Published on Bangkok Post Newspaper January 5, 2011
A Thai telecommunications start-up has taken off-the-shelf smart phones and turned them into powerful network monitoring tools thanks to a lot of hard work and a grant from the NBTC. The drive test tool costs a small fraction of the cost of similar units from the big name telecommunication equipment makers.
The Azenqos (Ascending Quality of Service) drive test tool maps out call quality
against a map to help diagnose mobile network problems.
The Azenqos (Ascending Quality of Service) drive test tool maps out call quality against a map to help diagnose mobile network problems.
Don Pooksawasdi, Business Development Manager, and Dr Songkran Jarusirisawad, expert at Freewill FX, explained their company's flagship product, Azenqos - Ascending QOS (Quality of Service) drive test tool. It runs on a laptop tethered to a phone and gathers radio information and call test information. The program works on all networks, 2G, 3G and, in theory, LTE.
When operators do network planning in a map, real-world situations often mean there are dead spots where the signal gets transferred to a faraway cell, or gets blocked because of interference from another cell. With a drive test tool, engineers can drive along a road, gather real world information on network and call quality and in many cases, can initiate a fix simply by re-configuring the base station controllers from headquarters.
Azenqos can monitor raw traffic, automatically set up calls and can call another number, play back a pre-recorded message and then later compare the digitised sound received to the original to see where and how any interruptions in the voice stream occurred.
Freewill has autonomous 2G units as well that can be installed in rural areas to run tests and report back to headquarters on a periodic basis with a 3G version under development.
Rather than using specialist equipment from big names such as Nokia-Siemens or Ericsson, the team of engineers have tapped into Qualcomm's support forums and have effectively turned almost any off-the-shelf phone that uses a Qualcomm chipset into a powerful network diagnostic tool to snoop the low level network messages between the phone and cell towers.
Most of the Qualcomm documentation is aimed at mobile developers developing phones on Qualcomm chipsets, but many of the questions are relevant for a network monitoring tool.
Without the Qualcomm connection, the alternative would have been to pay 10 million baht to a certain Finnish company for access to the official developer programme and buy special 1,000 Euro phones that have their radio interface opened up.
"Besides, their phones are no longer representative of the smart phones in use in the market today," Don said.
He said that the huge costs mean today each telco can only afford a handful of test units nationwide. Because of this, testing is limited to Bangkok and urban areas, while less densely populated areas are left with bad network coverage. Bad networks can be annoying for someone in a city, but in rural areas with few neighbours, it can be a life and death situation if someone cannot call for help.
With an affordable network tool, he hopes that the telcos can afford to equip every maintenance team with the the tool and diagnose problems for upcountry users more quickly and thus bridge the digital divide.
The advent of 3G next year, he hopes, will generate huge demand. AIS and TrueMove are current customers and Freewill hopes to sell to other developing countries too.
The problem, however, is getting its hands on phones that can be modified in order to scale. Qualcomm, while very helpful, does not make phones itself and sells chips to phone makers. The phone used in the demonstration was an off-the-shelf Samsung Jet phone. Don says that there is no way to ensure a supply of compatible phones. Samsung could lock its phones at any time and make it impossible to build more network monitoring kits.
"I've been trying to talk to HTC and Samsung, but everywhere I turn, all I meet are salespeople. We don't have an indigenous handset maker to turn to for partnership," he lamented.
Most of the staff were working in university labs before joining Freewill.
"Alongside Anunda Technologies, we are the only other Thai company who does telecom infrastructure," he said.
The initial version was developed on Nokia Symbian in 2007, before the company was founded with venture capital in 2008 and moved to the current Qualcomm platform.
Funding for development was via a low interest loan from the NBTC Telecommunications Research and Industrial Development Institute (TRIDI), the Telecommunications Product Research Grant.
Away from mobile test suites, Freewill also does some specialised mobile enterprise software, such as a solution for insurance companies for car accident claims and some mobile publishing.