Times have changed for mobile network engineers. The exciting opportunities for innovation that were to come with the rollout of 3G have given way to a mundane but demanding workload of reactive maintenance tasks and problem-solving. Chris Larmour looks at the trials and tribulations faced by a mobile network engineer.

For the network engineer working as a mobile operator, the rollout of 3G was an exciting time. It heralded a brave new world of 'killer applications' as well as new and exciting engineering challenges, providing an ideal platform for innovation. As an entirely new standard, 3G brought with it new concepts with numerous new and uncharted technical twists to be planned and tested. Although the network engineer's job wasn't easy, each day was different and provided endless opportunities to grow and experiment.

Fuelled with a coffee he bought on his way in to work, our network engineer now faced a single frequency network that was far more complex to plan and optimise than anything he'd previously worked with. Each phone had up to three simultaneous radio connections running to improve quality, which added to the load and complexity.

The bandwidths were higher, making the data rates and services offered more intricate. The phones themselves were also more sophisticated, meaning integration testing was that much more difficult and multifaceted. It was boom time and our network engineer was at the forefront of mobile technology, switching on brand new networks, technologies and services for the very first time.

However, subscriber interest in the few and far between killer applications failed to materialise, leaving operators little choice but to focus their efforts on the maintenance of their core 2G networks to keep voice revenue rolling in while they waited for 3G to catch up on its promises.

To compensate for expenditure on the 3G licences that were failing to generate significant revenues, operators had to cut back drastically on operating costs. Decisions such as those by Vodafone and Orange to share their 3G radio networks in the UK are not only indicative of a sector looking to consolidate rather than rush headlong into more investment, but also points to a real change in the role of the network engineer.

These changes and cuts have led to a reduction in engineering staff, and those that remain inhabit a very different environment. Today, the focus is less on technical innovation, and more on patching the network to eek out every last bit of value from legacy systems. Maintaining the trusty old 2G network remains top of the job list and leaves our network engineer with no time to go to the coffee shop. And when it comes to 3G, the focus is more on making it work properly than delivering new and exciting services.

Because our engineer is not deploying a new network, his typical day is dominated by a vast amount of reactive problem solving. The majority of this problem-solving is typically oriented around specific customer issues or cost control and not broad strategic actions. Fuelled with coffee, now bought from the vending machine, his average daily to-do list includes:

  • performance checks;
  • prioritising tasks from enormous, randomised lists;
  • analysing discrepancy reports;
  • reviewing cluster reports for specific regions;
  • checking the status of trouble tickets;
  • team meetings;
  • parameter tuning and testing;
  • troubleshooting benchmarking results;
  • verification of site upgrades;
  • reviewing KPI stats;
  • developing daily KPI reports and reacting to senior management thunderstorms after the results of a consumer magazine network quality survey are revealed.

With so many essential daily tasks and a mounting workload it becomes difficult for our network engineer to prioritise. And as he struggles to maintain the network's status, fighting through the problems of the day - all too aware that tomorrow will bring with it another avalanche of problems to solve - he goes to the coffee machine for a refill to keep him going, only to discover it's out of order.

So our poor network engineer has had almost all innovation stripped from his role, finding himself in a very reactive job with no coffee. But on the upside, he cannot complain that he hasn't got enough to do. The rollout of 3G, together with the seemingly constant stream of overlay technologies, has left our network engineer overwhelmed with the challenge of knitting together different standards and technologies. The task of innovating with these new technologies, and creating the new value they are intended to unleash, has been left stranded at the bottom of an ever-increasing work list, making innovation and stimulation in the day job a pipe dream.

Instead, our network engineer spends his time drilling down into masses of data, literally gigabytes of information that has been obtained from a wide variety of tools that do not work together. This lack of interoperability makes finding the small, crucial piece of data that solves the puzzle - a single timer setting that is causing a chain of issues, for example - like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Our network engineer will come into work, check the top 10 list each morning and select the jobs least likely to drive him to the broken coffee machine. The next day he repeats this process, day in, day out, with some of the problems lasting days or even weeks until resolved. Much of our engineer's time is wasted in transferring data from one tool to another or performing other unproductive, mind-numbing tasks. In fact, our poor engineer will dedicate as much as 70 per cent of his time to these mundane jobs.

In a recent survey of 12 operators, Actix found that the average network engineer has just 3.5 productive hours each day and, on average, handles over 200 network issues a day that come in via customer support call centres and automated alarm systems. With no time to spend on proactive optimisation projects the list of problems continues to grow, leaving our trusty network engineer running at full speed all day every day just to stand still.

So give him more resources and better tools, let him innovate and add value, and please... fix the coffee machine.

Chris Larmour is chief marketing officer at Actix.