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Mikaël SchachneTaking a load off SMS

Intercomms talks to Mikaël Schachne, Head of Data Product Management of Belgacom International Carrier Services, about the company's involvement with the GSMA's Open Connectivity Initiative

Mikaël Schachne joined Belgacom in 2001 in the International Networks department.

Mikaël Schachne previously worked for Winstar Europe and Mobistar where he gained extensive expertise in the implementation of telecommunications networks in the fields of GSM, GPRS, Wireless Local Loop, IP and SS7.

After having successfully contributed to the development of mobile data services such as GRX, SMS and MMS Transit, he's now in charge of the Mobile Data product portfolio at Belgacom International Carrier Services.

He graduated from the Brussels University Applied Science Faculty (Belgium) as a Civil Electrical Engineer specialised in Electronic and Telecommunications.

Q: What was the challenge that your work with the GSMA Open Connectivity Initiative is seeking to address?
A: The GSMA launched the Open Connectivity Initiative to address needs of a mobile community which keeps on growing at a fast pace. Today, there are more than 2.4 billion users using over 700 mobile networks but all the roaming and inter-working traffic is managed through bilateral agreements between those mobile operators. Each mobile operator needs in theory to sign up to 700 roaming agreement and 700 networking agreements if they want roaming and interworking across the whole mobile community. In practice, individual mobile operators have on average between 200 to 400 bilateral agreements in place with still lots of coverage gaps, forming isolated 'islands'. In some cases, the volume between two mobile operators may be very limited and therefore the business case does not justify setting up those bilateral agreements. Mobile operators also keep on developing new services requiring upgrades of existing bilateral agreements while resources are limited. Finally, mobile operators face a lot of pressure to decrease the roaming cost structure, especially if you look at the regulatory situation.

Q: Is the situation going to get any better?
A: Looking at overall trends, the mobile community will keep rising and reach almost five billion users by 2012. Volumes for SMS and MMS will also grow in that timeframe and it is accepted that roaming users will grow and reach about 600m subscribers by 2012. So, all the issues faced by mobile operators today will continue and increase unless an alternative is formed to ease the management of the roaming and interworking business. That is why the GSMA took the lead in launching this initiative and trying to find alternative solutions compared to the roaming and interworking bilateral system.

Q: What's the answer?
A: The answer is that there has to be a new framework, whereby mobile operators appoint solution providers with whom they establish roaming and interworking agreements in a multilateral fashion. Solution providers would also sign similar multi-lateral agreements with mobile operators around the world and with other solution providers. We would transpose many bilateral agreements into a limited set of multilateral agreements. The GSMA's work on Open Connectivity has been launched in 2005 and a lot has already been completed since on roaming and SMS interworking.

Q: What has been done?
A: The SMS part started with a proof of concept which was successfully demonstrated in February 2006. Belgacom ICS took a very active part in order to successfully demonstrate the viability of the concept. After the proof of concept, more effort has been dedicated within the GSMA working groups to redefine the technical architecture , develop the commercial model and billing processes more accurately and release those in standards documentation. Once we defined all the specifications, we performed a full-scale trial which was announced in December 2006 whereby we had 13 hub providers and 29 mobile operators all interconnected through multilateral hubs. The commercial agreements were released before the end of 2006 and the review of the technical architecture was approved in April 2007. The self-certification process ended with the first round of having six approved SMS hub providers, Belgacom ICS being one of them. This was announced in January 2008. All the hub providers launched a service and they started interconnecting with each other. It keeps on going.

Q: How does self-certification work for the hub providers?
A: The GSMA releases a set of criteria that need to be met by the solution provider and then reviews all the answers, challenges them and finally announces which of the solution providers are compliant with the recommendations. That was a major milestone of the SMS work. The GSMA led the whole process involving mobile operators and hubs and make sure everything is correctly set in place. The same is now happening for the roaming part where a proof of concept has also been performed in February 2007. We are currently in the middle of a full scale trial of the roaming hub, in order to validate all the activities that have been done since on roaming hubbing within the various GSMA working groups.

