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LTE Asia: transition from technology to value… or die

27 Sep


I am just back from LTE Asia in Singapore, where I chaired the track on Network Optimization. The show was well attended with over 900 people by Informa’s estimate.

Once again, I am a bit surprised and disappointed by the gap between operators and vendors’ discourse.

By and large, operators who came (SK, KDDI, KT, Chungwha, HKCSL, Telkomsel, Indosat to name but a few) had excellent presentations on their past successes and current challenges, highlighting the need for new revenue models, a new content (particularly video) value chain and better customer engagement.

Vendors of all stripes seem to consistently miss the message and try to push technology when their customer need value. I appreciate that the transition is difficult and as I was reflecting with a vendor’s executive at the show, selling technology feels somewhat safer and easier than value.
But, as many operators are finding out in their home turf, their consumers do not care much about technology any more. It is about brand, service, image and value that OTT service providers are winning consumers mind share. Here lies the risk and opportunity. Operators need help to evolve and re invent the mobile value chain.

The value proposition of vendors must evolve towards solutions such as intelligent roaming, 2-way business models with content providers, service type prioritization (messaging, social, video, entertainment, sports…), bundling and charging…

At the heart of this necessary revolution is something that makes many uneasy. DPI and traffic classification, relying on ports and protocols is the basis of today’s traffic management and is becoming rapidly obsolete. A new generation of traffic management engines is needed. The ability to recognize content and service types at a granular level is key. How can the mobile industry can evolve in the OTT world if operators are not able to recognize a content that is user-generated vs. Hollywood? How can operators monetize video if they cannot detect, recognize, prioritize, assure advertising content?

Operators have some key assets, though. Last mile delivery, accurate customer demographics, billing relationship and location must be leveraged. YouTube knows whether you are on iPad or laptop but not necessarily whether your cellular interface is 3G, HSPA, LTE… they certainly can’t see whether a user’s poor connection is the result of network congestion, spectrum interference, distance from the cell tower or throttling because the user exceeds its data allowance… There is value there, if operators are ready to transform themselves and their organization to harvest and sell value, not access…

Opportunities are many. Vendors who continue to sell SIP, IMS, VoLTE, Diameter and their next generation hip equivalent LTE Adavanced, 5G, cloud, NFV… will miss the point. None of these are of interest for the consumer. Even if the operator insist on buying or talking about technology, services and value will be key to success… unless you are planning to be an M2M operator, but that is a story for another time.

The Case for VoLTE

9 Sep

Despite the introduction of LTE with its heavy focus on improved mobile broadband speeds, mobile operators still rely on voice and SMS services for a large part of their revenues (roughly 70% globally). In previous generations of mobile technology these services were explicitly supported as part of the mobile network stack, with voice bearers supported in the radio access network and SMS making use of the voice signalling mechanisms. Indeed in 2G mobile standards data was originally only supported by sending data over a nailed up voice channel (high-speed circuit switched data or HSCSD) with the native data transport mechanisms of the general packet radio service (GPRS) introduced later as part of the so called 2.5G standards and in enhanced form as EDGE with 2.75G.

With the advent of 3G mobile standards (such as UMTS) voice and data were catered for on an equal footing, with distinct voice and data air interfaces being defined, each optimised for their respective payload. The lu-CS interface, used for voice, uses circuit switching to provide deterministic, guaranteed capacity for in-progress voice calls. In contrast, the lu-PS interface, used for data, uses packet switching on a shared data carrier to maximise the efficiency of data transport.

Compared to 2G, the 4G LTE standard turns the situation on its head and is optimised for data services without any specific native support (i.e. circuit switched) for voice transport. The rational for this is that broadband traffic is now the predominant use of mobile bandwidth and it is better to optimise the network for data transport and carry voice as an application over data using voice over IP. This is possible in an LTE network due to the substantial enhancements in the data plane, which compared to 3G has significantly reduced latency and has the quality of service mechanisms required to support a good quality voice service.

Although LTE was, from the outset, designed to support voice service via voice over IP (VoIP), the call flows, their associated signalling and media encoding where not defined or standardised. So although all the “hooks” where in place to support voice their was no voice standard that an operator could deploy and indeed there were many options, a number of which were debated at length by equipment vendors and network operators as part of the standards process.

Given the importance of voice (and SMS) this lack of standardised support for voice could be regarded as a serious omission. To mitigate this a mechanism called circuit switched fall-back (CSFB) has been introduced which entails the phone switching to 3G operation when a voice call is to be made or received.

As indicated above, there has been much debate about the standard approach for supporting voice (and SMS) over LTE. One approach, called VoLGA, which was proposed was to utilise existing UMA mechanisms such as those supported on some mobile phones (notably Blackberries) to tunnel voice across WiFi. Whilst this would have leveraged existing voice switching networks it had the disadvantage of being quite backward looking and not providing a future path to full multi-media communications. Instead the approach using native VoIP with SIP signalling and an IMS (IP multi-media subsystem) core found favour as the approach for voice over LTE (VoLTE) with circuit switched fall-back being used as a transitionary step.

