EPC LTE Mobile Networks RFCs & Standards SDM Voice over IP

Basics of EPC/LTE Online Charging (OCS)

A glimpse into the complexities of prepaid billing (Online Charging) Diameter based networks.

Early on as subscriber trunk dialing and automated time-based charging was introduced to phone networks, engineers were faced with a problem from Payphones.

Previously a call had been a fixed price, once the caller put in their coins, if they put in enough coins, they could dial and stay on the line as long as they wanted.

But as the length of calls began to be metered, it means if I put $3 of coins into the payphone, and make a call to a destination that costs $1 per minute, then I should only be allowed to have a 3 minute long phone call, and the call should be cutoff before the 4th minute, as I would have used all my available credit.

Conversely if I put $3 into the Payphone and only call a $1 per minute destination for 2 minutes, I should get $1 refunded at the end of my call.

We see the exact same problem with prepaid subscribers on IMS Networks, and it’s solved in much the same way.

In LTE/EPC Networks, Diameter is used for all our credit control, with all online charging based on the Ro interface. So let’s take a look at how this works and what goes on.

Generic 3GPP Online Charging Architecture

3GPP defines a generic 3GPP Online charging architecture, that’s used by IMS for Credit Control of prepaid subscribers, but also for prepaid metering of data usage, other volume based flows, as well as event-based charging like SMS and MMS.

Network functions that handle chargeable services (like the data transferred through a P-GW or calls through a S-CSCF) contain a Charging Trigger Function (CTF) (While reading the specifications, you may be left thinking that the Charging Trigger Function is a separate entity, but more often than not, the CTF is built into the network element as an interface).

The CTF is a Diameter application that generates requests to the Online Charging Function (OCF) to be granted resources for the session / call / data flow, the subscriber wants to use, prior to granting them the service.

So network elements that need to charge for services in realtime contain a Charging Trigger Function (CTF) which in turn talks to an Online Charging Function (OCF) which typically is part of an Online Charging System (AKA OCS).

For example when a subscriber turns on their phone and a GTP session is setup on the P-GW/PCEF, but before data is allowed to flow through it, a Diameter “Credit Control Request” is generated by the Charging Trigger Function (CTF) in the P-GW/PCEF, which is sent to our Online Charging Server (OCS).

The “Credit Control Answer” back from the OCS indicates the subscriber has the balance needed to use data services, and specifies how much data up and down the subscriber has been granted to use.

The P-GW/PCEF grants service to the subscriber for the specified amount of units, and the subscriber can start using data.

This is a simplified example – Decentralized vs Centralized Rating and Unit Determination enter into this, session reservation, etc.

The interface between our Charging Trigger Functions (CTF) and the Online Charging Functions (OCF), is the Ro interface, which is a Diameter based interface, and is common not just for online charging for data usage, IMS Credit Control, MMS, value added services, etc.

3GPP define a reference online-charging interface, the Ro interface, and all the application-specific interfaces, like the Gy for billing data usage, build on top of the Ro interface spec.

Basic Credit Control Request / Credit Control Answer Process

This example will look at a VoLTE call over IMS.

When a subscriber sends an INVITE, the Charging Trigger Function baked in our S-CSCF sends a Diameter “Credit Control Request” (CCR) to our Online Charging Function, with the type INITIAL, meaning this is the first CCR for this session.

The CCR contains the Service Information AVP. It’s this little AVP that is where the majority of the magic happens, as it defines what the service the subscriber is requesting. The main difference between the multitude of online charging interfaces in EPC networks, is just what the service the customer is requesting, and the specifics of that service.

For this example it’s a voice call, so this Service Information AVP contains a “IMS-Information” AVP. This AVP defines all the parameters for a IMS phone call to be online charged, for a voice call, this is the called-party, calling party, SDP (for differentiating between voice / video, etc.).

It’s the contents of this Service Information AVP the OCS uses to make decision on if service should be granted or not, and how many service units to be granted. (If Centralized Rating and Unit Determination is used, we’ll cover that in another post)
The actual logic, relating to this decision is typically based on the the rating and tariffing, credit control profiles, etc, and is outside the scope of the interface, but in short, the OCS will make a yes/no decision about if the subscriber should be granted access to the particular service, and if yes, then how many minutes / Bytes / Events should be granted.

In the received Credit Control Answer is received back from our OCS, and the Granted-Service-Unit AVP is analysed by the S-CSCF.
For a voice call, the service units will be time. This tells the S-CSCF how long the call can go on before the S-CSCF will need to send another Credit Control Request, for the purposes of this example we’ll imagine the returned value is 600 seconds / 10 minutes.

The S-CSCF will then grant service, the subscriber can start their voice call, and start the countdown of the time granted by the OCS.

As our chatty subscriber stays on their call, the S-CSCF approaches the limit of the Granted Service units from the OCS (Say 500 seconds used of the 600 seconds granted).
Before this limit is reached the S-CSCF’s CTF function sends another Credit Control Request with the type UPDATE_REQUEST. This allows the OCS to analyse the remaining balance of the subscriber and policies to tell the S-CSCF how long the call can continue to proceed for in the form of granted service units returned in the Credit Control Answer, which for our example can be 300 seconds.

Eventually, and before the second lot of granted units runs out, our subscriber ends the call, for a total talk time of 700 seconds.

But wait, the subscriber been granted 600 seconds for our INITIAL request, and a further 300 seconds in our UPDATE_REQUEST, for a total of 900 seconds, but the subscriber only used 700 seconds?

The S-CSCF sends a final Credit Control Request, this time with type TERMINATION_REQUEST and lets the OCS know via the Used-Service-Unit AVP, how many units the subscriber actually used (700 seconds), meaning the OCS will refund the balance for the gap of 200 seconds the subscriber didn’t use.

If this were the interface for online charging of data, we’d have the PS-Information AVP, or for online charging of SMS we’d have the SMS-Information, and so on.

The architecture and framework for how the charging works doesn’t change between a voice call, data traffic or messaging, just the particulars for the type of service we need to bill, as defined in the Service Information AVP, and the OCS making a decision on that based on if the subscriber should be granted service, and if yes, how many units of whatever type.

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