Yet despite this extremely positive picture for the sector, one big question remains: Will policy tools now go on to assume the wider role in the network of the future that many inside in the industry are betting on?
On this question, things look a little murkier. In a major recent survey of network operators, Heavy Reading found that traffic management is the No. 1 catalyst today for deploying policy tools – primarily PCRF-based policy servers and associated enforcement (PCEF) appliances and software – as operators struggle to control the torrents of new data traffic flowing through the network. Often, the initial application is so-called "fair-use management," which allocates customers to simple tiers and controls what customers can do based on time of day (e.g., peak and off-peak), tier, application, or all three.
Yet many vendors are talking up much more ambitious schemes to use policy platforms to build highly personalized services that invoke a much wider range of policy triggers and call for much tighter integration with charging systems, subscriber profile data, and third-party applications providers.
Is this really likely to happen? Certainly we found strong interest in principle in this kind of approach in our survey: The desire to personalize services and differentiate from competitors came a close second to fair-use management among the key drivers for deploying policy, with quite a few network operators seeing this as the core catalyst.
Moreover, creative applications of policy are beginning to emerge: Among other things, we've seen strong interest – and deployment – of packages that include unlimited access to Facebook , new and dynamic approaches to parental control, and low-priced packages in low-income markets that use policy tools to restrict data access to just one application, such as email.
Yet the fact remains that policy is overwhelmingly used today to better manage the torrent of new traffic that mobile broadband and smartphones are generating. For policy to really move to the heart of the mobile service package and creation story, several things need to happen.
- First, operators and vendors need to engage with product development and marketing groups inside the telcos. Network engineering groups are still often calling the shots on policy, but it's the product groups that will need to come up with the clever new policy-enabled ideas that are key to building a broader business case for policy deployment.
- Second, a related point, policy creation tools need to be as easy to use as possible, so that marketing can build and deploy policies themselves – without having to turn to internal or external expertise to do so. Vendors are working hard in this area, but more work is probably needed.
- Third, network operators need assurance that integration with subscriber data stores and charging systems will deliver what's required at an acceptable cost. In our survey, worries about the challenges of integrating policy with legacy charging systems was the No. 1 barrier to wider use of policy tools – but unless operators can monetize policy, the more ambitious plans for these platforms will never be realized.
- Fourth, operators need assurances that greater policy complexity – more policies, more policy triggers, and more connections to more network elements – will not cause the policy platform to fall over, or become impossible to manage.
- And fifth, policy will need to be deployed end to end, including in the RAN and at the individual cell level, if it is to yield really big benefits. Real-time cell-level control is the vision – but it's very hard to achieve in practice.
There are plenty of other issues if and when policy deployments become more complex and ambitious. Where best to locate policy enforcement? What role for optimization tools, especially for video? And what's the relationship between policy and offloading?
These are big, strategically vital questions for both operators and vendors, and at our second annual Policy Control, DPI & The Mobile Packet Core Virtual Event on December 7, we will be debating the issues in detail. The virtual doors open at 9 a.m. ET, and we welcome your participation. See you there!
— Graham Finnie, Chief Analyst, Heavy Reading