As of today (September 2013) VoLTE standardisation is more or less complete and both handsets and network equipment are available. Nevertheless, there are very few deployments of VoLTE – to this author’s understanding one in the US (MetroPCS) and three in South Korea (SK Telekom, KT and LG U+). Whilst it is clear that operators will eventually embrace VoLTE what is not clear is how rapidly operators will move to do so.

On the one hand aggressively introducing VoLTE could enable network operators to refresh their voice product set, so as not to be left behind by the over the top (OTT) voice and messaging service providers such as Skype and WhatsApp. On the other hand, existing voice and SMS revenues are not yet necessarily under threat and it may be better to take a slow and steady approach. This paper sets out the different approaches network operators could take and the rational for preferring one approach to another.

Broadly speaking network operators have three approaches they may take for introducing VoLTE (with various shades of grey in between). They may:

  • Stick with the existing solution of circuit switched fall-back (CSFB) for the foreseeable future,
  • Gradually introduce VoLTE over a period of time thus operating CSFB and VoLTE in parallel, or
  • Aggressively migrate to VoLTE to obtain the benefits of improved service and network rationalisation sooner rather than later.

Circuit Switched Fall-Back (CSFB)

For an operator with an established 3G network and customer base, continuing to use CSFB (circuit switched fall-back) can make a lot of business sense, as it continues to exploit an existing asset that often will already have sufficient call carrying capacity. In this case, for those customers with LTE handsets, the downside of CSFB is slightly impacted voice service performance:

  • There is an increased call set-up time of several seconds as the phone connects to the 3G network, and
  • Data connections will likely be dropped as the phone reconnects to the network and is likely allocated a different IP address.

Whilst these issues do impact the service they are unlikely to be sufficiently troublesome to the customer to underpin a business case for the substantial investment required to enable VoLTE.

Introducing VoLTE into a network is not straightforward. It requires a new mobile voice core (IMS) and represents a substantial change in the way voice service is provided. This change from circuit switched to end-to-end VoIP as required by VoLTE means that new skill sets are required within the organisation and there is much to be learnt with respect to how to optimise the network to get the best voice performance. Putting aside business case considerations, these factors alone would suggest that an operator should approach the introduction of VoLTE cautiously.

OTT Service Competition

Whilst operators should approach the introduction of new technology cautiously, operators may also wish to seize the opportunity presented by the introduction of an IMS core as a enabler to more generally reinvigorate voice service, linking the launch of VoLTE service to wider reaching service improvements:

  • Introduction of a better quality voice service, with wide-band CODECs and faster call set-up time,
  • Linking to the introduction of RCS (rich communication services), often marketed as “joyn”, incorporating presence, instant messaging, group calling and video sharing,
  • Enabling service to be accessed more generally, for example, enabling calls to or from the mobile phone number to be made from a PC client, tablet or fixed line.

Nevertheless, it can be argued and often is, that these services will not attract additional revenue but instead just protect current revenues, giving customers additional value for their money, making them less inclined to use alternative services. In this view, customers will not pay more for voice services and consequently other revenues sources must be sought – of which the most likely candidate is video. For example a video sharing service called “See what I can see” is a service that we can all identify with. Additional revenues associated with such new services, however, are unlikely to pay for the cost of introducing an IMS core to support VoLTE and the rich communications services (RCS) server.

In the opinion of this author, much of the analysis presented in the previous paragraph is in all likelihood correct but the conclusion that there is little value in investing in voice services is questionable. If voice services are genuinely under threat from competition, especially from over the top (OTT) providers and device manufacturers such as Skype, WhatsApp, Google, Apple and even FaceBook then there is financial value in defending existing revenues. It should not be forgotten that much of the competition from OTT providers has heretofore impacted fixed voice revenues. However, with the increasing performance of mobile broadband networks, especially after the wide spread introduction of LTE (and in the future LTE-A) there will be little to stop OTT providers encroaching on traditional mobile operators’ revenue streams.

Compared to fixed operators, mobile operators are typically at an advantage as mobile calling is normally part of a bundle and if a subscriber makes fewer calls within the bundle it actually saves the operator money. This is fine in the short term, but customers will sooner or later perceive that when they are making few traditional voice calls, and not sending so many SMSs that they are getting poor value for money and migrate to operators who are selling “value based” mobile packages with a focus on charging just for data. In this world, operators will then fall into one of two categories:

  • Those that effectively compete with OTT providers and retain voice and messaging revenues, or
  • Those that accept that they cannot compete with OTT providers and focus on providing a mobile broadband pipe in the most cost effective manner.

Currently most operators see themselves as being in the first category but are doing very little to make this a reality. Much more could be written on this topic, and this will indeed be the topic for a future paper.

The problem for operators faced with producing a business case for VoLTE and by implication IMS is that there is much uncertainty to the extent of the risk from competition from OTT services and equally there is uncertainty into how well defensive measures against the threat may work. In most organisations it is difficult to get financial approval for such uncertain business cases. Indeed matters can be worse than this, for example, a strategy to replace SMS by an operator’s own equivalent of WhatsApp could well be perceived to undermine existing SMS revenue and consequently be unpalatable.

