Long reads


Operating overload

The introduction of new services is continuing to put pressure on service providers to upgrade their back end systems in order to manage their portfolio more effectively. Farah Jifri reports.

As operators add more services they find themselves juggling the need to streamline costs while at the same time delivering the end-user experience that consumers demand. The resulting management challenges for network operations staff include implementing a back-office infrastructure that can scale with the incredible pace at which new services are developing and still incorporate sufficient flexibility to innovate.

Three dynamics

The three main dynamics that operators find themselves grappling with at the moment are: the need to adopt new business models that will create a shift in their existing billing relationship with subscribers; the growing demand from consumers to have greater control over their services; and the overriding need to reduce operational costs.

Each of these puts demands on OSS/BSS according to Alice Bartram, assistant vice-president of marketing, Comverse Billing and Active Customer Management. She explains that supporting these new business models requires ‘smart charging’ capabilities such as complex rating and charging, flexible bundling, content partner settlements, support for service transitions. She adds: “Subscriber expectations can best be met when all touch points have and understand the same complete, real-time view of customer information. Beyond that, enabling customer choice and control is becoming assumed.”

With this in mind OSS and billing system must enable operators and service providers to create new price plans quickly and efficiently, cope with an increasing array of payment methods and be easily integrated with any type of infrastructure.
Video is just one of the services operators need to work into the equation and customers have high expectations about quality and seamless delivery. “Providers need to be able to bill and fulfil orders in order to create the required revenue streams. Very often video services are ordered as part of a bundle of voice, video and data services. In other words, providers usually need to fulfil and bill for a triple-play service, not just video itself,” says Rick Mallon, vice-president of product management, Sigma Systems.
“In essence, OSS/BSS today is all about putting the subscriber at the heart of what the operator is delivering. This customer-centric approach, built on a future-proofed platform, means OSS and BSS systems can give operators a real competitive edge, and not be a hand-brake on future services,” says Tom Lybarger, assistant vice-president, OSS practice, Aricent.
The challenge according to Frank Ziaei, product manager, EXFO Service Assurance, is that as the boundary between the diverse range of services becomes increasingly blurred and interaction between them increases – the integration of call display, visual voice mail, SMS, IM and so on with TV, for example – the need for fully integrated OSS/BSS systems becomes unavoidable.

“The growth in these third-party services is driving the need for robust and scalable partner settlement functionality.”
Mark Johnson, SAP

Comverse’s Bartram also believes that what operators require is a unified approach to convergence, one that is built on a single data model for all capabilities, a single product catalogue and one operations and security approach across all system components.
As the growth of unicast services increases, this pressure on the back office is only set to increase and in the long-term, a unified back office is seen as the answer by most industry observers.
Stephane Bourque, CEO of Incognito Software believes the argument for an ‘everything on demand’ cable architecture generally means unicast service growth on the video side. “However we believe operators in the coming years will begin to see ‘everything’ on demand to mean all the applications for which they can bill and mediate for in the network to the customer,” he says.
Meanwhile, the demand for personalised value-added services and location-based services with geographic information servers (GIS) would increase with unified services, leading to higher revenue, explains Lybarger at Aricent. He adds: “Analysis shows that just by offering and upgrading the customers to high data rate plans actually reduces the ARPU per bit for the provider. This is in many cases acting as the trigger for operators to deliver new unicast services like VOD or IPTV. However, the integration ‘tax’ of a non-unified back office infrastructure is too huge to subdue any gains made in unicast services, such as the challenges in auto provisioning and auto activation when it comes to reducing the operational expenses.”
Clearly there are OSS and BSS implications to unicast, says Sanjay Mewada, vice-president of strategy, NetCracker Technology. “The on-demand and transactional nature of the two-way model requires a more capable OSS that can understand customer requests, understand the service experience, provide near real time data on availability of resources and networks. It will also require a more dynamic service and product catalogue,” he says.

Unified back office

Having a unified back office – ideally in the form of a single OSS system capable of handling physical and logical network resources, IT resources, home networks and end-user devices – will allow operators to benefit from significant cost advantages and service differentiation.
Comverse’s Bartram believes that almost anything that speeds time-to-revenue, removes complexity from the business and lowers costs will help new services make business sense. She adds: “A unified approach to BSS and OSS does all of these by streamlining order-to-cash  – or even prospect-to-cash if unification is extended to include sales and marketing – focusing on ease of use and removing data hand-offs and duplication.”
Without the presence of a unified back-office infrastructure, operators will find themselves having to juggle many different OSS systems for different parts of the network or technologies, integrate the necessary elements, and get the end-to-end management and views necessary for multi-play, two way services. “The costs associated with doing [all this] may well nullify any potential revenue gains [from these new services] – assuming such an integration can even be achieved to begin with,” Mewada goes on to explain.

