This post is by Terry Young, Director of Marketing, Stoke

LTE network sharing is on the rise, encouraged by regulators to speed penetration of advanced broadband and increasingly adopted by operators to improve the economics of entering or expanding their LTE base.

The LTE industry in Africa has grown steadily over the last few years, but slowing revenue growth, increasing costs and shareholders demanding returns are forcing operators to consider the next wave of investment. Over-the-top services are gaining traction in Africa as smartphone usage grows, but the willingness to pay among consumers is limited, and enabling payment is also an ongoing challenge. Mobile money continues to be an area of intense interest for the region, and for service providers, given the size of the opportunity among the unbanked.

During the next five years LTE, which hovered at around two million African subscriptions by the end of 2013, is expected grow to reach 72.8 million subscriptions. Much of this growth is expected to be driven by networks in which infrastructure elements and physical structure are to a greater or lesser extent shared. To improve quality and availability of service, operators need to invest faster than they acquire subscribers – a delicate balancing act.  Meanwhile, some operators (such as Smile) who are considering a pure LTE model will also look to provide wholesale coverage to traditional mobile operators to bolster their retail connectivity play.

Today the growth story centers on mobile broadband, the improved speed and convenience of LTE and Wi-Fi offerings, and innovative approaches to sharing network assets. More than 40 network sharing deals are currently under way in Europe, and other regions are stepping up the pace of joint activity.

While it is undeniably attractive from an economic standpoint, network sharing is not without its disadvantages. Implementing and synchronizing systems for a shared network environment is complex and places heavy demands both on infrastructure vendors for interoperability and reliability and on the systems integrators responsible for bringing together two or more operator infrastructures.  Network sharing agreements are usually made for a long duration, which means that operators may be subject to conditions restricting their flexibility to evolve.

Furthermore, government policies and regulations vary from country to country, and in some cases may include specific requirements regarding privacy and security.  For example, in Brazil the telecoms regulators have mandated the use of IPsec encryption in shared LTE networks.

Security, Privacy and Threat Prevention

Points of vulnerability are magnified in shared LTE environments, because of factors like operator partners’ need to exchange data for subscriber management and billing, differences between carriers’ controls and security approaches, and the numbers of remote cell sites that are now part of the mix. Furthermore, since in LTE each cell site may be associated with as many as 16 interfaces into the network core, the point at which radio traffic is aggregated before passing into the network core represents a significant security risk to operators and users.

The crucial area and first point of defense is at the edge of the radio access network, before the traffic passes through the telco data center. Purpose-designed security gateways can be situated in this natural aggregation spot in the network, and key capabilities must include the ability to provide latency-free traffic security as well as inter-carrier accounting and policy enforcement.

One of the key challenges in completing a network share is the ability to identify and assign relative valuations for any traffic as it is shared or transferred over the network. It is also vital to enable accurate, secure inter-carrier accounting. This requires the creation of charging mechanisms between sharing partners at a common aggregation point. The wholesaler telecoms provider to shared network partners needs mechanisms to implement policy enforcement at that common aggregation point both for billing and to ensure that partners do not exceed their service level agreements.

LTE network sharing gives operators greater opportunity to focus on monetizing customer relationships, through services ranging from mobile banking to healthcare to entertainment and social networking.  Stoke is pleased to provide the STOKE® Security eXchange, with the fastest encryption and  deepest protection available to provide secure RAN-Core communications for LTE operators as they expand their network sharing arrangements.

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