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Preventing a broadband meltdown

Mon, 04/30/2012 - 9:27pm
Cam Cullen, vice president of global marketing at Procera Networks

The key to delivering a high QoE is intelligent policy enforcement.

The broadband market is experiencing major upheaval, and MSOs are at the center of the storm. While battling with DSL, fiber-to-the-home, and now even fixed-mobile substitution with wireless technologies, the race is on for service providers to be the primary broadband pipe into the consumer’s home. More consumers than ever before consider broadband Internet a basic utility, and subscribers are becoming more educated on the merits of different technologies, and thus savvier about choosing service plans to fit their needs.

MSOs, like their wireless and telco competitors, must make critical business decisions about how to deliver high-quality service to their customers without breaking the bank. Should they actively manage bandwidth during times of congestion, or even cap it, for certain end users? Should they rely on traffic filtering or shaping to deliver a high quality of experience (QoE)?

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They also need to know how their subscribers are consuming bandwidth so that they understand why their bandwidth use is exploding. How do they deliver the best service at the best value while still offering a compelling service package for consumers? MSOs are looking for maximum service flexibility in a product that enables them to differentiate their services from their broadband competition.

The key to high QoE
The key to delivering a high QoE is intelligent policy enforcement (IPE). IPE enables network operators to associate network traffic with subscribers, applications, locations, and even specific device types.

This is critical information for MSOs. It is not enough to know what the industry trends are – an MSO needs to understand the behavior of their customers. The lack of this knowledge will cost them revenue, operational cost and opportunity. Understanding the usage patterns for OTT video is a make-or-break issue for many MSOs because they’re afraid of revenue and subscriber erosion due to the availability of streaming content.

Being able to conduct detailed analyses and custom analytics on its network ensures that an operator understands exactly what exposure it has to OTT video, and what kinds of plans it needs to offer in each geographic area that it serves. IPE systems enable ops to conduct content- and application-aware studies, produce content provider comparisons, understand popular content, and determine which content delivery network partnerships or peering relationships they require to deliver high QoE for OTT services. MSOs can determine if caching or content delivery networks will provide a better ROI. They can even use the IPE systems to directly integrate with the content providers for enhanced services.

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IPE systems also provide superior visibility into peering bandwidth, ensuring that an operator has the information available to measure QoE – even at the application layer – at the peering points. As mentioned above, this is essential to ensuring that OTT services are delivered with quality, as a major bottleneck outside the access network is the peering relationship with the content provider. Operators spend big money on peering; they should only upgrade their peering links if they are seeing bad QoS for critical applications. An IPE system can provide the needed detail at the subscriber and at the application layer for each peering partner.

Based on the detailed analytics delivered with an IPE solution, broadband operators can gain visibility into, and understanding of, the trends that are driving bandwidth usage, as well as insight into the applications that are popular and that can be monetized. Armed with this detailed knowledge, operators can then conduct location-based studies to determine what services should be offered in what markets. They can also see if specific users are better targets for certain service offerings, like social networking, streaming video, VoIP, high-usage plans, etc. New service offerings can be created to capitalize on the latest trends, applications and content that is popular in an MSO’s particular regions.

Once service plans are offered, they must be enforced across the network. Topology awareness is mandatory for cable operators because it allows the IPE systems to associate subscribers and traffic with specific channels, even in a dynamic DOCSIS environment. It ensures true congestion awareness and enables proper congestion detection and management. With topology awareness, the operator can build fair-use plans, usage-management plans, tiered services, and even QoS-enabled services. Since the IPE system knows how much bandwidth and what applications are running on each channel, it can ensure that the right policies are enforced to deliver a high QoE for subscribers.

Procera chartFor example, if a subscriber is on a “social networking” plan, the operator will want to make sure that the subscriber has a high QoE for Facebook, as that may be the application that drives 90 percent of that subscriber’s perception of the service. For a heavy streaming media user, it’s important to make sure that minimal “buffering” occurs in order to meet their QoE expectations. This requires per-user visibility and enforcement, with the ability to manage traffic at the application layer, especially for real-time traffic such as voice and video.

If the operator wants to offer usage-based plans, it needs flexibility to offer more than just bulk usage plans at the lowest-possible cost. The last place a network operator wants to be is in a price war over who can deliver bits the cheapest to a home. MSOs have experienced a much greater impact on their network from mobile devices than most had expected. Devices like tablets and smartphones are now used extensively in the home, and they take advantage of the broadband connection for much of their high-bandwidth usage – application/system updates, streaming media and access to cloud-stored data.

Service plans that include turbo capability, high QoS for specific events, free “happy hour” data times – and even different usage buckets for applications like social networks, streaming media and VoIP – provide pricing flexibility that will be required to stay competitive. If an operator can offer a low-cost plan to light users and a high-usage plan targeted at video streamers, it can broaden its service appeal without using low-bandwidth users to subsidize the 1 percent of users that consume 20 percent of its network’s bandwidth. IPE flexibility also allows an MSO to target a specific demographic, like homes with teenagers for social networking plans or Wi-Fi offload for specific devices with combined fixed-mobile plans, to ensure that it has “stickiness” in its service offerings.

Application- or content-based usage plans are of particular interest to broadband operators. One of the biggest deterrents to broadband operators that are interested in content-aware billing is the operational challenge of defining exactly what content or content types fall into specific usage buckets. Operators can leverage the application identification capabilities of an IPE system to easily distinguish different types of traffic, like streaming media or Web browsing, and to define custom properties, like specific URLs, filenames and referrers. Current infrastructure products do not support this level of granularity and cannot deliver application awareness.

Once this infrastructure is in place, MSOs can also achieve significant operational efficiencies and deliver a higher QoE to their subscribers. With topology awareness, the MSOs can ensure they have deep visibility, on a per-subscriber and per-channel basis, of network congestion. This enables them to manage traffic to enhance the user experience for real-time traffic like video streaming and VoIP. Understanding the reasons for network congestion enables MSOs to make informed decisions on when they need to increase capacity or upgrade their infrastructure. Just as importantly, it informs them of when to not spend money on increasing capacity when the user experience is not compromised (i.e., the reason for congestion is a non-real-time application) and real-time applications are not affected. Managing peering relationships to maximize QoE allows MSOs to gain return on investment when bandwidth is increased, and subscribers will have a greater satisfaction from the applications on which they base their plan-purchasing decisions.

The detailed analytics required to deliver this solution include location awareness, subscriber awareness and application awareness, as well as device awareness for specific applications like streaming video. All of these are available with the right IPE solution that can pull information from the existing BSS/OSS and centralize subscriber intelligence and enforcement in a single location in the network.

Email: cam.cullen@proceranetworks.com

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