LTE roaming will be hubbed, not bilateral: Tata

05 Mar 2013

ITEM: During last week’s Mobile World Congress – while European cellco executives were onstage blasting regulators for forcing them to cut mobile termination rates for roaming – Tata Communications was on the exhibition floor promoting its new LTE roaming service, which aims to make 4G roaming simpler for cellcos to set up.

But that simplicity may not automatically lead to the less expensive LTE roaming tariffs that some regulators want.

Tata's new LTE roaming service – which combines the carrier’s new Diameter Signalling eXchange platform (for authentication and policy control), and existing IPX Connect (for data roaming and transport) – was launched just ahead of MWC after 18 months worth of testing and trials.

The object is pretty straightforward: eliminate the interconnection and interworking complexities of global LTE roaming by offering a single interconnect point and facilitating protocol interworking across multiple cellcos.

Put simply, setting up LTE roaming agreements is hard work because of the complexities involved (and that’s before you get into the spectrum harmonization side of things). Conor Carroll, sales VP for Tata’s Asia Pacific mobility segment, points to a roaming demo made public by Hong Kong based CSL and its parent company Telstra in late 2011, in which CSL chief technology officer Christian Daigneault described the challenges inherent in LTE roaming, particularly in regards to Diameter signaling and enabling features like local breakout.

“The experience with CSL and Telstra in their Diameter signaling trial is a case study of how difficult it is to make it work even between two friendly operators,” Carroll told at the show last week.

While a few big-name operators have already announced early bilateral roaming deals for LTE – including, incidentally, Telstra and CSL, who officially launched LTE roaming between Australia and Hong Kong in January this year – Carroll says most operators are going to be looking for a hubbing solution in the name of expediency and simplicity as LTE starts to really ramp up in the next couple of years.

“Are operators really going to put together over 400 LTE roaming agreements one by one on a bilateral basis? I don’t think anyone is going to do this by themselves,” he says.

If nothing else, adds Jeff Bak, Tata’s VP of product management for mobility services, many cellcos already use Tata’s existing 2G/3G roaming service, SCCP (Signalling Connection Control Part).

“Lots of operators do their roaming through managed services already,” he says. “We’re seeing bilateral relationships at first, but we’ll see demand for hubbing.”

Bak says the LTE roaming service will be offered as bundled service with the SCCP service, so existing customers can add LTE on top of their current roaming service, while new customers can get the full 2G/3G/4G package.

While a managed roaming service could make things simpler for cellcos setting up LTE roaming agreements, the real question may be whether it can make it cheaper – at least not from the end user’s POV.

Tata says it can do settlements for roaming, and its policy control feature can enable all kinds of tariff plans, like day passes and other roaming package deals. But it’s up to cellcos to implement them.

Cellcos still regard roaming overall as a premium service – and rightfully so – but data roaming remains notoriously expensive. And with operators encouraged to price domestic LTE at a premium, LTE roaming isn’t likely to be cheaper than 3G.

Indeed, Telstra’s pricing of its bilateral LTE roaming service raised some eyebrows. While the price per MB is the same as 3G, Rethink Research’s Caroline Gabriel pointed out that LTE users often consume far more data on the LTE, which will result in some fat LTE roaming bills.

For the record, Juniper Research expects 4G LTE revenues to top $100 billion globally in 2014 (EU regulations notwithstanding, I presume).

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