Amidst all the hype and hoopla about new broadband services swirling around the industry these past few years, there's been a small, but vital, revolution taking place in the back rooms and back offices of the industry. It hasn't received as many headlines as cable modems, interactive TV or telephony. Yet the success of those services, no matter how dazzling the core technologies, rests in large part on what's going on behind the scenes in cable operations around the country.
Cable operators are now facing what may be the most crucial test of their ability to compete in the deregulated marketplace. Operational support systems have become a lighting rod topic for operators who are in the thick of battle with competing service providers. Having the fastest modem in the market or the most dynamic interactive graphics around isn't enough.
Operators have to be able to deliver those services to the customer in a seamless, effortless manner with nary a glitch, blip or delay. And the complexity of doing that, creating an open platform that ties such things as customer service, trouble ticketing and dispatch, access control, automated provisioning, inventory control and billing, will be the determining factor in cable's ultimate success or failure in the converging marketplace.Bottomline reality
Simply put, today's largely proprietary management solutions won't work much longer. Jim Chiddix, senior vice president of engineering and technology for Time Warner Cable says the growing complexity of developing technology and the expanding number of services it supports demands a comprehensive operational support system (OSS) solution.
We're getting into a lot of complex businesses," says Chiddix. "And those complexities extend from simply provisioning them, getting them on the air, to doing diagnostics when things go wrong, to dealing with customer questions and turning customers off and on. That's what an OSS does, all of those things. And the systems are complex enough, that you have to do that in software with computer automation.
Traditionally, we've done all those things in a very manual kind of way. That's because our services and networks right now are relatively simple. In terms of provisioning, we make sure all the channels are on the air leaving the headend and we hook up customers manually by hooking up the drop. We do diagnostics by seeing where the phone calls are coming from. We use fairly simple systems for customer billing and support. And, up to now, we've made all that work.
But, when you've got cable modems, digital telephony and interactive TV, you've got a different world. If you get a call from a customer saying his modem isn't working, what do you? Is it an amplifier? Is it a problem with the customer's software? Is it a problem in the headend? Is it the database? Our traditional methods of approaching that just won't work.
We've got to have computers that look at all these elements of our systems and let us turn things off and on, let us do diagnostics, let us talk to the customers in a helpful way and let us get bills out."
Another fact that's coming home to roost in the industry is that proprietary solutions, in many instances, are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The drawn out, difficult effort to hammer out cable modem specifications is only the most obvious example. A similar change of heart is taking place in the OSS/network management arena as well. And that change is being spearheaded, and in some cases forced, on vendors by operators who are struggling for their economic survival against deep-pocketed telcos and utilities.Thinking smart
Competitive pressures on the cable industry have forced operators to get smart fast when it comes to developing integrated operations support systems. Computer technology has a number of advantages, not the least of which is consolidation. For example, while operators may have cable systems scattered around the map, computer management technology allows them the luxury of consolidating their management systems in centralized locations or network operation centers (NOCs).
Cox Communications Inc. is proceeding full speed on the construction of an operations center in Atlanta, spurred in large part, by the new competitive reality. "It's the new services that are driving it more than anything," says Mark Davis, director of engineering/telephony operations for Cox. "We've been able to get by without a whole lot of network management for cable TV in the past. But now, the times have changed where we'll no longer rely on the customer to tell us when we have a network problem. And with the telephony services and providing lifeline services, we know it's going to be crucial that we know the health of the network. It's the same with data services. It's a no-brainer that we have to have a network operations center in place."
Davis reports the facility is under construction and is scheduled to be ready in January 1997. The company issued an RFP and has compiled a short list of vendors. The decision on the management system should be made by the first of December. While the Cox NOC may not initially be the most comprehensive management facility around, it does have a formidable task and a lot of potential.
It'll be monitoring all the major network elements in Cox," says Davis. "Everything from HFC elements like the fiber nodes and power supplies, to things in the headend like lasers and receivers. (It will also monitor) the Sonet gear that will be hauling the telephony and the ATM gear that will be hauling most of the data. It will be looking at the data headend interface terminal and the telephony headend interface terminal. We will not necessarily be looking at the individual homes, even though we have the capability of doing that, we'll just be looking at major network elements.
Obviously, we won't have all the bells and whistles on day one. We'll bring things on as they become available. But we're looking for a package that will be capable of looking at all those elements and giving us the management visibility we need."
