The future for telcos lies in leveraging context about their customers, but getting from concept to execution is no simple affair

May 14, 2012

5 Min Read
Context Is King

"Where will services be in ten years? Everything will be contextual, which will make all our lives a lot simpler. And we [the carriers] have an important role in this." So said John Donovan, senior executive VP of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) Technology and Network Operations, at an Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) session at CTIA Wireless 2012 this year.

And Donovan's peer and rival at Verizon, Tony Melone, speaking at the same session, appeared to agree: "We're getting better at extracting information from the network, and the context of what customers are doing, to create new business models," he said, noting that those new models must include "extracting value from the destination," and not just the consumer.

Those views provided the perfect backdrop for Light Reading's own event, Policy Management & the Subscriber-Centric Service Revolution. As that title implied, the only way forward for network operators is precisely to add context of all kinds to customers' activities – about where they are, about local congestion, about the access networks they could use, about what they value, about the application running and its requirements, and so on.

Time and again, context provided the background for presentations at our event from Verizon, Bendbroadband, UnboundID, Oracle, Ericsson, Broadhop and Cisco – and there were plenty of issues for participants to consider, for when it comes to "context," getting from concept to execution is no simple affair. Among the questions:

  • Can context be real-time? Should it be?

  • How do you define a subscriber's identity?

  • Can selling context be squared with privacy legislation?

  • Can context be defined from end to end, right into the RAN?

  • Who pays who, and for what?

Context is spreading fast, and is beginning to reap rewards. Jim O'Brien, VP of sales and business development at Broadhop, noted that although it is early days for monetization of context, customers in emerging economies are already shifting to relatively sophisticated service packages as they seek new ways to compete. "We have one customer adding 30 new policies per month," said O'Brien, who suggested that U.S. operators "are beginning to look at what is happening" outside the U.S.

And as Paul Mankiewich, CTO in the mobile Internet technology group at Cisco, pointed out, it's not just about potential monetization of user attributes, but about using information in the network to create new offers for customers: "The network has a lot of information that could be used," he said. Among other objectives, real-time access selection (e.g., among macro, pico, femto and Wi-Fi), based on new standards such as Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF), is on its way, he said.

Multiple Identities
In a thought-provoking contribution, Paul Donfried, managing director of Identity Solutions at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, noted that carriers "have to think differently about 'subscribers' who have multiple identities." Through explicit consent systems, Verizon provides free services to individuals to help them protect and manage their identities, while monetizing customer attributes that enable services to run more efficiently. As a result, said Donfried, 40 or 50 policies could quickly be applied to every individual, and the number can only grow as users gain multiple identities – for example, as citizens, patients, workers, and so on.

And providing the right services can, in itself, enrich context and enable more services to be built, creating a kind of virtuous circle. In the day's most inspirational presentation, Jeff Toig, senior VP at Muve Music, a subsidiary of Cricket Communications, described its striking success in persuading low- and middle-income customers to buy a higher-priced broadband package that includes access to unlimited music downloads – enabling it to add further value based on the new information acquired about customer preferences.

But this vision of context-based service offers has plenty of hard graft ahead if it is to be fully achieved. As Chris King of Oracle noted, "Subscriber data isn't 'managed' today; it's completely out of control, and scattered all over the place, replicated, and inconsistent." Fixing that problem will be a major part of the solution, and King said the first stage was identifying and then linking three types of data: analytical (stored in warehouses), transactional (in CRM and ordering systems), and real-time (from network elements such as the HLR). And it won't be easy: "Subscriber data management is a multi-year journey," said King.

Meanwhile, Eric Anderson of BendBroadband noted that bandwidth congestion is not going away. As Bend moves to deploy LTE, in part to supply fixed broadband, limits remain, with 7.5Mbit/s to 10Mbit/s peak bandwidth in loaded 5MHz LTE sectors and peak-hour customer consumption growing at 60 percent year on year. As a result, he said, his company would continue to use DPI systems to "smooth out" bandwidth peaks and provide better QoS and more reliable service delivery to all customers: Adding DPI had resulted in few customer trouble tickets, he noted.

Bend is increasingly focused on how to deal with video traffic, and as operators increasingly focus on better handling of video services, DPI will need to be augmented with video optimization, caching and CDNs, according to Daniel Dorrego, policy control manager. Meanwhile, analysis of cell congestion statistics and trends will help ensure that policy controls based on network conditions are as accurate as possible, with near-real-time updates the goal.

In a final session on privacy, Nick Crown, director of product marketing at UnboundID, said that identity information (aka context) was both "abundant and valuable," but that the starting point for operators was to unify their identity information assets and provide a clear privacy statement, properly broken down so that customers can see exactly what is held about them, and opt out where necessary. "Carriers should not be afraid of privacy," said Crown. "There are ways they can do it right, in ways that actually increase trust."

— Graham Finnie, Chief Analyst, Heavy Reading

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