Sprucing up mobile networks can add between 6-18% more capacity, says TIA Telecom's CEO Lance Dickerson

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Over the last five years Africa’s mobile networks have undergone an intense period of constant upgrades as data has been added to the voice network. New infill sites have been added to combat congestion and improve data coverage. Lower customer voice and prices have seen the volume of traffic grow enormously. And underlying all these changes has been a shift in the overall breakdown between voice and data. The latter is now beginning to outstrip the former and will continue to do so. In this context, Russell Southwood talked to Lance Dickerson, CEO, TIA Telecom about how networks can be optimised to make savings.

Although mobile companies manage their base stations through having a database of them, you will not be surprised to hear that what actually got built or what is currently on the ground does not always match what’s in the database. For as Lance Dickerson observes:”There’s a huge percentage of sites where the configuration on the ground is different from what’s in the automated planning tools operators use. As a result, every time they changed something, there was an error”.

In West Africa, where we’ve done work, there was a 92% discrepancy between the plans and what was built. The errors included things simply not in the database, geo-positioning of the site, height and tilt on the antenna. A new site is added but no-one checks its impact on the 30 sites nearby.”

Customer needs have changed considerably, the most obvious one being the need for greater data capacity. But also there has been a much greater need for reliable in-building penetration and this is now a necessity rather than a luxury. But within cities, new buildings have gone up and impacted on existing transmission patterns.

The problem for the staff involved in network planning and implementation in operators is that they just don’t have the time to stay on top of all these changes. As  a former MTN staffer with just these responsibilities, Dickerson knows what it feels like:”You’re always trying to catch your tail. You’re rolling out and upgrading all the time. For example, the engineers are beginning to focus on LTE but GSM is still there as the bread a butter and begins to get less attention.”

Furthermore. Most engineers think their work is pretty good so are reluctant to review all over again what they’ve implemented. It smacks too much of getting it wrong in the first place:”Engineers don’t acknowledge that problem exists because the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are reasonable. They tend to say to themselves, this is as good as I can get so that’s what I’ll accept.”

But now rates are falling in most competitive markets, mobile operators are having to think about how to cut OPEX costs. Dickerson claims that the network optimisation his company does will add somewhere between 6-18% to network capacity. This either translates into additional revenue because more calls are made or into more network capacity. ”Dropped calls and congestion are always improved,” says Dickerson. The process is done using “clever algorithms” that make it quick to do. The process has a number of steps and the last of these is parameter optimisation.

The company has done work in the USA (in Seattle and Florida) and in West Africa and in terms of savings, the results are remarkably similar. In the large West African city locations, the estimated increased revenues per city were between US$1-3 million.

The founder of the company Felix Van Bormann worked for Sprint in Seattle and has developed the algorithms over the last four years and Lance Dickerson, who runs the South African-based company, worked for 17 years with MTN on RF planning and optimisation and planning and optimisation in all areas of the network.


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