It is seen in industries again and again that the market leaders are unwilling to risk undermining existing revenue streams and investing in uncertain innovation. This is left to entrepreneurs who thrive on risk and are willing to take a chance, “having a go” at the established market players. Few typically succeed, but the ones that do reap rich rewards, whilst the original market leaders fade into insignificance. One only has to look at the computing industry where DEC and Sun are no more, and the situation in the mobile industry where Nokia and Blackberry have fallen from their positions of pre-eminence.

In summary, a small proportion of operators will believe that it is their strategic interest to deploy IMS and VoLTE and will find ways to make the business case work. However, most operators will not take this leap of faith and will take a much tougher view of revenue threats and opportunities, effectively only considering in the bottom line of the business case those factors that they can be definitive about.

Operator Benefits

Looking beyond the direct customer benefits, from an infrastructure perspective, VoLTE presents a number of opportunities to network operators:

  • Over time it will let them simplify their network as the old circuit switched voice infrastructure is closed down.
  • It will no longer be necessary for the operator to continue operating 3G service in all LTE coverage areas (as would be required by CSFB). This means that the 3G spectrum can potentially be re-farmed, for example to increase the available LTE spectrum.
  • The complexity of handsets may be reduced. At the present time, for example, there are not chipsets that support both LTE and CDMA. In this case dropping support for CDMA would reduce the cost of the handset – but would of course require the voice to be transported natively over LTE (via VoLTE). This is less of a driver for 3G UMTS operators as there are chipsets that support both this and LTE.

It will be clear that most of these benefits come from being able to turn circuit switched voice infrastructure off and re-farm 3G (or 2G) spectrum as LTE. The most significant barrier to this is likely to be the existing customer base and their handsets. Whilst the traditional upgrade cycle for mobile phones is quite rapid it is still in most markets too early too expect everyone to upgrade to the latest LTE SmartPhone that supports VoLTE. Moreover most operators will have a sizeable rump of low usage customers who change their handset infrequently, and whilst these will not be the highest paying users an operator will still be reluctant to loose these subscribers.


Another challenge at the present time with VoLTE is the support for roaming. Whilst the technical (3GPP) and interconnect (GSMA) standards are being progressed, even when they are complete, for the initial network deployments of VoLTE there will be few other networks to connect to that do have VoLTE – so for roaming users, even if VoLTE is present in the home network, circuit switched fall-back will have to be relied on for a substantial period yet. This means that handsets for users who expect to roam will have to support 3G with circuit switched fall-back for voice.

Example 1: MetroPCS

One of the few network operators to have launched VoLTE is MetroPCS in the US. What the author understands of their case, based on publically available information and assumptions is the following:

  • They are a pre-pay operator focused on specific markets in the US.
  • They have limited spectrum and are keen to re-farm existing 3G spectrum as LTE.
  • Their existing 3G network is CDMA requiring dual chipset in the handset to support both it and LTE.

MetroPCS’s public statements make it clear that they are aggressively launching VoLTE in their different markets with a view to:

  • Simplifying / reducing the cost of the handset as just including an LTE radio means that a CDMA chipset is not required.
  • Enhancing the service via the introduction of RCS based services.
  • Plan to shift investment to LTE infrastructure only with a view to re-farming CDMA spectrum as LTE when possible.

Given MetroPCS’s heavy promotion of the benefits of an LTE only handset with VoLTE. It must be assumed that the majority of its customers have limited need for coverage outside of their specific market area (though this will improve as MetroPCS rolls out LTE to more of its markets) and limited, if any roaming requirements. This may well be true for their target market segment – low cost, pre-pay users. It is assumed that users requiring great coverage flexibility will continue to use at least dual band LTE / CDMA handsets.

To enable it to cap investment in CDMA and eventually re-farm CDMA spectrum as LTE MetroPCS will need to rapidly shift its customers to LTE / VoLTE capable handsets. It is assumed that given the nature of the pre-pay market, there is a high degree of customer churn which could facilitate this. Nevertheless, to achieve it, MetroPCS will require an attractive range of LTE/VoLTE handsets, something which is still somewhat of a challenge.

Note that as of May 2013 MetroPCS has been acquired by T-Mobile. This may well change their approach to the aggressive introduction of VoLTE as it offers them a number of options to use T-Mobile’s existing coverage and extensive handset range. Nevertheless, MetroPCS has acted as a proving ground for VoLTE and this may well also lead to a change in T-Mobile’s approach.

Example 2: EE

Following the merger of Orange and T-Mobile in the UK to form EE, EE are now the largest mobile operator in the UK. They were the first operator to launch LTE in the UK using their existing 1800MHz spectrum prior to the auction of the “official” LTE spectrum.

EE’s public position is that whilst they will to continue to invest heavily in LTE to improve data rates they are not aggressively developing VoLTE. They state:

We found circuit-switched fallback [CSFB] for voice very stable from the beginning by putting deliberate aspects in for it with our core network vendors. We find that fallback is very reliable, and delays are minimal. It’s efficient as a solution, so we haven’t seen a need to rush to VoLTE. It will bring some additional benefits, but CSFB solution is good enough as a service.

