Is Monetizing OTT Content a new flavour of the same old?

Monetizing_OTTToday Korea Telecom stated they would be using Ericsson’s Mobile Cloud Accelerator (MCA), an announcement that can be read in multiple sources including Azi Ronen’s Broadband Traffic Management Blog (here). In this way and following the tradition of KT for highly innovative technologies adoption, now encouraged by the huge LTE growth in that country, they are the first operator using the MCA solution that promises to achieve a better Quality of Experience (QoE) by the combination of caching platforms and the access network’s traffic prioritization. What I find most interesting about the MCA is of course the technical details around that combination of caching and prioritization, but even more importantly how Ericsson is marketing (and selling it) as a mean for monetizing OTT content. Let us try to describe the particularities around this in the next lines.

Content Caching

There are many Content Delivery/Distribution Network (CDN) solutions and providers in the market having huge data centres for storing the content providers’ popular information, and delivering it with high availability and a high performance thanks to distributed networks and techniques like smart load balancing. In example, an Over-The-Top (OTT) provider like Netflix could store the most popular Warner Brothers’ movies in CDN based data centres for allowing this content caching, being delivered directly from highly efficient data centres to the subscribers requesting these using AT&T or Telefonica networks and resulting on a faster service, and the resultant higher QoE. Ericsson pre-integrates one of the most popular platforms for CDN from Akamai Technologies, Inc. in the MCA solution.

Traffic Prioritization

The traffic prioritization in the other hand is a Policy Management and Enforcement (PCRF/PCEF) technique, typically used by the operators in the core network nodes for ensuring the premium content (for premium subscribers) have the maximum available bandwidth in the network, while the less valuable content is delivered on the remaining bandwidth or “best-effort”. Different priorities are typically set in the PCRF platforms and enforced in the PCEF elements (e.g. DPI’s or the actual traffic gateways like GGSN or P-GW) according to the services defined by the operators. The prioritization can be based on the subscribers’ profiles (e.g. subscribers paying more for having a better priority in the bandwidth allocation), or in the actual traffic (e.g. prioritization based on an order of protocols or applications in the traffic), or in a combination of both, being the latest the most typical scenario. The result is a secured QoE for the premium traffic and/or subscribers at all times, while the rest of the subscribers could get a variable QoE depending on the time of the day, network capacity, and any congestion condition on peak times.

Multiple other techniques exists for improving the QoE in the operators’ networks, and ensuring an optimal management of the increasing OTT traffic, including the Video Optimization. Today Light Reading published an interesting piece about the evolution of this topic (here).

Monetizing OTT services

Monetizing the OTT services has been the obsession of most operators in the modern networks, due to the fact some of these providers are making highly successful business using the operators’ networks as a free transport for providing the content and services to the end-users. Applications like Whatsapp or Skype can be used by the subscribers for communication in text, voice, and video, without having to pay a premium to the operators for those in most cases. Portals like Netflix provide video on demand in the same way. It is difficult to charge and control this traffic separately in the operator premises even with the most advanced Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems and Policy Management nodes, and the operators are losing revenue in their own services with these OTT’s. The approach of Ericsson with the MCA offers another monetization objective instead, allowing the operators selling the prioritization to the actual content providers as a mean to ensure a high QoE when the subscriber is loading their contents. As it was commented in my previous article “Three short stories on today’s Mobile Networks Performance” a research by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Akamai Technologies shows the users start abandoning videos if these do not load within 2 seconds, and rate gets higher with higher latencies. The situation is the same with web pages, and an infographic from Strangeloopnetworks can be found below. According to Ericsson’s math during the MCA presentations a single second improved in the loading times of a popular content in Amazon or Netflix could represent a billion dollars gain at the end of the year, so here is your business case now.

Solutions like the MCA represents an interesting try to improve the OTT services monetization in the operators’ networks. The driver for adopting such solutions in the market is clearly the combination of improved QoE for the most popular content, and the additional revenue source from the content providers’ deals with the operator. We will have to wait and see if this is a successful approach… we could be asking KT soon.

A. Rodriguez

Three short stories on today’s Mobile Networks Performance

Ensuring the quality of the networks for an optimal end user experience is often a challenging task for mobile network operators. While the carriers’ engineers adjust the systems for getting the most efficient usage according to the load required, you might be affecting the quality of the subscribers’ service in particular conditions, subject to the applications being used by them, the coverage and access technologies available in determined locations, or even the non-always optimal policies used for access technology selection.