Q: How does the Open Connectivity Initiative differ from earlier efforts?
A: Work on SMS interworking through multilateral solutions was launched in 2000, mainly in the US but this was chiefly about using IP connectivity between the hubs, highly regional and without any settlement between mobile operators (free-peering like). It was not a full scale initiative allowing any mobile operators to reach any other mobile operators in the world. It used proprietary technology and was only available through a very limited set of solution providers. On the other hand, the Open Connectivity Initiative includes SS7 and IP technologies, cascade accounting traceability and interoperability between the various solutions. Open Connectivity SMS Hubbing is now fully accessible by any solution provider. Nowadays we have about 400 mobile networks connecting those Open Connectivity SMS Hubbing providers. Out of those 400 mobile networks we have 130 mobile operators using the Belgacom ICS SMS hub solution.

Q: What are Belgacom ICS' USPs?
A: Belgacom ICS is supporting all the technologies - SS7 and IP - and fully compliant with the GSMA recommendations. We provide advanced reporting tools where mobile operators can track all the traffic being exchanged through the various hubs, online. We have also one of the largest coverage lists on the market, meaning that we have established peering or interconnection agreements with all the major hubs for SMS. So, through a single connection with the Belgacom ICS hub, a mobile operator can reach not only all the other mobile operators directly connected to Belgacom ICS but also the ones connecting any of the other major hubs.

Today we are also continuously enhancing the product such as adding more features on the online web reporting environment or increasing the spamming protection. We are also looking to enhance the election process to implement bilateral relationships over the hub model more rapidly. We keep adding additional mobile operators on our SMS hub as well as interconnecting other SMS hubs. It is all about reach and quality.

Q: How does your Open Connectivity Solution work with a Tier 1 mobile operator?
A: As an example, we did connect a major mobile operator in Western Europe having a large subscriber base of about 20m subscribers. They had many bilateral roaming agreements but a very strict policy in terms of interworking SMS meaning that they were looking to have bilateral contracts just for the purpose of exchanging SMS with other mobile operators. They had to sign almost 700 A.19 interworking agreements, the standard GSMSA contract document for such service. We came to them with our SMS hub solution in November 2004 and we provided them with an easy way to establish SMS interworking through a single connection and a single commercial relationship with us in order to reach all the African mobile operations and US based operators. The service was rapidly set in place and they did experience a traffic growth over 10 percent each month since.

Q: What about smaller network operators?
A: Every month, new operators are launching a mobile service in the world without having any roaming or SMS interworking agreements. Belgacom ICS has a customer in the Caribbean for example with less than 1m subscribers, with almost no roaming and no bilateral interworking. Within a few months, we managed to have them exchange SMS with more than 80 other networks through one single connection with Belgacom ICS. This is a very good case that SMS hubbing can help not only large operators having their own constraints like spam or resource issues, but also small ones who have no coverage at all.

Q: What next for Belgacom ICS?
A: Belgacom ICS is not only making sure that the mobile community keeps on enhancing its international connectivity using existing hubbing services like SMS, MMS and GRX but also is deeply involved in defining new hubbing solutions that will help mobile operators move forward when launching new services. Global reach should be available for any services. We are therefore already preparing the next wave of services such as Video Sharing, Push-to-talk, Instant Messaging, Gaming,.., all based on IMS, to be ready when mobile operators will starts introducing these services on their networks. But that is really looking ahead in the future because every day we keep on enhancing the existing services, adding more coverage, adding more tools, increasing the level of quality and reducing costs. Hubbing solutions are there to provide efficiency gains to mobile operators because they no longer need to sign, implement and trouble shoot every bilateral roaming agreement but rely on providers such as ourselves to take on all those activities with them for any of their international needs.

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