It would be a fair guess to make that EE are actively investigating VoLTE and ensuring that new SIMs and handsets will be compatible with it wherever possible. It is also fair to say is that they do not see a business case for deploying VoLTE in the near future. This makes sense for EE:

  • They have more than sufficient spectrum holdings to operate 3G and LTE,
  • They have an existing voice network with sufficient capacity for their needs,
  • They are focussed on promoting mobile broadband as their “hero” product, exploiting the market lead they have over the other UK mobile network operators,
  • They believe the voice service provided by circuit switched fall-back is good enough for the time being.


It is clear that over a period of time most if not all operators will deploy VoLTE and migrate customers to it. What is less clear is how rapidly they will do so.  Clearly MetroPCS have proceeded rapidly in the US whereas EE in the UK are proceeding cautiously and are quite happy at present with circuit switched fall-back. These two examples could be viewed as extremes of network operators’ positions. That being said, the author would not be surprised if, in light of their merger with T-Mobile, MetroPCS rollout less aggressively, and no doubt behind the scenes EE are working on their approach to VoLTE. In reality most operators are likely to fall somewhere in between.

For an operator considering VoLTE the benefits will fall into two categories:

  • Voice product enhancements potentially also including multi-media and RCS based services, and
  • Network rationalisation opportunities, whereby 3G equipment and spectrum can eventually be retired.

Operators in general prefer concrete business cases with clear cost benefits. The financial benefits associated with product enhancements are notoriously difficult to quantify whereas those associated with network rationalisation more straightforward. In an ideal world an operator would justify the cost of VoLTE deployment based on the network rationalisation savings and consider the benefits gained from product enhancements as “up-side”. For most operators, a business case of this nature is unlikely to show a return.

For substantial savings to come from 3G infrastructure rationalisation, network operators will need to shift a significant majority of customers to LTE and VoLTE capable handsets. This includes not only consumers but also business customers who may have large deployments of 3G (or even 2G) devices. Whilst the upgrade cycle for mobile phones is often quite rapid there will nonetheless be a sizeable rump of customers that will continue to have 3G phones for a considerable period. This inevitably will limit the speed at which operators can force a migration to LTE and undermine business cases based on network savings.

Clearly, given that one of the major barriers to migration to VoLTE is the entrenched base of customer handsets, operators should be planning now to ensure that any as many of the new handsets and SIMs deployed over the next few years are LTE and VoLTE capable. Even this though will just be the SmartPhone customer base. Whilst SmartPhone penetration is growing rapidly it is not clear if and when SmartPhones will entirely replace more basic phones and at what point a basic, low cost LTE/VoLTE phone might be manufactured as an alternative to todays basic 2G/3G phones.

Considering now the potential of product enhancements: VoLTE requires the introduction of an entirely new IMS voice core and major changes in the way the network is designed and operated. Business case aside, for any operator, this is no small undertaking. As has been indicated the benefits from product enhancement will be difficult to quantify and may be considered as a way to protect existing revenue from OTT competition rather than as a way to gain new revenues. Therefore, for most operators there is going to be a marked reluctance to move rapidly to VoLTE.

Most large operators are naturally conservative in nature and would view the case of moving to VoLTE as having questionable financial benefits and significant technical risk. That is not to say that sticking with circuit switched fall-back is not without risk. Indeed the voice product offered by mobile and fixed voice operators has changed very little over the last 15 years. Although handsets and the features they provide have been transformed the basic service provided by network operators remains the same. In the long run, this is not a sustainable position – operators will either need to improve their products or see customers move to OTT voice and messaging providers.

VoLTE actually offers an opportunity to operators to break from the legacy voice and messaging services and innovate. True, it is not yet clear what will be successful in the market, and to what extent it will generate new revenue. Nevertheless, operators need to start planning for IMS and VoLTE, it is to their advantage at the moment that they can start small, substantially reducing the risk for something they will inevitably have to do. In the view of this author, the prudent approach for most mobile operators with respect to VoLTE is the following:

  • Push SmartPhones and make sure they are LTE and VoLTE capable. Ensure that all SIMs are IMS compatible.
  • Build a small IMS core with associated systems and experiment – both technically and product-wise. Do not just limit service to mobile devices, but allow users to access their phone service from any device.
  • Get IMS based VoLTE services in to the hands of a number of trial customers who are enthusiastic to try different services.
  • Start making plans and building the key network and IT building blocks that will be required in the future for communication services. Which services will be successful is not necessarily clear, but the building blocks of future services are easier to define.

This is not to say that operators should proceed in undue haste, but they need to spend the time learning how to deploy voice over IP based VoLTE services, the service opportunities this presents and the challenges to their current systems and practices of offering something other than a basic voice service.

It may well pay operators to wait for VoLTE to be more mature, for IMS systems to have further developed and come down in cost, and for IT systems to have developed to support a rich fixed-mobile product set. What will be true, however, is that the knowledge they can gain now by experimenting and trialling will pay them back handsomely when the time does come to put together a robust business case for VoLTE, define system architectures, select vendors and move to deployment.

