Capacity Management

“A lot of people have been talking about how capex is going to come down with SDN and I’ve said, ‘No, it’s going to stay the same for Verizon’  – Fran Shammo, CFO, Verizon. May 2016

This comment right from the head honcho of one of the largest Telcos in US cannot be taken lightly. Despite lot of talk in the industry about SDN / NFV CAPEX reduction benefits, we’re seeing skeptical questions around smooth transition to virtualization. But I will keep SDN /NFV discussion for some other day. Let us focus on the topic – CAPEX spends. Verizon’s CFO has confirmed its CAPEX spend going to stay, despite network virtualization!

The CAPEX focus could be different for different Telcos. For some Telcos like Verizon, their CAPEX spend mainly focused on future technologies, leading the market, greater customer experience etc. For some other Telcos, their budget constraints force them to think hard and do delicate trade-off between strategical “revenue-growth” projects and tactical maintenance projects to keep up with network growth, retain customers, improve quality of experience etc. With this hard balancing at hand, what if Telcos are equipped with smart tools & methodologies that could help in optimizing their on-going CAPEX? But, is such thing exist? I will get there in a moment. Please bear with me.

First, let us go through few industry trends.  In our recent study from Gartner, we got few interesting insights.

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Here is short summary on the insights:

  • On an average Telco spends 15% – 20% of annual revenue on yearly Capital Expenditure
  • Increase in Capex spends w.r.t revenue (CAPEX Intensity = Capex / Revenue) is not translating into equivalent increase in revenue growth
  • Correlation between CAPEX Intensity and Revenue growth is a weak factor for Telcos mentioned in the regions. This means revenue growth is not linearly correlated with CAPEX spends
  • 5-year flat growth in revenues across geographies is not encouraging. Max 20% 5-year top-line growth in North America region and deep negative for Europe region (-11%)
  • Cost of capital over last decade is higher than RoI on an average across the industry
  • Notable positive point is the margins are maintained in 25 – 35% range across geographies. And it is imperative to maintain this margins to generate free cash to fund next CAPEX cycle but if not completely.

The above stats where CAPEX spends are not reaping substantial revenue growth indicates two major viewpoints:

  1. Strategic capital investments have a slightly long gestation period but not comparable to capital cycles of traditional industries like manufacturing industry.
  2. Bulk of CAPEX go into maintenance projects. That is, to keep-up with current network demand juggernaut, customer retention, quality of service etc.

For instance, a good chunk of leading Tier 1 North American operator’s CAPEX goes into wireless network for densification and getting future ready for 5G deployments. This could be a case for many big Telcos – investing on future technologies. On the contrary, we have also seen majority of Telcos’ CAPEX going in for second type of investment – meeting current network data growth. This is nothing wrong as such and very much required to keep customers happy.

However, if one looks at this fact in light of recent market research findings from one of the big four audit firms, it gives a different perspective. The research reveals that majority of the Telcos not equipped with enough tools or industry best practices to assess the CAPEX spends on projects, evaluate ROI for each such investment and perform sustainable capital allocation. This is a surprising revelation. It simply means that many Telcos are servicing on-going CAPEX without rigorous assessment on actual RoI vs planned RoI, are not taking forward lessons learned from previous CAPEX cycle. Even the Telcos who do have rigorous processes, right incentive structure, accountability of results etc. actually misses a critical point.

What Telcos underestimate?

The critical point is – generally the assets, especially the network assets are viewed from monetary value perspective only in this whole CAPEX scheme of things. The value that can be derived from un-lit or under-used network asset capacities for the CAPEX planned is not given deserved thought or action. This is because of the fundamental reason that financial and network data of assets are lying in silos. This data is never used together to gather useful insights to put the network assets to sweat to furthest possible aligning with ever growing network demand and broader strategic CAPEX – RoI goals. Telcos can do more with their data. It would require collaborative efforts with right partner to unleash the power residing underneath the siloed systems.

I was recently asked by a Tier 1 client in North America if Subex can use our network discovery technology to retrieve information from D4 channel banks.  I honestly had not crossed paths with these relics of the voice network since my days doing central office engineering in the late 80’s.  So you may be wondering, in a day-and-age when the buzz is about SDN/NFV, IoT and everything in the “Cloud”, why is someone worried about the humble channel bank?

