As 3G coverage improves, and more services become available, mobile operators and their subscribers are speculating about what new developments in messaging will bring; subscribers want messaging services that allow them the convenience of SMS combined with the sophistication of mobile banking and other peer-to-application services. Operators want to be sure that their infrastructure can handle the new demands that yet more messaging traffic will bring. “But what guarantees are there?” ask Keith Cornell.
Increasing 3G coverage and new service development has presented a conundrum to mobile operators who are looking to messaging services as a way to further improve revenue.
On one hand, the success of SMS and the growing uptake of MMS provides a mainstream source of income — even when compared to voice — and is a market in full swing. On the other, such developments require the messaging infrastructure to support them, and the inevitable investment in new systems that have the capability to carry the market forward.
Factor into this that mobile operators have a need — particularly while 3G is under scrutiny from subscribers — to protect the operations that support these services and the brands that represent them, and this is a tricky high wire act to perform. Their significant investments in acquiring and then keeping subscribers can ill afford to be squandered on a fall.
And yet accidents can happen. As most mobile subscribers would confirm, it takes only a few dropped messages or inappropriately forwarded content to convince them that another operator could do better. The fact that most mobile operators in the UK and Western Europe are on an even footing in terms of their messaging capabilities and subscriber satisfaction rates has done nothing to alter this perception.
SMS to MMS and beyond
As SMS became available to pre-paid users it formed the basis for what became a thriving sub-sector of the industry, as a host of small independent companies emerged to offer ringtones or personalised screen displays direct to subscribers. This loss of revenue from a market that the mobile operators had traditionally thought of as their own particular turf caused a major reassessment of the role that messaging technologies could have both in generating new revenues, as well as in protecting their historic dominance of the entire value chain.
More recently, SMS has become recognised as an invaluable tool for mobile service providers to extend their branding and commercial reach as they look for traction from 3G.
But the move to 3G messaging services that include video, audio, and which are location-aware, can only be made smoothly by subscribers if they have access to SMS and MMS capabilities that they are familiar with on the handset.
In turn, more sophisticated messaging services have appeared on the market, and these are becoming an index to the success of this migration. MMS is becoming the most attractive method for the continuation of person-to-person (or peer-to-peer) messaging, taking up where SMS left off. SMS itself is being transformed from a technology based on the familiar 160 characters to a mechanism for conducting banking transactions, ordering goods and services, content, and acting as an ‘envelope’ or container for delivering upgrades and software-based products direct to the handset.
While the industry headlines concentrate on the largely unrealised potential of MMS, it’s easy to overlook the continuing vital role that SMS plays. Indeed, it’s far more accurate to consider SMS as an enabling technology, rather than a service as such. It is the delivery mechanism for many goods and services from ringtones to important enterprise information and financial transactions. The ubiquitous presence of SMS on all mobile handsets provides an instantly available platform from which to drive further growth, and for subscribers to explore new services, without the onerous management for operators of major upgrades on all the mobile devices out there.
Only a small number of vendors were ready in the mid-to-late 1990s to respond to the sudden and dramatic take-off of SMS. As a result, many of the world’s mobile operators rely on very similar core architectures that were built to handle less traffic and were inherently less secure and flexible because they were only supporting peer-to-peer messaging. On top of this, and as a result of vendor consolidation and continual hardware improvements, software maintenance and support for these systems is becoming limited. It all adds up to a number of encroaching issues which operators should tackle in order to protect their operations, their brands and their subscriber base.
Operators need to protect themselves and their subscribers against the risk of fraud, revenue leakage, security attacks and spam, a risk which increases with the advent of 3G.
In owning the brand relationship, it is effectively the operators’ responsibility to both its partners and customers to ensure that the appropriate content gets to the right subscriber at the right time. However, there are a number of requirements that need to be considered as subscribers use MMS and particularly SMS as a mechanism for higher-value transactions.
First, there is the issue of security, which has become more important as some of the threats that exist in the fixed Internet environment begin to advance on the mobile world.
In the same way that email in-boxes can fall prey to spam, so messages to mobile handsets can contain unwelcome information from uninvited senders. Mobile operators need to minimise spam, and in security terms, guard the authentication details their subscribers store on their handsets. They also need to shield them from unsolicited adult content, so that unwelcome attention is reduced. This issue is not unique to the mobile industry, but in some ways, mobile is more vulnerable to security issues because subscribers are not used to encountering difficulties with mobile in the same way as they may do in the fixed Internet sphere.
The areas where most premium services are accessed — through messaging systems and portals — need to be kept safe by operators who want to avoid their systems being undermined by Denial of Service (DoS) attacks and hackers. Messaging is now coming under attack from spam vendors and, unless the problem is addressed effectively, subscribers will rapidly become alienated by service providers who fail to provide sufficient blocking or filtering facilities. Similarly, the merging of the fixed and mobile messaging worlds can open operator systems to DoS attacks which can quickly cripple messaging systems. This is annoying enough for the private subscriber, but critical for the business user.
As older messaging systems are called on to take the strain from new messaging services such as televoting, they need support. Operators can see these systems are beginning to act as bottlenecks in the flow of messages, and subscribers expect their messages to be delivered first time, on time.
The SMS Centre (SMSC) normally handles all messaging traffic, but its role is changing.
Since it is now possible to identify particular types of traffic _ such as televoting or requests for specific content — as they come into the network, they can be offloaded from the SMSC. This helps deal with the need for greater network capacity, while effectively dedicating the SMSC to dealing with simpler peer-to-peer messages. This in turn ensures continual improvement in the quality and level of service that subscribers and business users receive, while limiting the likelihood that they will switch to a new mobile service provider as a consequence of below-par service. New messaging platforms can now be placed between the SMSC/MMSC and the mobile operator’s messaging applications, giving the ability to identify and separate application messaging traffic from peer-to-peer messaging traffic.
As a result operators can often combat subscriber churn before it occurs. The first step is to move beyond the current limitations of existing SMS and SS7 infrastructures and increase messaging capacity, while delivering more off-load functionality and the ability to handle number portability and SMS forwarding.
Traffic peaks can be dealt with effectively in the network, providing it is flexible enough. Without the ability to cope with the natural dynamism of peak traffic loading from televoting, mobile number portability or the addition of location services, operators will lack the required agility to adapt quickly to changing market conditions.
Operators with greater messaging integrity will find they have fewer failed messages, less vulnerabilities, less revenue leakage and ultimately, a stronger brand. The successful delivery of messages across multiple networks and between different devices involves many underlying transactions in the signalling and routing layers. Any errors here can quickly translate into failed messages; vulnerabilities open to exploitation by hackers, or lost revenues.
Should operators continue to offer standard SMS services — but in increasingly inefficient and complex-to-manage ways — while they wait for justification to completely replace their mobile infrastructure? Can they take maximum advantage of individual commercial and technological messaging opportunities as they emerge — but without building yet more systems silos that have to be managed and integrated? It is this debate which is at the heart of the operator decision-making process, and in many cases, it’s a decision which will taken over the coming months, if it has not been already. Those operators who need to stay ahead of the curve, and continue to differentiate themselves from their competitors, need to look to their core messaging infrastructure to help deliver new services while protecting their brands.