The message of this paper is that for most operators the case for aggressively implementing VoLTE is likely to appear weak. Nevertheless it is very important that VoLTE should not be ignored. It is for good reason that vendors and operators chose an IMS based approach for voice over LTE – they saw this as the best way to evolve voice service, to enable them to incrementally enhance their product. The alternative is for an operator to focus on delivering mobile broadband in the most efficient manner, at the lowest possible cost and accepting that voice and messaging revenues will eventually drift elsewhere.

The question of what strategy an operator should adopt for VoLTE forces them to consider the broader strategic question of the nature of their core business. Should they continue to remain a vertically integrated company offering all communications services or focus on operating a low-cost bit-pipe network that other service providers can overlay services upon. This is a hard question to answer; most operators will say they want to adopt the former position but then do nothing about it. A well-considered project to trial and implement (albeit at small scale) VoLTE actually offers them the opportunity to jump-start this process: understanding the challenges of launching more complex communications services, the impacts on network and IT systems, and the likely customer interest in such services.

Operators that ignore this risk falling between two stools:

  • Not being ready to launch VoLTE and other VoIP based communications services and seeing increasing revenue erosion to other operators or OTT service providers.
  • Not aggressively simplifying and cutting cost to make the network as cost effective as possible for basic bit-pipe based services and struggling to meet the price point set by other more efficient operators.

If past history is anything to go by, many operators will struggle to adapt rapidly enough to the changing market. Quite how this will play-out is yet to be seen – unlike other high technology industries network operators have the entrenched asset of their deployed network. Whilst this will protect them somewhat, networks are increasingly capital intensive and an operator will need strong revenues to continue to fund developments such as LTE, VoLTE and the next generation of LTE (LTE-A).


EU to end mobile roaming charges next year

23 Jun

Consumers will next year be able to use their mobile phones across the European Union for the same price as at home, it is planned, after officials voted to fast-track major reforms of telecoms regulation.

ProtectMyID - Experian

It will cost the same to use a smartphone on the Continent as at home under the proposals
Roaming fees for voice calls, texts and internet access will effectively be completely scrapped under the proposals, which are part of a broader effort to create a single European telecoms market.

The group of 27 European Commissioners voted in Brussels on Tuesday to drive the package through in time for the European elections in May next year, to come into force as soon as 1 July 2014.

“They agreed that this time next year we will have got rid of these charges,” a Brussels source said

Officials will draw up and publish detailed proposals in the next six weeks.

They expect the death of roaming charges to typically wipe 2pc off mobile operators’ revenues, after several years of tightening regulations designed to put an end to shockingly high bills for holiday makers and business travellers. They argue that operators will gain in the longer term by customers using their mobiles more abroad, particularly to access the internet.

The reforms are designed to encourage radical consolidation of European mobile network operators. A source familiar with the plans said the European Commission believes there are far too many companies offering services across the 27 member states and that the fragmentation is a barrier to badly-needed investment. Without upgrades, mobile networks will buckle under the pressure of the rapid growth in internet traffic, it is feared.

“There are around 100 operators in Europe and only four in the US,” the source said. “That’s not sustainable if we’re going to have a single market and investment. Europe has less 4G mobile broadband than Africa at the moment.”

“Consolidation is not the aim. The aim is a single market, but if it means we get fewer, stronger operators, that’s good.”

With no roaming fees, officials believe the single market will mean foreign operators will be able to compete for British customers, and vice-versa. They are likely to form airline-style alliances that will lead to mergers, it is hoped.

The plans set up a clash between Brussels and telecoms bosses such as Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao, who in February called for a “moratorium on regulation” in telecoms. He said industry had been a target for too long and it threatened employment. Neelie Kroes, the Commisisoner behind the reforms, told Mr Colao she would “call your bluff”.

To sweeten the loss roaming revenues for mobile operators, however, the new package of will include provisions to simplify operating across the EU by synchronising national sales of airwaves. Operators could also be allowed to do business across the bloc based on authorisation from a single national regulator, such as Ofcom.

In addition, there are no plans to impose further restrictions on mobile termination rates, the charges operators make to each other for connecting calls, which have been slashed in recent years to encourage competition.

The European Commission is also keen to push its telecoms reforms as evidence it is doing its original job of fostering a single market.

David Cameron called on Brussels in January to press ahead with reforms as he sought to defend Britain’s membership of the EU by suggesting British business will benefit from more market integration.



Roaming all the way to the Bank

19 Jun

A few weeks ago I wrote about the topic of Steering and Anti Steering of Roaming. In that post, I discussed the techniques that are used by Mobile Operators to try and force roaming customers onto preferred (steering) or non-preferred (anti steering) mobile networks when roaming abroad. The underlying reason for Mobile Operators developing and deploying such techniques is, of course, their number one concern: revenue.

