Policy Control and Charging – An Evolving Architecture Helping Disruptive Business Models

This is a short article on a relative “old” architecture, from the standardization point of view, but not yet fully used on top of its capabilities by the established MNOs (Mobile Network Operators).

Architecture Standards

3GPP Policy Control and Charging (PCC) architecture is an evolutionary not a revolutionary one. When it was proposed, their functions split off existing mobile IN (Intelligent Network, aka CAMEL) functions, translated from switch (voice) to packet domain.

The main architectural control elements specified are PCRF (Policy and Charging Rules Function) – for police control (a lot more than only QoS)  – and OCS (Online Charging System) – for charging control. Since its first release, it is ones core network architecture with more updates over the last decade, and still work in progress.

Driving New Services

Over the past years most vendors describe bunch of possible business cases to validate the heavy investment on network capabilities to support all newly policy functions. However, the evolving part of the architecture plays its role and most of new products launched were focused on online charging services, with pre-paid data plans potentials and variations being a must.

Abstracting the architecture and thinking about policy user cases, we realize that a lot of business cases didn’t come to light due to enough support on legacy packet network elements and even on standards (one reason for too many spec upgrades) and regulatory issues.

Speed Bumps

On the network side, the capability to detect and inform the correct user traffic and application were main bottleneck that 3GPP specification try to address, e.g. with the TDF (Traffic Detection Function). A great number of business models can be explored at this configuration, but it’ll require a new network element (or new capabilities on existing ones), and new interface to PCRF. Virtualization (SDN and NFV) can play a role here, easing new capabilities adoption and deployment.

On the northbound side, the 3GPP standards are less restrictive, and the MNOs should decide how easy would be integration of new services , by defining a good APIs set to expose those policy control and charging capabilities (see my previous article on online charging future here). Vendors support in providing an open and fully configurable application interface is mandatory for MNOs willing to explore those capabilities.

On the regulatory side, the policy control services face a great pressure from net neutrality rules on some markets. Less net neutrality should drive new services models, but its still unclear how deep political changes as seen with Trump’s election and Brexit will affect the current regulatory direction.

Evolution

As policy and online charging services are a cornerstone on MNOs market, the 5G ongoing discussion on core network architecture will certain drive another evolution round on PCC architecture, after VNF introduction as well.

Also IoT mass deployment will demand a strong policy control and differentiate charging from MVOs, something hard to achieve without a standard architecture.

Mindset Changing and Next Steps

As conclusion, the Policy and Charging Control architecture are a powerful technology for service differentiation. Though, a key paradigm on MNOs business systems must change.

Policy and Charging architecture should be understood as the lower end of the Operator’s service creation chain and not as core network elements. PCRF and OCS are better described as service platforms and service enablers’ functions, but they’ll add value only when tied on Operator’s service layer business process.

Operators’ online policy and charging capabilities must also be securely exposed to internal and external service partners to be able to fulfill the business models predicted by the industry.

 

Push Notification Architecture Using React and Node.JS

While I was planning my “in-between-jobs projects”, including a mobile app framework development (which resulted in SBR Photography), I bumped with the requirement of an application server to deliver Push Notifications (PN) to the mobile app (Android and iOS flavors). I know there is a bunch of commercial offers available over the Internet to do the job, but I was tied to the main project’s requirement, no cost at all (besides me).

Other project’s requirement was to be simple enough to be operated by anyone, meaning to avoid the compulsion to solve this with beauty shell script command. After some research, I’ve designed a simple architecture that could be implemented on a local Node.js server as backend and a frontend webserver done in React.js.

This PN application server solution is able to handle app tokens grabbed by a REST API Gateway on the cloud, select specific destinations options and send custom PN messages to the devices thru Google (Firebase) and Apple (APN) services. All tasks controlled by the frontend friendly UI.

