Here’s why dynamic session steering could change the game for operators

Broadband Forum offered a tantalizing glimpse of what the networks of the future might look like, demonstrating a technology called dynamic session steering which uses software-defined networking (SDN) to reconfigure a user’s connection on the fly based on the application they’re using.

The exhibition was the latest breakthrough in Broadband Forum’s work on its Cloud Central Office (CloudCO) project. Launched in 2016, CloudCO reimagines traditional central office hosting infrastructure by shifting to an SDN-based model which incorporates cloud capabilities and virtualization to make network functions more agile. By standardizing the interfaces between different elements, CloudCO also aims to enable interoperable multi-vendor deployments.

Tim Carey, lead technology strategist at Nokia and chair of Broadband Forum’s Open Broadband-Broadband Access Abstraction project, told Fierce specifications for most of the major CloudCO components have already been published. However, he noted the group is still working on the disaggregation of certain functions in the access network.

While Broadband Forum has hosted CloudCO demonstrations for several years, Carey said this time around it wanted to showcase something new. Cue dynamic session steering (which is also known as subscriber session steering).

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“We’ve been doing some work within the Broadband Forum of separating the control and user plane, particularly around the BNG, and we wanted to show how that could be used to do dynamic session steering,” he said. Among other things, Carey said the demonstration showed how an operator might change the user plane location of an existing subscriber session in order to meet the SLA requirements of different applications.

Taking part in the demonstration were BT, Telecom Italia, Vodafone, and system integrator Reply, with engineers from Altice Labs, Capgemini Engineering, Broadcom, EANTC, Nokia, ufiSpace, VMware and the University of New Hampshire.  

“We showed in this one a gaming context,” Carey explained. “We had a regular internet session set up and we showed that when someone started a gaming session we realized that we would have to move the user plane closer to improve the latency that you would need for that gaming session.”

Why it matters

Why is this a big deal? Well, as Vodafone Group Principal Engineer and Broadband Forum Access Architecture Project Stream Lead Jonathan Newton laid out in a recent video, connectivity between the access node and broadband network gateway (BNG) in traditional networks is typically only configured when the network is first deployed or upgraded. Virtualization can make it easier to deploy capacity on demand, but new tools are required to rebalance that load. Dynamic session steering enables real-time decisions to be made about which service gateway and user plane the subscriber should be connected to, he said.

Craig Thomas, Broadband Forum VP of strategic marketing and business development, told Fierce the CloudCO framework has the potential to make networks more efficient and help operators cut costs by automating operations. But another key benefit of SDN-enabled capabilities like dynamic session steering is the ability to generate new revenue streams, he said.

“With the erosion of some more traditional revenue opportunities, your traditional fixed line voice, IPTV, this gives the opportunity for service providers to dynamically offer differentiated services to open up new revenue opportunities. And I think gaming is a great example of this,” Thomas said. “When you can dynamically offer an SLA…it’s giving more tools in the toolbox for them not to just pin the network up, but to upsell.” Beyond gaming, he said operators could use such capabilities to offer tailored packages for remote workers, telehealth use cases and smart home services for example.

But Carey acknowledged getting there will be more an evolution than a revolution, which is why he said CloudCO places a strong emphasis on coexistence.

“We want to take elements that are currently used in the current multi-service broadband network and we want to be able to use those elements in this new SDN and NFV world,” he said. “The journey to SDN isn’t a one and done journey, it’s a migration toward it.”