Even before the advent of NFV, mobile network operators (MNOs) were increasingly turning to policy control solutions to gain insights from network analytics, provide attractive new profitable services, improve the subscriber experience and manage congestion in their increasingly overburdened radio access networks (RAN). Now that policy control functionality is becoming virtualized, it offers MNOs even more compelling solutions that deliver significant improvements in flexibility and agility. Virtualizing network analytics, policy control and subscriber experience management using NFV can deliver both cost savings and service velocity for MNOs. If this move to virtualization is combined with a move into the cloud—or at least into a cloud-like environment within a CO, PoP or data center—it can offer businesses the well-known cloud benefits of rapid scalability and reduced cost through pooled resources, with the added benefit of consumption-based pricing.
I should clarify here that cloud and NFV are not one and the same, although NFV certainly makes cloudfiying services easier. Operators may still run proprietary equipment in the cloud and then split or parse that broadband or managed service out to smaller users or resellers without NFV. There are certain network functions that are cloud deployable, but some functions have to live within the data path due to real-time performance requirements. Data plane VNFs such as policy enforcement (PCEF-based functions) require low latency and have to be deployed in the data path, while control plane VNFs such as subscriber management and analytics (PCRF-based functions) can be effectively run in cloud environments that sit outside the data path.
In any case, simply virtualizing these functions without cloudifying them can still deliver a vast panoply of benefits that many MNOs are just beginning to realize. Now that MNOs have seen the potential of virtualization, it has become table stakes in their conversations with vendors and they are looking to deploy and innovate rapidly—like yesterday. This is being helped along with the advent of the 3GPP’s Evolved Packet Core standards, which will eventually move these systems to pure packet-based networks. As this upgrade cycle continues, MNOs will be able to more easily virtualize their network infrastructure and reinvent policy control holistically across their entire system.
Distributed Management and Pervasive Network Intelligence
Infonetics’ Shira Levine states it succinctly: “As DPI functionality becomes decoupled from the underlying hardware, operators will be able to extend it further out into the network more cost effectively.” Through virtualization, MNOs can create more pervasive and distributed data collection points delivering improved intelligence from an increased number of points in the network. These points can be simpler and smaller, with more agile capabilities, instead of large, complex, costly and inflexible. Additionally, different parts of the RAN network contain different information and a virtualized approach allows compartmentalization, enabling more context to be added to the data rather than using a stovepipe approach. Instead of just putting the packet flows into a database, a network engineer can tell that this byte belonged to this person and they were using this app in this cell tower. With a virtualized approach, operators can rapidly gain insight from where they need it and can pull the required context to make it meaningful and actionable—whether for network or subscriber experience management. This virtualized approach also enables operators to transform at their own pace and allows them to compartmentalize upgrades and the life cycle of network by targeting the most congested or problematic areas first.
With subscriber churn and ever increasing bandwidth demand being top concerns among MNOs, assuring a good mobile subscriber experience is a top priority and simply throwing more bandwidth at the problem is no longer a viable strategy. To use one example as a microcosm of the whole: In a setting more hectic than New York’s Times Square, Tokyo’s crowded Shibuya crossing sees 45,000 people cross the street every 30 minutes, totaling about a million people per day. In a setting like this, it’s not enough to give all people the same level of access. Mobile providers need to prioritize the uses that have the biggest impact on a subscriber’s experience.
This is especially challenging as subscribers travel among today’s heterogeneous networks. Enabling service providers to granularly manage and monetize subscriber and application traffic across heterogeneous packet networks including CDMA, GSM, LTE, Wi-Fi, and even fixed broadband, whether subscribers are walking, driving or riding the subway, is critical to delivering a positive subscriber experience. With virtualized and smaller, more distributed software implementations, automated policies can be more easily set and managed. For example, if a high-ARPU subscriber is watching video on a congested cell tower, their traffic may be optimized to a lower bit rate or the signal may be moved to a nearby tower that is less congested. Additionally, high-ARPU customers have paid more for a better expected level of service so their traffic and applications demand priority, as they will be more upset by a degraded experience and cost the MNO more to replace when they churn. In sum, operators need to be able to prioritize the right traffic for the right reasons, i.e. those that support the business goals, as well as deliver the best experience to their customers.
MNOs want management solutions based on more granular information, such as user plans, device types, applications and behavior, to transform congestion management and optimize their infrastructure. Virtualization of policy control functions enables this transformation. Virtualized and distributed implementations can provide a best-of-breed policy control infrastructure solution on a floating license basis. With such a business model, MNOs would pay for what they actually use rather than paying a peak price upfront. Additionally, this model enables them to flexibly move or adjust instances and solutions geographically and according to dynamic network needs.
Virtualization is helping to create a whole new world of possibilities for MNOs and we are only just beginning the first leg of the journey. As virtualization in mobile networks progresses, it’s possible that it will make it easier to implement mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) business models and even incumbent MNOs could break free from the geographic boundaries of their RANs. Can you imagine a world where operators are unlimited by their coverage areas and differentiate themselves based on their capabilities, service distinctions, target markets and use cases instead of their infrastructure footprint?