Connecting the Connected - Reference Architecture for the Telecommunications Industry
Let's go out of the box to talk about the landscape of the telecommunication ecosystem and how this helps you add value to your subscriber base.
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Sending a message from one place to another (telecommunication) has been a revolution since its inception. It helped people to save lives, win wars, make peace, and many other things. After thousands of attempts, Alexander Graham Bell made it possible to send a message over a wire and that opened the door for the eventual over the air communication and finally we are in the age of satellite-based communication (thanks to Sir. Arthur C. Clarke) which made it possible to connect people in far corners of the world within a whisker.
Telecommunication (specifically mobile) technology has gone through several iterations (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G) and the main focal point of that was to improve how information is exchanged across the network. Like any other technology, telecommunication has gone beyond the need for message exchanges to data communications to video conferencing to shopping, to financing and much more. You can absolutely do anything with the device (mobile phone) which was used to send messages in the past using your fingertips. The organizations who bring this technology to the end user are called the Mobile Network Operators (MNO). Even though they deal with these technical advancements continuously, their main focus point is their customer base which they refer to as subscribers. It is their responsibility to provide value to their subscribers on top of the telecommunication capability which they offer through technology. The main focus of this whitepaper is around how MNOs can collectively offer a better experience to their subscribers while increasing their profit margins using digital transformation.
2.0 Understanding the Stakeholders in the Telecommunication Ecosystem
Mobile Network Operator (MNO)s are the main players of the telecommunication game with respect to bringing telecommunication capability to the end users. They use the complex technological advancements and equipment and build networks which interconnects people in a given region (it can be a village, city, province, country or the entire world). Let’s identify the stakeholders who are engaged in the telecom ecosystem.
Figure 1: Telecommunication industry stakeholders.
A Mobile Network Operator (MNO) is the main stakeholder of providing telecommunication services to subscribers. It is responsible for purchasing the frequencies, setting up the infrastructure (signaling towers, base stations, switches, antennas, etc.), designing the network based on capacities, testing the signal strengths and finally marketing and selling the service to the end users.
Subscribers are the end users who are using the network which is built and maintained by the MNO and pay for the subscription.
Equipment manufacturers are vendors who do research on technological advancements and build the equipment (antennas, routers, switches, servers, etc.) which provides the infrastructure layer for message exchanges.
Internet Service Provider (ISP)s are organizations who maintain the connectivity between MNO maintained network and the public internet as well as other MNOs. Normally, they maintain the backbone of the mobile network.
Application developers did not used to be stakeholders of telecommunication ecosystem in the past. But with the invention of customizable mobile operating systems like Android and Apple iOS, application developers also play a major role in providing value-added services to the subscribers on top of basic telecommunication capabilities like voice and data.
Service providers are 3rd-party service providers like taxi services, e-channeling, payment services (banks), location-based services, and many other types of services, which are offered through either mobile network over signaling channels (SMS and USSD) or data network through the internet.
3.0 Understanding the Technology Landscape of the Telecommunication Ecosystem
In the telecommunication industry, technology plays a major role. It is essential to understand the technology landscape before coming up with any reference model. We can divide the telecommunication technology architecture into two main sections.
- Networking architecture (technology focused)
- Information Technology architecture (business focused)
3.1 Networking Architecture
This is the core of any telecommunication system which provides the connectivity of subscribers. It requires a special technical capability in the field of telecommunication engineering to design, build and maintain the network. It is out of the scope of this article to discuss the networking architecture. The following diagram is added for the sake of completeness.
Figure 2: Telecommunications network architecture.
3.2 Information Technology Architecture
In telecommunication industry, both network and subscribers are equally important to the MNO business. The idea of the information technology architecture is to define the systems and their interactions where subscriber related information resides. It can be billing, charging, value-added services, subscriber information, service subscriptions, etc. These type of information resides on different systems which are built in-house or bought from outside (COTS or SaaS applications). The interaction of these systems and how they are presented to the subscribers make the differentiation across multiple MNOs operating in the same region since most of these MNOs owned the same type of network and technological capabilities. Due to this fact, it is essential for an MNO to focus on this part of the architecture and innovate. A typical information technology architecture within an MNO is depicted in the below figure.
Figure 3: Telecommunications Information technology architecture (basic).