Eventually, says Davis, the NOC will be tied to other management services in the Cox system. "We have a separate group in our MIS department that's working on the customer care and billing systems (with CBIS - Cincinnati Bell Information Systems) which the NOC will interface to. Also our engineering systems, as far as doing capacity management on the network, that's going to be hooked together as well. So, we will have dispatch capability as well."
The NOC's initial focus will be concentrated on major system clusters in San Diego and Orange County, Calif., Phoenix, Ariz., Omaha, Neb., Oklahoma City, Okla., New Orleans, La., Hampton Roads, Va., Providence, R.I., Hartford, Conn., and Pensacola and Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. These clusters represent 85 percent of Cox' 3.2 million subscribers.Different approaches, same goal
Like Cox, a number of other operators have come to realize they have neither the time or money to totally start from scratch when it comes to developing OSS/network management systems. Three of the country's top MSOs — Tele-Communications Inc., Continental Cablevision and Jones Intercable — are the most rabid proponents of end-to-end management solutions. While they've each taken a slightly different approach, their commitment to modular, open interface management systems will probably make things a lot easier for smaller sized operators following in their wake.
TCI's SummiTrak system is currently in the process of being deployed. SummiTrak, like the company it serves, is a massive system that consists of 70 modules with more than 1 million lines of code. The system is made up of a number of task-specific systems including internal corporate voice and data communications, network management and monitoring, marketing and billing. Sadie Decker, TCI's vice president of advanced information technology, says SummiTrak's digital mission-critical network (for internal corporate communications) is complete and covers 12,000 nodes throughout the country.
The marketing system, says Decker, is being tested now and will go live by the end of the year. This system collects, stores and processes such information as take rates, subscriber counts and what various products are doing in specific markets. The billing system is being tested in Greeley, Colo. SummiTrak is also the billing engine for TCI's digital roll out (AllTV) in Hartford, Conn. And the SummiTrak pay-per-view module, reports Decker, supports 450,000 subscribers in Denver.
Network operating centers are being built to monitor TCI's headend-to-the-home cable plant. This will consist of three regional centers and a control center in Denver to be operational in 1997. "This is how we will monitor our telephony, our @Home and digital systems," says Decker. "What's going to happen, as we roll out digital, then SummiTrak goes right along and replaces the existing systems."
Another aggressive operator in the OSS/network management field is Continental Cablevision Inc., under the direction of Rob Strickland, Cablevision's senior vice president for information systems. Like other operators, Cablevision is in the process of finalizing the roll out of its NOC in Chelmsford, Mass. Strickland says that when he joined the company nearly three years ago, the NOC was a foreign concept in cable circles, but not in the information technology (IT) world he was familiar with.
When I originally came to cable two-and-a-half years ago," states Strickland, "not surprisingly, network operation centers didn't really exist for cable. There really weren't many products that had the capability of looking out across the proprietary interface that existed in the RF world. Those proprietary interfaces don't exist in the world of IT. So, we knew very quickly when we built the enterprise wide area network for the company, we would have to build a network operations center."
As a result of that vision, the IT staff at Cablevision quickly formed a partnership with the engineering staff to get the NOC up and running. As far as the management systems that will run in the NOC, Strickland is a firm believer in not reinventing any wheel he doesn't have to. A slight literary analogy helps Strickland explain his philosophy on developing management systems for Continental.
Let's say there's two sides to a bookshelf,' explains Strickland. "On the left-hand side you've got 'Build it'; on the right-hand side you've got 'Buy it.' We try to work from right to left. So if it exists and we can go buy it, we'd rather buy it. We'd rather not go and try and build it because that's very expensive and you have to acquire a core competency that you probably don't need.
What we're trying to do if we can't buy it, is perhaps we can direct it. That means if somebody out there is trying to build it, we tell them we want to help them build it. We don't have developers or armies of people that do all that. In fact, what we have are the vendors doing it for us. But, what we're giving them is the first opportunity and the first customer, and quite a big one at that."
Coming from the IT world, Strickland is also a firm believer in standard protocols and open interfaces. The proprietary mindset of the cable industry was something he was determined to change not only to assist his company's future growth and development, but that of the vendors as well.