Architecture

There are some major components on the system:

  1. API Gateway: a PHP server deployed on the same webserver that host the mobile app content. This component gets the push notification register (token) and other information from the app and hold on a database;
  2. Parser: a component to grab the device information from the API Gateway in CSV format and generate the objects to the backend components;
  3. Frontend: website UI to configure the custom push message to be delivered based on the target device language, OS and mobile app name;
  4. Controller: a component to control the internal backend workflow;
  5. APN interface and Google FCM interface: services that handle the Apple Push Notification (APN) keys and Google Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM) keys related to each mobile app registered and establishes the secure communication channel to each external service to deliver the notification messages payload.

The API Gateway is a webservice that need to be always on to catch push notification register from the mobile apps. The remaining components are started over demand by operator and could be locally hosted on any end user computer.

Here the end-to-end architecture:

Architecture Push Notification Server

Implementation

Here’s a short walk through over the main project’s components.

Frontend
A very simple Single Page Application done in React, bundled with Webpack, minified and load as static asset. The original UI is also on Codepen and you can play with it. All UI changes are handled by user events, a lazy decision to avoid implement Flux into this project. The drawback of this decision is only the manual log text area update, through the ‘log’ button.

The user inputs and selection are submitted to the backend via REST API.

Backend
The backend was done in Node.js using as much as possible available packages for the parser and APN and FCM services.

Final Remarks

This project implement a local, low cost, automation to the operational process to deliver push notification to mobile app bundle, where individual notification is not a requirement. The basic architecture is robust, permits room for future improvements and is an option for initial low to mid volume mobile app deployments.

 

 

Online Charging Future – Evolve or Die?

Technology and service evolution are affecting Billing and Charging process inside each mobile network operator (MNO), and contributing for IT and Telecom convergence. Progress in virtualization (NFV) and new services technologies (IoT, VoLTE, 5G) based on service API ecosystems will promote new revenue streams and distinguish business models.

Those advances are developing new opportunities for online charging and marketing offering flexibility. Both are key differentiators to unveil new services revenues for MNOs’ environment.

Industry Standards

But are the technology standards and architecture ready for these new scenarios? Two main standardizations bodies are applicable for online charging, one mainly focused on network and another on business process, 3GPP and TM Forum.

The 3GPP groups define all interfaces and protocols allowing the online charging system realization on top of mobile and convergent core infrastructure. Its specifications define also the functional elements to allow session based and event based charging functions. They are main reference for the traditional platforms used for pre-paid charging control in a network based service environment.

The TM Forum Business Process Framework (eTOM) defines the processes for Manage Balances and Charging of products and events inside the Customer Domain. These processes are part of Billing and Revenue Management and covers online and offline charging. They are main reference for business systems inside the MNOs’ IT domains.

Both standards set are perfectly complementary in theory, but in the real world we are watching a technological evolution that will permit the merge of these under a freshly online charging systems (OCS) concept.

Evolution Scenario

The future convergence is not only on platforms, but also on process and operations. We can foreseeing a future were all MNOs’ charging system will be online (OCS based), fully integrated into network authentication, policy decision resources and including all business processes ranging from subscription, advice of charging and reaching the billing invoice management.

On the vendors side this should represent a new solution development collapsing IT billing systems and Telecom platforms, open up opportunities and challenges in a new front between traditional IT and Telecommunications Equipment suppliers.

Challenges

But, Are the actual MNOs willing to embrace these technologies and process evolution? This is a question with no simple and straight answer. This is a strategic decision based on where each MNO believe will be their role in the future.

We can imagine a future complex scenario where the MNOs will deal with full convergent service bundle, including voice, data, TV, IoT and OTT partners in a 5G environment. This could require a rich and flexible charging plans, able to be customized to each subscriber and robust enough to handle residential and corporate segments.

On the other far side are the MNOs that will be forced (or chosen) to offer only the data connectivity to its subscribers, with flat rate charging style “one size fits all”.