Much has been written in the press recently about the drop in roaming-related charges that Mobile Operators enforce on customers. A few years ago, you could expect to pay almost 10 times as much for making a voice call in a foreign network compared to making that same call in your home network. Even worse, you were charged regardless of whether the foreign network was a preferred roaming partner or not.

For customers looking to use roaming services today, these charges have dropped significantly. Depending on the country they visit, they may now only pay something like 3-4 times as much as they would on their home network. In fact, in the past few days, regulators have outlined plans to scrap all roaming charges from June 2014 onwards for all subscribers visiting those counties within the European Union.

But even with such a dramatic drop in charges, for Mobile Operators, roaming revenue still contributes significantly to the bottom line. If you look at any Mobile Operators’ financial report, roaming revenue contributes to around 10-15% of their total annual income. The drop in the amount they can now charge to customers roaming in their network has been offset by the sheer volume of customers now using roaming as a service.

Adding another layer onto the issue, we now have data in the mix. Most business, and corporate customers in particular, demand seamless access to business-critical applications such as email and web browsing. They need to access these applications regardless of the country they’re in or the network they’re using.

This growth in data-related revenues will only increase as time goes on. It will particularly become prevalent with the introduction in most countries of 4G or LTE, which will bring with it policy techniques that will enable roaming customers to access data services as if they were in their home network.

So is it all good news for Mobile Operators? For the short to medium term, yes. Even for those Mobile Operators within the EU that will soon no longer be able to charge for roaming service, the big concern is that they will simply increase their regular tariffs to recoup potential revenue loss.

But until then, the only sure-fire way of maintaining such levels of roaming-related revenue will be to depend not only on continued development of Mobile Operators’ networks, but also on the quality of service they can deliver to the customer. Will Mobile Operators be willing to invest in the technology and processes required to provide stellar quality of service? It’s something to keep an eye on as time goes on and demand grows.

Have you noticed a change in quality of service as you travel? Let me know in the comments below.

For further information about Steering of Roaming, watch this video:



Mobile Terminated Roaming Retry for LTE CSFB

29 Dec

One of the many issues with LTE Circuit Switched Fall Back (CSFB) is what happens when the UE falls back on the target RAT (can be 3G or 2G, operator defined) and the LAC is not the same as the one the UE is registered on through the Combined Attach procedure in LTE. This typically occurs on the borders of Location Areas (LA) and Tracking Areas (TA) or when the target layer is 3G and the UE can only acquire 2G (e.g. indoors).

In these cases, a Mobile Originated CS call would experience a delay as the UE would first have to perform a LAU procedure on the target RAT followed by the subsequent call setup procedure.

A Mobile Terminated CS call on the other hand would fail as the call has already been routed to the “old” MSC (i.e. the one the UE registered on though the Combined Attach procedure) but the UE finds itself in the LAC of a different, “new”, MSC.

To prevent this happening two 3GPP defined procedures can be re-used. The first one is called Mobile Terminated Roaming Retry (defined in rel.07) and the second one is called Mobile Terminated Roaming Forwarding (defined in rel.10). Both of these require an upgrade to the CN elements involved in the call setup procedure.

It is interesting to note, that both of these procedures were defined originally to handle the (rare) occasion of a UE being paged in one LA but at the same time moving through a LA border and thus performing a LAU procedure on a different MSC than the one being paged on.

For this post we will have a closer look at the Mobile Terminated Roaming Retry (MTRR) procedure.

The signalling flow is shown above (click to enlarge) and can be broken down into 4 distinct phases.

During phase 1, a MT call comes through the GMSC which initiates the MAP procedures to inform the MSC the UE is registered on (through the Combined Attach procedure). The MSC contacts the MME through the SGs interface which pages the UE. The paging action initiates the CSFB procedure and the UE is directed towards the target RAT.

Under normal circumstances the UE would fall back on the LA it registered on and would send a Paging Response. In this case however the UE falls back on a different LA and thus has to perform a LAU procedure. This is shown in phase 2, as is the subsequent procedure to transfer the UE subscription from the “old” MSC to the “new” one.

This is also where the call setup procedure would fail as the “old” MSC would not have the ability to inform the GSMC that the UE has changed MSCs.

With MTRR however the “old” MSC informs the GMSC through the Resume Call Handling procedure that the call setup procedure should be repeated by contacting the HLR once more. This is shown in phase 3 of the signalling flow.

Finally, phase 4 is a repeat of phase 1, but this time the GMSC contacts the correct “new” MSC and the call setup procedure is successful.

It is also important to note that during the LAU procedure in phase 2, the UE populated an IE indicating that a CS MT call was in progress. This ensures the new “MSC” keeps the signalling link towards the HLR for the subsequent signalling exchange in phase 4.

Obviously this whole procedure would also add a couple of seconds more on the overall call setup time, which due to the general CSFB procedure is already longer that a “native” CS call setup in 2G/3G.

In the next few posts I will look at the second option, MTRF, and also at a completely different approach that uses an inter working function between the MME and MSC in order to avoid any upgrades in the legacy CS network.


