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The sudden and explosive growth of mobile data is well documented and networks in mature markets worldwide are creaking under the strain. So it felt timely that should have a meeting with Darren Silvester, information management architect at 3 UK, on the eve of the launch of Apple’s iPhone 4.

As the UK’s smallest and youngest mobile operator, 3 often plays the role of market disruptor, fighting its corner with lower prices, innovative partnerships and bigger bundles. The company claims that it benefits from having a 3G-only network infrastructure, with UK roaming partner Orange carrying the operator’s 2G voice traffic. But the firm has also consolidated its 3G network infrastructure with T-Mobile through the Mobile Broadband Network Limited (MBNL) joint venture.

When it was announced in 2007, the 50:50 joint venture represented the world’s largest known active 3G network sharing agreement. Under the agreement, masts and the 3G access networks were combined, but each company’s core network and T-Mobile’s 2G network were not to be shared. Both parties retained responsibility for the delivery of services to their respective customers and continued to use their own spectrum. The venture currently has 11,500 masts in operation and is on track to hit its target of 13,000 masts covering 98 per cent of the UK population by year-end.

And it was 3’s network that was the subject of discussion at the meeting. Silvester explained that he shares the outlook of Informa Telecoms & Media (which recently gave a presentation on the topic) that the network is, always has been, and will continue to be the most important differentiator for mobile operators. The first thing Silvester did was to show the video from 3’s latest advertising campaign (available below) for which the theme is “bringing you an even better network”.

“Our current advertising campaign is all about bringing you an even better network and this is a very topical subject,” he said. “It’s also the reason why analytics is important. The key foundation for all mobile operators is the network and you’ve got to focus on understanding what’s happening on the network. As you know, there’s been some very public reports about what’s not happening on some networks in the UK, US and worldwide.”

Silvester didn’t name names; he didn’t need to. Both AT&T in the US and 3’s UK rival O2 have fallen victim to their eagerness to sign up high-ARPU iPhone users, with Nigel Purdy, head of technology at O2 UK, recently admitting: “There is unprecedented demand on mobile networks, particularly in dense urban areas.”

Silvester is tasked with making sure 3 UK doesn’t fall foul of those same issues, even though its network was designed from the outset with data traffic in mind. “My job is to arm all the senior executives with information,” he said. “I was set the challenge by our CTO, in the wake of very public reports about networks that were struggling with smartphone related data. So one of the key things we needed to understand was the subscriber network experience – on voice whether they were experiencing dropped calls and on broadband and data on smartphones, what the throughput was – and what experience they were getting overall. Because if the performance is not good you’re going to get a lot of very unhappy subscribers and a lot of calls into the contact centre and potential churn.”

3 UK selected an analytics platform from IBM and went from signing a purchase order to running a live system in three months. Silvester’s job is not only to collect and manage all the data published by this system, but more importantly, to derive useful and insightful information from it.

It’s not a new or unique concept, but as Silvester pointed out: “A lot of companies get great analytics out of their systems but they don’t actually do anything with it. We’re looking at subscriber behaviour, looking at social networks, seeing how usage patterns change. For example, it might be there’s high churn in a certain sector because there’s another offering or because the users there are early adopters and they just follow the latest handsets. It will be interesting to see the impact of the iPhone 4 as well,” he said.

Silvester’s  team can now look at activity over the last hour or the last day and have the ability to track trends, of which one of the most interesting is dropped calls.

“So we are analysing that data by subscriber by location, and finding areas of the country where we’re seeing high volumes of dropped calls, sometimes at certain times of day, and sometimes when there’s an event on like Twickenham, or sometimes it’s by device, or even by service,” he said.

“We found dropped call rates were higher with some interconnects, so we passed this on to the operational team and they did some investigation. I can’t give any details about this, but I can say that the dropped call rates improved dramatically.”

Silvester also found that dropped call rates were higher to some international destinations and he praised analytics as a powerful tool in highlighting a fault or problem in an area, or whether there are just a large number of people in a location. “What people don’t realise is that there’s two ends to a mobile phone event and the problem might be at the other end where we don’t have visibility of it,” he said.

With all of 3’s 2G voice traffic carried by Orange, the assumption could be made that 3 has very little visibility into that particular part of its offering. But this is not the case, said Silvester: “3 receives data from Orange as a national roaming partner, so we can do a lot of the similar analytics on Orange carried 2G traffic as we can on our own network,” he said.

Silvester is also fighting a battle over the public’s perception of how a 3G network should perform. “I was on the train the other day and a guy got a 3 dongle out. So I was speaking to him about it and he expected that dongle to do exactly the same as his Virgin Media cable at home,” he said. “So we’ve got users expecting wireless broadband to perform the same as optical fibre, because it’s got the word ‘broadband’ in it.”

The best tool Silvester has to fight with is the information derived from his network analytics, he explained. “Because of the growth in data and smartphones we needed something that was scalable and able to support a service layer above the data and feed the data up to it. So now we have real time analytics and we can arm call centre agents with more information.”

As well as allowing 3 to deal with end user queries more efficiently, the platform also helps Silvester in his day to day role. “Data is genuinely available at our fingertips. I used to go into meeting with senior managers and try to find out what they wanted to know beforehand. Now I can confidently go in without having a presentation and get on the platform and get the information there and then.”

These benefits are what 3 is trying to capture in its advertising campaign, Silvester explained. The key foundation for 3 is the network and the company’s main focus is understanding what’s happening on that network. In the video advertisement 3 network engineers are seen in a variety of environments testing and upgrading the mobile network. The activity is dramatised, of course, but Silvester said that his work in the analytics department has bearings on whether the vignette of two men dragging network kit up a hillside becomes a reality.

“We’ve worked out who to get up in the morning, where the van is going, how much kit is in the van and how many people we need to do the job,” he said. “It’s all about optimisation. So we use all this analytics data to work out literally which mountains we want to climb with this kit, or which rivers we need to wade through and how much kit we need to drag with us. We find out where our bottlenecks are and where our congestion areas are as we need to make sure we roll out this kit in the right areas.”

Put simply, Silvester can look at the platform and find out where 3 has issues. He puts this in context when he forecasts that the operator is looking at tripling data volumes by this time next year. “We’re only just touching the tip of the iceberg and were finding more and more ways to leverage the platform. Network analytics help us optimise the network in a cost efficient manner,” he said.

The hope is that this will keep everyone happy, from the subscribers all the way up to the board.


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