Turning policy control into a positive experience

The sophistication of smartphones and netbooks, the explosion of P2P, video and gaming applications, that ride on top of those devices - not to mention the comfort people now feel with social networks - have created a serious dilemma for service providers trying to accommodate the exponential increases in the traffic over fixed and mobile networks. Without a means to generate sustainable revenues that offset pressure to lower costs and improve customer experience - all while reining in operations costs - the huge demands on networks could prove disastrous.

As one executive vice president for a major service provider said off the record, "This is our single biggest problem and may ruin our whole business."

Stratecast recently quantified just how significant the traffic increase is, citing in a report that some operators have reported increases in data usage from an average of 5-6 Gbps at the end of 2008 to an average of 24 Gbps by October 2009 - a fourfold increase in less than a year.

To put that in perspective the report - "BSS Evolution:  The Real-Time Triumvirate Emerges," authored by Karl Whitelock, senior consulting analyst, and Volubill - stated that a rate of 24 Gbps on a nonstop usage basis is about 62 petabytes per month.

Cisco is cited in the same report for its estimates of data traversing the core networks of all service providers globally. Its 2009 estimate of global IP traffic came to approximately 15,000 petabytes per month, estimated to increase to 55,600 petabytes per month in 2013 (which represents a 3.7-times increase in global IP traffic between 2009 and 2013).

Rather than make the same high-profile mistakes of the past in terms of traffic shaping or arbitrarily determining "fair usage," service providers are now seeking ways to enforce dynamic rules that take the actual user into account, and turn policy management into a potentially positive experience for customers.

"Customers know they want to be as fulfilled as possible - the very best broadband access possible, at the lowest prices possible," says Comptel marketing director Olivier Suard. "That puts them at odds with their service providers, which are at the same time trying to earn as much as they can off the customer while simultaneously keeping that customer happy, and without too much burden on network resources."

Killing three birds with one stone

Policy management and optimizing networks are not new concepts, as evidenced by the level of standards that already exist around policy and charging rules, such as 3GPP's PCRF and PCRE standards.

However, successfully bringing customers into the equation is somewhat new. Where bandwidth management for the sake of the network was once the driver for policy management, a new generation of policy management products will morph into "multi-function solutions capable of supporting subscriber management, policy and charging control and class of service," according to Patrick Kelly, research director with Analysys Mason.

The research firm forecasts that the overall policy management market will grow from $876 million in 2008 to $2.62 billion in 2013 at a CAGR of 27%. A new report looks at the use of policy management and DPI technology as a means to change business models from flat-rate tariff plans toward tiered services and personalized subscriber data management.

Any personalization that can occur through more granular data discovery and management would help service providers customize reactions to certain situations according to customer preferences - as they exist today, and as they "could be" tomorrow.

For example, Suard says rather than take harsh actions that make the customer feel "punished," such as abruptly terminating a service when payment is due, a CSP can gain customer loyalty be ensuring the customers feel "valued," by first informing him or her of upcoming balances, and then perhaps offering a special discount on a batch of texts or downloads to generate more revenue through cross-selling, as well as generate more loyalty by giving the customer options that expand the relationship to the service provider.

According to Stratecast's Whitelock, a "triumvirate" of real-time business-support needs is taking shape to ensure the customer remains a focus while balancing the need to generate revenue and manage network resources. These cover: convergent rating and  charging; customer-centric policy management; and usage data collection (especially IP-based deep packet collection).

When considering the inter-relationships among the three, Whitelock sees a "welding together" of network-based service capability and software-based support to help weave subscriber attributes into transactions so that CSPs can manage to implement real-time authorization and session management, as well as enforce "fair usage" policies and service caps in real time. According to Volubill, "intelligent usage-based policy management" should:

  • Identify, shape and restrict applications and bandwidth usage on a user-level
  • Ensure network resources are available to deliver customer service and service experience.
  • Enforce fair usage policy and service caps both dynamically and in real-time
  • Prioritise application, service or connection based services for QoS, subscriber preferences and on-demand requests
  • Initiate in-line (pop-up/redirect), on-line (self-care) and off-line (messaging) advice-of-charge, advice-of-service and service status dialogue with customers
  • Invoke real-time charging, credit control and payment management across pre-pay, post-pay and on-demand users
  • Provide real-time management and view of service status and charges.