As it turns out, there’s plenty to worry about.  End-of-life technology can be a significant Opex drain.  Operators incur costs for energy (power, HVAC), maintenance and real estate to keep such equipment in place.  Compounding the problem is that much of this old equipment typically sits racked, stacked and powered… and idle (no traffic).   Channel banks are just one example.  Arguably, the entire fixed-line TDM network is retirement-age (I’m talking about SONET/SDH DACs and ADMs, voice switches, local loop equipment, etc.) and needs to yield to IP/MPLS and VoIP.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about what operators need to consider when planning a transformation from legacy technologies to future state.   For this post, I will stay grounded in the present and focus on this question: What strategies can operators employ to reduce their Opex and Capex burdens when operating a legacy network?   For starters:

  • Use network discovery techniques to determine the operational status of your actively deployed network assets.
  • For all unutilized assets, apply a deliberate strategy to disposition everything.  Too often, because operators don’t have adequate visibility to operational status and utilization of assets in the legacy network, they default to what I call a “rust-in-place” strategy.  Since they lack the visibility, they ignore the problem.  Equipment sits idle or underutilized and costs add up.  My suggestion is to proceed with purpose—if an asset is carrying adequate revenue-producing traffic, fine.  If not, do something about it!

Asset Program Diagram

For assets with reuse potential, then the options include:

  • Harvest and reuse elsewhere in the network.  Benefit: Avoid Capex for new purchases.
  • Perform grooms to more densely pack some assets and free up others for reuse or end-of-life monetization.
  • Allocate as spare.  Benefits: Reduced maintenance costs when spares are optimized in terms of count and location.   Customer experience is improved and exposure to SLA penalties is reduced when spares are well managed.

If there is no reuse potential, then consider:

  • Reselling on the secondary market if there is still industry demand for the asset.
  • If not, then recover and sell for salvage value.
  • In both cases, remember that the NPV of averted monthly energy and real estate costs may actually exceed any direct cash received when the asset is sold or salvaged.
  • Don’t overlook other possible financial benefits from disposing unneeded assets such as tax write-offs and reduced insurance premiums.

Most importantly, seek an asset management and logistics partner who can help you squeeze the most value from legacy assets.  Elements of a legacy network cost reduction program include:

  • Automated audits via network discovery
  • Asset evaluation and disposition recommendations
  • Capacity utilization trending and related analytics
  • Asset tracking
  • Turnkey asset recovery services
  • Resale valuation and brokerage services
  • Eco-friendly recycling
  • Analytics for sparing level optimization
  • Spares management
  • Warehousing and related logistics services
  • Warranty and annual maintenance contract management
  • Test, repair and engineering services

Subex provides industry-leading asset management solutions and services.  With our forward and reverse logistics partners around the globe, we can help you to establish a turnkey and highly effective legacy network cost reduction program.

It’s 7AM and I can’t put off getting up any longer, so I look out the window and see there’s a light frost on the grass, which the weather channel warned me about 3 days ago.   An hour later I’m at the train station waiting for the 7:42 which is delayed because the frost has caused the points to seize up in a town 50 miles away, so now the entire South East rail system is completely snarled up. They predicted the weather and probably knew there would be a point’s failure, but still the network crashed. So I need to phone work to let them know I’m going to be late, but I can’t connect. Thousands of other commuters around me are also trying to phone ahead, but the network can’t handle it. It seems to happen every day.

We are surrounded by events which are beyond our control, but often they happen in predictable ways. The points failure was perhaps less predictable than my alarm, but we always knew that when the temperature dropped there would be some kind of failure somewhere that would lead to cancellations and a breakdown of the network. We always knew that rush hour would become an agonising crawl into town on overcrowded trains. The congestion could probably have been avoided if they could have predicted which parts of the network were under the most stress and the impact on the network in the event of failure or congestion at those stress points. Additional resources could then be provided at those points, or alternative routes planned to bypass the congestion and limit the ripple out effect, like a fire break.  The problem is only likely to get worse, and the network more unreliable, as the population increases and more people than ever rely on the rail network to get to work.

With the arrival of LTE and rapidly increasing popularity of Video on Demand then telecoms networks are also facing increasing levels of congestion and instability. Global data traffic is predicted to increase by 10 to 20 times by 2019 (Cisco).   In order to meet regulatory obligations and maintain customer experience Capex is set to spiral upwards. MNOs, who are already facing a year on year decrease in ARPU, will struggle to keep pace with demand and the risk of congestion will be ever present.

As with rail networks MNOs need a longer term strategy in place to understand where and when future choke points in the network will occur so that the risk of congestion can be eliminated for the least cost. Subex Capacity Management provides the capability to predict these points of congestion by monitoring and correlating metrics from across the network to provide detailed forecasts of network utilisation. Additional factors can be brought into the forecasts, such as the impact of major events or the rolling out of M2M services and different scenarios played out to understand how the network will respond. By automating the forecasting process network managers can be alerted long before issues become critical and congestion begins to occur. They can evaluate different options for either re-homing traffic or augmenting the network for the least possible cost. Stranded or un-utilised assets can even be recovered and re-located to satisfy demand for very little cost.

