Pressure on network operators is at an all-time high. Singapore and Malaysia each have four mobile network operators vying for customers, and that’s not counting the intense competition coming from mobile virtual network operators and the likes of WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger, which offer free, unlimited texts and calls.
With that said, it is not all bad news. 5G is slowly but surely becoming more mainstream with wider industrial applications and higher consumer adoption. Consumers are also spending more time than ever on their smartphones. This means that network operators are in a unique position to define the future of their customers’ digital experience.
To maximise the returns of their investments, network operators cannot afford to compete on pricing alone. Instead, they must differentiate their offerings in critical areas of service to remain competitive — but what are these critical areas? Network benchmarking, which provides key data and insights to operators, may be able to answer just that.
Benchmarking as a service differentiator
Benchmarking and validation are critical parts of a network’s operations, especially when launching new services, because they offer several tangible benefits.
Firstly, the complexity of modern networks has increased. For example, 5G has widened the scope of frequencies, protocols, signal modulation technologies, as well as network transport components. With many more components involved, it is more critical than ever for all of them to work — and work seamlessly — together. Benchmarking helps to test each component and allows operators to observe how their networks perform in real-life scenarios.
Secondly, operators that offer the best user experience are often the ones that acquire and retain the most customers. However, making claims about higher data speeds and lower latencies are very different from delivering these promises. Benchmarking, then, allows operators to go beyond marketing speak and differentiate their offerings from competitors.
Benchmarking also highlights areas of improvement. When benchmarked against a competitor, an operator might discover that they have good 5G coverage across the country yet score poorly on average data speeds. Another possibility is when an operator boasts higher average download data, but is unable to maintain those rates reliably when compared to others. These factors could impact the overall user experience, which is another metric that benchmarking tests provide. Insights like these allow operators to quickly identify service gaps, allocate the right resources to critical areas of service, and turn a loss into a competitive advantage.
Complications in the world of standardised testing
As beneficial as benchmarking is to businesses, carrying out the necessary thorough tests is not always straightforward, especially if operators are managing it in-house.
The tests operators ran on simpler, less complicated 4G networks no longer suffice for its more complex 5G successor. Adding to the complexity are the diverse use cases of 5G, such as remote surgery, autonomous vehicles, smart warehouses, and augmented reality — the list goes on. Each use case has its unique complexities, which conventional benchmarking tests do not necessarily support.
The number of variables has increased exponentially as well. Unlike 4G, which supports about 4,000 devices per kilometre, 5G supports up to a million devices within the same area. This includes everything from mobile devices and data servers to Internet of Things devices. The more variables there are, the more challenging it is to perform benchmarking tests and ascertain specific service gaps.
Next, most countries are running on a combination of 3G, 4G, and 5G networks. This means that, in areas with poor high-speed coverage, devices are often passed from one network technology to the next to maintain connectivity. Any form of benchmarking tests, then, not only has to cater to 5G and future network infrastructure, but legacy ones as well.
Finally, it is difficult for conventional benchmarking tests to anticipate sudden surges. These could include festive seasons, such as New Year’s Eve and religious holidays, as well as unforeseen circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emerging from a crowded field
Whether it is for the everyday consumer or specialised industrial applications, demands for low-latency connectivity are only going to increase over time. As both Singapore and Malaysia ramp up their 5G deployment, it is critical for operators to not only maintain the quality of experience, but be able to validate their marketing claims.
This is where third-party benchmarking partners come in. Aside from providing comprehensive tests that consider all variables, such as network surges, the number of connected devices, the myriad use cases, and future network infrastructure, these partners are able to conduct tests in a fair and neutral manner, thus rendering them more credible.
The networking landscape is a fast-evolving one. With new technologies being introduced all the time, operators are often eager to harness these technologies and offer greater and better features. Instead of rushing into deployment to gain a first-mover’s advantage, it may be wise to integrate benchmarking as part of the process. More than just a way to improve user experience and retain customers, benchmarking may very well be key to overcoming pressures from mounting competition and gaining steady users with better service quality.