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Smartening your pipes

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By Ma Lin

Sharp traffic increases, facilitated by mobile broadband, pose new challenges for the traditional pipe operational model. Monetization and management are the issues of the day for operators, as is the question of how to turn dumb pipes into smart ones.

Pipes: Gold mine or dry well?

The Internet industry has a plethora of key players at every link in the chain, from content to terminal, except one, the pipe access, which is where carriers lie. Carriers have long prioritized pipe building and operation, but their pipe-only operating mode has led to volume growth without revenue growth. With Internet services (mobile & fixed) growing, carriers are under pressure to either expand or better utilize network bandwidth. Nonetheless, they are suffering a serious imbalance between CAPEX and revenue.

The pipe-only model threatens to turn carriers into mere utility providers. However, pipes remain one of the few footholds that the carrier has in the real world; carriers need to either monetize what flows through them or make the pipes themselves more valuable. Operators can do the former, but not all carriers are operators; these particular carriers must do the latter by smartening their pipes.

What makes them smart?

For pipes to be smart, the network must serve the needs of service development. The rapid growth of high-definition (HD) video streaming, mobile Internet, and other services is driving the expansion of network pipes, but increased bandwidth, in and of itself, does not increase pipe value; smart pipes should increase their own value by better facilitating services and enhancing the user experience.

A smart pipe network, like a complex organism, must respond and adapt; daily work and life are only possible through the coordination and collaboration of all organs and systems. Current networks already have numerous smart elements, but they have yet to be properly leveraged. They are largely uncoordinated, resulting in a lack of correlation between the network and its applications.

Smart pipes can tap and supplement the capabilities of existing networks, enabling collaboration and support between networks and services and ultimately enhancing network value through subscriber identification, service differentiation, network management systems, and traffic control.

The first step to building smart pipes is optimizing the smart features of existing pipes; this might include improving QoS, optimizing traffic, ensuring QoE, and visualizing operation & maintenance (O&M) processes. New capabilities must then be added, such as network visualization and resource allocation control. But, before any of this can begin, a carrier must understand what makes a pipe smart.

First, a smart pipe must be flexible. Flexible resource allocation forms the core of any smart pipe. The allocation of resources demanded by subscribers, services, and the network itself must be based on a converged fixed-mobile network resource management platform so that there is no wastage or idling.

Flexible resource allocation requires collaboration and interaction between service platforms, resource management platforms, and network equipment; critical technologies include PCC and RACF. Flexibility in service access is also crucial, as carriers must provide subscribers with seamless and flexible access to fixed and/or mobile broadband service through any possible access method, whether it be PC, STB, tablet, smartphone, or dongle.

A smart pipe must also be clearly visualized. However, this cannot involve an encyclopedic display of every possible piece of data; the variables that are critical to enhanced value must be prioritized. These might include user account, terminal type, physical location, service type, and experience requirements.

QoS differentiation is also an essential feature, as it is the ultimate goal of most carrier investment activities. Most carriers have a head start in this area, as they realize that tiered service is essentially what separates carriers from utilities. Users cannot order scented water that flows at a higher temperature, but they can order higher data ceilings and more personalized services.

Thus far, carriers have not been able to differentiate QoS in a comprehensive manner. A carrier can offer a subsidized iPhone and a theoretically unlimited data ceiling, but coverage gaps, signal surges, data throttling, and hindrance by bandwidth hogs still keep subscribers from feeling truly served.

Finally, a smart pipe requires network openness, as it is a prerequisite for carriers to monetize their pipes. By optimizing existing integrated service platforms, network resources and the assurance thereof can be given to third-party SPs/CPs through open APIs, which will enable carriers to tap into new opportunities for revenue growth. Network openness is essential to competition and the resultant building of a healthy industry chain.

Smart pipes: A three-step process

A smart pipe network cannot be built overnight; the process is more evolution than revolution; optimization and modification of legacy infrastructure should be done step-by-step.

First, fixed (fiber) and mobile access must be integrated and accelerated. However, the latter must be done in a true end-to-end manner; otherwise, it is not really done at all. High-capacity network elements such as OLT, BRAS/SR, OTN, and CR must be utilized to realize this.

The next step involves the smartening of the network itself. This will involve the coordination of the smart elements already present on the network such as its QoS and QoE features.

It will also involve static configurations that enable differentiated services for homes and businesses, as well as provisioning of CPs/SPs with network QoS assurance through DAA configuration. As for the mobile Internet, differentiated services may be provided through PDSN capability optimization.

The last step will involve the building of the aforementioned network display elements and resource allocation controls. While considering DPI deployment, carriers should analyze and reorganize displayed network data into a subscriber-centric information management database. Carriers must also add fixed and mobile network resource management platforms that enable subscribers to allocate network resources to themselves, which should greatly enhance QoE. However, this will necessitate the adding of DPI, PCC, RACF, and even network element (NE) equipment during this phase.

If these three steps are carried out successfully, a carrier's pipes will be congestion-free, flexibly-accessed, optimally-utilized, and service-differentiated. In other words, they will be smart. However, the story does not end there. An integrated resource management platform is needed so that users can enjoy multiscreen interactions and seamless roaming. When all of these things are in place, a truly smart ecosystem will come into being.

Outlook

Carriers have a long way to go when it comes to building smart pipes. Thus far, they have only made the first tentative steps in the right direction. Smart pipes will form the foundation for cloud-based pipes, which promise resource collaboration & sharing, as well as allocation-on-demand and increased network efficiency. However, each step in the development of smart pipes will change broadband subscribers' experiences and habits, and these changes will be a little different for each market.

Carriers must be willing to change directions midstream to keep their "golden pipes" from becoming expensive baubles. This is why a stepwise transformation is crucial. If carriers can exercise both initiative and patience, they should stay profitable, no matter which way the data flows.

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