Opportunities to simplify the BSS stack and the Core Network when transforming to a cloud native 4G/5G core.
Article by Jon Hoffmann, CTO, AssuringBusiness
A key challenge for today’s CTO is the constant strive for simplicity, reducing the cost and impact of maintenance and upgrades. Large and complex networks struggle to stay on top of necessary (e.g. security), useful (e.g. features) and optimisation releases. Complexity can often hold us back from truly enjoying the latest technology developments and the customer experience benefits this brings.
If you’re responsible for a complex network with an equally complex Business Support Systems (BSS) stack, then you may be desperately considering how to restructure both. Many CTO’s shy away from this transformational route with customer experience impact and cost challenges foremost in their mind. But with effective planning and dynamic execution, such transformation is possible in a single, cost-effective change program.
Can you imagine the relief that such simplification and alignment would bring?
A simplified target architecture can be delivered within months utilising real-time charging principles, with a full view of individual customers in the customer repository and strong, standardised interfaces enabling the host native core network and BSS stack.
A clean core architecture is best implemented alongside an upgrade of the products and services delivered in the network. Products based on older technologies, such as INAP, Camel, 2G and 3G supplementary services should be upgraded to 4G services to clean-up the product catalogue and avoid costly backwards-compatibility issues. The newer technology will enable new features to be considered and commercialised. This exercise should consider the total product offering and network quality needs; a holistic view of commercial and market orientation to ensure cross-business buy-in and alignment.
Terminating old products and presenting a refreshed, focussed portfolio is an essential step in this evolution; ultimately, customers appreciate the newer technology and the experience that brings. Trying to improve pricing and margins with old technologies is an uphill struggle. There is also a high risk of customer attrition attracted by competitors offering refreshed products and services on newer technologies. Regaining confidence in your brand can be extremely challenging for customers that perceive your network to be ‘behind the times’.
A key part of the core network evolution is the move to IP based services, with simplified interfaces and real-time rating, including on-net and roaming traffic. Moving to the 4G inherent diameter interfaces removes the need for large and complex signalling and collection mechanisms. In turn, this helps provide real-time control of all network usage, eliminating the need for CDR and TAP file collation (data staging) at regular intervals for rating and billing (retain, wholesale and roaming). Maintaining a simplified and centralised product catalogue is also enabled, with real-time service management (charging, session control, data access) becoming a reality.
Some larger networks have side-stepped moving from Intelligent Network (IN) and Value-Added Services (VAS), preferring to maintain existing platforms and revenue streams. Drivers for this rationale include the fact that the legacy network has been paid for and continuing to monetise it is pure profit. The cost of maintenance, product development lag and reduced flexibility can be overlooked. In some markets, customer equipment/devices are also quoted as a prevailing concern. This type of thinking usually inhibits growth and customer experience, increasing churn. Enhancing interworking functions or upgrading the core are now more commonly seen as the way forward. Lean operations, focused products and commercially competitive costs and market pricing are available and achievable goals.
Prepaid and Post-paid Hybrid
With real-time rating and a dynamic product catalogue, a host of opportunities present for both prepaid and post-paid customers. Combining with today’s process automation tools creates even greater scope. Self-service product selection, fulfilment and billing will become a norm. Customer Care can be vastly improved with a well-structured and easy-to-use knowledge base, chat-bots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) augmentation to improve customer outcomes whilst keeping costs low. The move to a primarily digital business is now more straightforward and is especially suitable for millennials and tech-savvy customers in this digital era.
Hybrid pre-and-post-paid services now also become a great opportunity providing flexibility for customers in how they decide to use the service (which might vary month to month) and limiting risk through real-time rating and credit prediction & exposure monitoring. Post-paid services could be based on actual usage and risk, evolving prepaid customers to a longer-term, engaging and profitable relationship. Effectively the product is the same, but the payment practices vary, further simplifying the product catalogue and customer relationships. And as operational cost is typically a product of complexity, margins are set to increase with the simplified architecture and customer engagement practices.
Especially for the MVNO
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO’s) in particular can benefit from real-time IP connectivity and cloud-based B/OSS. As an MVNO you would expect that the Mobile Network Operator (MNO) or the Mobile Virtual Network Enabler (MNVE) will have their own reasons to connect legacy systems to 4G+ core, and so should already have appropriate Interworking Function (IWF) enabled. If so, the MNVO can also have a complete makeover, with a dedicated core network and BSS stack. With the relatively low cost of IP based infrastructure, MVNO’s may well strive to gain increased control and flexibility of the product offers whilst driving scale at decent margins.
As an MVNO you can simplify your network to ensure that you can harvest the benefits of simplification. The reference architecture in the Illustration below can be implemented at very low cost compared to the legacy installations seen today. This architecture requires the visited network to ensure the translation from the Serving GPRS Support Node (SGSN) signalling to the Diameter signalling in the visited Serving Gateway (SGW). If the MNO does not support this translation, you may have to install your own SGSN, but you are advised to avoid such a legacy investment.
Having a modern online charging system and service platform enables you to replace all of the legacy installations of your network with cloud-based components such as the Home Subscriber Server (HSS), Home Policy and Charging Rules Function (H-PCRF), IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) service platform and Online Charging System (OCS). Costs reduced, control and flexibility increased. The path to great customer experience at low cost is now clearly visible.
There are now a range of technologies to enable a simplified core and B/OSS architecture, and for MVNO’s to flex their muscles. The effort in aligning business goals and functions will pay off handsomely for those taking a lead. One key restructuring approach will be to merge IT and Network functions, reducing costs and harmonising technology strategy. Re-shaping processes towards self-service, enabling precision and individualised marketing to continually generate growth and improved customer experience, and positioning for truly dynamic market engagement are sure to be the currency of tomorrow’s CTIO.