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Plug 'n play?

Mon, 04/30/2001 - 8:00pm
Michael Lafferty, CED Associate Editor


High-speed Internet access has taken hold in both large and 
small networks alike. Digital set-tops are being deployed by the millions. 
Video-on-demand is no longer a pipe dream, and operators have just begun to scratch the surface of interactive television.

There's nothing like success.

High-speed Internet access has taken hold in both large and small networks alike. Digital set-tops are being deployed by the millions. Video-on-demand is no longer a pipe dream, and operators have just begun to scratch the surface of interactive television.

Luckily, there are a growing number of provisioning companies that can help make the rollout of these new services and equipment not only easier, but more importantly, economical.

Bennett

Unfortunately, provisioning is not a process that can be confined, cornered and isolated from everything else in the network. In fact, says Ray Bennett, vice president of product management at Interactive Enterprise Ltd., a broadband software company, it's just the opposite. "(Operators) have to realize that to provision a single customer," says Bennett, "they've got to touch five or six systems in their headend. And, oh, by the way, any catastrophic failure requires you to have some ability to re-acquire all those modems in near real time without killing everybody's service."

Yet, the search for the right provisioning solution is not easy. Not only do operators have to venture outside to assess the potential provisioning solutions, they also have to turn inward for a critical look at the legacy systems they already have and give serious thought to where they're going and where they want to be two, five, or even 10 years down the road.

Provisioning steps forward

Time is not on the operator's side. Increasing competition from all sides is putting pressure on operators to be first to market with advanced services. While high-speed data is garnering the most attention today, other advanced services are following close behind–and it's only a matter of time before they overwhelm legacy service management systems.

"Cable operators are a little bit different than CLECs, DLECs or ILECs in what they're looking for," says Frank Lauria, vice president of business development for ADC's Software Systems division. "Most operators out there have SMSs (service management systems), and those systems are performing the billing, some order entry and other management capabilities for existing services that cable grew up with, i.e., video. And they're moving those capabilities toward data delivery.

"However, what they're challenged with now is even more advanced data services for DOCSIS 1.1. They're also introducing voice and other advanced services like VPNs. In doing all this, their existing SMSs aren't able to accommodate all this activity. For that reason, a lot of operators are looking to evolve their OSS/provisioning infrastructure."

Those upgrades provide not only a great deal of potential, but they also put operators face-to-face with some daunting challenges, given the fact the "old" way of provisioning just won't do anymore, says Bill Bauer, founder and president of InterTECH (www.intertech.com), a Nebraska-based broadband high-speed access and support company.

In the not-too-distant past, says Bauer, "You went into the provisioning server at the headend and you provisioned the modem there or you remotely accessed the computer with any number of programs.

"But, we're getting into this being much more of a business. It's out of the lab and actually into the real world where we're having a lot of problems. How do you manage all those modems? How do you keep track of everything? And even in the small systems, it was starting to get unwieldy when you had 100, 200 or 300 modems."

Bauer says it was also important that his company find a provisioning solution that was more understandable and useful to the industry's frontline troops. "We needed to find something that was more user-friendly to the less technical people, i.e., the customer service representatives (CSRs)," says Bauer. "And that's important because the CSRs are now becoming more of the frontline support. They're going to be taking the phone calls and they need to be able to find out whether it's the customer's problem, the computer's problem, or a plant problem of some sort, and then initiate the appropriate solution."

A DIY solution?

Frye

The cable industry's entrepreneurial, can-do, do-it-yourself spirit is never far below the surface, and provisioning is no exception. The people at Knology, a competitive broadband service provider in the southeastern United States, are living proof of that fact, says Bradley Frye, Knology's manager of data services.

"On the cable modem side of things," says Frye, "we've done all the in-house development and written our own home-grown applications to do provisioning. I've got a group of guys, a lot of them fresh out of college, and we just sat down and hacked out a bunch of stuff. There were three of us. It's really not that complicated."

Knology technicians use the Web to access the company's provisioning portal. "Today, the applications are all Web-based," says Frye. "We've made it ubiquitous, and as long as they have a browser, they can bring in the Knology provisioning application. At that point, they just type in the customer's address and basic information that would be required to provision that modem.

"It takes about three to five minutes to put the information in, click a few buttons, and the customer is ready. All you have to do is plug them in at that point."

Frye says the company is also examining possible retail sale of cable modems and is working with Netsurfer Inc. (www.netsurfer.com) to produce a provisioning CD.