“Providers need to be able to bill and fulfil orders in order to create the required revenue streams.”
Rick Mallon, Sigma Systems

In a multiplay environment, operators need to ensure that they get the back office infrastructure right, addressing issues such as service management, service delivery, asset management and customer management, while maintaining quality of service.  OSS and BSS infrastructure needs to enable operators to manage multiple disparate services within a unified framework. Back office systems also has to scale as operators look to build out service packages that pull elements from across their entire range of offerings.
As operators start to deploy services over multiple delivery media, it becomes imperative that the service infrastructure can facilitate the efficient management of content and control the re-encoding, transcoding and translation of content generated in one format and re-purposed for multiple devices.
As Mewada points out, although OSS and BSS are separate domains, no service – even the plain vanilla dial tone – can be delivered without a certain minimum integration between these systems. For example, when a service is provisioned, the provisioning system will inform the billing system, which in turn will trigger off the bill or a rating mechanism. When services are more complex, such as VOD, which may require real-time billing or usage based billing or micro billing, the level of integration would have to be higher.
“The bottom line however is that the success of such complex services depends on other more critical variables such as unique service bundles and content, service quality, ease of use and unique service experience,” Mewada says. “Keeping the cost of OSS and BSS integration low is an important criteria, but not a potential killer. One key aspect of keeping the OSS/BSS integration costs low – and thereby making VOD and other services more profitable – is making sure that both systems use standardised APIs and XML based schemas to make the integration faster, quicker and cheaper.”

Personalisation

As video applications follow other services down the road towards personalisation, this will require OSS/BSS integration, says Ziaei. “As the services move from broadcast/multicast toward unicast – VOD, time shifted programmes, network PVR, and so on – managing and billing will have to move to integrated platforms. Such platforms will allow service providers to cross boundaries that no longer are considered boundaries by the consumers,” he says.
The additional complexity resulting from the introduction of unicast services, as well as more granular offerings such as IP-based products, is something operators need to address sooner rather than later. As Ziaei points out, the lack of integration will make the support for new services far more complex. As new services evolve this complexity is only set to increase.
Bourque of Incognito Software agrees, explaining that with every new device delivered to the subscriber by the operator comes with it the need to provision the device based on the product the customer has purchased.

“There is an old saying in this business: ‘you cannot manage and deliver next generation of services using last generation OSS’,” NetCracker’s Mewada reminds operators.
An out-dated OSS infrastructure will just not stand up to the range of functionality that operators will need going forward he says. These include: managing IT infrastructure (layer three and above) from a single platform; device management; home networks; service abstraction to enable third parties to create services; and service assurance.
“Operators face a very real challenge in addressing the complexity of new unicast services without having to engage in a costly and lengthy upgrade of the whole OSS system. The need for quicker and easier rollouts with minimal disruption and without breaks in business information requires the OSS systems to be able to integrate with new network elements and applications without ripping and replacing the whole system,” explains Aricent’s Lybarger.
Service convergence often leads to the need for payment convergence, the ability to apply any type of payment method to any type of service or customer, such as prepaid, postpaid, and hybrid payment methods, points out Mark Johnson, global marketing director, communications industry solutions, SAP.

And by making use of a converged online charging system, service providers can reduce their operating costs while improving their customer relationships, reducing revenue leakage and allowing them to more rapidly change their business model to get ahead of the competition, he says, adding: “The need to manage subscriber spending is another factor. With new services, customers want more control over their own or their family’s spending, such as capped postpaid accounts or allowances per service type.”

Billing systems are traditionally impacted by the need to be more flexible, to be able to define more product and rate models for the operator, according to Bourque. It is sometimes the case that even if you can remove the complexity in deployment of a new IP device service offering to the consumer through integrated provisioning solutions, the billing system may be a roadblock to turning the new service on. Operators are looking at the billing systems and seeking way to ensure their billing platforms are not roadblocks to new revenue generation.
With service offerings like integrated telephony and TV, click to call visual voicemail, caller display on TV, IM and SMS on TV,  time shifted TV, place shifted TV, over-the-top services on both PC and TV, network PVR, video vault (network-hosted personal content) functionality, video on any device, IMS based unique identity (service portability) and targeted advertising all on the cards, operators have their work cut out trying to integrate them all as well as ensuring that the back office doesn’t become impossible to manage as a result.

“[In addition,] service providers are scrambling to offer video over three screens – TV, PC and Mobile. Subscribers have shown an appetite for accessing their content via whatever device is handy to maximize their personal viewing convenience,” says Sigma Systems’ Mallon. “There are a number of challenges to offering the same video content over all three screens, particularly in the area of digital rights. Nevertheless, a three-screen offer is compelling and is viewed as a key strategy in neutralising the appeal of over-the-top video providers.”
Lybarger at Aricent believes that it is no longer enough to maintain a silo-based approach to these services. “In the near future, operators and technology providers will face the requirement to not only still support services such as voice, data and streamed multimedia, but to do so on an ‘anytime, anywhere’ basis for users,” he says. “And if that’s not enough, the much higher data rates compared to previous generations will change the user expectations of the services and place even more pressure on the back office systems to support a truly compelling user experience.”

