Vendors Offer Mobile Operators Tools for Network Optimization, Monetization

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  March 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of NGN.

It’s no secret that there’s been a mobile data explosion. That would seem to be a great opportunity for anyone in the wireless space. Yet because per bit pricing is not tracking with traffic growth, wireless networks are in a tough situation. They continue to invest in networks that they may not be sure yet how to monetize. But billing based on bandwidth and quality of service is clearly the goal, as is network optimization. To enable all that, mobile network operators need to get a better view into their networks so they can more effectively allocate resources based on the bottom line.

There are a lot of different angles to this story, but many of them tie into the themes of network visibility, subscriber data management and policy control.

Alcatel-Lucent offers the Wireless Network Guardian, which looks at traffic end to end, per subscriber, based on endpoint, and related to traffic type, explains Jean-Pierre Lartigue, product marketing and strategy for the company’s wireless networks business.

The Wireless Network Guardian currently is in use with more than 15 customers, he says, but at Mobile World Congress last week the company announced that product’s linkage with the 5780 Dynamic Services Manager, another existing Alcatel-Lucent solution. This linkage of products now enables network operators to enforce policy on their mobile networks.

Also among the recent efforts aiming to address mobile network optimization and monetization is a partnership between Akamai (News - Alert) and Ericsson. The companies at Mobile World Congress last month announced they are developing software that will enable Ericsson gear to interface with a policy control solution that ties into the Akamai CDN.

“It’s what we call a mobile content accelerator,” says Hans Vestberg, Ericsson president and CEO.

That will allow service providers like the telephone companies to cache popular traffic closer to customers – and within the wireless network. And that will accelerate content delivery, allowing service providers to not only offer a better customer experience, but to justify their investment in the joint Akamai/Ericsson solutions by offering premium services to end users and content companies, and by enabling those network operators to use their network resources more efficiently.

Ericsson declines to specify which of its products will support the Akamai-related software, saying the software might run on existing or new Ericsson “nodes” in the network, or even on networks not based on Ericsson infrastructure. (Vestberg at one point mentioned the word “appliance”.)

Nonetheless, Akamai and Ericsson say they’ve already tested the joint “cloud” solution, as they called it, with developers and expect to introduce it to service providers in the next six months.

“The content owners are ready to go,” says David Kenny, Akamai president. He adds that once the companies get enough service providers in a geographical area interested in the joint solution it will be ready to roll.

Another networking giant, Cisco (News - Alert) Systems, is also pushing the theme of mobile network monetization and optimization. In fact, these terms help form the name of the company’s MOVE (which stands for monetization, optimization, and Videoscape Experience) solutions. Current products under the MOVE umbrella include Cisco Mobile Videoscape, Cisco Service Provider Wi-Fi and Cisco Adaptive Intelligent Routing (AIR).

“MOVE is the next phase of Cisco’s Service Provider Mobility strategy, which was introduced at last year’s Mobile World Congress after Cisco acquired Starent Networks,” says Ash Dahod, senior vice president and general manager of the mobile Internet technology group at Cisco.

Cisco Mobile Videoscape is the mobile version of the Videoscape solution the company’s President and CEO John Chambers introduced in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At the time, Chambers explained that Videoscape will make the user interface consistent across all user devices. It also keeps all devices in sync so if, for example, a consumer gets a video message from a friend, that message will appear both on the user’s laptop, on his TV and his phone.

Jon Morgan, senior manager of Cisco’s service provider marketing organization, adds that Mobile Videoscape, which is available now, also allows service providers to transcode and transrate over-the-top traffic and cache it in different formats. He says that allows providers to cache popular content closer to users if they want, and will enable them to have more control over such traffic should network congestion occur.

The new Cisco Mobile Videoscape solution leverages new technology on the Cisco ASR 5000 and Cisco Unified Computing System platforms to link the mobile network to the larger video distribution network enabled by the Cisco Content Delivery Network capabilities of Cisco Videoscape. It also taps the Cisco Videoscape Media Suite to manage content across multiple screens.

