opinion


Customer experience will make or break the market for VoLTE

customer experience CEM BSS - 1

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. Tom Russo, Director, Marketing & Product Management at Spirent, looks at what it will take to make VoLTE a commercial success for operators.

The mobile telecommunications industry has committed to Voice over LTE (VoLTE) as the technology for voice and multimedia services on LTE. VoLTE deployments are gaining momentum and dozens of operators have launched commercial services to date, mostly in North America and Asia. As of August 2015, there have been 29 commercial VoLTE deployments in 17 countries according to the GSMA, a global association of mobile operators.

VoLTE has significant implications for the mobile ecosystem because operators finally have the capability to move away from their legacy circuit-switched networks and consolidate all of their voice, video and messaging services on IP. Operators gain from a more-efficient use of their network resources by freeing up 2G and 3G spectrum, which should result in lower operational costs. But what are the advantages for customers?

VoLTE: A Tough Sell

VoLTE enables operators to offer high-definition voice, conversational video and other features in order to better compete with over-the-top providers. VoLTE services also consume less battery life, and support faster call setup times.  These technical advances and richer features offer clear benefits for the customer, but their value tends to be marginal. In all truthfulness, voice calls on wireless networks work fine today; some calls are dropped, some calls suffer from bad audio quality, but overall the service delivers on its promise in a consistent manner. So, from the customer standpoint, VoLTE simply replaces an existing service with a few additional perks.

Therefore, the main challenge for operators is to ensure the new service is seen as superior and providing a clear improvement from the customer experience point of view. In other words, it is crucial for operators to get excellent quality of service (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE) right from the start.

Learning from Past Mistakes

The history of Voice over IP offers a good reference for what can happen when a new technology aims to replace an existing one with additional features that are not seen as essential from the user point of view. When VoIP was first introduced 20 years ago, only a few enthusiasts were using the service despite clear economic advantages; special software had to be installed, lack of interoperability was the norm and QoS was inconsistent. It took nearly a decade for the industry to work out the kinks and get the user experience right in an accessible format with services such as Skype and residential VoIP services offered by cable operators.

However, once the habit for a new technology has been established and the new features taken for granted, it is very difficult to go back. High Definition TV illustrates this phenomenon very well: When people see a Standard Definition image today, they find it difficult to imagine this was norm less than 10 years ago.

The Quality of Experience Imperative

So if there is a lesson from these recent technology-driven changes, it is that operators need to make sure they can run VoLTE with a QoS at least equivalent to the current circuit-switched voice service. Although this sounds obvious, it is easier said than done.

The majority of VoLTE calls today require some form of interoperability between old and new technologies, from network elements to devices used by customers. And that is true even within a single operator territory since LTE coverage is not yet ubiquitous. So it is not uncommon for VoLTE calls to suffer from erratic quality because of the disparity in technologies being used underneath. This situation will continue until standards mature and LTE becomes ubiquitous. It is no surprise that in a recent survey by telecoms.com, 34% of respondents indicated that QoS with legacy networks was the biggest VoLTE challenge (http://telecoms.com/industry-survey/).

Interconnected Challenges

Partial interoperability and the numerous potential combinations for using old and new technologies during a single call represent a major challenge for operators trying to deliver a consistent QoE. That is because finding and troubleshooting delivery aspects of the service that are not performing according to expectations, so-called hotspots, is a not a straightforward task. Here are some of the major hurdles:

  • Collecting and aggregating data from many disconnected sources (radio, core signaling, IMS, user plane, etc.) is a challenge for most operators because these metrics are generally isolated in disconnected, “siloed” tools, sometimes even separated by organizational boundaries. This makes it very difficult to detect and troubleshoot the root causes of end-to-end VoLTE performance issues, as each engineering group only sees a “piece of the puzzle,” and all puzzle pieces are interconnected.
  • The large number of combinations for call scenarios, involving old and new technologies means there are multiple possible ways of measuring end-to-end customer experience, so the logic for aggregating data varies widely.
  • Even when they do combine their siloed datasets into one warehouse, most operators lack a way to unify this information around customers.  Datasets are typically organized around network elements, not customers. This means it is easy to understand, which network element is performing poorly, but not necessarily to understand if call quality is really impacted and for whom.

All these aspects hamper most operators in their ability to not only resolve QoE problems quickly for VoLTE calls, but to to perform “QoE Assurance”. In other words, manage the network in order to ensure a consistent level of quality for all VoLTE calls. The implication is that engineering and customer care groups must operate in an inefficient, reactive posture.  They wait for complaints or alarms and “swivel chair” between systems as best they can to identify root causes.  This is time intensive, costly, and ultimately leads to a suboptimal user experience.

Next Generation Voice Service Requires Next Generation CEM

Fortunately for operators, a new generation of tools is now hitting the market that can help them in their quest for QoE Assurance. These are software solutions that take advantage of advances in Big Data and data science algorithms to quickly identify service hotspots and to perform QoE Assurance in a pro-active manner. These solutions have a few key characteristics in common: they can handle multiple data sources from multiple vendors (e.g. devices, radio access, backhaul, and core), they model low-level KPIs into a handful of customer-centric quality metrics, and they can do that for different call scenarios, even involving roaming and internetworking. One of the main advantages of these solutions is that they can then be used to troubleshoot and resolve customer experience hotspots before customers complain or leave. A proactive approach that is critical to ensure early success for VoLTE.

The future of VoLTE and the speed at which it reaches mass-market adoption will largely depend on the quality of experience for customers. Although there are a number of tough challenges in the operators’ path, solutions are available to mitigate those risks and ensure the commercial success of VoLTE offerings.

 

Thomas_RussoTom Russo leads product line management and marketing within Spirent’s customer experience management solutions. Tom’s primary focus is to establish Spirent as a leader and innovator in the area of telecom data analytics. Prior to joining Spirent, Tom led product management, business development, and product marketing teams in JDSU, Alcatel-Lucent, and Corning Incorporated.


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