Fine-grained network controls that are coming with next-generation mobile technology could make some demanding mobile applications such as video perform better but may also raise Net neutrality concerns.
LTE (Long-Term Evolution), the fourth-generation (4G) mobile technology expected to be most widely adopted by carriers around the world, is designed to boost wireless data speeds and more efficiently serve subscribers. But along with that standard come others that define the IP network behind the cell towers. One of them, called PCRF (Packet Core Routing Function), will give carriers much more fine-grained control over how well applications and services perform.
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PCRF has also been extended to 3G, and some vendors and carriers want to use the new technology to deal with growing demands on mobile data networks. On Thursday, Alcatel-Lucent extended its PCRF software, which was introduced last year, from LTE to 2.5G and 3G infrastructure. The company said Thursday that its 5780 Dynamic Services Controller, which can perform PCRF for both 3G and LTE networks, is in trials and will be available in the second half of this year. Alcatel is only the latest in a long line of vendors to offer PCRF software, which is part of a set of network management technologies called EPC (Evolved Packet Core).
EPC is very new technology -- it has generated no measurable revenue, according to market research firm Dell'Oro Group -- but all the drivers are in place for it to be widely deployed over the coming years, said Dell'Oro analyst Greg Collins. Demand for mobile data is growing fast, and carriers would like to control how the applications offered on their mobile networks perform. PCRF could have a major impact on carriers' businesses and subscribers' mobile experiences. Among other things, the technology could be used to give certain applications and users better performance than others. Carriers could even sell preferential treatment to application providers, where that practice is legal, vendors and analysts say.
But because the technology can define grades of service for both subscribers and content providers, it may run headlong into the growing debate in the U.S. over wireless Net neutrality. For example, the idea of selling priority to certain providers of over-the-top applications and services, even if that priority were offered to any providers that could pay, has drawn the ire of some Net neutrality advocates.
The need for tighter network management is growing out of the rapid increase in demand for mobile data services, the same trend that made LTE itself necessary. As more wireless subscribers try to use ever more bandwidth-intensive applications, carriers want mechanisms to ensure that the most important or sensitive uses of the network don't get trampled. EPC gives them tools to control, to some degree, the speed or QoS (quality of service) of individual applications.
"I can allocate QoS to a voice channel, or a data channel ... or a television service, for example," said William Guinn, chief technology officer of Amdocs, which makes back-end systems for carriers. "If you're downloading movies, for example, I might want to make sure you get [good] voice quality even if your downloads may take a couple of seconds longer."