That was the biggest hurdle we faced," says Strickland. "There are certain technologies, interfaces and management protocols that have existed for a long, long time that are just finding their way into the cable environment. We tried to find vendor partners that wanted to help us to solve the problem first at Continental and then roll it out across the industry."
Strickland says the company is working with a number of vendors to develop an OSS system where all the subsystems communicate and share information on a common platform. CSG Systems Inc. is working with Continental on its customer care and billing system (C2IT). They're adapting a product called Spectrum from Cabletron for network management and working with Cheetah/Superior Electronics on equipment monitoring. They are also testing Arrowsmith for fleet and workforce management solutions.
Strickland believes his company's efforts in getting these diverse vendors to work together will have a beneficial impact on the industry as a whole in reducing the proprietary nature of the cable beast. In addition, the vendors will then have the opportunity to tout their enhanced capability to communicate to other systems or applications.
Jones Intercable, on the other hand, has developed its own integrated management system through a wholly-owned subsidiary, Jones Cyber Solutions Ltd.(JSC). It is now in the process of rolling out the system in Buffalo, Minn. and then in Alexandria, Va. At the same time, it's taking it on the road for sale to other similarly challenged clientele. JSC's Intelligent Customer Support Systems encompasses customer care, intelligent device control, inventory management, work management & data collection products. The ICSS product line has been designed for convergence and has a residential telephony functionality as well.Meanwhile, in the marketplace
Operators aren't the only ones trying to fill in the OSS/network management gap. A growing number of telecommunication vendors are getting involved as well. GTE's Network Management Organization has recently released its WorldWin family of software products for communication management. The WorldWin product line includes InView for network operations, InService and InForm for automated services fulfillment and integrated customer contact, and InExchange, a mediation gateway for network message management.
One feature of the WorldWin product line is a set of published application programming interfaces (APIs). These APIs let communication providers' existing management systems or applications communicate and exchange information with WorldWin.
The company, says Randy Boroughs, director of marketing for GTE NMO, has designed the system to provide what he calls "one-touch service," a crucial selling point in the competitive marketplace. "There's going to be a big push for what we call 'one-touch service'," says Boroughs. "You touch the corporation once to get all your issues dealt with. That means you call into a company's customer service center and you can order new service, you can have your problems addressed, you can have your billing inquiries handled, all with that one telephone call. The set of tools that allows a company to do that is very, very important."
Boroughs believes that while some people may be taken by the individual management systems, they tend to overlook the importance of their integration with the other systems an operator has running. "You've got the one-touch customer care," says Boroughs. "How can you truly be one-touch customer care and turn on that new service if you're not tightly integrated in an automated fashion to a provisioning system? The customer care person has to be able to turn on the provisioning system, which has to be able to touch the network without additional human intervention. The instantaneous turn-on of services is a result of the fact that all these things are integrated.
Right now, in most of these companies, there is a big wall between the customer care people and the provisioning people. Usually it's faxes going back and forth, or some e-mail system. It's not an integrated system."
Another recent entrant into the market is Integration Technologies. It has introduced "model.it," a fully-integrated network design, engineering and management tool that documents the physical layout of the communications infrastructure in an industry-standard database management technology. The company has also introduced "field.it," a Windows-based, portable software tool that allows technicians to gather accurate field data about rack-mounted equipment in headends, central offices, equipment enclosures or remote enclosures.
The key, says Terry Poindexter, vice president of IT's OSS Group, is an accurate, up-to-date topology of the plant, down to the last amplifier or tap. Out of this, he says — network management and monitoring, customer care, provisioning, trouble ticketing and dispatch, access control, etc. — all else flows.
Our goal," says Poindexter, "is to look at what's the right technology to model the key pieces of information you need for the business. The key pieces you need in this business come down to three things. You need to know your plant or network. You need to know customers. And you need to know services. With those three things, you can run your business.
The challenge is getting those things modeled in the right information, coordinated successfully in your organization and being able to correlate information from one to the other."Sink or swim
This ability to communicate between individual management modules or systems is the recurring theme in all these systems. The days of 'I'll do my job. You do yours.' are over in the cable industry. It's all interrelated. And because it is, everyone in a cable network will either sink or swim together in the rapidly converging, increasingly competitive marketplace.
For those who would prefer to float rather than flounder, CableNET '96 is a great place to learn how to go with the flow in OSS/network management.