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More than meets the eye

Mon, 04/30/2001 - 8:00pm
Angela Langowski, Associate Editor


As cable operators prepare to provide open access to their broadband
networks, they must zero in on a host of complicated operational 
and technical challenges, including preparing the back office for multiple transactions from multiple ISPs

The issue of "open environment" or "open access" to broadband networks has been simmering for a of couple years, and now pits ISPs against cable operators, with federal policymakers caught in the middle. It has now become not a matter of if an open environment will happen, but how it will happen. Multiple ISP trials by AT&T Broadband, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable are leading the way.

One of the most important things cable operators have to consider when preparing for an open environment is how to get their back office infrastructure ready for offering multiple ISPs when the back offices have been built to support just one ISP. What exactly does an operator have to plan for to get his network back office ready to support multiple ISPs? Who takes care of the customer when multiple companies are vying for their attention? What about standards–is there a way to reduce the cost of building new network back ends?

Multiple ISP trials

The Federal Communications Com-mission last year attached a number of conditions to its approval of the merger between Time Warner Inc. and America Online Inc. Because of those stipulations, Time Warner Cable is in the middle of an open access technical trial in Columbus, Ohio, while rival AT&T Broadband has just wrapped up a similar "Broadband Choice" trial in Boulder, Colo., with another trial set to launch in Massachusetts this fall.

In fact, Time Warner Cable Vice President of Network Engineering Michael Adams addressed the subject of dealing with multiple ISP access at January's Conference on Emerging Technologies in New Orleans.

"The biggest and more complicated challenge with open access pertains to back office system changes," said Adams at the conference. He still stands by that statement today.

The whole concept of open access has hardly blindsided the cable industry. Last year, AOL Time Warner issued a Memorandum of Understanding on open access, a document that was "ahead of its time and what started it all off," says Adams.

"Clearly, the most difficult thing for us and the most difficult technically, is the idea that (either) the operator can sell the service or the ISP can sell the service," says Adams.

In this "new world," Adams notes, the operator has to allow an ISP to make the sale, which will give the ISP an economic advantage, but will cause the operator to have to make the back office system work in a completely different mode than one it's ever worked in before.

The key to making this work, Adams says, is the creation of the business-to-business (b-to-b) interface, an electronic interface that supports several transactions. Time Warner Cable is working with vendor AP Engines on the b-to-b interface. The specification for the interface is open, so an operator or an ISP isn't limited to just using AP Engines.

Levine

AP Engines Senior Product Manager of Broadband Solutions Scott Levine says the whole point behind the b-to-b interface is to help keep the operator's systems in sync, because the operator is tying together several disparate network components in order to comply with an open environment. These components could include an existing legacy billing system, a next-generation billing system, a mediation vendor and a provisioning system.

"Once the operator starts to go into the open access environment, typically the first thing that he thinks of is, 'what hardware do I need'?" says Levine. "Hardware is the piece that people know, if I'm going to get into this, I'm going to have to bring my own provisioning systems in house." This is what makes the network different in an open environment than it presently is today, says Levine.

The b-to-b interface enables the MSO and the ISP to exchange the data necessary to confirm service availability, set up new accounts and activate new subscriptions on the network.

Time Warner plans to set up a central operations center to field customer requests and root them out to the appropriate system, whether it's to set up an appointment for a cable modem or set-top installation, says Adams. "The whole idea here is to make this as seamless as possible," he says.

The b-to-b interface will be added and tested during phase 3 of the Columbus trial, which is testing with seven ISPs, says Adams. Phases 1 and 2 of the trial have included putting internal interfaces together, notes Adams, and the goal of phase 4 will be to scale everything up for deployment.

Not to be lost in the midst of all of this technical planning is the question of who takes care of the customer when an operator is hosting multiple ISPs on his network. In this case, who is responsible for the customer? The common response to this question posed to operators and vendors was, "Good question."

"What we want to do as far as the customer is concerned is have them only deal with one company," says Adams. "We want to make sure there's no place where the customer can get into a kind of 'no man's land'."

Adams says the customer should know who to call for problems when he receives his monthly billing statement, which will have a phone number on it for whom to call. The party that makes the sale would normally do the billing, says Adams.

Another operator grappling with the issues of an open environment is AT&T Broadband, which echoes the theme of making the system as "seamless" as possible to the customer, but doesn't believe the operator or the ISP "owns" the customer.

Murcia

"Our emphasis when we started on this project has been on the customer," says Luisa Murcia, vice president of data services for AT&T's technical operations. "It's really our joint responsibility to make this transparent to a customer. We all, as an industry, have to be very careful not to put the customer in the middle."

"I don't think anybody 'owns' the customer," says AT&T spokesman Steve Lang. "I like the phrase, 'earning customers,' because one reason we like choice is that there are more people trying to earn customers that use our network in a choice environment than there are in today's environment."

