Subscriptionless Devices Offer Potential Revenue Opportunity for Network Operators

There is no ignoring the rapid proliferation of connected devices, particularly those associated with the Internet of Things (IoT).  The IoT is the inter-networking of objects, both physical and virtual, that collect and share data.  IoT objects can range from simple sensors that tell you when to water your plants to sophisticated devices enabling driverless cars. All of these devices — forecast to number in the billions within a few years — rely on the network for sharing data.

Occasional data needs? No need for costly subscriptions

Today’s fixed-cost networks are built and optimized for stable, predictable, and high-value subscriptions.  However, most of the devices and applications for the IoT market do not fit this profile.  A large portion of this market is composed of application-specific devices that only need to communicate on an “as needed” basis using only a very small amount of data. These applications need to connect to the network for “occasional” data without having to maintain a costly subscription.

To serve this class of IoT devices, the network cost structure will need to be significantly lower and better optimized to address a much larger set of low-bandwidth, low-usage devices. One way to achieve this is to eliminate the need to acquire, provision, and maintain subscription data/profiles in the network for billions of devices, while still meeting basic network connectivity needs for security, integrity and billing.

Even though subscription-based models offer more predictable traffic profiles and simplified network management, the IoT market offers an opportunity for network operators to implement a network architecture that is sufficiently agile to capture these transient opportunities with minimal fixed costs.

There are two fundamental requirements for the provision of network services to a device regardless of whether it is subscription based or subscriptionless:

  • The network must be able to securely identify and authenticate that device onto its network to ensure the ability to properly manage the network.
  • The network must be able to securely associate the device identity to enable charging for the network services provided.

Network slicing to the rescue

One way to meet these requirements is via Network Slicing, a key capability that is expected to be fully exploited in the forthcoming 5G network. Network Slicing enables the network to apply different requirements on functionality to different network segments or slices serving different groups of devices with similar service/traffic characteristics.  For example, subscriptionless services may require application-specific authentication, charging and policy control while other data transport use cases can efficiently be handled with standard authentication, charging or policies.

Network slicing enables the network to properly segregate subscriptionless device control, data, and management traffic to ensure that subscriptionless devices can be sufficiently managed.  This model is well-suited to subscriptionless services where the services of a network slice may be tuned and aligned with the large number of vertical applications or segments. The specifications for service access may then be aligned at the service level and micro-segmentation of services at a slice or sub-slice level to achieve the above-mentioned objectives.

In addition, new 3GPP 5G specifications in TS22.261 include a number of new requirements related to authentication of 3GPP devices.  Specifically, Section 8.3 of TS22.261 indicates that the 5G system shall support operator-controlled alternative authentication methods (i.e. alternative to AKA) with different types of credentials for network access to IoT devices. Along with subscriptionless models, these new requirements open the door to a much wider spectrum of IoT devices that can be supported in 5G networks.

ATIS shows how service providers can benefit

A recently published ATIS technical report examines how network service providers can take better advantage of the transient revenue opportunities availed by IoT devices and applications while cost-effectively scaling the network to accommodate the potentially large number of IoT devices that require network services.  Subscriptionless Devices & Services explores a number of ways for the network operator to securely authenticate a device while ensuring that any network services provided to the device can be properly charged.

Tom Anderson, Principal Technologist, ‎ATIS
Tom Anderson is a Principal Technologist at ATIS specializing in standards, architecture and evolution of service provider networks. In the past, he has worked for major industry vendors including Bell Labs, Lucent, Alcatel-Lucent, Juniper and Cisco where he managed network technology evolution, strategy, standards and architecture. As a 30+ year veteran of the telecommunications industry, Tom has been active in telecommunications standards activities and has held numerous positions in the areas of architecture, product development, systems engineering, and product management. His more recent work has focused on Network Function Virtualization (NFV), SDN (Software Defined Networking), end-to-end  network optimization, and standards strategy and has chaired a variety of ATIS working groups as well the CSRIC WG8 on Priority Services.