Not so long ago, if you started chatting to someone about ‘policy’ you would be committing the cardinal sin of talking politics. Not a great way to make friends and influence people. But these days it seems that policy chat is de rigueur in telecoms circles. Or more precisely, policy management.
Policy Management is definitely the phrase on everyone’s lips at the moment and quite rightly so. The exponential growth in data services and the rise of the app stores means that telecoms operators need to implement policies on their network to stop high bandwidth users compromising the quality of service experienced by the rest. Think peer-to-peer file-sharing or applications such as the BBC iPlayer.
But Policy Management is more than just applying fair usage policies or throttling, it is now being recognised as a much more powerful tool which can be used as an integral part of service delivery for a wide range of products and promotions.
In the old days, we used to talk about business rules. These were the use cases that said: if this happens, do that. And so on. But Policy Management seems to have grabbed everyone’s attention much more so than plain old business rules. Almost overnight, Policy Management has become the marketing ‘phrase that pays’ and now it’s one of the hottest topics around.
It’s not often that something driven by industry standards captures the imagination of the industry as much as Policy Management. However, when the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) defined the Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF) and Policy and Charging Enforcement Function (PCEF) as part of the IMS framework, little did they know that they were creating a whole new niche in the industry.
As a core part of the 3GPP specifications, policies can be defined directly in the PCRF or can be updated from a centralised product catalogue. The PCEF and PCRF then interact with the Online Charging Function (OCF) to determine when rules should be applied and then control the subscriber sessions accordingly. Critically, this is a real-time activity as part of service delivery, managing the Quality of Service (QOS) and directly affecting the subscriber experience.
It’s not that Policy Management in this form is completely new; you only have to look at the prepaid world where systems have been applying policies, to prevent service use when the customer has run out of credit, for years. However in this environment, the policy management was an embedded part of the prepaid platform, often based on proprietary technology, which made it very difficult to adapt and extend its use beyond the obvious balance-related controls.
The key difference in the IMS framework is that both PCEF and PCRF have defined interfaces based on the Diameter standard, which makes integration and interoperability much more straightforward.
So use and application of policies is not just restricted to closely integrated systems, but something that can potentially be accessed by any Diameter-compliant system.
Though the PCEF and PCRF are very closely related, there is a natural separation of the enforcement and rules functions. Typically, the enforcement function sits very closely integrated with the core network switching, where subscriber sessions are throttled, upgraded, terminated or redirected. However, the rules function is placed much closer to the business support systems, where customer-related information is maintained and can be used as part of the policy decision process.
Effective use of the PCRF is critical to the success of next generation services, where operator policies and controls can have a big impact on the customer experience. Take for example operator policies on a simple prepaid service. The traditional prepaid model would prevent usage once a balance is fully depleted, until the subscriber ‘tops-up’. However operators can upgrade this service by adding policies to control automatic top-ups, or balance ‘overdraft’ facilities if the subscriber has a regular top-up pattern and the credit risk is deemed to be low.
These are simple examples, but when we look at convergent services Policy Management can play an even bigger role. For example, policies can be used to switch automatically from a postpaid payment method to prepaid, when a pre-determined level of usage has been reached. This could be an operator driven policy or perhaps even an option specified by the end-customer if so desired.
Policies can also be closely linked with changes in tariffs. For example, a policy could be implemented to provide increased bandwidth on-demand for a premium service, and this may also trigger a premium tariff to be applied for the data access for the duration of the service.
There is no doubt that Policy Management has a key role to play in the service delivery and charging models of the future. However there is also an imminent need for Policy Management being driven by the regulators.
In the latest round of EU roaming regulations, it is dictated that by March 2010, operators must introduce an automatic cut-off mechanism when roaming charges reach €50, unless the subscriber voluntarily chooses another limit. This is to prevent the so-called bill shock that has been widely reported associated with data roaming, and means that operators will need to implement real-time policy controls for all subscribers, not just the prepaid ones.
This is no trivial task, and there really is no time like the present for operators to look at their charging systems and decide how to implement the appropriate Policy Management functions. Where policy is concerned, you somehow knew that the politicians in Brussels would have their say.
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