"Only if policy management ties to customer-defined service options, business definitions and technology operability [rules that define network devices, databases and IT applications work together] can operators understand customer service uptake and succeed in policy enforcement," says Whitelock.

User-defined limits

Because policy management and policy enforcement have to be executed in a "customer-friendly" manner, policy rules may increasingly be built around customer-defined service usage limits, service agreement definitions and network considerations.

"Charging and rating must be real-time - and must be relevant in the context of the customer," said Nigel Upton, HP's director of customer intelligence and billing. He noted that service providers can create that context by analyzing many kinds of data, including location, service, plans and devices as well as user activities and preferences over time.

"Bringing this knowledge together at the point of transaction enhances the customer experience and differentiates the service provider," he said. "By fully integrating charging and rating within a policy management solution,  service providers can monetize the value of their network assets. They can enhance revenue with in-session up-selling, customized bundling, on-demand purchasing and tiered pricing packages - all while enhancing the customer experience with friendly alerts about their account balance, usage limits and advice-of-charge."

The information to make that happen usually resides in customer care and billing systems, which may drive policy management vendors to integrate real-time rating and charging into what were traditionally network-centric solutions. In other words, policy management may no longer reside solely in the domain of the network, as it will have to include IT-type capabilities that would be available in modular, component-based solutions.

"All functions should have full access to all parameters of the subscriber profile. No matter if it is an adjunct policy control or an 'end-to-end' policy, charging and billing system, CSPs have to build one centralized database designed to deliver a 360-degee real-time view to the customer," says Andreas Freund, Orga Systems marketing VP.

For fast, interactive, real-time policy controls to come to fruition, some talk of putting policy management controls into mediation engines used in billing. After all, they already bring together data from multiple devices and databases for applications of policy that allow or disallow things to happen.

"We see a huge evolution in the capability to support billing in real time, which, when combined with real-time policy management, brings us to the potential for fascinating service capabilities," says Suard, though he admits there is still an offline mindset in some places, which must give way to online (active charging) if price plans are to link up with billing and charging.

For fascinating things to happen, industry insiders believe not only that policy management solutions must tie directly to rating and charging, but also to data discovery functions. In other words, policy management should incorporate functions like rating and charging, and have proper process and interfaces in place to easily access data relevant to customer profiles (which usually resides in customer care and billing systems).

"You want to allow for integration among CRM and provisioning systems so you can get the data you need; when you follow the 3GPP interfaces for usage like Diameter to things like DPI devices, then you get the data you need," says David Sharpley, senior VP of marketing and product management for Bridgewater.

Ultimately, in getting the right data to the right device at the right time, service providers would be getting closer to the prospect of influencing positive customer behaviors and generating extra revenues.

How to get there

Whether service providers will get there by taking one piece of policy control from one place and charging from another, or whether they will go for modular "end-to-end" approaches will depend on what elements of policy management they have and what elements they need. With literally dozens of vendors coming into the space claiming to have some or all elements of policy management, there is a lot of noise to get through.

Whitelock tries to boil down the key components of policy management by explaining: "The policy manager function should define the rules that represent the requirements of the business, functionality of network technology, and the manner in which services are used." He said these include:

  • Adherence to 3GPP's policy and charging rules function (PCRF)
  • General business operability for the CSP
  • Technology operability - rules that define when certain network devices, databases, or IT
  • Customer-defined service operability
  • Third-party application operability
  • Advertising operability

How to get the data needed for each of those variables is not an easy task to figure out.

To make it all work, service providers have to create interfaces to the network elements responsible for collecting and aggregating usage information for related charging and billing processes. "Service providers will have to create subscriber-specific rules and configurations, and as they do so, they have to question any instances where similar configurations and processing have to be done twice in different systems. You want to eliminate redundancies as early as possible," says Freund.

To further avoid redundancies, service providers also have to consider how "standards-based" and "multi-vendor" their partners really are, according to Sharpley: "All service providers have elements in their networks that can turn into policy enforcement points - e.g., parental control gateways out to radio-access networks - so you want to look at policy across the entire network so you know how to imply control," says Sharpley.