What to expect: Coleago CEO gives his view on what’s going to happen in the global telecoms industry in 2013

21 Dec

This year, the main buzzword in the global telecoms industry has been 4G. Over the last few months, we have witnessed some interesting spectrum auctions taking place around the world. As this has developed, carriers, operators, service providers, businesses and consumers have been busy educating themselves about the benefits of what it is and what it will mean for them such as faster connectivity speeds and reliability. It’s that time of year again when all those in the Telecoms space are looking closely to see what to expect in the telco space in 2013.

Stefan Zehle, CEO of Coleago, foreseesthree top trends that will reshape the global mobile telecoms service offerings in 2013.  These include an increased emphasis on the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), the beginning of the end to roaming charges and even the end of geography being a factor for mobile users.


Some operators have already introduced services based on IMS, for example in Canada the Rogers One Number service allows the seamless switching between a smartphone and computer. Services of this kind are particularly of interest to operators who are not part of a larger group. It allows mobile operators to leverage the proliferation of free WiFi connectivity to in effect extend their network coverage world-wide. This allows mobile operators to fight back against OTT services such as Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime by in effect becoming themselves an “OTT over WiFi” player. There is therefore potentially a lot gain for some mobile operators.

The end of roaming

Services which allow users to avoid roaming charges already exist for voice (Truphone, WoldSIM and other) and data (, in collaboration with KPN). The business model is built on exploiting the difference between lower wholesale prices paid, for example, by MVNOs and high inter-operator roaming tariffs, the input cost into roaming retail prices. Some operators, who do not have a lot of roaming margin to lose, may attack and offer their own multi-IMSI services, for, say, an additional $10 per country. In the EU downward pressure on intra-EU roaming comes from regulation and using innovative IMS based services operators may be able to maintain or even increase margins.  The conventions which govern how roaming is handled are already starting to fall apart. There are now special inter-operator deals and “roamer high-jacking”. For example, when a visitor arrives in Jakarta, it is likely that he will be greeted by the Indonesian mobile network with an SMS assigning him a local number.

The end of geography

Some operators may go all the way and break the link between the mobile telephone number and geography. After all it seems somewhat archaic that in a world where distance does not matter, mobile operator tariffs are still based on location and distance. Location is not an issue with Skype or FaceTime and this is one of the reasons for the success of OTT operators. We are likely to see offerings from mobile operators where the national number can in effect be used across the whole EU as if the customer was in the home country. Incoming calls will be free and outbound calls will come out of the bundle in the normal way. Some operators are already moving towards this charging model, for example Vodafone’s EuroTraveller which for an extra £3 a day allows customers to use UK bundled minutes, texts and internet in Vodafone’s Europe zone. Three pounds a day equates to £90 a month, a huge premium that will soon be eroded since there is no link between price and input costs.

While one can only predict what will happen, these are the main topics areas in which there has been increased focus on over the last few months in the Telco space.


ZTE-built H3G network completes national roaming

21 Nov

ZTE Corporation, a publicly-listed global provider of telecommunications equipment, network solutions and mobile devices, today announced that its customer Hutchison 3G (H3G) Austria has successfully completed national roaming (NR) based on MOCN (Multi-Operator Core Network) architecture, covering two thirds of the territory of Austria, using ZTE technology.

To enable 3G NR ZTE provided H3G with MOCN technology which allows NR partners to connect to the H3G UTRAN network. As a result of the project both CS and PS traffic are increased significantly. The ZTE SDR base stations and network controller, together with the core ZTE network, ensured that the project, which covered more than 9000 MOCN cells, did not affect the experience of H3G’s subscribers.

Benefitting from excellent network performance, H3G Austria users number is increasing fast. While test results show that the average upload rate is still over 50% higher than other networks and the average download rate is approximately 11.7Mbps. Thanks to excellent quality and good coverage of NR solution based on MOCN architecture from ZTE, H3G is operating a network with stronger competitiveness.

“NR based on MOCN architecture is a win-win solution for both parties. Relying on H3G’s high performance network, constructed by ZTE, the NR partners can not only make full use of the network resources and quickly deploy network commercialization with low TCO, but also achieve thorough cooperation and complement each other’s service advantages. NR based on MOCN architecture helps operators save thousands of base station construction costs and shortens the 3G commercialization by about 2 years,” said Wang Shouchen, vice president, ZTE.

“Network Sharing based on MOCN architecture will become a trend in the future, particularly in high-end markets such as Europe and North America. In sparsely populated areas with insufficient network coverage or unbalanced network resources, there is a need for network sharing for operators to reduce construction cost and speed up network commercialization,” added Shouchen.

Click here to find out more!As a world leading integrated communication solutions provider, ZTE is committed to constructing high performance networks with global operators and helping them customize service offerings. ZTE’s Uni-RAN solution has been deployed by 150 operators in the world. As of today, ZTE has concluded 38 LTE commercial contracts and constructed nearly 100 trial networks with operators worldwide.