As depicted in the above figure, in a typical information technology (IT) system within a telecommunication operator (MNO), we can find the below systems:
Intelligent Network (IN) - This is the core of the IT architecture within the MNO. It has all the details about the subscribers and their usages. IN is connected with billing/charging systems, loyalty data systems, Call Data Record (CDR) systems and many other systems. It is responsible for charging the subscribers in proper and intelligent manner.
Customer Relationships Management (CRM) - This is the software component which keeps the information about customers and their subscriptions.
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) - This component keeps the information about projects, equipment, accounting, business processes and other business-related items.
Loyalty Data - This system is responsible for keeping information about any loyalty system and marketing promotions and other marketing activities
Billing/Charging - This component is responsible for charging the customers based on their usage. Keeping various profiles based on usage patterns is defined and maintained here.
Subscriber Data - This component keeps the information about subscribers from the network architecture perspective. This includes information like Call Details Record (CDR), services offered to a subscriber, profiles bounded to subscribers, etc.
Web Applications - These are the internal and external applications which aggregate data from different systems mentioned above and provide a useful view.
Integration Bus - This is the central component which interconnects heterogeneous systems through various messaging formats and communication protocols.
Network Architecture - This is the network portion which is described in the previous section.
The above architecture is somewhat common amongst most of the telecommunication operators with more or less additional components. This architecture works perfectly fine and unless there are other operators doing innovative things around this architecture to add value to their subscriber base and expanding to your subscriber base.
4.0 Adding Value to Your Subscriber Base
Mobile telecommunication technology has grown to every corner of the earth. Whether you are a farmer living in a rural village in Uganda or an Eskimo living in Greenland or a Yankee living in New York, everyone is connected within a sub-second through this technology. The real potential of telecommunications lies on top of the standard voice, data, or messaging services. That is where innovation comes into the picture. This technology has enabled a platform which spans beyond any cultural or geographical boundaries. To grasp this vast potential, network architecture, as well as information technology architecture, needs to be upgraded. In order to upgrade the IT architecture within the telecom ecosystem to add value to their subscriber base, first, we need to identify the capabilities which are required:
- Capability to expose subscriber information securely
- Analyze usage patterns
- Connect with 3rd party service providers
- Attract application developers
These capabilities can be added to your IT system with the use of API management, data analytics, a partner onboarding portal, and a developer portal. The improved architecture of the IT system can be depicted as below:
Figure 4: Telecommunications Information Technology reference architecture (advanced).
In the above figure, there are a few additions on top of the basic IT architecture diagram depicted in Figure 3. Those additional components are
- API management - This component is used to expose the subscriber information to external systems in a secure and controlled manner. In addition to that, it provides the capabilities to onboard partners, build portals for developers to write mobile applications.
- Security - Once the subscriber information is exposed to third parties, it is essential that we could take the highest possible security measures to protect the data as well as the system.
- Analytics - By analyzing the subscriber usage patterns and their interests, MNOs can offer more and more innovative and attractive services to the subscribers. The analytics component will do the real time as well as time series based analysis of subscriber data.
- Payment Gateway - This component resides outside of MNO ecosystem and connects with the internal systems through integration bus to handle the payments which are done from/to 3rd party service providers. As an example, a subscriber can pay his mobile subscription charges through his bank account or he can buy a shoe using his mobile subscription credit.
- Mobile applications - Once the Subscriber information is exposed through APIs, application developers can develop mobile applications alongside 3rd party service providers to offer innovative services.
- Service Providers - This can be any type of service providers who get a chance to offer services to a whole new customer base (can be millions). Some examples are money transfer, e-channeling, home catering, and banking.
This architecture can expand the horizon of the MNO’s business capabilities into many other areas through APIs. The subscriber base can get benefits through the services which MNO offers through partnerships. One of the important thing with this technology is that you can provide services with a simple messaging based or USSD based application even when there is no internet connectivity. Another important aspect is that these services can be offered through localized applications so that users who have language barriers can benefit from this technology.
5.0 Realizing the Modern Information Technology Architecture
The next, most important step of modernizing the IT architecture within MNO is to identify the products which are available to cater these requirements. WSO2 offers products which are specially built for these requirements. The below figure showcases the products which are well suited for this architecture.
