In the last years, global operators have built large international proprietary networks in order to connect their own local service providers. As a matter of fact, with the goal of transporting internal data and signaling traffic, worldwide operators have increasingly acted as Global Carriers.
In this context, Service Hubs are becoming a strategic asset for several of them. Such an evolution, while surely creating new Business opportunities, may also pose strategic challenges, especially with the rapid deployment of new 4G (LTE) Networks.
Global Telecom Service Hubs – The growth
With telecom operators continuing in their consolidation strategy and new services become increasingly global, Service Hubs are becoming a strategic asset for global operators. Their deployment leverages “economy of scale” and at the same time enables unified global services. As a growing trend, Service Hubs allow Telco to serve global enterprises and consumer clients from a centralized point, both for innovative services (e.g. Machine to Machine) as well as for renewed traditional contexts.
We witnessed operators expanding their investments in global data centers and related infrastructures, including new service layers. In addition, data centers are becoming a service hub for global enterprises (as telecom clients). Despite creating one single point of failure and, in some cases, not optimizing the signaling path (trombone effect), the Service Hub approach is characterized by lower costs of deployment, lower upfront hardware cost, lower ongoing maintenance cost, and lower cost of implementing product upgrades, guaranteeing anyhow customization and localization of the products requested by the specific markets. Moreover, Service Hubs are offering the opportunity to implement global best practices on security and integration aspects, as well as allows to reduce testing time, accelerate time-to-market for new services, and facilitate new transaction agreements between Telecom operators.
For all the reasons above, Service Hubs are becoming a preferred approach for global operators, gradually moving also traditional services to this new efficient and dynamic environment. In this scenario, Operators are entering directly in competition with traditional Carriers, which requires creating dedicated commercial structures, selling transport services, and capitalizing on spare capacity derived from optimized structures.
A specific Service Hub scenario: LTE Roaming Evolution
The increasing penetration of smartphones and tablets, with their applications, is representing an important profit contributor to the bottom-line of mobile operators in the roaming market. Roaming Services, as e.g. managed roaming, welcome SMS, VHE (virtual home environment), and similar features, can be efficiently provided in a Service Hub, taking advantage from the possibility to route signaling traffic to the data center in an easy way, since already on the global shared network. For all these reasons, Roaming Services represents one of the key areas for which operators are building new Service Hubs.
A Roaming Hub provides, in fact, operators with an direct and optimized environment for boosting their roaming footmark. Bilateral settlements, which can be costly and time consuming, are replaced in the hub environment with a single multilateral agreement. Therefore, a roaming hub provides an unified technical and commercial relationship, based on industry best practices. This removes the need of multiple roaming agreements and testing required to expand roaming coverage.
Roaming Service Hub facilitates Operators to offer a best out-roamer Quality of Experience (QoE) to their customers and to provide roaming integration and operation cost savings. Also, the centralization of Roaming Service Management enables a full control over the relations with carriers, creating synergies of volumes for small operators, and providing unified QoS. Last but not least, Roaming Service Hubs makes it possible to obtain a better negotiation position and price with Carriers, bringing several Millions of euro savings per year.
The demand for data roaming is already growing fast. The global rollout of LTE Data and VoLTE (Voice Over LTE), together with an increased subscriber quality expectation, will further and dramatically increase the backhaul capacity requirement. New agreements and connections between mobile operators supporting enhanced IP capabilities will be required for LTE Roaming while the use of roaming hubs could help to accelerate its roll-out.
The resulting LTE Roaming can be strongly reduced adopting a geographical approach in deploying Service Roaming Hubs in the most important regions, such as America, Europe and Asia Pacific. To on-board new customers, the architecture must anyway rely on a LTE Roaming Service Hub ecosystem which enables wholesale LTE data and VoLTE services, and thus extends the offering to external parties and service providers. Also, with a complete new all-IP technical architecture and new signaling protocols (e.g. based on Diameter), global roaming for LTE will be inherently more complex than its predecessors.
All of this represents a further opportunity, and a challenge, for mobile operators…
LTE Roaming Hubs – Some Technology Highlights
From a technology perspective, to support an LTE Roaming Hub opportunity, global operators shall cover at least the following domains within the overall LTE Roaming solution:
- Diameter Signaling Support: LTE requires a completely new signaling protocol called Diameter for LTE inter-operator roaming signaling. Also, Diameter-MAP translation must be secured to seamlessly connect to 2G and 3G networks (where the SS7 MAP protocol is instead used). This also requires a new component called Diameter Relay Agent (DRA), which several mobile operators have not deployed in the initial roll-out of their LTE networks.
- IPX Roaming Agreements: able to provide reliable and secure IP connectivity in the new roaming environment, where the existence of this new protocol will require mobile operators to establish new roaming connections with each operator.
- An IPX Service Provider: to offer data connection to all of LTE Roaming partners, for LTE user data and associated signaling via a private network. This will also be needed to ensure Quality of Service (QoS) SLAs capabilities.
In addition, Security, Traffic Management, and Charging must be adequately covered, as well as fast and efficient provisioning processes for new customers. Finally, new standards and protocol interfaces (e.g. S6a for AAA), S8 (Policy, Charging et.) must be deployed, considering that this may be somehow challenging as (while specifications are defined) unique supplier variations are evident and require mapping to enable seamless interworking.