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November 2015

Protecting the Roaming Cash Cow: Using a Global Test Network for LTE Deployments & Beyond

Protecting the Roaming Cash Cow: Using a Global Test Network for LTE Deployments & Beyond

Every telecom business deserves a few “cash cows” to compensate for other slim margin “dogs” in its service portfolio.

Trouble is, the cash cows are constantly jumping the fence to graze in new pastures.  Here’s some perspective on the issue:

  • Voice mail and other national enhanced services took off in the 1990s.  They cost almost nothing to deliver, yet customers paid several dollars a month for them.
  • Person-to-person SMS and the mobile internet took off in the 2000s, creating the next wave of premium services.
  • However, today with so many services packaged in flat rate offerings, out-of-bundle premium services are scarcer, especially as free, OTT alternatives emerge.

Certainly one service that continues to enjoy premium pricing status is international roaming, so it behooves operators to carefully guard that business to ensure it remains profitable and optimized.

Here to explain the business of fine-tuning roaming operations, then, is an expert on the subject, Florian Leeder, Head of Business Unit Roaming at SIGOS.

Dan Baker: Florian, the enabler of your roaming assurance program is the SIGOS GlobalRoamer service, so maybe that’s a good place to begin.

Florian Leeder: Yes, it’s a good place to begin, Dan.  SIGOS owns and maintains an international roaming test infrastructure distributed across the entire world — really from all countries to small islands such as Guam in the Pacific to all Caribbean islands.  We started to build up this infrastructure called “GlobalRoamer” 15 years ago — today the network cuts across 206 countries worldwide where our probes are installed, enabling operators to use that network 24/7/365 to do their roaming tests, roaming monitoring, and roaming revenue assurance.

Customers such as Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, Telstra or NTT DoCoMo use GlobalRoamer to make sure that their subscriber experience in roaming is in-line with the high quality service performance, reliability and quality they demand.

Having access to a global test infrastructure to continuously monitor accessibility and quality in roaming is a key advantage.

GlobalRoamer Testing Network

Can‘t an operator build out its own roaming test network?  What’s the economic benefit of using the GlobalRoamer?

It’s a simple make or buy decision.  I think it’s the convenience of a service that allows them to get full global coverage without a hassle.  Virtually all Network Operators (or Carriers) have roaming agreements in place with something like 200 to 800 other Network Operators across the globe.  At the same time, this needs to be tested to make sure that everything agreed to in a roaming contract works and that subscribers can access the services regardless of the country they travel to.  This is exactly where GlobalRoamer fits in.

Building up such a large infrastructure and placing test equipment in many countries — and often in preferred roaming locations of various cities — is a major investment to maintain.  We think a SaaS model, based on a shared infrastructure such as GlobalRoamer, provides the highest value.

How is roaming testing different from carrier testing?

It’s quite a bit different actually.  In carrier testing, you check just a few KPIs such as voice quality and if the calling number is represented correctly (so called CLI delivery).  Both have a major influence if calls are taken and how long they stay activated.  Additionally, carriers usually look into fraud issues e.g. if call durations are manipulated making end customers pay more than they should.  This is the “early charging” or “late disconnect” problem.

Roaming test is much different because it has gotten more complex over time due to:

  • The growing variety of services; e.g. voice, data, messaging, video etc. as well as 3 different technologies today: GSM, UMTS and LTE;
  • The introduction of special roaming packages and other solutions to allow subscribers to keep their costs under control.;
  • Data-hungry smartphones that serve many applications with real-time information is another big issue; and,
  • Last but not least, voice is transforming into an IP application.

So all thse factors have brought challenges to roaming.  It’s about new technologies in the field, new libraries, and new use cases that all need to be verified, tested and supervised over time.

SIGOS GlobalRoamer customers simply subscribe to our service and access the Global Roamer network via a web based GUI to run their own tests.  Or if the operator prefers, we have expert consultants in Germany and Belgium who do all the testing on their behalf.  And, of course, they are there to help with troubleshooting too: roaming is complex, LTE roaming is complex, and so is roaming billing.  So you need domain knowledge to understand the traces and the potential problems.  Plus errors need to be fixed fast!

One area where operators certainly need roaming test is around roaming arrangements for LTE.  What’s happening there, Florian?

SIGOS is supporting network operators worldwide to build up and successfully launch international LTE services.  The expertise and the test methods we developed with operators, plus keeping up with industry standards in roaming is also key.  In 2012 we rolled out the first LTE and CSFB test locations with GlobalRoamer.  Today we offer LTE technology in over 80 countries, well ahead of market penetration at this point.