Murcia also echoes Adams' point that tying the disparate ends of an operator's back office network is a difficult part of getting it ready for an open environment. "It's a complete change in operating environment because you now have multiple companies," says Murcia. "Everybody has his own internal system . . . The strategy is to leave everybody with existing systems as they are, but also develop a set of interfaces that are between those systems so now the information can flow both ways."

Murcia says the Boulder trial, which has 350 beta customers testing three different ISPs, is going very well, and that AT&T is putting a lot of effort into the provisioning part. In fact, the company says that the lion's share of the $20 million it has spent on the Boulder trial has gone to solve software related issues.

Network vendors

Working hand-in-hand with the operators to get network back offices ready for an open environment are vendors like Interactive Enterprises, CaritaSoft, Emperative Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta's SciCare Broadband Services.

Interactive Enterprises offers a product called Conexon, a broadband operating system that helps integrate applications over one platform, similar to AP Engines' adapter interface.

"Our broadband operating system ad-dresses this notion of provisioning, service activation and service validation," says Ray Bennett, Interactive Enterprises' vice president of product management. "By segregating the different network layers and functionally breaking those layers apart, we allow open access to be handled in a way that's consistent with all of the other practices in the operation."


Figure 1: A non-open environment back office architecture. 
Source: AP Engines

Belgian utility Electrabel will begin using the Conexon system to help roll out services to more than 500,000 homes, says Padriac Marren, Interactive Enterprises' vice president of marketing. Using Conexon, Electrabel will now be able to offer customers a choice of service providers and a choice of level of service, adds Marren.

A couple of transitions operators have to face when they move to an open environment is deciding which business model they want to follow and what level of control they want to give an individual subscriber, says Bennett.

CaritaSoft CEO Michael D'Eath echoes how complex it is for the operator in getting his back office network ready for an open environment. CaritaSoft's Customer Value Management (CVM) product helps the operator get information such as demographics about the customer ordering services.

"I think the challenge as the operator goes into the open environment is his complexity increases, and the number of different kinds of information they have to link up with increases," says D'Eath. "We provide a way to bring that together relative to the customer interaction specifically."

CaritaSoft's product would be an add-on component to the billing portion of the back office network. D'Eath believes it's important, especially when moving to an open environment, that the operator knows more about the customer so they know what type of service to sell them.

Besides the back office structure challenges, the operator also has to worry about protecting his revenue generating-capability, while opening up his network to competing ISPs. This begs the question, should a back office structure be standardized for an open environment?

Gutman

Emperative CEO Abraham Gutman doesn't think so. In fact, he emphatically says adopting standards would essentially kill an operator's prospect of being unique, attracting better ISPs and, therefore, generating more revenue.

"Forcing MSOs to have a single kind of interface, the whole idea that there will be a standard open access API, (applications program interface) is a complete and totally ludicrous approach to this problem," says Gutman.

Gutman says there are people pushing Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs) to create a standard for an open environment. In fact, AP Engines submitted the company's b-to-b interface to CableLabs as part of its multiple ISP standard.

CableLabs Senior Vice President of Communications Mike Schwartz says CableLabs has begun a project to look at interfaces for back office–but adds that it's early in the process.

AT&T is also working with CableLabs and other MSOs to come up with a set of generic specifications for the cable industry, says Murcia.

Gutman considers himself the contrarian in this standards argument and believes operators can still satisfy possible open environment requirements while still preserving their unique revenue generating ability.

Emperative offers a product called Cable Modem Express that helps operators distribute multiple ISP addresses.

Operators may also have to consider how to control their content in an open environment.

Sherita Ceasar, vice president of the general management subscriber network for Scientific-Atlanta's SciCare Broadband Services division, says AOL Time Warner will have to address the issue of controlled access back to its portal. The company won't necessarily want open access to the Internet so it doesn't lose the customer.

SciCare is providing services that would help operators manage their networks by using a three-pronged approach to help the operator assess the baseline of his network, optimize it for different services and then manage the new services through a management process.

Open environment minefield

Whether an open environment is thrust upon operators as a requirement by the FCC, such as what happened with the AOL Time Warner merger, or operators voluntarily decide to do it, a la AT&T's "Broadband Choice," operators will still have to navigate a minefield of issues including getting their back office network technically ready to offer multiple transactions by multiple ISPs. This can only be accomplished by tying disparate ends of their network together with the help of different vendors, dealing with how to take care of the customer when it's not so clear-cut who the customer belongs to, and the potential for confusion that introducing standards might bring. Everyone from the operator to the vendor has an opinion of how to make the open environment picture less muddy. In the meantime, trials by Time Warner Cable, AT&T Broadband and others promise to provide answers to these questions sooner.


Figure 2: An open environment back office architecture. Source: Time Warner Cable

E-mail: Alangowski@cahners.com

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