The pace of mobile network innovation is accelerating – virtualized networks, digital transformation, data lakes – and yet one aspect has remained essentially the same for more than 30 years. We still send a vehicle crammed with test equipment out on the road to carry out drive tests, just like we did in the 1990s.
Surely there must be a better way to measure mobile coverage than this costly and labor-intensive practice? Yet telecoms regulators still specify them when setting coverage targets for their operators, and industry benchmarks rely on their metrics ahead of any alternatives.
So what are the drawbacks with drive tests? First of all, they only cover a fraction of total roads, and by definition they cannot cover some other areas where mobile coverage is equally important, like railway lines or hiking trails. Even for roads that are covered, drive test results only provide a snapshot at a single point in time. Finally, they are expensive and time-consuming, requiring a specially-equipped vehicle with a driver and a test technician, and taking many hours to drive the prescribed route.
The digital transformation operators are currently pursuing generates a wealth of valuable data sets that can potentially be analyzed to extract a range of network quality parameters. This data has a much wider geographical diversity than drive test data, as it derives from every location that subscribers connect from, 24/7, whether they are relatively immobile at home, at work, or out shopping, or whether they are on the move – driving, cycling, on a train, or even hiking up a mountain.
If that same rich digital data can be exploited to give an accurate reconstruction of journeys, and a detailed scoring of network user experience across all those journeys, wouldn’t that be a great way of replacing – or at least greatly reducing the quantity of – those outdated physical drive tests?
Reducing the mileage covered during drive tests by replacing them with digital data would offer another key benefit, as it would help the mobile industry to meet its green targets for reducing carbon footprint, while at the same time turning more of its roads from ‘red’ to ‘green’ status on the network quality map.
The technology for making drive tests digital already exists in the form of Mobility Experience Analytics, and is already being deployed by Tier 1 operators worldwide as part of their network improvement efforts. Extracting virtual drive test data is the logical next step for leveraging the full potential of this valuable data.