The two scenarios above are extreme ones and probably none (or quite a few) will evolve to them. The first one will demand a powerful OCS fully integrated into the business systems, plentiful of network protocols, configurable and flexible product definition interface. The second will demand a simple traditional (legacy) charging platform.

Conclusion

The real world will lay anywhere in the space under the extremes described above.

The OCS evolution for the MNOs will be strongly tied to their evolution strategy and their place in the future of connected people, devices and things. This could lead to a deep process redesign and paradigm shift, together with the adoption of all new technological standards needed to offer all services foreseen.

For the vendors, the real risk is not to be able to design a flexible solution qualified to adapt and grow to any MNO scale and requirements. The future service differentiation should be provided by the MNO product portfolio, not by the vendor solution boundaries.

What about MNOs’ IoT Business Models?

We are entering in a new era where the data connectivity will expand to integrate ordinary things around us. The Internet of Things (IoT) technology already allows a myriad of “things” (and its integrated electronic modules) to be connected by companies and end users to collect data and automate simple daily tasks, in an unprecedented scale. All this capabilities are being driven by new or evolved technologies like computer miniaturization, big data analytics, microelectromechanical systems (sensors and actuators), IPv6, cloud, virtualization and Low Power Wide Area (LPWA).

Mobile IoT increasing importance

Even considering that most of IoT’s applications are based on non-mobile devices, Ericsson Mobility Report (June 2016) predicts 14.2 billion non-cellular IoT devices versus 1.5 billion cellular IoT devices by 2021, the mobile connectivity is of increasing importance. The same report also foreseen that IoT mobile devices will surpass mobile handsets by 2018. Due to wireless technologies (LPWA) evolution, the IoT devices will tolerate better battery life (over 10 years), low cost connection and high coverage.

As result, big technology companies (e.g. Apple, GE, Google, IBM, Oracle, etc.) are building their own IoT ecosystems and products, some based on services as data analytics and cloud, and other based on dedicated hardware (modules and semiconductors) and software (Operating Systems and protocols). On the other side, a bunch of new start-ups are also developing their own systems and products. Some of them are targeting IoT’s Application and Service Providers and other pursuing the end user market.

IoT Business Models

But how will the mobile network operators (MNOs) define their business models to capture space into IoT market? The LPWA and other narrow band wireless access technologies gave us an easy answer, but the IoT device scale, small payload data and low cost connectivity could not be enough to remunerate the upcoming cost to build a new access network.

Anticipating the market, some companies are already building dedicated wireless networks based on non-standard LPWA to connect the IoT devices. LoRa and SIGFOX are key technologies on this field. Current proprietary LPWA network architectures rely on centralized gateway to perform data aggregation from various devices and data preprocessing. Companies offering LPWA accesses are using this architecture design to also offer value added services thru the gateway, providing dashboards, reports, security and API access to IoT devices.

On the other side, the 3GPP standards based technologies (mostly NB-IoT and LTE-M) allow direct access to IoT devices, bringing flexibility to IoT application providers and opening new opportunity to third party players to offer services as data analytics, managed service and security. This is an apparent benefit for market development but can hurt the MNO business models, which can be constrained to a low cost dumb pipe offer.

Hopefully 3GPP defined a MNO standard network architecture that can help in adding value to the IoT connectivity business. The specification TS23.638 defines an element called Service Capability Exposure Function (SCEF) that provides a means to securely expose the services and capabilities exposed by 3GPP network interfaces. This element can also aggregate MNOs’ value added services and expose its capabilities as APIs to third party actors.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that mobile IoT will demand a new set of value added services ranging from data analytics, security, network policies, cloud, etc.  As all these services will be useful and common for all IoT applications, upcoming aggregators companies can play a key role reducing costs and offering a scalable product to IoT service providers.

The MNOs’ business models must consider these new services to leverage the investments needed to build the access networks for IoT. It must also be considered that connectivity management platform acting also as standard 3GPP SCEF element and API gateway to application providers can generate a new revenue stream to future MNOs’ IoT products.

