How has the network engineering sector evolved?

11 Mar 2022

Colin Ryan. Image: Huawei

Huawei’s Colin Ryan discusses how smartphones and data have revolutionised the role of the network engineer.

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Engineering contains such a broad spectrum of careers because it leaks into virtually every industry in one way or another, from software and data to manufacturing and networks.

To learn more about engineering within the telecoms sector, we spoke to Colin Ryan, a wireless RAN team leader at Huawei Technologies.

Ryan started his telecoms career in Vodafone Ireland in 2003, where he progressed through various departments before moving into the network management centre. During that time, he completed a degree in technology management and, after a decade with Vodafone, moved to Samsung as a RAN engineer.

RAN stands for radio access network, which essentially is the part of a mobile network that connects end-user devices such as smartphones to other parts of a network or to the cloud.

In his current role at Huawei, Ryan manages the company’s integration and support teams in Spain and Romania. He has also worked on a wireless project Huawei is deploying in Ireland.

“Over the past three years, I have worked on a key strategic project for us, which is to swap out or add new sites throughout the country. This is a nationwide project covering almost every county in Ireland,” he said.

“We are removing old legacy equipment and providing new cutting-edge technology across the country. We are adding 5G where possible and upgrading many of the existing 3G and 4G technologies.”

One example he is particularly proud of was being part of the team that delivered 5G into Croke Park. “When you see data speeds of over 1.2GB on your handset, you can really see the potential of what 5G can achieve. Huawei is a partner to Croke Park and in the future, we might see further enhancements on the back of our 5G presence already within the stadium.”

How networks have changed

Network engineering has come a long way over the years as technology has developed, and 5G is unsurprisingly one of the key trends for engineers working in telcos. This stems from an ever-growing appetite for data-rich services, which Ryan said are driven by the smartphone.

“Data usage has already outstripped voice traffic some time ago. In my opinion, non-interactive data, ie, machine-to-machine data, will soon surpass even that. The mobile network must be optimised for data traffic rather than voice traffic. This is a fundamental change in terms of both RAN and core network architecture from when I started in telecoms.”

‘As engineers we have a duty to minimise the impact our work has on the planet’

Ryan also said that new advancements in antenna design have been made possible due to more efficient use of spectrum – the invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over.

“Simple things like the physical footprint in a site has changed a lot. In the past, you could have multiple cards for baseband resources,” he added. “This is now simplified, [which] helps our engineers in terms of configuration and troubleshooting faults.”

Another major change is the vast levels of data being created all the time, which is changing not just the telecoms industry but every sector.

“Mobile operators, similar to social media companies, need to extract useful insights from the available data. In my area of networks, I can see how industry leverages big data analytics to monitor and manage network capacity effectively, build predictive capacity models and use it for planning network expansion decisions,” said Ryan.

“With real-time data analytics, the telecom service providers can determine highly congested areas where network usage is nearing its capacity thresholds to prioritise expansion for new capacity roll-out. Based on real-time analytics, operators can also develop predictive capacity forecasting models and plan for additional capacity in case of outages.”

While the growth of the industry has left professionals with plenty of opportunities to solve problems, network engineering is not without its challenges.

“As engineers we have a duty to minimise the impact our work has on the planet,” said Ryan. “I think the green agenda is as important as normal common issues an engineer might face, ie, security, capacity, cloud migration and scalability.

“For me, recent exposure to areas around lithium batteries, solar power and power-saving features to radio equipment has really piqued my interest in this area.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic