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Optical/IP

ProQuent's Name Game

After spending three years developing what it thinks is a unique approach to rating, billing, and creating real-time wireless data services, Massachusetts-based ProQuent Systems Corp. has a problem -- how to describe its fancy new device.

Officially, the venture-backed startup is shipping what it terms an IP Mobile Services Switching Point, but, concedes CEO Tom Hamilton, most folk don’t have a clue what they're talking about. “When we’re talking to people from the telephony world we say we have an IP service switching point, and when we’re talking to IP people we call it a programmable router."

The ProQuent box works pretty much like an Intelligent Network (IN) state machine in a voice network, which recognizes freephone or premium rate numbers and triggers an event report to the carrier’s billing system. These event reports and triggers are what enable phone companies to price phone calls above or below their standard price per minute so that, for example, you can call free to reserve your airline ticket, or pay a small fortune to listen to a fortune teller or sex line (or a psychic slut... a pslut?).

ProQuent has applied this same idea to data services, but instead of recognizing phone numbers it has designed a network device that inspects packet flows and recognizes the specific application protocols encapsulated in those flows. Armed with such visibility into their users' traffic, mobile carriers are then able to price traffic above or below their standard data bearer rates, and restrict or permit access to certain services.

How It Works

ProQuent claims to detect specific events or content in user IP flows and then make this information available, via its API, to the operator’s service control applications, without introducing any additional latency into the session. “We provide full Layer 7 packet inspection of multiple protocols on all traffic from all sources at full wire rate,” claims Hamilton.

One application where this could be useful to the operator would be to enable free access to sponsored content such as mpeg video clips, where the sponsor (and not the user) is charged for access to a service -- the equivalent to a freephone number. Or the carrier could levy an extra charge for access to a specific URL -- equivalent to a premium number.

Carrier Bypass

Another application could be to prevent carrier bypass, where third-party MMS or SMS service providers are able to encapsulate outbound messages in an http or instant messaging session and then use a cheap SMS or MMS termination service to deliver messages at a fraction of the regular cost. Alternatively, independent providers can even set up their own messaging services to completely bypass the carriers' messaging infrastructures (see: Fastmobile: Move over SMS).

This kind of activity is a growing problem for wireless carriers, because SMS and MMS services typically command a huge premium on the operator’s standard data prices -- a megabyte of SMS traffic is worth roughly $600, versus $5 a megabyte for GPRS data -- and they are a vital source of non-voice revenue. Hamilton claims that ProQuent’s technology, gives carriers visibility into these encapsulated traffic streams to find out what's going on, and the control to decide at what price to allow this activity.

Competition

While many other vendors claim similar capabilities for their products, ProQuent believes that its approach is superior to competing products such as next-generation GGSNs (GRPS Gateway Support Nodes), PDSNs (Packet Data Serving Nodes), or IP Service nodes.

(For more information about GGSN and PDSN features, see the Unstrung Webinar, Wireless Routers: Linking the Radio Network With IP.)

Rod Randall, a general partner at St. Paul Venture Capital, says he was originally looking for a GGSN play when he invested in ProQuent but recognized that the GGSN standard did not include the firm’s “conditional query intelligence,” which he says “doesn’t exist in the packet world.”

“ProQuent fixes a problem that wasn’t foreseen, or at least wasn’t seen as important when the standards were being written, and we’re now seeing a number of RFPs and RFIs specifically looking for this function,” says Randall, who thinks that the GGSN and PDSN vendors that are attempting to develop their services capabilities won’t succeed in the current market. “They’re essentially still trying to develop routers, and we think they’re going to fail miserably. The big vendors already have an adequate GGSN.”

Hamilton extends this argument and says that “with routers and IP services boxes, all the services you can offer are built-in. But with us you can easily add new third-party apps via our API.

“Our main competitor is Cisco’s Content Services Gateway, but that only supports FTP and HTTP protocols. We support many more protocols and can introduce new ones almost at will."

He won’t, though, disclose quite how the ProQuent box is able to work at wire rate even when it’s processing traffic from a fully-loaded, high-capacity GGSN such as the Juniper J20. "That’s all part of our secret sauce." [ Ed. note: ewww!]

Finance

To date, the three-year old company has raised a total of $34 million, and, although it is yet to name a commercial customer, it has the backing of seemingly ever willing investors. “ProQuent is a lot more capital efficient than other companies in the packet core domain, but we can put more than twice that in there if needed,” says St Paul’s Randall.

However, in a big hint that they’re about to start shipping for revenue and may not need another round of funding, the firm recently hired a VP of finance and will soon name a new chief operating officer. “We anticipate a customer announcement in the summer. It’ll be a big name, someone you’ve heard of,” says Hamilton.