 

The API Exposure by Telecom Operators Paradox

Last week (post published May,29/2016) it was announced a manifest from the world’s largest Service Providers to promote the suite of APIs, following the standard OPEN API proposed by TM Forum (https://www.tmforum.org/press-and-news/open-apis/). Despite the interest aroused in the industry, it is early to known if this is another technological standardization initiative that will not reflect on new Operators’ business models.

The standardization of APIs for telecommunications network resource exposure began in the 2000s with the standard OSA / Parlay (3GPP Release 99), followed by Parlay X (3GPP Release 6) and culminated with the GSMA One API and other derivative initiatives (e.g. Mobile Connect). None of these standards had widespread adoption. The key question is what is the real obstacle for standard API exposure in a common environment with broad acceptance by Service Providers, especially after the experience gained over the past initiatives?

The initiatives mentioned were primarily focused on core network features such as call control, messaging or location. The evolution of 3GPP and GSMA initiatives did not change this scenario being basically a technology update, from CORBA to SOAP and lastly REST. Such technological standards were not associated with comprehensive business models and have been adopted in a limited way by few players.

By the same time, Web 2.0 services, web search services and social networks had grown in traffic and acceptance. This new service category enabled the direct access of new companies to customers, including their relationships, behaviors and even their location. As a result, information on communication habits, consumption and customer database previously restricted to a limited group of companies, including the Service Providers, have become commonly available and easily captured, beside the privacy discussion.

With the next wave, the OTT (Over the Top) app introduction was made possible due to technological developments in mobile data networks and smartphones processing power. Now individual apps running on top of handsets’ operating systems can deploy and use proprietary messaging, location and call control, among others resources. The OTT apps allow the creation of new forms of communication above the network Operators’ control plane. It was a paradigm shift; developers now have APIs available on the device’s operating system and from any cloud service. Telecommunications services could now be created without the use of network Operators’ API, which were regionally restricted and no always available. The OTT apps can have worldwide reaching using basically two SDKs sets (Apple and Google).

Concomitant with the above revolution, quite a few Operators had dared to create own API exposure programs and SDK aimed at new demand for long tail services. The business models gap for developers to get access Operators specific features ended up being filled by external players that sell and expose their own API (e.g. Twilio, Mobyt, etc.), using the APIs or direct connection to different Operators.

Returning to the new initiative, the standard TM Forum’s Open API is described as an API family that enables end-to-end services management and throughout their life cycle in an environment where multiple partners are involved in the services delivery. The standard focuses on the business aspects (IT) and not on network features, seeking to simplify the integration processes, the DevOps adoption and new virtualization technologies (SDN and NFV). In a way, this is a standard that aims to belatedly fulfill a gap left by previous initiatives.

In my conclusion, we are again seeking a technological framework for the development of APIs for network operators, now in a model focused on business processes. But the centerpiece of a complete and comprehensive API ecosystem leaded by converged service providers, is not being treated and continues to be the result of individual initiatives.

 

First Post

This is the beginning, it takes a long time for me to figure out how to create this site and if should be a good idea do it. But after some indecisions and a lot of experimentation on formats, layouts and design, finally my home page is up and running.

Why create an own site and domain instead to use a page on Facebook or Instagram? In simple words, because I want a place where I can decide about format, content, and my policies and terms. I will continue to use Instagram, 500px, Twitter, Facebook and others; there is no chance to win alone in the Internet, but I need a place to experimentation, to share my thoughts and maybe make some mistakes.

To start this blog, I present an image captured on a business trip to San Francisco in Oct/2015. We were in a terrace during the lunch time and I noted the seagull outside the glass looking inside, probably knowing that someone could seat on the tables and share some food. Hopefully I was with iPhone in hands and ready to use it. This photo was selected and published on NatGeo Your Shot site as one of Daily Dozen (Nov, 30/2015).

 

error: Copyright Sebastiao Ribeiro