According to a recent report from Gartner, sales of smartphones in 2011 were up 58 per cent on 2010. With similar growth predicted for iPad and Tablet sales, the result is a seemingly insatiable demand for data-centric and mobile video applications that is putting incredible stress on mobile networks.
The more powerful the device, the more data is downloaded. For example, while smartphones easily outnumber laptops using dongles, the laptops consume significantly more data by volume than mobile devices. This is truly an explosion of mobile data traffic.
The initial growth of mobile broadband data drove service providers to focus on traffic and congestion management. Policy Servers are the key means to apply more rational policies when networks became congested, usually by dividing customers into tiers with different data volume limits, and devising policies for what happens when limits are breached. This approach has become widely known as fair use management, and applications are being added to ensure users understand what and how much they were being charged for. But this is simply not enough for today’s user or network requirements.
Whilst bandwidth management and control of the pipe are absolutely necessary, building a bigger, faster ‘dumb pipe’ alone won’t keep the NSPs (Network Service Providers) in business. The fact is, Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) for data traffic is not increasing at the same rate as the demand for service - this cannot remain the same for very much longer. NSPs must find ways to add services, enhance Quality of Experience (QoE), and provide flexible, dynamic, up-sell options to monetise the data pipe. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology is the key to make this change happen. Value Added Service applications are being developed that will use DPI technology to improve the user experience, but service providers must implement them, placing the user in control. Are the NSPs ready for this and if so what will it take?
To truly innovate, operators need to think beyond cost-centric measures and adapt current business models to today’s increasingly data-hungry users. Operators must transform their networks by developing services that reduce incremental network operating costs, whilst increasing IP service revenue.
Service operators must also improve the user experience to avoid customer churn. Operators need to provide services linked to demand, both in terms of the network and the individual user. For too long now, customer retention has focused on providing the latest smartphone, Tablet or price bundle, rather than the services that are available on these devices. A report from the CMO Council entitled “The Challenge of Customer Churn and Market Burn”, says that a 2 per cent increase in customer retention has the same effect on profits as cutting costs by 10 per cent.
In short, building out the data pipe is simply not enough. Service providers must find ways to monetise it. This can only be accomplished once the ‘dumb pipe’ has become intelligent. A deterministic packet network is the only way to effectively manage packet-based traffic. The operator must know and control its network traffic by type, user and device. It is not only about improving the speed and throughput of the network to accommodate the data explosion, but also, providing the user with new services and control over their services and costs.
Knowledge based on DPI brings the control necessary to make this happen. An intelligent data pipe has the ability to manage content, services, billing, access, as well as location-based services for children and household security. These are new services and controls that operators can offer customers, once the intelligence has been implemented that can only come from DPI.
In addition, packet inspection is used to analyse network traffic; to discover both the type of application that sent the data, where it came from, and the device the service is bound for. In order to prioritise traffic, or filter out unwanted data, DPI can differentiate data, such as video, music, VoIP, e-mail and web sessions. The technology can also be used to delay, or ‘throttle’, some kinds of content generated by certain applications. This controls the delivery of content, improves network security, and allows both the network and the user enhanced control.
In the 4G/LTE all-IP world, the Mobile Management Entity (MME), Serving Gateway (SGW), and Packet Data Network Gateway (PGW) make up the core elements. The Policy Control and Resource Function (PCRF) is used for setting Quality of Service, Service Level Agreements and usage restrictions that are key to new service and billing paradigms. Comprehensive and dynamic policy definitions provide better management and monetisation of the packet data pipe. These emerging fee-for-service models rely on information provided by these network elements, as well as enhanced HSS learning user id and preferences.
DPI is essential in this new world to smooth billing practices, improve network security and deliver the option to actively control packet data pipe sessions through traffic filtering and redirection. This can help ensure that subscribers are not only receiving the correct package of services they bought from their service provider, but also support bill shock and advice of charge applications which provide the user with peace of mind.
First-generation policy servers met the initial challenges of this increasingly demanding mobile data traffic explosion. These policy servers protected the network from periodic overuse, and ensured equal access to all users. Next-generation policy servers and the upcoming data offload cousins will need far greater intelligence to provide customers with services and control. Service providers must offer these capabilities to be successful in the future. DPI engines assisted by fast and efficient IP flow management will meet this need. For both customers and providers alike, controllable and managed services are the key tp QoE and a profitable business model.
Robin Kent is director of operations at Adax Europe