Could VPLS offer the answer to the seemingly inevitable future bandwidth crunch? Chris Werpy explores the options
The key to answering this question is in understanding some of the industry dynamics at play for WiMAX, a contender to the 4G throne. Spectrum is yet to be allocated in some countries although it is fair to assume it will be limited and therefore its usage needs to be maximised. Vendors and other stakeholders in the WiMAX infrastructure value chain are currently responding to RFPs and there is a great deal of network yet to be completed outside of North America, with European WiMAX subscribers estimated to represent 40 per cent of worldwide WiMAX subscribers by 2009. Then, there are the devices which will support WiMAX services and of course the services themselves. Does anyone really know what these services will be or what the experience will be like for the subscribers?
There's been a great deal of excitement around what WiMAX could deliver for subscribers - whether it's basic services in developing countries or more sophisticated interactive mobile broadband elsewhere. In fact, it's the subscribers who will decide the level of success of mobile WiMAX and other 4G technologies, and many of them will sign up with some pre-conceived ideas of what it will be like.
The pressure is now on the operators to deliver the network, device support and services that will prove compelling to users and accelerate subscriber acquisition. Yet, there are a number of challenges faced by operators in getting to this point, and it's overcoming these that provides much of the "what next?" for WiMAX. Not least of which is actually recognising subscribers when they access the network, and making sure that they get the services and experience to which they are entitled.
Crucial to the monetisation of the WiMAX network is, quite simply, attracting subscribers onto it. Those who have experience of mobile broadband will generally be used to those services provided by 3G networks, and so WiMAX does have the advantages of greater bandwidth in some instances, but also wider coverage and the prospect of greater interactivity and roaming. But by the same token, WiMAX must deliver an experience that is at least comparable to 3G as subscribers hop on and off the network, otherwise seamlessness between WiMAX, WiFi, 3G networks, and cellular networks will be lost, and with that, many of the subscribers themselves.
This means there needs to be a seamless and intuitive handover between networks, even during the same data session. Currently, operators largely have no way of recognising existing subscribers when they move onto the WiMAX network without a laborious login procedure that does not differentiate existing from new users and does not allow existing subscribers to easily ‘carry' their service entitlements with them as they move onto the WiMAX network. This could potentially jeopardise not only their future subscriber base but their existing one as well as.
To overcome this challenge, operators need to amalgamate subscriber information, including service entitlements, access credentials and credits, and centralise these in a subscriber profile. This profile details what they are entitled to, allows the network to ‘recognise' users and apply the policy to their mobile broadband experience.
More sophisticated uses of policy in this example could be subscribers automatically pushed onto the WiMAX network if greater bandwidth is needed for a service and they are in range. Or, it could be an opportunity for an operator to upsell a service that they know the subscriber enjoys using in the 3G world, or even a way of better targeting mobile advertising based on real time subscriber data such as location and presence.
Because the subscriber policy is always changing to reflect the personal needs of each individual subscriber, it is also the key asset source for operators to market new services to subscribers once they are on the network. Policy helps them build a relationship with the subscriber where in the near future it will be possible to personalise services based on where the subscriber is, what device they are using and what their preferences are, in real time.
However, in order to do this, operators must first establish a strong pricing model that may, by necessity, need to buck the trend for flat fees, and that certainly calls for some creative thinking.
WiMAX subscribers are expected to benefit from a wide range of services from voice in remote areas to interactive visual services such as video in other regions. But, in instances where spectrum will be limited, this suggests there is a need to transition from traditional flat fee models to service models that are based on metered bandwidth. There are several models for doing this based on the value of the service, the service tier, the amount of data used or available at any point in time, or in fact whether the service is subsidised by advertising.
Some analysts have extrapolated that this could be the end of the flat fee pricing model, particularly when new services are likely to be bandwidth intensive and have the potential to use up bandwidth very rapidly. When operators do the maths, they may find that flat fee pricing encourages subscribers to ‘eat all they can' - and they may be biting off more than operators are willing to let them chew.
So, it's likely that operators will need to create different service models based on subscriber policies that enable the operators to manage access to the network, ensure fair usage, but also open the network up to those early adopters who may well want video-on-demand or any of the other broadband services which have been touted and who will be willing to pay for them.
They will need the next generation of WiMAX devices which - I would expect - will have large screens, multiple air interfaces, sophisticated onboard graphic and audio processing technologies and also batteries that will allow more than a few minutes viewing. These 4G WiMAX devices (including laptops) will need to be more flexible towards new services, especially with the unprecedented ‘openness' of the WiMAX network. That openness is not only the range of new services that could be developed, it's more to do with the way that consumer demand is affecting the device marketplace.
Operators will not be the sole stockists for WiMAX devices - they will be available from retail shops and will therefore not be tied to a specific network or service. With device delivery now distinct from service delivery, the challenge for operators is to attract as many subscribers as is possible, but more importantly to make sure the network is as easy to access and use as possible.
At the moment, there's no clear way to ensure that WiMAX devices are compatible with services and that subscribers can be easily registered on the network and use those services without a hitch. Subscribers will tend to buy devices directly from a retailer and not a network operator, which certainly reduces the financial pressure of subsidising equipment, but also means operators must be able to support Over-the-Air (OTA) device configuration, activation and provisioning. Subscriber provisioning as a standard offering will enable operators to jump on their competitors.
Indeed, mobile devices - including phones, laptops and multimedia players with WiMAX modules - will not simply ‘work out of the box' as normal cellular devices do. Subscribers will need to choose for themselves who they subscribe with, what service package they buy and a number of other variables, reflecting that the future of telecoms services really is to meet consumer demand for any service, any time, anywhere.
Soon, OTA will drive the proliferation of open WiMAX networks and services by allowing the subscriber to activate their own subscription, receive firmware updates direct to the device that automatically supports new services or functionality, and select their own service features.
WiMAX already offers the openness that subscribers want, so operators need to be able to create subscriber policies that reflect the entitlements and changing demands of the subscriber. If they can master the network, service and charging models, and devices, encapsulating these in a policy, then they are in a prime position to begin the next phase of WiMAX and attract subscribers onto the network. By putting subscriber policy at the heart of their WiMAX service strategy, service providers can build a relationship that provides subscribers a personalised WiMAX experience that will improve subscriber retention and drive greater uptake of 4G services.
Ihsen Fekih is EMEA Managing Director at Bridgewater Systems