As for Cisco Adaptive Intelligent Routing (or AIR), it is delivered via the Cisco ASR 1000, Cisco ASR 5000 and Cisco ASR 9000 platforms and was designed to lower the cost of supporting mobile data traffic. AIR is available now for 3G networks.

Morgan explains that AIR ties the intelligence of the mobile core into rest of the IP network. It leverages the control plane in the ASR5000 and uses that to control existing routers to branch traffic off to existing nodes, rather than requiring service providers to install new nodes. That’s much less expensive and reduces latency in the network. Today, he adds, mobile networks are hierarchical, but with this new architecture service providers can offload traffic at any point in the network without having to traverse a lot of network elements to terminate traffic.

Policy and congestion management solutions are also a key focus for Tekelec (News - Alert).

Randy Fuller, director of strategic marketing, says that many of the major service providers already are using Tekelec’s policy management products today. And Tekelec’s tools can let service providers decide what they want to look at in the network as it relates to subscribers and other service and network parameters.

“Tekelec has all the pieces to do true congestion-based policy control,” Fuller says.

He adds that the company is currently in trials in the Latin America and Europe with the solution, which he says is the first of its kind.

Many smaller and lesser known companies are also working various angles of this optimization and monetization requirement.

For example, a company called TheNowFactory offers active subscriber intelligence solutions that allow service providers to see which customers are using what applications when and with what endpoints.

The company offers probes that collect traffic information from mobile networks. But its special sauce is in its software applications, which give marketing; network planning and operations; and customer care folks at the operators new insight into subscriber behaviors and related traffic trends, explains Oliver Finn, marketing director.

These applications number six in all and are broken down into the three above-mentioned carrier employee interest groups. They present information in clean, multi-faceted formats – including pie charts, bar charts, matrixes, etc. That can help marketing get a better handle on who’s doing what on the network so the department can more effectively customize packages for particular user groups. It can help engineers more effectively do network and capacity planning, including network investment prioritization (to ensure carrier capex is weighted most heavily to serve the highest margin customers and services). And it can provide customer care representatives with the plain language information they need about the network and subscriptions to assist customers that call in for help.

TheNowFactory has 31 customers, including such big names a T-Mobile (News - Alert) and Vodafone, in 25 countries.

Another company working to assist mobile network operators in better understanding subscriber usage – and enabling them to act on it – is Tango Telecom (News - Alert). The company sells a data charging and policy solution, which it recently began marketing more heavily in the U.S.

Rory O’Toole, vice president of global sales, says the Tango solution leverages deep packet inspection technology to see what’s happening on the network. That information is used to enable service providers to enforce network resource rules on a per-subscriber basis and to do related pre- and post-paid charging.

“We’re kind of the best kept secret in the industry,” O’Toole says.

He explains that’s because Tango delivers PCRF (policy management) and PCEF (DPI) functionality in a single, one-rack solution, while others require a multi-vendor mix to do the same thing. For the mobile operator, he adds, a single solution from a single supplier means it’s less expensive to support. The offer is low on the capex front as well, he says.

O’Toole goes on to emphasize the feature-richness, which offers such nice add-ons as SMS messaging.

Leveraging SMS messaging technology, a service provider can allow subscribers to almost instantly, and in an automated way, do things like upgrade their bandwidth (either for a limited time to support a specific application, or for the longer term). He adds that network operators could use this same SMS functionality to help support dynamic pricing on their networks based the amount of available bandwidth on the network at any particular time. It would work like this: If the network was congested at a particular time, the subscriber would get an SMS saying the cost for connectivity was higher at that time, and the end user could decide to pay the higher cost or reconnect later. While O’Toole says none of the mobile operators are doing this kind of thing yet, it could certainly go a long way toward helping them balance the loads on their networks and better match up their network cost with revenue intake.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi