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Situational Awareness – Critical but not Obvious

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A couple of months ago BaseN decided to move to a new mobile operator, primarily due to pricing and flexibility in subscription management. Beside normal employee subscriptions, we also manage quite a bunch of data-only, machine-to-machine -type SIM cards in our various Smart Grid projects. 

Our new operator has its own physical network, apart from being a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) in someone else’s network. This physical network also happens to be different than in which we were carried before. 

All mobile networks suffer from outages and areas with poor reception and continuously try to improve service quality. While our previous operator had difficulties at one spot on my way from home to work, the new one has three areas where calls are dropped and data service is unavailable. 

My commute usually takes about 40 minutes, which I practically fill with sync calls with members of my management team. Having my call dropped three times during an average commute prompted me to issue a problem report to the operator’s technical service. 

To my delight my case was assigned to a very knowledgeable engineer, who initially had me sign a special troubleshooting permission. After that he surprised me by asking me for the exact times and locations of my experiences of poor network quality. It turned out that he had to order the call logs in question from another part of the organization and analyze them manually. Experienced as he is, he recognized one of the problem spots and mentioned that sometimes those specific 3G base stations won’t hand over calls properly. 

From systemic perspective it means that this large mobile network does not exhibit Situational Awareness (SA) to its managers, at least what comes to the bulk of revenue-generating services like GSM calls. At many of our Telecom customers we have built the SA view from the ground up, using data feeds available even from the smallest network components. This kind of SA creates a positive feedback loop that is not dependent on just negative customer experience. Furthermore, it promotes engineering talent as more and more people understand and get to solve real problems. 

The need for SA may not be obvious, though. In many areas, the Telecom industry is still being managed by individual engineers who thrive from being heroes of the moment when fixing the network on the fly. But that.. does not scale. Without SA, technical development gradually slows down. 

//Pasi

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