Figure 5: Telecommunications Information Technology reference architecture (WSO2 mapped).
The above figure depicts how the WSO2 products can be mapped to different components within the reference architecture for telecommunication IT system. As shown in the figure above, following WSO2 products can be used to realize the proposed reference architecture.
- WSO2 API Manager - Exposes the internal subscriber information to external users through a set of managed APIs. These APIs can be secured using OAuth2 protocol. These APIs can be displayed in a developer portal so that application developers and 3rd party service providers can discover these APIs and build their own applications. In addition to that, these API requests can be controlled using policies and alerts can be set based on over usage.
- WSO2 Identity Server - This provides the comprehensive security capabilities to the platform by acting as an authorization server for OAuth2 tokens as well as an enabler for SSO and Identity Federation. As an example, MNOs can allow users to log in to various applications using their social logins like Facebook and Google.
- WSO2 Enterprise Integrator - Different systems like IN, ERP, CRM, and Loyalty have their own data formats as well as transport protocols and needs to be interconnected to provide valuable aggregated data formats to the external applications. This is the central hub which interconnects heterogeneous systems and allows API management layer to expose these systems and orchestrations as valuable APIs.
- WSO2 Stream Processor - This is the component which analyzes the data going through above mentioned WSO2 products and provides insights on which APIs are heavily used, the latency of different services, available login sessions and many other metrics related to the products. In addition to those events coming from the network layer towards IN about usage details can also be monitored in real time and take decisions accordingly. As an example, if a particular subscriber is using data highly on a particular time frame regularly, the system can automatically send him a message offering a package which is customized for that time period and increase the revenue of the business.
6.0 Expanding the Value Addition Across Multiple Operators
MNOs have their own strength and weaknesses when it comes to the network capabilities and other service offerings to their subscribers. MNOs wants to expand their strong capabilities to subscribers within other networks while subscribers want to get the best possible service no matter who the operator is. This is one of the major reasons for the introduction of GSMA OneAPI. According to Wikipedia, it is defined as
OneAPI is a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) supported by the GSM Association that exposes network capabilities [clarify] over the Internet."
In simple terms, it is a mechanism to expose set of capabilities within MNOs through a standard set of APIs so that everyone can build applications on top of those APIs and allows interoperability across different MNOs (like they do for roaming) for services which they offer. If we think about roaming capabilities, there should be an agreement between your local MNO and the visiting MNO so that you can use the same SIM card within that visiting country or region. With the OneAPI specification, this interoperability brings to the next level where users can use services and applications which are offered by visiting MNO.
With the reference architecture discussed in the previous sections, MNOs can easily adopt OneAPI standard without any changes or additions to their IT architecture or networking architecture. The only requirement is to implement the set of APIs defined by OneAPI specification using the API management layer and relevant system integrations through integration layer.
Figure 6: Telecommunications Information Technology reference architecture with GSMA OneAPI.
As depicted in the above figure, when all the MNOs implement the OneAPI standard and expose their network capabilities and subscriber information, 3rd party service providers, as well as application developers, can reap the benefits of a larger subscriber base. In fact, mobile operators can also sell their services to subscribers on other network operators. Subscribers will get services from multiple operators by having only one subscription. To mediate and govern these interactions, there needs to be a “OneAPI Gateway” which will eventually route the subscriber requests based on a set of defined rules and agreements across different operators. This gateway functionality can be done by a 3rd party provider (3PP) or one of the operators themselves. With this architecture, different operators can have their own internal implementations on how the systems are interconnected and so on, but they must expose a standard set of APIs.
This architecture can be expanded across boundaries and the entire world can be connected into a single network (similar to the internet) and a person with a mobile phone and a subscription to his local operator can access services across the world when he is traveling or staying in his own country. It is somewhat similar to you watching youtube from your home through the internet, you are using a mobile application which is used to channel a doctor in another country where your mother is living and make the appointment from the phone by paying from your mobile wallet !.
In summary, the technology which used to connect people needs to be connected in a more meaningful manner. With the telecommunication information system reference architecture introduced within this article discusses how to provide innovative services to your subscriber base and drive revenue to your business. By using GSMA OneAPI specification, it is possible to expand the business into other operators as well as other regions. Subscribers will also benefit from the global connectivity and service sharing across multiple operators.
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