Mobile operators are rapidly adopting new network software, called EPC (Evolved Packet Core), that will give them more control over service quality but also new tools for metering data usage.
EPC is the next generation of software for handling all types of mobile data sessions and is required for LTE, the 4G technology of choice for most carriers around the world. Annual spending on EPC will grow by more than 10 times in the next six years, from US$200 million in 2011 to $3 billion in 2016, research company Dell'Oro Group said in a report this week.
Even in 2016, EPC will only make up half of all spending on packet core technology, with the other $3 billion going into the corresponding technology for 3G and 2G networks, Dell'Oro analyst Chris DePuy said. Overall packet-core spending will roughly double in the five-year period, from $2.9 billion in 2011. The growth is likely to benefit the current big players in mobile core networks, such as Ericsson, Huawei Technologies and Cisco Systems, according to Dell'Oro.
But EPC could reshape the types of services that mobile subscribers get, as well as their monthly bills. Though carriers may or may not use all the capabilities of EPC, the new software gives them several tools to fine-tune network performance. How they use the new software may also be affected by net-neutrality laws. All this could be both good and bad news for subscribers.
The packet core is the part of a mobile network that controls the data packets coming in over the wireless network from subscribers' phones and back out to them. EPC can be implemented on the routers and servers that carriers are already using in their packet cores, DePuy said. But it takes advantage of the fact that LTE is based entirely on IP (Internet Protocol), without the circuit-switched technology that 3G and earlier networks use for voice calls.
EPC consists of an MME (Mobile Management Entity), which controls permission to use the network; the P (Packet Node) Gateway and S (Services) Gateway, which are routers with intelligence to handle different data streams; and the PCRF (Packet Core Routing Function), which is software that sends messages between the MME and the gateways and communicates with billing systems.
The new packet core should simplify networks and let mobile operators roll out new services more quickly, DePuy said. But it could also help carriers prioritize one app over another. PCRF can assign nine different classes of service to applications, four of which can guarantee that app's performance no matter what else it's sharing the network with.
A key advantage of EPC for carriers is the ability to deploy VoLTE (voice over LTE), which is the only way for the new packet-based networks to handle voice calling. VoLTE can be used for better-sounding voice calls, but it benefits carriers in other ways: For one thing, it eventually will let them reuse current 3G spectrum for the 4G network, making better use of their limited resources. Also, VoLTE can help carriers integrate voice with other applications such as instant messaging, offering a class of service called RCS (Rich Communications Services), DePuy said.
Thus, a user could carry on a videoconference with another subscriber and exchange contact information and current location data in the same session, he said. And the carrier could make such a service run over all the phones it sells, regardless of who made each device or what operating system it runs.
But EPC may also help mobile operators to compete with third-party service providers. It lets the carrier use what it knows about the quality of a subscriber's connection to make its own service run better over that link, through priority or other mechanisms, DePuy said. That's something that providers of third-party applications, such as Google or Skype, can't do, he said.
As a third party, "you don't know, when you're running the service, exactly what the status of the connection is," DePuy said. But for carriers, "they're the ones making the connection, and they can monitor the quality of it."
In addition, greater visibility might mean new kinds of charges or caps.
"A potential downside is that every type of communication these users might have over the wireless networks might be metered," and subscribers could be charged more for using certain applications, DePuy said.
With PCRF, carriers could also give higher network priority to subscribers on a more expensive plan, analysts say. The software also allows them to give some third-party applications priority over others and charge those application providers for the privilege.
These practices may all be legal under net neutrality laws, which typically treat wireless services differently from wired. U.S. Federal Communications Commission rules adopted in 2010 prohibited "unreasonable discrimination" against third parties on wired networks but not on wireless. They also said mobile operators can't outright block services that compete with their own. Verizon Wireless challenged those rules last year.