There may be nothing more important to success.

Among all of the strategic challenges competing for network service providers’ attention, nothing is more crucial to success in the day-to-day battle for market supremacy than finding a way to accelerate activation of new services and promotions.

Network operators face unprecedented competitive challenges from a combination of traditional suppliers, such as DBS and telcos, and an ever-expanding array of consumer electronics entities and content aggregators that are leveraging broadband connections to deliver bundled and a la carte, Web-based content to the home.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that a growing number of users, especially young people, are choosing to use PCs, laptops, iPads, netbooks and other devices to get their entertainment directly from the Internet.

Operators are responding to their competitive challenges with major service innovations that promise to differentiate their offerings and increase their appeal to subscribers. Most prominently, these initiatives include the rollout of DOCSIS 3.0 broadband, TV Everywhere, value-enhanced digital voice services, interactive applications of every description, and a wide range of time-shifted programming options complementing an expanding portfolio of VOD movies and programs.

Such undertakings pose a major problem when it comes to service activation. Eventually the move to next-gen service and advertising capabilities will require major overhauls, if not outright replacements of legacy operations support systems, but operators don’t have the luxury of time to wait for such projects to cycle through, especially in light of the fact that many service providers have yet to even move in this direction.

Figure 1 - Click to ENLARGE image

First and foremost, service providers need to be able to launch new services quickly without adding layers of operational complexity to the workloads of back office system managers, customer service representatives, network operations managers and marketing personnel. Service activation processes where operators have to manually touch four or five operations and back office systems must give way to the ability to put all of the processes essential to service activation in play through one point of contact.

But so far, operators have struggled to implement the type of flexible, multiservice activation capability that will minimize the heavy lifting with each new service or marketing initiative. Setting up a more streamlined approach to service activation can be draining on staff resources, especially when the entire project rests on the in-house integration of myriad moving back office parts from multiple vendors. Even when operators turn to commercial solutions that purport to simplify implementation of a multi-service activation platform, too often they don’t find the benefits they’re looking for.

In some cases, there may be a great deal of customization required to make a commercially available mediation system useful in a given operating environment. In others, an off-the-shelf pre-integrated solution is too limited in scope with respect to the services and packaging models it supports. In both cases, operators must incur costs and consume considerable amounts of time to implement the modifications in these platforms that will allow them to proceed with new strategies.

What’s needed is a new type of multiservice activation solution that covers a far wider range of use cases without a tremendous amount of customization at the point of initial implementation.

At the same time, operators must have access to prefabricated and easy-to-build service modules and adapters that will allow them to perform the enhancements that will inevitably arise with new service and marketing strategies, with or without the support of the vendor that supplied the activation platform.

Operators must be able to launch and promote new services quickly and smoothly with a level of automation that prevents manual labor costs from undermining the bottom-line potential. They must be able to define services without worrying about all of the different details of implementation at every level of network and back office component integration. And they must be able to bundle services together and define what actions need to be taken as subscribers react to new offers.

Moreover, operators should be able to adjust to changing market conditions by allowing consumers who purchase operator-compliant set-tops, modems and other devices from retail outlets to sign up for services automatically through network recognition of those pre-provisioned devices. This means the service activation platform will have to recognize that device connectivity has been established and ensure that all of the back office and network components react not only to the service choices consumers make, but also to other choices, such as bandwidth desired, post- or pre-payment, duration of usage, etc.

These capabilities will become especially important as operators enter the wireless services domain. And, of course, to the extent retail purchase becomes the dominant mode of equipping subscribers with service access devices, the ability to activate services on pre-provisioned devices will produce substantial savings in device storage and inventory management costs.

In sum, operators must be able to centrally manage all services and service offers from a single interface that supports:

  • Provisioning of high-speed data, digital voice, digital TV, video-on-demand, wireless and any other conceivable service
  • Implementation of new services and variations on existing services
  • Activation over new types of networks, such as FTTx and mobile
  • Setting up multiple post- and pre-paid billing models suited to each type of service
  • CSR access to information confirming that services are activated as ordered
  • Marketing department flexibility to quickly implement and terminate special trial offers, usage incentives for one service tied to free sampling of another service, and any other incentive promotions the marketing department conceives
  • Accommodating new business models tied to consumer purchases of pre-provisioned devices
  • Service activation, content management and troubleshooting through end user self-service modules.

It’s instructive to see what one large cable operator has been able to accomplish with a universal service activation platform – in this case, the Incognito Service Activation Center – that fulfills these requirements in a modular architecture that lends itself to ongoing modifications as new opportunities arise.

Initially, this operator required service activation support for an advanced digital voice system based on a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) architecture that gave subscribers a wide range of self-service capabilities, including sign-up, activation, and choice of prepaid or monthly billing options. This meant the new service activation system had to facilitate communications across the Web interface through the back office to softswitches, and from the softswitch usage records to the appropriate billing modules.

Because the service activation system – off the shelf – was ready for use with softswitch architectures, self-service portals and multiple billing options, the only customization required was the supply of an adapter that allowed all of these functionalities to be implemented with the specific vendor softswitch used by this operator. As a result, the new service activation system was fully operational within a few weeks.

The service provider then decided it wanted to provide a highly flexible, userconfigurable gaming service that would allow subscribers to tie game usage to specific devices, with data rates to match. They would be able to choose their options online, and billing would be adjusted accordingly.

The operator found this was simple to do on the service activation platform, without requiring the addition of new functionalities. All it took was the writing of a simple JavaScript application to link the built-in support for class-of-service variations to the specific device categories and the data rates associated with those categories. Once the new service was fully defined and ready for provisioning, it took just two days to integrate the service into the service activation system.

Next came implementation of VOD on the same activation platform with support for a prepaid option where users could purchase a quantity of viewings online or at local convenience stores. Here, again, there were no enhancements required to support the billing tie-ins with third-party outlets.

The operator quickly realized the new service activation platform would readily facilitate marketing programs that link these new services together in various upsell promotions. The operator could, for example, offer free VOD credits to customers who took a certain bundle of other services during a certain promotion window. Now the operator is routinely devising new marketing ideas, which it can execute on its own with little or no support from Incognito.

Another example of this flexibility can be seen in the strategy undertaken by a Tier 1 operator that has recently launched services over new PON infrastructure. Here, the operator wanted to be able to leverage all of the billing, customer service, self-service and other back office systems used on its HFC network to serve customers on the new PON. It only took a few weeks to build the required PON adapter, after which the new subscribers were fully activated on all of the functionalities the operator had previously integrated into the service activation system.

The capabilities described here require a modular architecture that applies business logic to define service activation processes, resulting in the end-to-end integration of access network technologies, back office support systems and end-user devices (see Figure 1).

Specifically, such a solution manages the subscriber service activation flow through:

  • CSR interfaces
  • Billing integration and mediation
  • Integration with device provisioning mechanisms
  • Video headend integration
  • Voice softswitch integration
  • E-mail and Web space integration.

There may not be enough time or resources to replace all of the silos with the consolidated OSS that service providers have long dreamed of. But operators can take immediate steps to put in place a billingto-provisioning-to-customer service mediation layer that comprehensively addresses all of the service activation points for all services through one interface. There may be nothing more important to success in the increasingly competitive multi-services arena.