— Gabriel Brown, Research Analyst, Unstrung

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pdsnrules 12/4/2012 | 11:57:35 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game Even in this economy, VCs are still investing in marginal value props. Which carrier in their right mind would deploy an additional NE in addition to a core network element to do billing? Prquent's solution is a layer 7 probe. Being from a PDSN/GGSN company, the right approach is to build a purpose built platform that performs the core wireless functionality with enough horsepower to do layer 7 processing. Prquent's solution will not fly for 3 reasons, introduces additional NE in the path, not standards based, doubt it has enough processing capability to do wire speed.
IPobserver 12/4/2012 | 11:57:30 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game ItG«÷s not my job (or intent) to promote one side or the other, but for the sake of debateG«™

Major data carriers already have a GGSN/PDSN that will meet their capacity needs for the time being, but maybe doesnG«÷t have the features they need.

One solution is to add a new network element behind the packet gateway to manage the higher level applications. This seems to be what CiscoG«÷s doing with its GGSN/PDSN and Content Services Gateway combination and what Proquent is talking about.

Are they correct, or is it just that the time hasnG«÷t come for the one-box, do-it-all GGSN/PDSN?
pdsnrules 12/4/2012 | 11:57:27 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game Long term, the Proqunt and content services gateway is a bandaid. If I were a carrier, I would deploy a next generation PDSN with the capability to grow features as Layer 7. The price points are the same for a next gen PDSN and a Proqunt and or Cisco solution. This way the carrier has a good foundation and migration story to 3G and beyond as well as the capability to do some of the layer 7 billing.
untethered 12/4/2012 | 11:57:26 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game Converting to the PSTN terminology - ProQuent has something that looks a lot like an IN service node (or a programmable switch, if you don't like IN):
- traffic is routed through it
- it adds a new bottleneck, new overheads
+ it is "programmable"
+ it lets the service provider introduce new
services independent of the core switching
provider

Service Nodes/Programmable Switches were a lot more than just "band aid". They were purchased in large quantities, and often at a much higher price-per-port than regular switches (5E, DMS 250 etc).

I fail to see why you all feel that ProQuent't box doesn't have a place in the network - despite its shortcomings, it does create the opportunities for new revenue streams.

PS: No, I am not a ProQuent employee; I have no vested interest in their success or failure.


IPobserver 12/4/2012 | 11:57:26 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game pdsnrules,

Do carriers have RFPs out for this?

Is CDMA stronger than GPRS/UMTS at the moment?
pdsnrules 12/4/2012 | 11:57:23 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game There are many RFPs for next gen PDSN and GGSN with layer 7 capability. These carriers are looking for a migration path to 3G and beyond with layer 7 upgrade. what other revenue generating services does prquent content switch provicde? The service node in PSTN is one service node for several vocie switches? Is this the case for proquent content switch, 10 PDSNs for one content switch?

Hey if carriers buy the proquent box, more power to the carrier and prquent. Good luck.
w2csan 12/4/2012 | 11:57:23 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game The Cisco CSG is a blade product that is inserted into the Catalyst 6500 or 7600 switches. The Catalyst switch line is a $3.5B run rate product for Cisco. The Catalyst 65K and 76K switches are already installed at many carriers as a key piece of infrastucture at the wireless packet edge.

While the ProQuent technology is currently superior than Cisco CSG, it is cheaper and easier to insert a blade into the existing and proven infrastructure than to purchase completely new packet gateways. This gives Cisco time to play catch up either through their own development efforts or through acquisition.
w2csan 12/4/2012 | 11:57:22 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game Yes, many carriers have had RFPs out that include this type of functionality, most recently, the top two wireless carriers. They both decided to rely on Cisco Content Services Gateway for their new services.
IPobserver 12/4/2012 | 11:57:08 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game I note that Larry Lang, Vice President & General Manager, Mobile Wireless Group at Cisco, used Orange as an example of a CSG customer in his presentation to the Lehman Bros. 2003 Global Wireless Conference.

Of course, Lang made the point about how you can add blades to Catalyst. And he said they have over 100 wireless customers for their packet edge equipment.

Watercove announced Orange as customer last year, so I'd be interested to know if they're both in the same network, and if so, how they're working together.

Anyone know anything about this? If not, is it worth me following it up?

Another point Lang made was about IP in the RAN (as a kind of ATM backhaul replacement from the BTS) as a way to cut operating costs for wireless carriers. Nokia are talking this up as well, and its on the 3GPP agenda.

lrmobile_slj 12/4/2012 | 11:52:56 PM
re: ProQuent's Name Game Are you sure about Cisco CSG in Ornage UK (where Watercove is). Might be Orange in another country... Very interesting, anayway.

In this area of gadgets to enable content-based billing analyzing the user data traffic, the only ones with public press releases about commercial deployments are Watercove (Orange UK), Megisto (Optimus), Red Knee (Vodafone UK), Netspira (Vodafone Spain and Optimus) and Cisco (a number of them, from what you say). These are the ones I know of, maybe someone else can expand on it...

To my limited knowledege, the other players, like Proquent, Nokia (with their service-aware ggsn), Nortel (Shasta), Tahoe Networks, Narus and Starent, have not made any announcements of commercial deployments.

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