does active test. That's right, it injects traffic itself into the network from the pluggable optics, and other probes then measure packet loss and latency.  It's a clever solution to a difficult problem.  But what do you do with all that data?  That's where their partnership with Hitachi Data Systems comes in.  Hitachi Data Systems runs the Tokyo stock exchange, so they are a proven provider of mission-critical real-time big-data systems.  HDS showed me their system analyzing real time data from simulated small cells, sampling the data through PacketPortal probes.  Nice.

JDSU then turned the tables, and interviewed me. You can see the interview below:

Larry Desjardin describes some of the highlights at Mobile World Congress.

Sheesh, maybe I need to hold off on the espresso.

Spirent Communications

Next stop: Spirent Communications.  Spirent had recently acquired Metrico Wireless, and they announced a new portfolio of products leveraging Metrico's capabilities.  Called Live2Lab, the service experience tools can objectively predict end-user quality of experience for any device, operating system, or network around the world.  Essentially, a real network is modeled by "drive testing".  Drive testing is literally driving through the network in a car that has sophisticated RF recorders for later analysis.  But instead of analyzing the data, the data is "played back" in a sophisticated RF environment that can emulate up to four base station cells. The device begin tested, such as a handset, is placed in this environment, and the entire mobile experience can be emulated, including data, voice, and mobility.  Mobility events include handovers from one cell to another.

An interesting factoid I learned from Spirent is that their equipment is used by Signals Research Group to benchmark LTE chipsets.  The Signals Ahead Chips & Salsa series utilizes Spirent's 8100 to evaluate competing chipsets under similar real world environments.  It's a great idea, and I'm sure Chips and Salsa is very popular.  It is also a great marketing move by Spirent- if I were a silicon vendor, I'd want to replicate those exact measurements!


I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with Celcite as I entered their booth.  I was also skeptical when their spokesman said that "drive test is dead" in the optimization process due to their product offering.  Drive test is an expensive manual process, so network operators have always considered its elimination the holy grail.  On the other hand, I've been hearing of the pending demise of drive test for a decade now, and it always seems to be years away.  However, the imperative is increasing.  A momentary increase in traffic increases the RF noise floor, so the network RF performance is dynamic and changes in real time.  Throw in small cells, and drive testing becomes even less practical.  The dynamic nature of the network compels an alternative, and Celcite's Cops system is exactly that.  Essentially, there is software that runs on the phone (but not an agent), that measures network performance along with a good geo-location algorithm to determine the position.  The geo-location software does not use a smartphone's GPS, but determines location by the combination of cells it detects.  This consumes much less power than enabling the GPS, and works for traditional cell phones as well.  This information is uploaded from the cell phone to the network monitoring tools where SON (Self Optimizing Network) software adjusts the network automatically in real time.  For example, the SON algorithm may automatically switch loading between cells.  

While I remain skeptical about the demise of drive testing, I thought Celcite had a compelling message and value proposition.  They currently optimize over two million cells currently, so this is well beyond the prototype stage now.  It will be interesting to see how this catches on.

Keynote SIGOS

My last stop was unplanned.  While wandering the floor, I ran into a former colleague who was now working at Keynote SIGOS.  Soon I was looking at their products and services, and very appreciative of the chance encounter.  Keynote SIGOS is a test company, focused on end-to-end service quality testing of telecom networks.  Their particular expertise is the roaming experience, and particularly for mega events such as the London Olympics.  They utilize a combination of active testing and agents on phones to measure real-time KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) of roamers. For the Olympics Keynote SIGOS set up local testing units at strategic London locations to measure the quality of voice, SMS, and data services for roamers.  This contributed to the nearly faultless telecom services experienced by international visitors.  To highlight this capability, Keynote SIGOS had deployed a system right at MWC. It was displaying in real time the quality of service being experienced by the roaming users at that very moment.  Organized by country, it showed the current KPIs, and rated them green or red.  We drilled down through a red KPI from an Argentinian mobile subscriber and saw that Caller ID had failed.  Ever experience "Unidentified Caller" while roaming? I have, and the example drove home how effective this tool was.  

I pondered what I saw on my metro ride home.  While the major news outlets had covered the news from the handset and tablet suppliers, or occasionally equipment or software suppliers, I felt privileged to witness first hand the critical capabilities delivered by test companies.  Test and measurement enables the technology revolutions we are witnessing in mobile communications, and test innovations are allowing mobile services to be delivered quicker, cheaper, and with higher quality than ever before.  My phone rang on my way back.  Picking it up, I noted it was a Washington metro number.

Caller ID  had worked flawlessly across international borders.

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