The motto of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is well known throughout the world thanks to countless TV shows and movies. However, that ambition: To Protect and Serve, could also accurately sum up the challenge facing mobile operators today. It is certainly a great motto for an approach that operators need to take when handling consumer data.

The issue they face is that the drive, especially by app companies, to protect customer data has seen them increasingly encrypt data prior to transmission. In fact, operator statistics show that as much as 60 percent of all network traffic is now encrypted, with some networks seeing levels of data encryption touch 80 percent. 

That encryption is designed to protect the consumer — and rightly so. It adds another layer of security and privacy by scrambling data sent over public network connections as it hides the information from other people while allowing the receiving device to decipher the message or content. The trouble is, in hiding the content from prying eyes, you also hide it from the operator trying to provide a service. That matters because if the operator doesn’t get enough visibility of the traffic it is carrying, it can’t necessarily deliver the highest standards of customer service.

The truth is, and mobile network operators are often strangely reluctant to admit this, the ability to ‘see’ what is travelling across their networks can provide the operator with a lot of valuable information. Of course, many believe that operators only want this visibility so that they can sell the information or more accurately target their marketing and promotions; but there is a much more basic reason why the information is vital — it helps provide the best quality service.

Imagine trying to stand in the middle of New York’s Times Square to direct traffic wearing a blindfold. Could you tell just from the noise who needed the biggest lane, who could afford to wait and who needed to be given priority? Operators that can’t see the detail of the traffic can’t manage the best delivery of the traffic.  

Unfortunately for the operator, all encrypted traffic looks and sounds the same. This means they can’t protect, prioritize, optimize or balance the network load effectively.  Look at it this way, the video you are attempting to watch on your phone may have been modified to a lower bit-rate or compressed so your device can support it — but if the data is encrypted, chances are this isn’t happening, and the processes the operator would take to manage and deliver that content correctly haven’t been applied.

Derek Canfield
VP, Analytics, TEOCO

This transmits itself to the viewer as a video that buffers for ages or is jittery to watch; or as an IP voice call where one party keeps breaking up; or a web page that simply refuses to load quickly. Even more galling for the operator is that the customer is almost 100 percent certain to blame the operator for the shaky connection, rather than the app company for encrypting the data.

The challenge for the operator is To Protect and Serve. To keep data protected but know enough about what is happening on its network to best serve customers. Some have tried Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), or even network probes to try to determine the nature of the traffic. Neither approach works that satisfactorily.

However, while DPI by itself does not reveal enough of the source material to maintain the highest standards of service, it can be used in conjunction with new real-time quality of experience and consumption analytics to build a far better picture. Combining DPI with these cutting-edge analytics solutions can actually enable operators to extract more intelligence from the encrypted data without compromising its underlying privacy.  

These advanced analytics solutions are built on the fundamental premise that 100 percent of network traffic will be encrypted. They use advanced heuristics and machine learning to detect apps that use encrypted flows, and help to build usage patterns that protect the network’s standards of service, as well as the standard being delivered to the customer. It’s not necessary to know what video someone is watching to monitor and maintain the standard of delivery —it is enough to know that the data stream is a video.

Improving customer service by having better knowledge of all network traffic, not just the part that isn’t encrypted, is just the start. By monitoring, understanding and analyzing sufficient detail of the network traffic, operators can protect levels of service and provide real-time insights into customer requirements and network performance.

Improving services in this way can also lead to targeted opportunities. Having greater knowledge of customer behavior —all while staying within the bounds of privacy — can help operators design services that meet exact customer needs, strengthen their own market differentiation and fuel the launch of relevant new services. In fact, gaining greater knowledge of their network traffic really can help the mobile operators to ‘Protect and Serve.’ And that has to be in everyone’s best interests.