The Policy Bandwagon Rolls On

Smartphones, tablets and Long Term Evolution (LTE) may have walked away with the "Buzz" Oscars at this year's Mobile World Congress, but policy management was also on the red carpet in Barcelona – if not as Best Supporting Actor, then certainly picking up a top backroom award.

To put it mildly, and to switch metaphors, the policy bandwagon is creaking under the weight of those now piling onto it. Following my visit to MWC this year, I extended my spreadsheet list of companies claiming to sell or planning to launch a Policy & Charging Rules Function (PCRF)-compliant policy server to an eye-popping 40 – and that's not counting rumored launches from several large and small vendors.

This intense interest is not surprising, given that – as forecast in several recent Heavy Reading surveys – policy hit pay dirt in the past 12 months. It's been deployed in scores of networks, and the major policy vendors were typically reporting revenue hikes of at least 30 percent year-on-year in 2010 (often more). And most of those I spoke to in Barcelona were very confident that this growth will be repeated in 2011.

It's not difficult to work out why: In a fast-moving environment of new customers, new smartphones, new applications and new services, mobile broadband operators are desperate to regain – or refine – control over the way bandwidth is allocated to users and applications. And most have identified policy as a key means to do so.

Initial deployments focused on simple congestion controls, but there is plenty of evidence that we are already in stage two, where policy is used in more sophisticated ways – for example, to zero-rate preferred applications such as Facebook , to enable promotions and upgrades on the fly or to prioritize QoS for specific classes of users and applications. Creative use cases are now popping up everywhere, especially in the newer developing markets.

Yet for all the interest, the final destination of policy management in mobile networks remains intriguingly murky. There is a long list of open questions about where policy might ultimately take us, as indicated by the following, by no means all-inclusive, list:

  • Will policy be fully integrated with billing and charging systems (not generally the case today), and will the barriers we uncovered in our network operator survey last year be removed?
  • Will policy be routinely deployed across different networks (including fixed and mobile) to allow construction of new converged service packages?
  • Will policy be linked to video and other optimization techniques – or to traffic offload?
  • Will policy definition and enforcement migrate out to the radio network and to the devices (and the users) connected to them?
  • Will policy be used to enrich – and commercialize – the relationship between operators and applications developers?
  • Will network operators start to use policy tools to adapt and define their own policies, building and pulling down new packages and service offers on the fly?
  • Assuming all the above happens, can policy platforms really cope with the massive upscaling this implies?

Most of all, perhaps – as that list, at least in part, suggests – will policy help to resolve the dilemmas recently set out so eloquently by my colleague Patrick Donegan, as mobile operators seek to make the tricky transition to LTE? (See Reflections on Barcelona: Decision Time for 4G.)

In principle, a policy platform can be the central nervous system for LTE, capable of tuning services and bandwidth utilization to the precise requirements of individual users – and thereby enabling operators to earn the maximum value from the formidable investment ahead. But we are very far from that place today, and getting there will require maximum creativity from all parties – the vendors, the network operators, and the myriad service and applications providers.

One thing's for sure: There's a lot more to come from policy, and Heavy Reading will again be actively tracking it in 2011 in reports, surveys, Webinars and not least our upcoming Policy Management in the 4G Era event at CTIA Wireless 2011.

— Graham Finnie, Chief Analyst, Heavy Reading

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