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MNOs: Why securing your mobile network starts with understanding your network ecosystem

Mobile networks are a crucial element of modern telecommunications, possibly even of the modern world itself. They are integral to so much of what we do – from calls and texting to navigation via map apps, online games, and various other services. Mobile network operators (MNOs), enable all these things. Take them away, and the mobile ecosystem collapses, like taking the trees out of a forest.

In short, mobile network operators (MNOs) enable a great deal of value generation via a number of products and services. Unfortunately, they often find themselves parasitized by unscrupulous partners who attempt to maximize their own value at the expense of the operator via various grey routes. Networks can also be used as avenues for fraud, frustrating subscribers and causing direct reputational damage.

In either case, the MNO’s role as a telecommunications and messaging conduit are exploited in ways that take advantage of its core functions. This is an important point: monetization is not about squeezing new revenue out of the value chain, instead, it is about receiving and protecting the existing value which is generated by the network.

Poor visibility

The problem here is one of knowledge: an operator rarely knows what happens to traffic outside of its own network. This leads to a corresponding lack of transparency about what happens inside the network.

Networks are connected to an array of enterprises, aggregators, and other operators. Anyone of which could take advantage of a contractual loophole or improperly guarded connection. Networks tend to connect to these players not directly, but through hubs, further reducing the visibility of where a message originated and how it reached the network.

Various grey routes can thus be created by clever message handling, violating network policy. International messages can be terminated as local messaging, A2P messages can be manipulated and sent via P2P channels, terminating at on-net rates, or sent via SIM farms to similar effect. Sometimes messaging can even be terminated cheaply simply because the operator does not realize what kind of traffic it is.

Of course, an operator also has to understand how these exploits take advantage of their network. They need to examine what traffic flows through their systems, and how; to get a clear picture of how the entirety of their own infrastructure works. It may sound odd, but clues as to what happens outside an MNO can be found within it – through diagnostic tests that reveal discrepancies between what is supposed to be sent and what actually passes through the network.

“GMS has always emphasized that the idea, and the trigger, for an MNO to start their Monetization project is not always the additional revenue, but the visibility they will get. The MNO should know their network: the traffic they get, the services their subscribers use, the volumes and so on.” - Dmytro Lytvynov, A2P Project Manager

The first step in any monetization effort, then, is gathering information on the whole operating ecosystem.

This includes both network diagnostics and market research, to get a clear picture of the multitude of factors affecting an MNO’s business. That’s where GMS comes in. GMS reviews the entire network, in all its aspects, from an outside perspective in order to build a complete, top-level picture of the network and how it operates.

“The first thing an operator gets from working with GMS is a clear understanding of businesses generating international A2P traffic and the real volumes of messages the operator should receive from them. If there is not enough traffic according to our calculations, then we immediately begin analyzing where the leak is.” – Sergii Sushchenko, Head of Firewall Operations and Network Testing Division at GMS.

Why mobile operators need market research

Why would an MNO need market research to understand its own traffic, though? The short answer is that it is not just the messaging environment (and how messaging is routed inside the network) that is important. To understand the circumstances that enable the existence of grey routes, an operator often needs to understand the regulations affecting the network, and those affecting the originator of the message. Adding to this are the contractual relationships between the MNO and its partners.

GMS performs a full market analysis of the legal and commercial conditions affecting an MNO’s international and national SMS messaging business. The aim is to get as full a picture as possible of the relationships in the local mobile ecosystem. This includes international messaging, which is why it is important to understand the regulatory framework affecting all parties. By identifying differences in legal requirements and penalties in the different jurisdictions a message passes through, an MNO can anticipate and address potential loopholes and gaps in its defenses.

GMS also applies its knowledge of existing partnerships and services (including a services database) to the question of message origins and classification. (For example: This kind of message comes from an enterprise: Why, after passing through an aggregator and two HUBs, is it then reaching the network through a P2P SMS route?) In combination with diagnostic tests, this helps build a complete picture of current and potential revenue threats, simply by increasing one’s understanding of messaging traffic and its likely sources.

Knowledge is power

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu cited the admonition to “know your enemy and know yourself.” The same principle applies here: when an operator knows exactly how they are being exploited they can take mitigating steps to combat revenue leakage and fraud. Therefore, an MNO needs several things in order to fully understand and monetize its network:

  • A comprehensive analysis of sources of inbound SMS messaging
  • A survey and thorough diagnostic of the network, including an analysis of all traffic metrics
  • The identification of its national and international partners, and the technical connections between them
  • An analysis of the regulatory environment, and the contractual arrangements with its partners
  • A clear understanding of the technical capacity of their existing Firewall platform and how it can be improved

“We have faced some cases when an MNO has one of the best Firewall platforms, but it’s not efficiently used, and the MNO doesn’t even know what it can do.” - Dmytro Lytvynov, A2P Project Manager

Armed with these, the MNO and GMS can spot messaging patterns that indicate grey route traffic and identify the source and cause. Furthermore, the MNO will have an improved awareness of their own technical capabilities. This allows the MNO to reassert control over its network. Firewalls can block suspect traffic, connections can be configured to handle traffic appropriately, and contracts can be amended to better reflect commercial realities.

GMS offers a turnkey solution that takes a holistic approach to properly monetizing traffic, and the first step is total transparency of the network.

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