Convergence path

As operators move further down the convergence path, the absence of an integrated OSS/BSS platform will make for ever greater complexity, and the task of reconciliation between the services will be a formidable one, according to Ziaei.
Comverse’s Bartram adds that many operators deal with multiple services by giving in to the temptation to offer ‘flat-rate’ bundles.  “While this can help in simplification for both the operator the end-customer, this approach can result in an operator leaving money on the table, so that is a business issue operators have to think about and BSS/OSS systems then need to be able to support whatever strategy is chosen going forward,” she explains. She goes on to point out that service variety equates to fulfillment variety. Providing a smooth fulfillment experience to the end-customer with efficiency can only be achieved by a single system that is able to handle any service or network type and includes a workflow approach that can manage and track to completion the complexities of a multi-service order.

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As for the capacity of current OSS/BSS systems to cope with the pace at which services are being added and integrated, Lybarger says: “It’s certainly true to say that the current OSS and billing systems are capable of addressing most of the addressable services such as PPV, VOD and advertising that are being rolled out.  However, the challenge is in future proofing as the constant evolution in services is driving the need for still better optimisation as more new services are evolving.”
Operators moving to next-generation OSS/BSS offerings will have none of these concerns. Similarly when looking at IP and non-IP service delivery, the systems deployed worldwide today for almost every operator are doing this now, says Bourque. This has been achieved in many different ways based on the operator, and their choice of vendors and sometimes even includes a set of ‘in house’ or ‘home grown’ applications as well, he says.

IP and non-IP service delivery can easily be supported by providing end-to-end views of the underlying network and IT resources, keeping an accurate count of physical and logical attributes, providing deep understanding of dependencies and interworking and creating repeatable and re-usable services elements, according to Mewada.
Abstracting the services layer from the network layers and exposing service elements enabling “build once, use many times” approaches and enabling modelling and management of any device that may be used to deliver or consume such service is also something that operators need to consider.

Standards, as always, will continue to play a significant role and both Lybarger and Bourque believe that TR-069 standards used and defined by Wireline Carriers offer the ability to provision a wide range of consumer home devices and well as the gateway or modem device serving the customer. TR-069 is also set to be extended to encompass IPTV.
“With such a well-formed definition in the Broadband Forum standards for IPTV devices, cable is surely seeing interest in adoption of provisioning platforms capable of simultaneous Broadband Forum and CableLabs provisioning support. Inherently these provisioning platforms still require a centralised or common subscriber record to direct the product purchased with the IP device the customer is using,” Bourque says.
The trend is towards also applying this protocol to many other home networked devices like VoIP ATA, femtocells, powerline adapters, set-top boxes and residential gateways – thus enabling unified remote management and easier activation, Lybarger believes.

Fundamental differences

Although the lines between telcos and cable operators are increasingly blurred, some fundamental differences do remain. As Mewada points out, both types of operators face infrastructure constraints, albeit of a different nature. “The unique nature of cable operator infrastructure – shared bandwidth – requires a DOCSIS 3.0-like approach.  For telcos, the infrastructure constraints are different and therefore require a different treatment – such as TR-069,” he says.
One current trend amongst telecom providers has been to jump on the 4G bandwagon and extend the footprint with more fixed-mobile convergence services, specifically through new LTE and Mobile WiMAX networks. Providers like Clearwire in North America are going full steam at enabling Mobile WiMAX in new areas every week, explains Lybarger at Aricent. He goes on to point out that the approach of the DOCSIS based cable systems has been to increase the throughput (upstream/downstream data rates) to enable the new value added services like IPTV. Providers including Comcast are upgrading to DOCSIS3.0 to enable the much higher data rates and future proof their systems to support IPv6, enabling them to offer the IPTV and quad-play bundles more effectively and increase ARPU.
As far as video services are concerned, EXFO Service Assurance’s Ziaei says that telcos have accepted from day one that DSL is a common platform for IPTV, while in the case of MSOs, transition to using DOCSIS for video is still being debated and tested.

That networks will continue to evolve is a given. With the increasing trend towards consumption of third-party services, access to application stores and a whole range of other consumer interfaces, operators are facing increasing needs to manage transactions not only with their end user customers, but also with a complex ecosystem of service developers, content owners and advertisers, says SAP’s Johnson. “The growth in these third-party services is driving the need for robust and scalable partner settlement functionality tightly integrated into the settlements and receivables financial back office functions of operators in order to profitably monetise this new wave of revenue generating partnerships,” he concludes.

Tags: OSS