Frye says the deployment of additional services will shift the focus away from its home-grown provisioning solution. "I think we're going to end up retiring our piece of the application and tying that into the billing system," he says.

"We'll probably have to write a couple of hooks in between some of the platforms. But I think our goal is to have less entry from a CSR perspective. Once they put (data) into the billing system, at that point, the services will be provisioned on the backside, without them (the CSRs) even having to go to a separate application. That's our main goal there."

Off-the-shelf solutions?

Bratulic

For those shopping around for a provisioning platform, it's important to look beyond the service that's getting all the headlines right now, says Robert Bratulic, director of marketing and strategy at Sigma Systems (www.sigma-systems.com), a service management OSS solutions developer. "When you buy an OSS or provisioning system," he says, "you don't want to buy it just for one service. That's because, as the telecommunications space has learned, customers are looking for bundles of services. In cable, that hasn't been a problem in the past because only programming was sold. But now, as they offer other services, the operators need to make sure they are not going to be handled by silos of provisioning systems."

Operators who look beyond high-speed data will realize certain services (e.g., telephony) and certain developments in the industry (e.g., open access) can have an enormous impact on provisioning operations and effectiveness.

As an example, Bennett says his company's work on a voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) trial has shown that the provisioning of a single voice line is not only complex, but can't even be fully automated yet. "You've got potentially 40 or more manual steps to be executed for VoIP configuration," says Bennett. "That's just a single VoIP line. We've reduced that down to about eight steps, and most of them deal with restrictions imposed by the federal government, like number portability, etc., that require some sort of human intervention."

Bratulic concurs, noting his company has been working with Cox Communications and its telephony rollouts. "Cable telephony merges two very disparate worlds–cable and voice telephony," says Bratulic. "With telephony, there's a whole bunch of issues related to regulations, business rules and service complexity that you have to know if you're going to roll it out as a service. Compared to telephony, Internet services are quite simple.

"In terms of the actual provisioning itself, one of the big differences is that you're activating a complex piece of equipment called a voice switch. While there is a certain amount of sophistication in setting up Internet access, I think provisioning a line card on a multi-million-dollar switch is a much more complex thing."

Meanwhile, the open access train bearing down on the cable industry has all kinds of provisioning implications, both negative and positive, says Abraham Gutman, president and CEO of Emperative Inc. (www.emperative.com), a network and service provisioning software provider. With open access, says Gutman, you have one or more third parties that can complicate an already complicated provisioning system.

"There's going to be an intermediary now," says Gutman. "So now you have to get your e-mail and Web capabilities from the servers that are owned by this intermediary. And this intermediary, in turn, will need to be able to, if I can put it politely, muck about with CMTS systems, etc."

Then, says Gutman, when there's a problem, operators are going to have to wrestle with a complication that many DSL companies have had to deal with as well. If there is a problem, whose problem is it? How do you track it down? Does the operator's CSR take the heat, or does the complaint go directly to the third-party provider?

Yet Gutman believes open access can also be a gold mine for operators if they face it, accept it and facilitate it, unlike their RBOC brethren across the broadband aisle. He says cable operators can follow the RBOC model and open up their lines, kicking and screaming all the way, or they can realize open access for the opportunity it can be.

A perfect example of how it can be turned to an advantage, says Gutman, can be found in cable's own history. MSOs buy HBO content wholesale and then turn around and sell it retail to their subscribers. Gutman believes it's the same with the content competing ISPs will offer.

"The opportunity they have," says Gutman, "is to make this really open and really easy so that they begin to realize that the externalized fees represent a way for them to really utilize their networks to maximum capacity. They can become not just people who have thick pipes others can use, but they can become wholesalers of content not unlike the content providers (that) are in the television world today."

Consider this...

Bauer says his provisioning work with Core Networks (www.corenetworks.com) has given him more control and information in other aspects of the business, too. A viable provisioning system, he says, can assist in inventory control and provide information about the number of modems an operator has on hand.

Trouble-ticketing is another area where a good provisioning system can help. Trouble-ticket pile-up, or escalation, has to be monitored as well, says Bauer. In other words, if a trouble ticket doesn't get taken care of within a specified amount of time, it goes to a top executive who will make sure it's resolved immediately, if not sooner. That type of proactive customer service that a provisioning system can provide, says Bauer, is absolutely critical.