Operators, of course, implement LTE in their home markets and stepwise start to negotiate roaming agreements with their partner networks.  That’s what’s going on right now.  Roaming using totally new network technology creates a high demand to test, measure and troubleshoot problems.  Many things change and it all needs to be managed both: contractually between operators and technically to provide reliable and high quality service.

We actually help operators across the board with LTE.  We not only consult with them on the technical and billing details, we also help them negotiate deals with other operators.

For instance, customers might approach us and say, “Look, my marketing department says I need 100 LTE roaming agreements by the end of the year.  But I only have five people on staff, so can you help?”

And of course, we use the GlobalRoamer network to do all the international testing from one location.  The process starts simply by engaging with the desired list of roaming partners, then moving to contract and price negotiations.

The technical part comes next: SIM cards are exchanged to execute real tests.  For instance if we act as agent of KPN and are negotiating with T-Mobile USA, then T-Mobile USA sends us SIM cards that we use to test in the Netherlands.  Likewise, KPN sends their SIM cards so we can test those in the US and so on.

However, even after a successful functional testing, you’re still not ready because you’ve got to ensure billing is correct.  So we check our CDRs to make sure the right tariffs have been applied.  Only when this “TADIG testing” is successful is a commercial launch letter prepared.  And when both parties sign off on that, roaming is in place and the project moved to the next step to observe the quality level for the months and years to come.

What network problems do operator typically run into when roaming is not working right?

There is a number of typical problems but let’s take one that is surprisingly common.

Let’s say you are a customer of Vodafone, and your operator provides you excellent LTE services across your home country.  When you travel abroad, your phone is looking for the same network technology, so it will look for a LTE network in your roaming destination.

What we often see is that the LTE network is not configured correctly in cases where LTE roaming is not in place.  Instead of replying with “LTE network is not available” it reverts to the message “network access not allowed”.  The effect of this, unfortunately, is that the user is now also excluded from GSM or UMTS services of this network.  So in the worst case, the user has no network connection at all.

Regulators in the European Union (EU) have been putting on the pressure over bill-shock and roaming fees.  What’s the status of these regulations?

Well the regulation has gone through various stages.  At first, the EU implemented some price caps on the retail market: the wholesaler side has not been regulated.

Then, in an effort to create more competition, they opened up the market to players outside the mobile operator space.  So companies like the airliner Lufthansa can now offer roaming services, however, so far the pick-up is very, very slow.

Why?  Well, one reason is that the EU threat of further price regulation forced operators to cut their prices.  Another big factor is the availability of WiFi.  People who traveled abroad got “bill-shocked” and lost confidence in mobile data roaming, so they switched data roaming off and started using WiFi instead.

In other words, a strong business case isn‘t there for new roaming players to enter the market as Roaming charges went down already.

Of course, we’re still waiting for 2017 when the “roam-like-home” law will be in force, meaning Roaming charges will be banned in Europe (EU) — subscribers will pay the same price as in their home network.

So what’s the impact going to be?

Certainly if operators earn less money from roaming, it could have a big impact.  It would mean that roaming will no longer be a premium service for operators.

On the other hand, I am not too concerned, because there is a very high number of so-called “silent roamers” out there.  Lower prices will dramatically stimulate the market and silent roamers will turn on their data roaming

Silent Roamers

The accompanying chart shows the behavior that one of our European customers is forecasting when the “roam-like-home” is in place.  Today only 30% of the operators subscriber base is using roaming when abroad, and the ones who do roam consume only 40% of the volume they consume in their home network.

Great, Florian.  Excellent briefing.  The roaming glass looks like it’s only 35% full.  Given some creative pricing and marketing, there’s a revenue upside that operators can enjoy.

Copyright 2015 Black Swan Telecom Journal

 
Florian Leeder

Florian Leeder

Florian Leeder is Head of Business Unit Roaming at SIGOS since September 2014, driving the complete Roaming and Interconnect area related product and service portfolio.  Further he is responsible for the administration, operation and expansion of the GlobalRoamer test platform.

He covered different SIGOS leadership positions in Support, Product Management and Business Development since 2000.  Prior he worked as an external consultant for Siemens and Colt Telecom.

Florian studied in Germany and Italy.  He holds a University degree in Political Science from the University of Bamberg.   Contact Florian via

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