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BACK OFFICE TRANSFORMATION - OSS/BSS: Building the Perfect Beast

Sun, 01/31/2010 - 7:55pm
Brian Santo, Editor-in-Chief

Every communications service provider must consolidate operations support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS) in order to start providing new services, plain and simple. The ideal would be to take the many separate systems most CSPs have and combine them into something that would far exceed the capabilities of the constituent elements.

BACK OFFICE TRANSFORMATIONSadly, OSS and BSS systems are not as simple to assemble as a Transformer Combiner – like Defensor, for example, the Transformer that results when Hot Spot, Blades, Streetwise, Groove and First Aid combine (even money says someone in your department has one on his desk).

Most major service providers still have multiple OSS and BSS systems that need to be either consolidated into a monolithic system or collapsed into a much smaller set of systems that function as if they were monolithic.

Doing so will allow CSPs to do much more of what the mere existence of bundled services implies:

  • The ability to consume the same title on multiple devices, including jumping from device to device and back
  • The ability to get similar functions on multiple devices
  • The ability to exploit the connections between services to create new features/functions/applications

Examples of some of this already exist. People can get the Web on their mobile handsets almost as easily as they can on their PCs. Caller ID on TV is now a classic example of bridging services to create a new service.

The ability to do more of that sort of thing, and to do it better and faster, is contingent upon seamless integration among the systems necessary to manage the myriad aspects of making them happen and to get paid for them – OSS and BSS systems.

More, better, faster is the main concern, but there’s also the question of how soon will it be absolutely necessary to be able to do more, better, faster.

STATUS QUO ALL OVER
Frost & Sullivan just surveyed more than 20 major service providers worldwide about their OSS/BSS systems for a report sponsored by Amdocs. Frost & Sullivan’s James Brehm was succinct about what he found: “Service providers are not ready. They must invest in OSS/BSS.”

OSS/BSS systems generally remain in silos – multiple discrete systems, each dedicated to one or two services, sometimes multiplied by the number of distinct networks in separate geographical markets.

That’s especially true for the biggest MSOs and telcos – the Comcasts and AT&Ts. They’re usually big because they grew through acquisition and, naturally, are still sorting out the hodgepodge of technologies they’ve accumulated, everything from delivery networks to billing systems. AT&T at one time was said to have had more than 100 different provisioning systems.

The problems are compound because the OSS and the BSS for any single service are frequently not well integrated with each other. “Most service providers have still not solved that problem,” said Arturo Pereyra, director of marketing and business development at Oracle.

Calling it a BSS makes it sound simple, but it’s anything but, Pereyra noted. Fulfilling a call from a subscriber to start a service may take 30 to 40 different processes. “Tracking all those to-do’s is a big problem,” he said. And if there’s too big a disconnect between OSS and BSS, that can have an enormous impact on a service provider. “If it takes two weeks to light up a service, that’s a half a month of revenue lost,” he added.

Rick Mallon, vice president of product management for Sigma Systems, believes the lines separating OSS and BSS are blurring.

OSS/BSS Chalenges and Risks

Having OSS and BSS systems that are integrated makes a big difference with a number of processes, including customer service. Before, it took far too long to pull customer data from multiple systems to figure out what was wrong, let alone get proactive about it.

The problem for CSPs of all stripes that have yet to consolidate OSS/BSS systems, explained Pereyra, is that “having silos keeps them from acting quickly. They’re still offering the same bundles as three or four years ago – the triple play, and sometimes the quad play.”

There are a few CSPs offering the expanded bundle of video, data, telephony and mobile (data and voice) services, such as Rogers in Canada. If a CSP is doing the quad play, it’s either accomplished the consolidation of its OSS/BSS systems or is far down the road toward completion of the project.

Those who haven’t achieved the quadplay bundle are working on it. That means that there’s only so much longer that it will be practical to delay finalizing an OSS/BSS consolidation. Why? Because after that, there are few, if any, obvious major services left to add.

Meanwhile, subscriber growth is diminishing as the market gets saturated. Where is growth going to come from? One of the few areas that might still possibly go up is ARPU. That means the development of more features and applications.

Again, that’s contingent on having supporting infrastructure in place, and it’s not there. Part of the reason may have to do with the competitive position of cable vis-a-vis the telcos.

Referring to the silo problem, Mallon said, “In general, the cable industry doesn’t suffer from it as much as the telco industry.” It’s more common for cable companies to have one support system for video and another for both data and voice – their two IP services.

From the cable perspective, there’s a lack of an immediate competitive threat.

If the telcos can’t move that fast because they’re stymied by their own profusion of silos, then for cable companies, solving a less serious OSS/BSS problem drops down the list of priorities. Toss in the effects of a recession on budgets, and integrating OSS/BSS infrastructure turns into a game of chicken – who’s going to react first?

The risk of delaying, however, is getting caught flat-footed, Mallon said. The flip side of the same coin is cutting off the potential for growth.

“You will save money in the long term, and you will be able to do that Holy Grail thing – you can roll out new products faster,” Mallon said. He cited the experience of one of Sigma's customers, Zon Multimedia.

Zon is a triple-play provider in Portugal, and by some estimates the fastest-growing CSP in Europe. The company’s big secret is no secret at all: At the same time it invested in network upgrades, it also invested heavily in OSS/BSS systems. That has allowed Zon to create new services at a pace its competitors, including Portugal Telecom, cannot keep up with.

If service creation and accelerating service velocity aren’t enough incentive, the consolidation of OSS/BSS has some lucrative potential for marketing and advertising.

“The best way to monetize new applications is understanding which customers will pay for them,” Pereyra said.

A lot is made of the fact that wireless companies have demographic data regarding their customers, an advantage when it comes to enticing advertisers, “but MSOs have all that demographic data themselves,” Pereyra noted. It’s just distributed among multiple systems, and therefore hard to get to.

DOING THE MIGRATION
Both Mallon and Stephen Hateley, senior product marketing manager at InfoVista, recommended getting information from the TM Forum, an industry association focused on improving business effectiveness for service providers and their suppliers. The TM Forum is a centransformation tral source for reports, benchmarks, best practices and standards. It has hundreds of members, including CableLabs, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Verizon.

The TM Forum is trying to look at providing service as an end-to-end process.

For example, Hateley said, “there are service providers that may have a performance application, a fault management application and a provisioning application, all of which are appearing in each of the domains of the organization. Often within the organization there is a team that looks after the core network with its own OSS applications, another team looking after the access network with its own applications, and then possibly a data center team using a collection of tools for server configuration and application efficiency.

“As a service provider moving toward a service-centric environment,” Hateley continued in an e-mail response, “you have to be able to step back and look at your environment as a whole. Service providers will want to transform the way they manage their operations so they have only one team that looks at service assurance end-toend. The same goes for provisioning. You don’t want different teams doing piecemeal provisioning within each domain, and then having somebody in the middle trying to put it all together, with everyone communicating over the phone. Then, instead of vertical silos, you have horizontal OSS silos – one for configuration, one for provisioning and one for assurance.”

He added: “If you have this orientation, it then makes sense not to have multiple applications monitoring performance across different domains. For example, if you provide an end-to-end service, and you have a customer at the end trying to get their residential cable service working, all the customer is interested in is if you are delivering their TV, Internet and phone services with good quality. If you have a diverse set of performance management applications across the access, core and data center domains, nowhere along those three different applications are you able to correlate and troubleshoot a single service to a single subscriber. So it makes sense to find a single solution that offers excellent comprehensive visibility across multiple domains.”

The TM Forum’s recommended OSS process structure is defined in its enhanced Telecom Operations Map (eTOM) model.

“The best way to integrate OSS platforms,” Hateley said, “is to take a gradual approach, perhaps with the introduction of a new service. When looking at the introduction of a new business service offering, for example, try to do it on a new consolidated platform. Or choose one of the platforms already in place and determine that it is going to be your primary platform for assurance (or fulfillment, etc.), your strategic platform, and launch the new service solely on that platform. Then gradually transition all your services across.”

Some companies settle on a BSS for a new service, then gradually migrate other established services to the new BSS.

Is it better to start with OSS or BSS? It will vary from one CSP to the next. Pick the one that serves the needs of the company, and each company’s needs will be different.

Cable operators have typically outsourced their BSS, Pereyra said. The problem is that the cost to change orders is unsustainable, especially as service velocity accelerates. “So we see a trend of cable going in-house, not through a third party.”

THE LAST WORDS
“Most companies understand where they have to go,” Pereyra said. “And they understand that they can’t afford not to do it.” “It matters,” Mallon said. “Guys who get it will profit. Guys that don’t will fail.”

“It seems like every service provider is in the same boat,” Brehm said. “They know they need to do this. Most OSS/BSS companies know it, too, and they’re looking for new ways to enable their client base. They’re all looking for new solutions.

“The industry is getting to the point where it’s on the verge of exponential growth,” Brehm continued. “You think wireless is going crazy? This is going to go wild.”

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