"We have to start moving into that," says Bauer. "The Internet service is very different than the cable service. These (Internet) people are livid about anything that fails. I mean they just come unglued. While cable customers don't tend to change service providers quickly, Internet customers do it at the drop of a hat."

Over the years, operators have often invested millions of dollars in their networks on a variety of systems that perform a variety of tasks, whether it be billing, network monitoring or order management. In most cases, these systems are too expensive and too entrenched to be tossed out the door. Yet, a good provisioning system will have to work with them and other systems as well.

Feinberg

As a result, any provisioning system worth its APIs has to be able to work with legacy systems, says Andrew Feinberg, president and CEO of NetCracker Technology (www.netcracker.com), a provider of network inventory management solutions.

"Unless they are looking for an all-encompassing solution that can do (absolutely) everything a network needs to do, and I think most vendors recognize that's not possible, integration plays a huge part of the (provisioning) selection process," says Feinberg.

He also says operators should be looking for provisioning systems that are configurable, as opposed to customizable. The distinction, he says, can cost a lot of money down the road. Customizing a system, he says, means calling integrators or rehiring the system supplier to add a new service or product. A configurable system allows the operator to launch a new product or service internally through a user interface.

Sigma's Bratulic believes a system's "configurability" is something that will keep operators competitive, especially when time-to-market is increasingly important. "What you need," he says, "is an OSS or provisioning system that lets you go in and rapidly identify new features and services.

"It has to have a very strong object model. A powerful object model has a lot of services and features already pre-determined. You go in and point and click and select new features and services relatively quickly, perhaps in a matter of days, as opposed to weeks or months. If you have an idea and you want to get it out to the market really quickly, you don't want to be told by IT that it's going to take a couple of months to develop it, test it and roll it out."

According to InterTECH's Bauer, one of the biggest problems operators have is troubleshooting these new data networks. He says that despite the number of modems that have been deployed, most operators are "still in the infancy of troubleshooting. We don't have the tools. We don't have the knowledge. We don't know what we're doing. We're kind of shooting from the hip when the customer calls and says it isn't working."

Working with his provisioning provider, Bauer was able to build a historical log function into the provisioning system. According to Bauer, it's made all the difference in his trouble-shooting world.

"We don't need information every five minutes," says Bauer. "This goes and gets the information every half an hour. It tracks levels throughout the day and sees if your signal-to-noise ratio is going through the floor, or getting worse at certain times of the day.

"With a historical database, I can go in and pull up everybody on Elm Street, for example. Then I can go into each modem and look at the addresses, the corresponding graphs and any trouble ticket/maintenance records for the area. I might be able to see that we've had technicians out there this week, and that on a particular day, I notice that from one point on the street everybody started having problems. Well, right away, that tells me that a tech may have misadjusted an amplifier."

This ability to track modem performance, says Bauer, has implications not only for the data access business, but for the cable business as well.

"While everybody looks at provisioning as just turning on the cable modem, we've been able to build into it so much more than that. Now, it's an integral part of how we troubleshoot a plant and how we fix a customer. It gives us the extra tools that we need.

"I deployed my first ones (modems) in 1996, (and this) is the first time that I've really felt I've got the tools that I need to really do this business. We've been blind for so long.

"I work with the field technicians a lot, and they're the ones that are saying, 'We don't know what to do.' Now I'm feeling very good about being able to hand to them good, solid information that allows them to track problems down.

"Not only does this help fix our cable modems, it also really changes the overall quality of our analog cable service. That's because the downstream has to be right for the cable modems to work, and the more we know about the plant, the more things we're getting fixed, and doing preventive maintenance before things happen, instead of after something happens."

The bottom line

Provisioning permutations are multiplying on an almost daily basis. One vendor noted that since the telephone/DSL industry hit the skids, provisioning companies in that space have begun to look at cable.

NetCracker's Feinberg says whether they come from the telephony world, the software world, or wherever, it's vital that OSS/provisioning companies understand the clients they're working with. "Traditionally, a lot of vendors in our industry are focused on software development. They understand their (own) products, but what they don't understand is telecommunications and network issues that are particular to their customers.

"The ability of OSS/provisioning vendors to understand customer issues, to provide telecommunications expertise, to be able to define business processes that enable provisioning is absolutely critical."

Even more important, says Interactive Enterprise's Bennett, is the end user. In the end, provisioning has to be nearly invisible and certainly painless. "The operators," says Bennett, "need to be absolutely focused on how they can provide a really great experience to the user in the home. Don't buy into technology that limits your ability to do that."

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