Mobile Device Management

Reducing Bill Shock with Intelligent Roaming

While mobile device services can be used seamlessly abroad, it still costs a small fortune to do so. Data rates are notorious for being hundreds of times higher and even calls can be four times more costly than the domestic charge.  So it’ll come as no surprise that global roaming is a major revenue earner for service providers – in fact, according to Ovum, this market was worth $45bn in 2012 and will grow to $80bn in 2017.

Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “bill shock” – the reality of large bills hitting us after we’ve been using our mobiles abroad - prompted the European Committee (EC) to take action in 2007. While well-intentioned, the 2007 regulations didn’t have the necessary teeth to cut out these incidents entirely, and as a result, they remain common.

More recently, from 1 July 2013, the EU lowered the price caps for data downloads by 36%, making it much cheaper to use maps, watch videos, check email and update social networks overseas. As a result, data roaming is expected to be up to 91% cheaper in 2013 compared to 2007, at a time when the volume of the data roaming market has grown by 630%.

For operators, this increased pressure to adhere to the new regulations introduces a growing challenge to accurately track who consumed what data, where and when. 

Who is charged what and by whom?

Once the new regulation is in place, the customer will be offered a choice of Alternative Roaming Providers (ARP)s to supply these (data) roaming services.  The home network matches the network ID of the European provider with the correct subscriber identification, and routes the charging information to the right ARP, who in turn can bill the customer for all data consumed while roaming.

Another issue has to do with LBO, or Local Break Out, meaning that, when roaming, internet connections are hosted locally in the destination country instead of being routed back to the customer’s domestic provider, as is most common today. In the case of LBO, the operator in the visited country needs to bill the roaming customer directly, as opposed to the traditional approach, where the domestic operator bills the customer (and the domestic operator also pays the visited network for its services).

The challenge here is one of clear provider relationships.  For instance, keeping everything in sync when a customer selects an ARP for EU data-roaming billing alongside their monthly domestic subscription. 

For the ARP to bill accurately, it needs to know exactly what a user has consumed.  If several ARPs are used by a single customer (it is possible to change every 24 hours), the domestic provider needs to dynamically update which ARP hosted which period of time.  Close and accurate tracking is the only way to make this possible.

Using a roaming gateway is one option to simplify the provisioning, routing and other technical aspects. For mobile operators, all charging information will be sent through this gateway, where the decision can be made to either route this detail to the operator’s own charging system, or to a specific ARP responsible for making the various systems speak the same language.

Choosing a local or international roaming provider

The second challenge revolves around which provider to choose.

Once the new regulation is in place, the customer will be given a choice of providers that offer LBO.  The home network receives the ID of the visiting network alongside subscriber identification then must reconcile against a preference to use LBO or not.

Based on that combination, the home network may inform the visiting network if LBO is allowed via the agreed EU Internet Access Point Name (APN). When this mark is submitted to the visiting network, the network knows that if the visitor selects the EU Internet APN, he or she needs to be offered an LBO service to access the internet. Should this choice be prescriptive, from a set list of all available providers? Is LBO OK for all customers? How is this information to be dynamically maintained? There are many questions that need to be answered by the domestic operator.

Again, an effective option should use an intelligent gateway. Signaling Delivery Controllers (SDC) for Diameter Signaling Management are already in use at many major operators globally. Configured as a roaming gateway, SDCs allow operators to implement the functionality of connectivity and route the signaling messaging around data use to comply with the new EU regulations even without having to make changes to the subscriber database.

Using an SDC also allows the home operator to easily offer LBO services to visited networks that do not fall under the EU regulation but for which the home network negotiated with the visited network to support LBO as well.

Intelligent roaming in practice

Upon getting off a plane in a foreign country and turning on his or her phone, the roaming customer could then receive a landing page from which an ARP is easily selected, or skip that selection if they had already indicated they were happy to go with a default network.

The roaming gateway then forwards the decision to the ARP and the ARP takes responsibility to authenticate, authorise and charge the roamer for the services used.

It is crucial, then, for the home network to know which ARP was selected and the exact moment the roamer began to use the ARP services.  A roaming gateway allows the injection of intelligence that allows the operator to store information related to provisioning detect times when the customer starts using the ARP services. If required, it can also provide information on how much data was used as well.

If bill shock is going to become a phenomenon of the past, the heavy competition between ARPs and accurate tracking will be essential - and the best way of implementing it without extensive system re-engineering is to look at roaming gateways like the SDC as an effective and flexible option.


Peter Nas is Sr Solutions Architect at F5


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Peter Nas

Peter Nas is Sr Solutions Architect at F5

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