To scale, telcos must learn from the ops community

There are as many small base stations out in the world as there are large base stations attached to cell phone towers, according to an Informa Telecoms & Media report released Wednesday. That doubles the number of equipment telcos must monitor and manage to help deliver a crystal clear signal on your cell phone, but it also creates a management nightmare and perhaps, an opportunity.

The report states that between October and November 2012, the number of small cells reached 6.1 million with macrocells worldwide totaling 5.9 million. Most of the small cells at 80 percent are inside people’s homes helping improve the cell signal inside the house. But others are in crowded venues like offices and stadiums where the smaller cells act as a backup and signal booster for larger cell towers nearby. Sprint(s s) by the way has deployed a million of those small cells–up from 250,000 in 2011.

For operators who now have up to four times as many base stations to manage, the network complexity can be daunting. Sure these small cells boost the quality of the subscriber experience but managing all of those end points comes at a cost. And who will pay it? Some operators charge users for their in-home femtocells, which can frustrate people who believe that the operator should provide quality coverage as part of the basic service.

More cells, more technologies bring more complexity

But the problem will only get worse as more cells and more technologies are added to the network, and that’s why operators must look to their data center operations to understand how to scale out their networks at commodity server prices — not telco gear prices. For example, data center operators ranging from Google(s goog) to Facebook(s fb) have relentlessly focused on their infrastructure to eke out optimal performance at the lowest cost. Part of that is because their cost of goods sold (i.e. ads) are dependent on how much it costs to show a user a page.

But as demand for data creeps up and if carriers want to maximize profits while continuing to invest, their current equipment and the way they manage it must change. It must become easier to put in the field (no more deploying engineers and spending a couple of weeks to adjust new base stations) and more automated. Vendors such as Alcatel Lucent and Nokia Siemens Networks are trying to offer equipment that’s more flexible and can be deployed easily. Items such as Alcatel-Lucent’s LightRadio gear is an effort to make deployment easier. Gear from Intucell seeks to use self optimizing networks to make the network coverage more adaptive and automated.

And the same Informa report indicates that some operators are trying to build services that offer network access over small cells without the operator having to own the underlying assets. They call is Small Cells as a Service, or SCaaS, because of course they do. Virgin Media, Colt Telecom, Cloudberry Mobile and ClearSky are all testing products with a SCaaS model in mind.

Needed: Better and more programmability

Other than rethinking gear and introducing new business models borrowed from the cloud, telcos should also think about bringing more programmability into their core networks and operations. The software-defined networking craze in the data center could yield just as impressive benefits for carriers if they can bring themselves to adopt gear that uses commodity parts and relies more on the telco engineers as opposed to buying a box that Cisco(s csco) or Juniper(s jnp) programmers tweak for them.

A mindset shift has to occur in the telecommunications world, but many are thinking about it both on the operator and on the vendor side. But as the complexity of networks increase most carriers know they have to do something.