Policy Management, the single most critical network function for the roll out of innovative mobile data services will find its importance growing in the coming years as mobile data becomes the 'deliver-all' pipe for voice, text and data. The commercial rollouts of VoLTE and the advent of rich communication services such as WebRTC promise mobile network operators(MNOs) that revenues once lost to OTT service providers will now flow back into their coffers as mobile data starts delivering real-time voice, text and video communications natively on today’s popular smart devices.
Policy Management which enables operators to turn connectivity into a myriad of innovative services provides MNOs the very tool required to design, allocate and enforce 'policies' on every new service rolled out on the mobile data network, apart from driving the operators' ability to mix and match a wider range of services under bundled offers by extending the policy rules to verticals such as Operator WiFi services and M2M/IoT services.
Among some of the early innovations powered by policy engines were quota-based, time-based and speed-based packages along with tiered plans, reward programs, loyalty programs and data rollover. Today, enhanced policy engines are fuelling the introduction of sponsored data plans, roaming bundles, extended shared plans and with the inroads made by MNOs in the digital services sphere, are opening up newer monetization opportunities by enabling the real-time delivery of contextual m-commerce (including mobile ads) and contextual content offers.
Policy is also at the forefront of enabling MNOs to deliver superior levels of quality on rich digital content such as streaming video, which is expected to make up more than 80% of traffic on mobile networks while also providing and enforcing different security levels based on the subscriber profile. Policy management which works by applying both macro (network-wide) and micro (per-subscriber/per-plan) rules creates the intelligence much required by MNOs as they start selling more content, more mobile commerce services and as they integrate their plans with M2M services such as smart home, m-health and the connected car.
According to Infonetics in its report released last year on the Policy Management market, the segment is expected to continue growing to reach US$2.5 billion in revenues by 2018, and virtualization is expected to drive more deployments in the medium term. Virtualization saw MNOs moving towards the deployment of Virtual Network Functions (VNFs), and Policy Management, which is inherently an IT component, was one of the early network functions to be deployed virtually.
One of the biggest drivers for virtualization of Policy Management is the availability of Policy Management solutions that can leverage virtualized IT architecture to deliver implementation that is fast, reliable and cost effective. Using application/ server virtualization architecture provided by hypervisors (examples - VMWare and KVM), MNOs are able to plug in various functionalities via a Policy Manager including the PCRF, quota/balance management and other sub-components such as subscriber data management to create a fully fledged Policy Management function.
Via virtualization, the deployment of Policy Management which would have required several servers for each separate component and which would have taken much longer installation, configuration and integration times, can now be executed at a fraction of the time and resources. At the same time, the solution enables MNOs to rapidly scale up their Policy Management function in line with the growth in data traffic, the increase in the number of network transactions and the increase in the number of services, via easy replication enabled by virtual machines available on the virtualized application/server architecture.
Apart from the above, virtualization of Policy Management can also be implemented on a fully fledged NFV model which works via orchestration on compatible NFV platforms. With more finalizations from ETSI on the standards for NFV, future solutions will become more interoperable and MNOs will be able to benefit from increased flexibility in selecting the best fitting Policy Management solutions. At the same time, smaller operators and virtual mobile network operators (MVNOs) which do not have extensive data centers of their own can opt for Cloud-as-a-Service for the deployment of their Policy Management functions.
In its recent survey on Policy Management, Infonetics found that despite only 13% of respondents currently running policy management as a VNF, 57% said that they will be doing so by end of next year. The figures point to the need for more flexible and scalable solutions that can respond to the phenomenal increase in mobile data traffic and the number of data, content and service bundles operators are looking to roll out to monetize the demand for customized services and enhanced experience on their mobile data services.