The LTE North America conference started as all good conferences do – with a Day Zero, a pre-conference day – this one providing an update on the crucial issue of signaling. But this was no zero-sum game – the packed conference room was treated to a day packed with speakers providing in-depth insights and discussion on one of the major issues facing mobile operators today.

There were numerous in depth presentations, interspersed with useful networking breaks and delegates were fuelled by Starbucks coffee, which certainly went down well.

Breaks provide networking opportunities with the busy crowd

The key buzzword of the day was “chatty apps” – applications that talk to the network too often and how to optimise the network with regards to signaling was one of the key themes of the day.

Things started with Chetan Sharma, president of Sharma Consulting providing an overview of the mobile landscape. There are currently 10 billion connected devices worldwide he revealed and 70 per cent of these are mobile, due to the rise and rise of the smartphone, and its associate, the connected tablet. “Feature phones will soon disappear, at least in the American market,” he said.

He also framed one of the big questions of the day regarding the OTT threat: “Who will dominate, the operators of the internet players?”

Sharma’s figures showing that there were 152 commercial LTE networks across 65 countries in 2012, confirming what we already knew – LTE is the fastest growing mobile technology ever, while voice and messaging are both declining having peaked in western markets in 2007 and are now declining even in developing markets such as China. Because of this operators are facing a steep decline in revenue, but all the while, LTE is becoming an ever friendlier home for apps, which have a huge impact on signaling traffic.

However, Sharma said that networks have no excuse to be surprised the signaling tsunami that started after the introduction of the smartphone in 2007. “Getting blind-sided is no longer a good excuse”.

The solution was to look to what Sharma referred to as, “4th wave revenues”- new sources of income that are adjacent to a network’s core competency such as in home security, eHealth and M2M.

Starbucks coffee keeps the delegates fuelled between panel sessions

In a panel discussion Eric Neitzel, lead engineer and DMTS at U.S. Cellular said that networks were yet to see a signaling tsunami hit core networks as operators have yet to implement VoLTE and RCS so that relatively the transactions going on were light in nature. He observed that networks had pushed back their VoLTE deployments as they are learning that implementing these are a “big learning curve.” Scott Yagel, product management and marketing at Developing Solutions said that the industry has underestimated the policy and billing issues associated with implementing RCS services.

Michael Thelander, founder and CEO of Signals Research group, suggested that operators should strike deals with leading content providers such as Google to offer customers the chance to pay a few extra dollars to get, for example, a stream with a guaranteed higher QoS. “[Operators] are never going to replace the Facebook and Google’s of the world but they can benefit from that.” He suggested that it’s worthwhile for the OTTs as well. “Their business model is based on having a great experience. From the operator’s perspective they want to be more than just the pipe for the bits. It seems to me to be a win-win situation. How that model comes out and who gets what cut of the revenues remains to be seen.”

One of the most interesting talks of the day came from Randy Wohlert, lead member of technical staff at AT&T. He observed that presence was the new dial tone, with knowing the status of a user and what services were available to connect with them as the mark of a useful network. He also noted that standard applications were incredibly inefficient when it comes to signaling and that networks could use their knowledge of user behaviour to reduce signaling across the core network by as much as 95 per cent. This could come through using RCS services and employing smart algorithms that are aware of with whom a user most frequently communicates. He said that research has shown that if a user has 150 social connections on average most of these are weak ties and that 80-90 per cent of communication is between 2-6 people. In addition, usage was ‘diurnal’ – a pattern of frequent usage during the day, giving a lot of scope for signaling optimisation.

Randy Wohlert, lead member of technical staff at AT&T

Continuing on the theme of network optimisation, later in the day there were some notable difference of opinion in a panel discussion moderated by Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili Consulting. Misbah Mahmoodi, product marketing manager at F5, suggested that tier one operators should negotiate deals with the leading over-the-top providers to increase revenue. However, Stephane Teral, principal analyst of Infonetics research said that this approach wouldn’t work globally and painted a rather more negative picture, at least with regard to European operators. “The world is fragmented. In China there is no Google, Facebook or Twitter and China Mobile, with one billion subscribers doesn’t care. In Europe you talk about a glimpse of hope about increasing revenue, I suggest that you guys get on the plane and convince France and Deutsche Telecom that things are going to get better – ARPU is going down and have been for some time. What are OTTs doing? In the Netherlands they are killing KPN. What’s App is killing KPN. So what are KPN doing? They are saving the boat. You don’t kill a dinosaur overnight – it’s going to take some time for KPN to go under. They are just keeping the boat afloat with lots of optimisation.”

Panel discussions were informative and debate was lively

Jason Emery, director of product marketing at Tekelec countered that US operators should learn from the European experience and work together with OTTs. “Instead of the parasite killing the host, the two should become partners and come together to create revenue streams so that they can both survive”.

With the level of debate and discussion on show on Day Zero, the event itself should prove to be very interesting and informative.

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