How does 5G actually bring in any cash?
As service providers around the world start to plan for 5G, one aspect which cannot be left to the last moment is “how does 5G handle collecting revenue?” Innovation and flexibility are critical to secure revenue growth, but BSS changes always have to avoid any risks to existing business, so these plans need to be developed early in the 5G project.
Most initial 5G deployments are concentrating on radio (RAN) changes and are using an updated Evolved Packet Core (EPC) architecture, which maintains the 4G LTE charging architecture and the existing Business Support System (BSS) architecture for charging and billing. That is a great starting point but the EPC will not allow the full potential of 5G innovation to be realized for either consumers or enterprise customers.
The 3GPP 5G Core architecture defines a completely Telecom BSS, using a new service-based architecture (SBA). This will be used to drive policy control in the 5G Core architecture and also to allow new types of charging triggers which will be essential for massive-scale IoT, edge computing and private networks.
These standards replace the 4G online charging system (OCS), and its separate offline charging system, with a new 5G converged charging system (CCS) which includes a 5G Charging Function (CHF). They also replace the previous Diameter-based protocols with the 5G service-based interfaces (SBI). These major changes will affect not only the real-time (online) charging systems but also have impact on back-office processes such as CDR (Call Detail Record) handling, roaming reconciliation and charging, revenue assurance and billing.
Don’t break the cash flow!
Although the RAN changes are the largest network impact geographically, these changes to charging and billing have the potential, like all BSS projects, to break the business if not handled correctly. Major changes to back-office systems have to be carefully planned around the needs of Marketing to introduce new services, stability around key annual sales periods, cash-flow and collections cycles, testing and deployment of software upgrades from vendors, analysis and training for new processes and financial controls such as year-end processing and audits.
One of the major changes in the new 5G architecture is that CDRs are no longer generated by network elements. Many service providers rely on network CDRs for various processes today: some transactions may not be controlled in real-time but reported in CDRs; also CDRs are usually used during revenue assurance (RA) and sometimes in auditing; last, but not least, many use CDRs as a source of data for analytics and performance statistics. CDRs will now be generated by the converged charging system itself and so their use in these processes must be reviewed and adjusted as required.
With the new architecture, the converged charging system takes a major role not just in the traditional prepaid business segment but in supporting all customers. All transactions, whether prepaid or postpaid, consumer or enterprise, voice, data or applications, will need to be handled by the converged charging system so that it can, at a minimum, generate the CDRs that the rest of the revenue management backend systems expect to see.
These changes combine to mean that the 5G converged charging system, and the backend processes it connects to, need to be engineered to new levels of performance and reliability. In the past, network elements were often configured to handle an OCS outage by allowing traffic to continue and generating a CDR so that the transaction could be charged for later using an exception process. In 5G, a similar problem could mean revenues are permanently lost, for postpaid and enterprise customers, as well as for prepaid.
Of course, 5G is not going to suddenly replace 4G overnight. Although some new applications and services will require 5G, most existing customers will roam between 5G and earlier networks almost without noticing. For that reason, the new 5G BSS architecture has to be able to work in a dual mode: supporting the 4G and earlier architecture at the same time as the new 5G service-based architecture.
In fact, we expect most of our customers to plan a stepwise evolution of their OCS. For example:
- While still using Diameter-based protocols in 5G EPC mode (or even while still using 4G), upgrade the OCS to a enable the additional Diameter features that allow charging for new network features such as quality-of-service (QoS) for network slices. This then provides charging capabilities for the initial phase of 5G using the EPC architecture.
- Add the new 5G SBA Converged Charging System capabilities to the OCS and create the new CDR architecture. This allows the charging system to run in dual-mode supporting both types of core systems.
- Transition the core systems to use the new service-based interface to access the dual-mode charging system.
- As appropriate core elements transition, create new offers which can make use of the new charging capabilities of the 3GPP Release 16 standards, such as the new charging trigger points. These will enable new business models for some IoT and 5G services.
- Transition the remaining services, including offline usage reporting, to the new converged charging system.
Even after those steps, it will be necessary for many years to continue to handle users connecting to 4G (or earlier) parts of the network using dual-mode capabilities in the Converged Charging System.
Whatever the strategy, as service providers start rolling out 5G it is important to immediately start evolving BSS. Even if the first phase of 5G rollout targets enhanced mobile broadband use cases, there will soon emerge a need for new capabilities in the BSS. This forms a firm starting point to explore new models and new charging trigger points as they arrive.
A practical solution
The new release of Ericsson Charging introduces a new component called the “charging access function” (CAF). This node provides the service-based interface to the network elements and maintains session and event data, interfacing to enhanced versions of the SDP nodes.
The existing OCC and CCN nodes are still supported to allow simultaneous use of Diameter and IN/CAMEL protocols for charging.
The new requirement to generate both rated and unrated CDRs is handled by the integration of Ericsson Mediation. Together Ericsson Charging and Ericsson Mediation provide a complete 5G converged charging system which can work in a dual-mode configuration with 5G EPC and earlier Diameter and even IN/CAMEL nodes.
5G enables operators to play various roles in the supply landscape, each delivering a varying degree of benefit in the value chain. Moving from 4G to 5G is not a one-step jump, rather, a multi-step evolution over many years. Each incremental step in the 4G to 5G evolution will enhance existing use cases and/or will enable new use cases.
To learn more about the 5G Charging Function and the impact on architecture and processes, please read our new eBrief: What is the 5G Charging Function?
You may also be interested to read the new MIT Review Insights report – The 5G operator: platforms, partnerships and a new era of cloud-driven agility.
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