This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Dr. Mike Flaxman, Product Manager at HEAVY.AI
Telco providers face several challenges in network planning. New technologies require many more antennas to be more precisely placed and configured than ever before. For example, this requires delivering 17 million microcells and towers by 2025 – an order of magnitude more than historic deployments. While the demand for data and the growth of connected devices continues to create a need for more extensive and efficient communication networks, both demand and willingness to pay are very unequally distributed. As the pandemic recovery continues globally, telcos must deal with lumpy and uneven increases in the demand for high-speed internet, data, and voice services. Their best customers are not where they were 3 years ago – and toddlers to grandmothers are now heavy video streaming users. They also facing significant increasing competition both from traditional cable companies and new satellite operators. However, especially with 5G, it has become apparent that not all spending results in high quality user experiences which yield positive return on investments.
Internally, the traditional silos which served telcos well for decades are starting to crumble. Network planning as ever involves designing, building, and operating a network. But with greater than 10x the device placements, and an embarrassment of riches in both devices and configuration choices, effective deployments require much deeper and faster coordination and collaboration between different departments.
Traditional network planning methods are time-consuming, resource-intensive, and do not always produce optimal results. This is where digital twins come in.
The Role of Digital Twins in Network Planning
A digital twin is a virtual replica of physical assets or processes, or more broadly of environmental and customer conditions. A twin is continuously maintained to reflect real world conditions and is usually both spatially and temporally explicit. So for example both assets and customers are represented using geotemporal coordinates, often including either 2.5D or full 3D representations. In a telco context, a digital twin not only knows your network’s physical and logical layers, but also where your customers live, work and play.
Like conventional engineering tools, twins can be used by telcos to simulate network behavior and performance prior to investments. However the capabiiities go beyond conventional tooling due to the incorporation of massive amounts of non-network data, such as human mobility data and high resolution clutter. Thus this innovative technology allows telcos to experiment with new network designs, configurations, and upgrades before they are implemented in the real world – and to directly simulate their business consequences.
By incorporating digital twins into their network planning and operations, telcos can improve the accuracy and efficiency of their planning, reduce costs and enhance customer service. Because real world conditions, technologies, and customer behavior are ever changing, a digital twin should be consider a long term strategic investment. When properly managed, it will ensure investments are optimized and sustainable for years to come. However it is not necessary or even recommended to start with a comprehensive digital twin. Instead, emerging best practices focus first on areas of unique advantage.
For many carriers, 5G in general and fixed wireless access (FWA) in particular form a particular sweet spot. That is because it these technologies have both the highest potential profitability and also the highest risks from poor site selection or configuration. For example, the single focused task of avoiding false service qualifications is itself often sufficient to provided immediate ROI. Another focused case is around churn reduction and it’s physical network manifestations.
More broadly, digital twins also excel at integrated network planning. That is because they can simulate the costs of both wireline and wireless options and jointly optimize them. The data and analytics capabilities of a digital twin are more equivalent to GIS than they are to single purpose engineering tools. This typically includes the ability to integrate disparate data such as real estate parcels and remote sensing data. It also includes analytics capabilities such as spatial proximity and overlaps operators. Of course full use of this power can bring with it complexity. The good news there is that the core skills required are essentially the same as with conventional tools: spatial analytics and data science prime among them.
These are not needed for basic initial applications, but do come into play with intermediate and advanced applications such as spatial optimization.
Twins as Virtual Labs
As the data and physics simulation capabilities of digital twins advance, they can become powerful testbeds. For example, today’s twins already understand the RF properties of buildings and vegetation, not only in general but in specific geographic detail. This has led major providers like Erickson to similate both existing and proposed user devices. This kind of “virtual drive test” is being enabled broadly by 4G LTE telemetry, and set to expand considerably with new 5G standards. Major handset manufacturers are already supplementing their field testing with digital,twins at continental scale.
A recent panel at Mobile World Congress Barcelona saw at least 4 distinctly difference digital telco twins. Companies specializing in large event network deployments, factory floor enterprise setup, satcom and even system security all showed examples of digital twins in production. These kind of high-pressure environmental simulations make immediate sense where the real world costs of suboptimal deployments are highest. Certainly it makes more sense to have security experts test
Digital twins also provide a valuable tool for predicting potential issues in network performance. By simulating network behavior in real-time, telcos can easily identify and address problems, such as the impact of tree growth or outages due to natural disasters like mudslides or forest fires. Digital twins revolutionize the way telcos approach network planning and enables them to deliver improved customer service.
By incorporating digital twins, telco providers can:
- Enhance customer service quality: Telco providers can test and optimize network designs to ensure the quality of service for their customers. They can mimic network configurations and test network behavior and performance under different scenarios, enabling them to identify and resolve any potential issues before they affect customers.
- Optimize network performance with less downtime: Digital twins can help providers optimize network performance by testing different network configurations to determine the best design before implementation. This can result in a more efficient and effective network that provides better service to consumers, without unnecessary downtime.
- Reduce costs and resources: By testing and optimizing networks virtually, digital twins can help telcos reduce their overall costs of new network rollouts. This results in a more cost-effective network that uses fewer resources, enabling telco providers to achieve their goals while staying within budget.
The Future of Network Planning
Digital twins have the potential to revolutionize the way telco providers plan, build, and operate communication networks. By incorporating digital twins into their network planning process, telco providers can achieve significant benefits including enhanced customer service quality, optimized network performance, reduced downtime and costs, and increased network stability. In addition to these benefits, the use of digital twins can also have a positive impact on the environment. For example, by allowing telco providers to test and simulate network designs in a virtual environment, the need for physical testing and on-site construction can be reduced, leading to a reduction in resource consumption and a lower carbon footprint.
Adopting digital twins in the telco industry can bring many advantages including better network design and administration, cost savings, higher network stability, and environmental benefits. As the demand for data continues to grow, the use of digital twins will become increasingly critical to ensuring that telco providers can meet this demand and provide a seamless network experience for their customers.
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