CFOs need to find ways to keep increasing revenue while controlling costs, and CTOs need to keep network delivering ever greater speeds as volumes of traffic increase exponentially.  Both need to look into the future to avoid a future of network instability, falling quality, crippling network costs and lost revenue.

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As I interact with more and more service providers about their network capacity issues, I’ve become sure about one thing – what worked before, isn’t really working anymore.  The CapEx requirement for network equipment just to keep up with the exponential growth in data traffic (i.e., Data Tsunami) is still not getting them ahead of significant congestion issues and customer impacting events.  Why? Traditional capacity management paradigms are not working.

Essentially, feedback from carriers of all sizes and types has exposed one of the most significant shifts in thinking regarding how to go about managing and planning for network capacity.  They know that the rules are all changing and today’s content demands are outpacing the CSPs ability to keep pace.  The first key question is how to get back in front of the capacity demand (we’ll talk about monetization next…stay tuned).  So, why aren’t today’s processes scaling?

  • CSPs use a multitude of human resources and manual processes to manage network capacity.   This may have scaled under slower and more predictable capacity growth curves, but thanks to services like You-Tube & Netflix, entire network capacity is shifting in quantum leaps.
  • Solutions provided by equipment vendors are often platform specific, and reinforce a silo approach to Capacity Management when a holistic view is needed.  Service demand congestion is a network phenomenon which doesn’t care about individual equipment vendors or devices.
  • CSP planning groups leverage data and make decisions based on systems which have 20 – 40% inaccuracy in comparison to the actual capacity availability in the network.
  • Today’s CSP solution approach is often homegrown where 90% of the time is spent on acquiring and understanding raw data.  As a whole, everyone is trying to answer the question of how to proactively eliminate the possibility of congestion, but most are still focused on addressing the symptoms and not preventing the problem

It is surprising to note that even top tier/technology leaders cannot accurately predict where and when capacity issues will impact their networks.  This lack of visibility hurts CSPs considerably because as per our own studies, network events are behind can account for up to 50% of customer churn in high value mobile data services.

Flattening the CapEx curve

And the Capacity Management problem doesn’t really end there; in many ways it’s like a supply chain process. Marketing owns the function of forecasting where service uptake will drive capacity needs across the network. When Marketing underestimates service uptake, there is a real and significant impact to potential revenue: On average, it can take about 3 months from when capacity is fully tapped in a Central Office (CO) to when new capacity can be added to your network.  During that time, customers expecting service availability become hugely frustrated and begin to churn.  Engineering groups are pushed into panic-mode, trying to react as fast as possible – often putting capacity in the wrong places due to inaccurate data – resulting in further congestion, service degradation, an inefficient use of capital.

The message from CXO’s is crystal clear – there is an urgent and dire need to find new ways of monetizing the data crossing their networks. This need is exacerbated with OTT content and net-neutrality. SLA and authentication based revenue models are absolutely dependent on knowing what types of content/services are traversing your network, how much capacity they consume, and how utilization is driven by your consumer’s interests and activities.  This type of analysis requires a critical and intelligent binding of network and services data with business data to truly assess the financial impact to the CSP. Many Business Intelligence (BI) solution leaders will lay claim to abilities here, but actually fall very short of the mark.  Instead, real experience suggests that solutions in the marketplace today either:

  • Can handle the financial aspects of your business but have no understanding of today’s network dynamics in terms of capacity issues and services;
  • Can handle parts of your network very deeply, but do not correlate or provide a holistic view at the service level; or,
  • Can collect some network and service level information, but have no ability to incorporate business data to understand the impact to the business – i.e,. cost, subscriber behavior, propensities

All the above challenges bring us to the inevitable question – what kind of approach does one take in order to tackle capacity management issues? How does one stop chasing traffic and focus on flattening the CapEx curve instead? In order to attain ‘Capacity Management Nirvana‘, a proactive and scalable approach needs to be adopted by CSPs. An approach which not only intelligently binds network and business strategies based on the Data Tsunami realities but also brings proactive and predictive capacity management to the table. At the end of the day, a CSP should have access to all their capacity, the ability to leverage real and immediate feedback on the change in capacity as service uptake increases, and finally, the right tools and intelligence to get in front of what’s coming.

To know more about how a Capacity Management solution can help you address the above issues, download the whitepaper “Energizing Smart Growth with Network Intelligence

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