Evolved QoE – Application Performance who?

Nowadays delivering quality services to the mobile subscribers has evolved beyond the traditional network availability and quality. Today’s users are demanding sufficient performance for each type of application used, leading to profile based modelling of the traffic and increasing the complexity of the Quality of Experience (QoE) evaluation for the carriers. For the operators evaluating the QoE is hard, as published by the GSA and Ericsson this month (here) “A 2012 study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Akamai Technologies found that internet users start abandoning attempts to view online videos if they do not load properly within two seconds. As time goes on, the rate at which viewers give up on a given video increases”, “with the rise of mobile-broadband and smartphone usage over the past few years, the meaning of user experience has changed dramatically”.

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What used to be measured with coverage and bandwidth capacity is now extended to performance per application and end user experience, involving signal coverage maps, latency analysis, QoS, security features, loading speed for web pages or online multimedia content (e.g. HD video) and apps, among others. As explained and exemplified in a recent Ericsson Whitepaper on Network Performance (here) “Network performance cannot be generalized because the only true measurement of performance is the experience of those who use it.”, “App coverage is one way we describe this performance. It refers to the proportion of a network’s coverage that has sufficient ability to run a particular app at an acceptable quality level. For example, an area that has 95 percent coverage for voice calls, may have 70 percent coverage for streaming music and only 20 percent coverage for streaming HD video. A consumer’s usage patterns will determine their preferred type of coverage”

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Indoor small cells – Please mind the gap between the macro and small cells platforms

Evolved small cells for indoor installations are coming to fill the coverage gap between the macro networks (i.e. 4G/LTE, 3G, 2G, etc.) and the small cells technologies (i.e. Pico and Femto cells, etc.). A new solution was recently announced by Ericsson called Radio Dot System (here), which is according to them “The most cost-effective, no-compromise solution to indoor coverage challenges”. It is well known the operators have challenges for covering indoor areas and buildings on a cost effective manner, while more than 70% of the traffic is generated in this domain. The solution is ultra-small, light, scalable, with fast deployment, and relies on Ethernet connection for integrating with the existing mobile network.

Although Ericsson’ solution should not be available before next year, we would expect to see other similar solutions in the market in the near future. This trend would potentially look to take over part of the current usage being done on WiFi technologies, preferred by most of the users for indoor communications.

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Smart access network selection – The seamless cellular and WiFi access marriage

A recent report from 4G Americas (here) analyses the role of the WiFi technology in current mobile data services, and the methods for overcoming the challenges appearing as a result of the integration and mobility between cellular technologies and the WiFi. As stated by them “with smartphone adoption continuing to rise and the increasing prevalence of bandwidth-intensive services such as streaming video, the limited licensed spectrum resources of existing cellular networks are as constrained as ever. Wi-Fi, and its associated unlicensed spectrum, presents an attractive option for mobile operators – but improved Wi-Fi/cellular network interworking is needed for carriers to make optimal use of Wi-Fi.”

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The so-called interworking between traditional mobile access technologies and the WiFi networks must be seamless and transparent to the end users. In such way, the service continuity must be assured when a subscriber moves in example from 4G/LTE coverage to WiFi covered zones and back, using methods like an automatic offload policy. Different methods are currently used for this interworking like session continuity, or client-based mobility, or network-based mobility. One of the most popular and accepted, also standardized by the 3GPP, is the network-based Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF), which is already supported by most of the WiFi devices and network elements, including Policy Managers and specific network gateways. Other innovations have been made available for addressing the seamless interworking issues, in standards like the Hotspots 2.0, or the seamless SIM-based authentication.

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As it was commented in my previous post “The top 10 fast facts you should know about LTE today”, the 5G will be a combination of access technologies for jointly fulfilling the requirements of the future. In these scenarios the seamless network selection and mobility becomes even more important beyond the classical offload scenarios, and some particular issues for these are commented by 4G Americas and vendors like Ericsson. These issues include: Premature WiFi selection (access technology shifted when coverage is still too weak due to distance), Unhealthy choices (traffic offloaded to systems overloaded), Lower capabilities (offload to alternative technologies having less performing networks), or Ping-pong effects (frequent access technology shifting due to mobility affecting the QoE).

A. Rodriguez