This article originally appeared in the Jan. 2011 issue of NGN Magazine.
In the emerging telecom world, everything is becoming real time.
There was a time when nearly all functions were performed in batches, in non real time. Most OSS/BSS functions were batch, as was most billing. This was partly a technology limitation (real time was complex and expensive), but it also reflected the fact that most services didn’t demand real-time handling. Not anymore.
While this changed relatively slowly, it is the industry’s collective new reality. The two primary applications of real-time technology were prepaid and toll-free services. And according to common wisdom, as the world became richer and more credit-worthy, post-paid would re-establish itself. Similarly, as bundles and unlimited became more popular, even the allure of 800 numbers would wane.
But a funny thing happened. Two camps of innovators proved that real-time technology was central to innovation, personalization, monetization and a good consumer experience. Oh, and real-time technology advanced startlingly. Oddly, the “most advanced” communication service providers in the “most advanced” countries of the world seemed to be the last to notice.
Around the world, innovative players in mobile have used ever more sophisticated online charging systems to implement rate plans, affinity plans, offers and premiums that help them gain and hold market share without simply lowering their price – something that’s difficult to do when your plan is $39.95 a month – period. They offered discounts when you hit a threshold, or when the network was lightly used (congestion pricing and discounting). CSPs gave users interactive advice of charge, sent out real-time offers and coupons, and began linking contextual ads to plans – all real-time functions, and all implemented very cost effectively, using today’s technology to change the economics of real-time, and prove it in astonishingly competitive and low-priced markets like India.
Simultaneously, major Internet players have made real-time table stakes in that market. When you log on to most sites, they recognize you, load your preferences, personalize your news, and target your ads. They interact with you, send you alerts, and link you to changes in your preferred blogs and favorite sites.
All this came about because of two fundamental changes. First, the world has moved from a monopoly or oligopoly structure to one of intense competition. Second, networks now carry far more than voice and raw data between data centers – they deliver infotainment. And infotainment demands a wide range of personalization and real-time functions.
Think about something as simple as a movie. The business model can be improved with quite a few functions, all of which demand real-time processing. An example of this is charging from an allowance of stored value account (with advice of charge), parental control, content adaptation (so it plays optimally on your device), network bandwidth allocation, and personalized ads – meeting your template.
Think also about the market structure. In the old days, two facts conspired against real time: It was more costly and limited competition gave CSPs limited incentive to innovate. Today, both facts are reversed. The only thing that appears to have stayed constant is the common wisdom about how networks should operate, what the tradeoffs are, and thus what should be real time.
If we look at the actions of a policy charging and rules function executing bandwidth allocation we see a real-time process that is the analog of facilities assignment. Prepaid and online charging replace off-line rating and stamp licking. But more importantly, an entire set of new network functions have emerged to service the commercial needs of infotainment, and to arm CSPs in market competition.
As an industry we need to rethink what networks can do and should do. It is increasingly clear that networks will rarely own and control content and information itself. But that means they must redouble their efforts to add value and generate revenues. And most of these functions are network functions (like those described above) and operate in real time.
Not only are commercial needs dictating new thinking about core network technology, it is critical that technology decisions not be made in a vacuum. The CTO shouldn’t, for instance, simply minimize network costs and cost per megabyte delivered because this fails to optimize value add and revenue.
As an industry we need the tools to thrive in the emerging world of IP, infotainment and fierce competition. Smart, rules-driven, real-time systems are one of our most powerful tools.
Embrace them in real time.
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi