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Enhanced customer care tools: New self-care solutions

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 8:35pm
Chris Busch, CTO of Incognito Software

Applying TR-069 to DOCSIS gear could make everyone’s lives easier.

Consumers are adopting IP devices at a rapid clip and want connectivity for them. But what if something goes wrong with that connectivity? Service providers have had little visibility into these extreme reaches of their networks. With the TR-069 protocol, service providers can gain that visibility and use it to provide some fascinating new twists to customer care.

Figure 1 - SubscriberCustomer comfort with IP technology varies, often by demographics. College graduates over the past decade may have become technically literate, if not savvy, simply by absorbing networking information common to their peers. In prior decades, experts were more likely to have held such information.

So while many younger cable modem subscribers and technologists of any age – including readers of this magazine – would have no trouble going to the local Web page of an Internet device to correct whatever is wrong or needs changing, most other users would find that exercise frustrating.

The other side of this equation is that devices lacking remote management from the headend are costly to support. It does not take a CFO’s acumen to realize that one less call to a customer service representative (CSR) is a dollar (or more) in the bank. Therefore, a reasonable goal for the industry is to make customer care portals less daunting and more useful for the average consumer.

HYPOTHETICAL USE CASE
To illustrate what such a goal would look like, consider for a moment that you are an average customer of the best cable operator in your part of the world.

One day, for some reason, you can no longer connect to the Wi-Fi access point in your cable modem. If you have Internet access from another computer, perhaps you will want to log into your cable account and check the help page. As a customer of this top-notch cable operator, you encounter a help page that displays what it knows about you, the services you purchase and the devices you use.

What may be enabling this page, which displays the status of the Wi-Fi device in your home, is the Broadband Forum standard known as the Technical Report (TR)-069 customer premises equipment (CPE) wide area network (WAN) management protocol.

Only a few years ago, TR-069 was still alien to cable operators, in part because of its origin in an organization whose membership comprised the industry’s competition.

Two years ago, however, CableLabs and the Broadband Forum built a relationship bridge. Over the past year, several large North American MSOs have endorsed TR-069-based remote management and monitoring. Cable modem manufacturers began releasing TR-069 firmware upgrades in 2010, and the most currently shipping DOCSIS 3.0 modems and gateways support the standard.

So it is entirely possible that someone’s DOCSIS cable modem-based Wi-Fi access device supports TR-069 – or will in the near future.

This standard allows your operator to gain visibility into the configuration and status of Internet devices that you use. Because TR-069’s data model is so extensive, the standard is able to expose virtually any conceivable parameter in a device.

In essence, this standard creates a layer of indirection. The vendor of a device is no longer meaningful in certain respects. Instead of using vendor-specific type, link, value (TLV) elements, as in traditional DOCSIS-based provisioning, TR-069 recognizes the similar or identical parameters that all cable modem devices implement – for instance, in the case of Wi-Fi – and uses them to manage the associated service.

Figure 2 - Information

So to return to our use case: You are looking at the help page and decide to reset your Wi-Fi password. A great benefit to an optimized self-care portal is that, while able to display device status, it can go far beyond simple diagnostics. All that customers need to know is their new password.

In whatever preferred language, the portal can engage the subscriber in a series of simple questions:

  • Is it a password issue?
  • Which one? Email, Wi-Fi, etc.?
  • Would you like to reset?
  • Which one of the following configured devices would you like to reset?
  • Would you like to commit that change?

This is a very significant change. A prior attempt to reset a password might have led to a frustrating encounter with a device-specific website or to a call to a customer service representative. By contrast, this optimized page provides a simplified end user self-care experience. Moreover, this same kind of simplified workflow also would accompany a request to boost a data rate, block or filter a device, establish time of day restrictions, or activate any number of other services a service provider may want to provide.

That is the customer-facing side of the story. Once complete, however, the submit function of this Web page does several wondrous things.

THE ACS CONVERSATION
The cable operator communicates with a TR-069 client on a DOCSIS modem through a management system known as the auto configuration server (ACS). It enables both safe auto configuration and other CPE management functions. A dozen ACS-related actions may accompany a single consumer-initiated task.

Behind the scenes, the conversation is more involved than asking, “Would you like to reset your password?” In the example above, the self-care website sent the ACS a series of requests to check the device status and then change a preshared secret value. In precise terms, that value translates into:

  • InternetGatewayDevice.LANDevice.*.-WLANConfiguration.*.KeyPassphrase-=wifipassword.

Figure 3 - ChangesEven before a customer checks a device status or requests changes, several steps are required. A customer care portal first needs an application programming interface (API) integration with the ACS. The portal then needs to convey the unique ID of a customer’s device, such as a serial number, as well as some value that ties a conversation to the subscriber relationship to the ACS, specifically to when a subscriber sends a command to the ACS to reset the device or change a configuration.

In the example of changing the Wi-Fi password, the request would enter the ACS by way of a “northbound” operations support system (OSS) or customer portal message. The ACS would then either immediately, or at some specified time, deliver a “southbound” message over the network using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) to the uniquely identified TR-069 client within the modem that invoked the password change. An asynchronous message, which needs not wait for a response, will reliably pass the information in Extensible Markup Language (XML).

Once the change is acknowledged and configuration stored, the ACS would return to the “northbound” communication to say it did what it was asked to do. That enables the customers to see refreshed views of the devices in their homes, with new Wi-Fi passwords ready for use. This use case highlights a further advantage of this standard, that in most cases it does not require a full reset for a change to occur.

MORE USE AND ADVANTAGE
The Wi-Fi example is a familiar use case today. Going forward, consumers will have many more occasions to invoke these new customer self-care tools.

Because DOCSIS 3.0 modems are becoming the platform for residential gateway devices, the kinds of services that could leverage the embedded TR-069 clients are likely to multiply, especially as these gateways expand into the realm of IP-based video. The advantages to client-ACS interactions could be twofold:

  • Consumers will want to check the status of, or change the settings for, their IPTV service, along with gaming, network storage, telephony or other data services delivered to the half dozen or more IP-based devices in their homes.
  • Operators will find ways to create and deliver new kinds of services to existing devices and ones that have yet to be invented or deployed.

Whether technically challenged or not, most consumers find value in simplicity. By supporting TR-069 in DOCSIS-based and other CPE devices, cable operators can facilitate customerled problem-solving and new IP services provisioning.

E-Mail: cbusch@incognito.com

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