VoLTE Interworking and Roaming

4 Nov

The LTE World Series Blog

This is a guest post by David Zhang, CTO of Aicent

LTE, a radio access technology used to support only data access, was developed to carry all services as IP applications over an all-IP network, from mobile devices to the IP world. With this all-IP network deployed, mobile operators are migrating their existing services, such as voice and SMS, into an all-IP implementation in order to offer better quality voice services and make the most efficient use of the LTE spectrum compared to the legacy 2G and 3G voice.

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is VoIP over LTE under the IMS framework. VoLTE was first introduced in 2010 by the GSMA, with detailed specifications of IMS for voice and SMS defined in GSMA PRD IR.92. Included in this definition is the Adaptive Multi-Rate Wideband (AMR-WB) protocol which allows for High Definition (HD) voice. It is used for superior sound quality over…

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LTE Roaming poses a challenge for iPhone 5 generation

17 Sep

While the recently launched iPhone5 received fairly positive reviews from almost all analysts – about the faster processor, more advanced software, LTE support, etc., a few challenges / concerns were raised. One of the notable ones is about the ability to roam internationally on LTE networks (iPhone 5 will be plagued by LTE roaming issues). So, while one can enjoy the blazing fast LTE network at home, when traveling abroad, in all likelihood, one will not be able to latch on to LTE networks (even if they are commercially available in the visited country), but will have to fall back to 3G or 2G networks. This is just the tip of the iceberg – as LTE becomes mainstream, this issue will become much bigger. It is important to understand why it is a challenge, and what operators can do to overcome it.

2G (GSM) and 3G (WCDMA/HSPA) technologies are fairly standardized from the spectrum perspective throughout the world – if you have a quad-band GSM/WCDMA phone, it will be able to latch on to a network in virtually any country in the world (with a few exceptions such as Japan). Unfortunately, this is not true when it comes to 4G or LTE. There are more than 40 frequency bands that are being allocated for LTE deployment throughout the world! With this level of fragmentation, one device simply cannot support all these bands to enable “global LTE roaming”. So, users are left with partial LTE roaming footprint irrespective of the device they choose. Not only are the users limited in the LTE coverage they may get while roaming, but their user experience (e.g. time taken to latch on to a network in the visited country) could also be impacted due to this issue.

To deal with this issue, operators need to have the capability in their networks – ideally as part of their steering systems – to ensure that when an LTE user roams in another country, the device capabilities (specifically frequency band support) are matched with the frequency bands supported by the roaming partners in the visited country. This system should ensure that if the user’s device can support a frequency band in the visited country, it should be steered to that network, and if it cannot support any of the LTE frequency bands in the visited country, the user experience should be enhanced by not even having the device try to latch on to these incompatible networks.

LTE roaming can get quite complex with the various combinations of frequency band support, but it can be efficiently handled by a good steering system using a combination of OTA and signaling logic. Roamware being the leader in the roaming space, has comprehensive LTE support in its market leading steering product Network Traffic Redirection (NTR).

Source: Published on September 17, 2012 by Rajagopalan

iPhone 5 will be plagued by LTE roaming issues

14 Sep

Although Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 5 could push more wireless users onto LTE networks, there appears to be little change in the LTE roaming situation in the United States.

Apple plans to sell three different models of the iPhone 5 to support various LTE bands. The GSM version designed for AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) will support AT&T’s 700 MHz B Block as well as AWS Band 4 (2100/1700 MHz), which is used in Canada by Bell Mobility, Rogers and Telus. The CDMA version for Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) supports Verizon’s 700 MHz C Block spectrum and Sprint’s 1900 MHz LTE service as well as three international LTE bands: 850 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz. The international GSM version, which will be used by EE in the United Kingdom, among other operators, sports those same three international LTE bands.

Yet for all of the attention given to the LTE bands, the roaming capabilities of the iPhone 5 are essentially unchanged from those of the iPhone 4S. The CDMA versions will have the ability to roam onto the same networks as the GSM version for AT&T, taking

“At a market level I don’t think it really makes much difference,” said Phil Marshall, an analyst at Tolaga Research. “I wouldn’t say there’s a competitive differentiation based on those band arrangements.”

Moreover, U.S. iPhone 5 users will likely be stuck on the LTE network of their chosen operator because it appears that none of the LTE operators in the United States has signed LTE roaming agreements.

“Verizon Wireless plans to enable global LTE roaming on the iPhone 5 in the future,” Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney said. “As there are many LTE frequencies currently being deployed around the world, Verizon will be surveying which markets line up best with the frequencies available in our version of the iPhone 5.”

“We do not have any LTE roaming agreements yet,” noted Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter. “We anticipate that roaming agreements will happen at some point. Building out the network is the first step there.”

An AT&T spokeswoman declined to comment on LTE roaming for the iPhone 5.

The CDMA version of the iPhone 5 could potentially give customers using the device access to LTE networks in Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, parts of Europe, Hong Kong and South Korea. Yet without LTE roaming agreements, those capabilities will not mean much.

“I don’t think it matters given the roaming arrangements that exist and given the maturity–or lack thereof–in LTE ecosystem,” Marshall said. “The services will still be offered over the 3G networks in those environments. LTE roaming is not quite there.”

Source:  September 13, 2012 | By Phil Goldstein

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