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Published on January 29, 2019

How soon is now? Intelligent software, automation and the uphill struggle of mobile network engineers

Many years ago, in the early self-organizing networks (SON) days, I worked on an intelligent software product for mobile network planning and optimization. By automating certain tasks, this software aimed to free engineers to focus on complex activities which required their expertise. As a consequence, mobile network engineers could become more efficient and – although not an identical term – more productive1.

Interestingly, in a meeting with a mobile network operator, the reaction of a “terrified” engineer upon hearing about this time-saving software was to ask: “Does this mean that I will no longer have a good excuse to avoid all those boring internal meetings?”

The antidote to pain (and complexity)

On a more serious note, most mobile network engineers welcome the helping hand of automation, especially for recurring tasks. Even though these activities may not be as futile or arduous as the predicament of Sisyphus2, their repetitive nature creates the impression of a painful, never-ending cycle. Furthermore, some of these tasks are complex to perform manually, while others are relatively simple and hardly make the best use of engineers’ expertise.

The interest of mobile network operators in automation has increased as networks have become more challenging to build and operate. Which is why automation has been a major theme in recent years, including its essential role in virtual and hybrid network evolution. Automation has also been discussed as a key enabler for 5G, with artificial intelligence (AI) stealing the show.

Time for productivity gain

But mobile network operators do not need to wait for AI “magic” to enhance operational efficiency. Intelligent software solutions, with embedded network expertise and advanced features such as customer experience geolocation, can lead to significant improvements through task automation today.
For example, a project with a Tier 1 European operator looked into the productivity gain that a new approach3 could offer versus legacy optimization/engineering methods. Typically, such methods make limited use of automation and, by relying on drive tests and cell counters only, cannot provide complete insights into network performance and customer experience.

Based on this project, the new approach considered could reduce by 69% the analysis time for recurring network optimization activities in major cities. The substantial productivity gain would be equivalent to a cost saving of US$3.4M per year. The project also comprised other key use cases for this operator, including the analysis of M2M/IoT network issues for its VIP customers.

Although the productivity gain and respective cost saving will differ from project to project, new approaches built on intelligent software solutions can greatly assist stretched engineering teams. Perhaps, the burden of Sisyphean tasks will not entirely disappear, at least for now. Nevertheless, it is certain that the engineers’ recurring uphill struggle can become much less painful. And, no, dear engineer, you do not have to attend those boring internal meetings!

For more details, read the Nova RAN case study or contact EXFO.


1 Efficiency and productivity are not identical terms. For example, it is possible to make more efficient a task that should not be performed. But would that be productive? For simplification, the two terms are used interchangeably here to specifically refer to the time saved in mobile network engineering/optimization tasks that are important and must be performed anyway.
2 Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king punished by the gods to roll a huge rock up a mountain for eternity, as the rock would roll down every time it approached the top. Never-ending, futile and arduous tasks can therefore be described as Sisyphean.
3 The new approach was built on the Nova RAN solution from EXFO.

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