In the world of service provisioning, impatience is a virtue.
"We live in a world where were not ready to wait for anything," says Russell Rothstein at HarmonyCom, an automated provisioning software developer in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Today, the average time to provision an order for broadband ser- vice is four to six weeks, or even longer. Our vision is to turn that six weeks into six seconds. This is the Holy Grail."
Point-and-click provisioning, drag-and-drop provisioning, plug-and-play, zero-touch, flow-through provisioning — the jargon changes, but the idea sounds the same: make the front end simple enough for even the dimmest customer service rep, field technician or end user.
But software vendors and industry analysts alike point out that focusing on the front-end interface is a shortsighted approach to fixing the larger issues that everyone in the communications industry is facing: cost control, delivery of new services at higher quality, realizing return on existing network investment and simplifying integration.
"We cant talk about point-and-click without talking about the complexity of the back end," says Ramaiah Narla, marketing manager at ADC Telecommunications in Cranbury, N.J.
Equipment providers such as Sycamore Networks and Ciena have been focused on "the provisioning story," says Lawrence Gasman, president of Communications Industry Researchers in Charlottesville, Va. "Everybody now emphasizes rapid provisioning. Its not a sustainable advantage . . . management is going to become much more important."
What is slowing delivery of new services? Complex support systems, unreliable asset inventories, silos of data and pokey work processes.
"[Operations support systems (OSSes)] are often more complex than the networks they support," says Mark Mortensen, chief marketing officer at Granite Systems, a service management software provider based in Manchester, N.H.
"The desire is so great from these carriers right now" to simplify both front- and back-office functions, Mortensen says, adding: "Theyve decreased their equipment budgets tremendously. Theyre sharpening their axes."
With its harmony web-based broadband provisioning product, HarmonyCom is on a path that Rothstein expects will one day lead to customers receiving the broadband service that they ordered before they leave the Web site where they placed the order. "This will be a reality within three or four years," he predicts.
Technology hasnt been the obstacle to instant provisioning. The technology exists, Rothstein says, but telecommunications companies havent had the will to deploy it until recently.
When a customer places an order for DSL, for example, "theyre ready to pay for that service today," he notes. If the provider isnt able to deliver it for another four to six weeks, "very significant revenue streams are being left on the table."
Complex services such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and Internet Protocol (IP)-based products are tricky to provision because they involve a number of tasks. Products such as Syndesis NetProvision automate a raft of service fulfillment tasks, including maintenance of the network fabric and the application of service parameters such as bandwidth, routing and access rights. Only when all of the back-office ducks are in a row can true flow-through provisioning be achieved.
More Bits for the Buck
At one incumbent carrier, the time to provision a DSL circuit fell from 40 minutes to 30 seconds, says Martin Steinmann, Syndesis vice president of marketing. Automating the process reduced the fallout rate — the number of orders requiring human intervention — to less than 3 percent.
Instead of a laissez-faire attitude toward satisfying the demand for broadband — Steinmann describes it this way: "Give us your number and maybe someone will call you back one day"— the carrier boosted its customer service figures, packed more bits onto its copper network and pulled millions of dollars into the revenue column.
Equipment vendors such as Ocular Networks have simplified their software interfaces for a similar reason: to take as much complexity as possible out of installing and maintaining optical switches in remote locations such as customer premises and unmanned central offices.
"They dont even want [technicians] to have to configure an IP address," says Doug Green, vice president of marketing at Reston, Va.-based Ocular. "They want them to plug the cables in, turn the unit on and leave. You want to make sure the equipment is smart enough to do it."
Green predicts enormous growth in the development of standards that smooth the path between different vendors and a service providers existing management systems. "Thats the big issue," he says. "We have to be able to play well together."
Even Mom Can Do It
One company, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Alopa Networks, has rolled out its MetaServ Platform element management platform for broadband service providers. The company, a division of Wipro, promotes a 30-day guaranteed implementation and a point-and-click interface for service creation, selection, activation and assurance.
"My mother is going to do her own provisioning. . . . Its a consumerproof product," says John Hart, vice president of marketing at Alopa. MetaServ also boosts efficiency among field techs and telephone reps.
Hart is looking for points of commonality among the markets various broadband players. From small cable operators to huge backbone carriers, the same themes resound: "How do I get new customers fast, and give them what they want? Once Ive pointed and clicked, did it actually get done? Did it get done right?"
Companies such as ADC and Motorola are licensing MetaServ for use with their own products, and both small and large service providers are signing up, Hart says.
Service Resource Management is another subcategory poised for growth. SRM systems both collect and feed data to other elements of the OSS and intelligent network products. Theyre designed to speed work flow through the "assign and design" phase of network management, opening silos of engineering data to other areas of the enterprise that need it.
According to The Yankee Group, creating a single database of a companys "network image" can cut as much as 25 percent of an OSS operating cost , reduce order fallout rates and speed delivery times for services. An accurate database can pare a companys rework rate by 10 percent to 20 percent, with concomitant cost savings.
How did networks evolve to the point that the network "as designed" bears little resemblance to the network "as built" and even less to the network "as is"? Blame the go-go years for fostering big demand, too much money and an army of overworked field techs, Mortensen suggests.
"When you have an awful lot of something, you end up not conserving very much," Mortensen says. Granites own research suggests that 30 percent to 45 percent of a typical network is "actually kind of lost."
In order to create that clean database, most companies have to go back to that most dreaded of exercises: the physical inventory.
Its not as tough as it used to be, Mortensen says. "A network device today is pretty intelligent," he notes. Equipment can usually tell its owner what it is, what service its being used for and what its connected to. Beyond that, nothing substitutes for an old-fashioned office sweep, especially when routers show up on the network, but cant tell you where they are in real life. "Its an incredible pain, and it pays for itself at least 10 times over," Mortensen says.
Consolidation and the current capital squeeze requires carriers to make maximum use of their network assets without decreasing quality of service. "The more changes the telecommunications industry faces, the more important it becomes for each service provider to know itself inside and out," says a new report from The Yankee Groups Telecom eBusiness practice.
The Yankee Group predicts that communication service providers (CSPs) are not only willing to consider the concept of single-vendor OSS implementations, they are ready to pay a premium for faster deployment and fewer integration headaches.
"Telcordia [Technologies], Sigma Systems [Group], Ceon and ADC/CommTech are all concentrating on the end-to-end prize — hedging their bets that CSPs desire a fully integrated end-to-end solution more than the separate best-of-breed components systems," says Sharon Ballard, an analyst at The Yankee Group.
ADC bet $185.5 million that end-to-end solutions are the wave of the future. That was the amount it paid to acquire CommTech, whose FastFlow provisioning software is being plugged into ADCs Singularit.e suite of OSS products.
"Adding FastFlow to the Singularit.e portfolio gives ADC one of the most comprehensive end-to-end OSS offerings in the industry," Ballard says. CommTech products were already handling more than 5 million lines for customers in the U.S. and Europe.
ADCs Narla, who worked for CommTech before its acquisition by ADC, says that many enterprises would love to be able to manage their communications networks, file their own trouble reports, and monitor and pay their bills electronically. That prospect, however, is "putting the scare in the service providers," he says.
The margins on plain-vanilla access arent high enough to give service providers an incentive to deploy self-service systems, but high-value-added services such as storage and VPNs are a different story, Narla says. And once a customer gets used to ordering, provisioning and managing accounts on the Web, "theres no going back," he warns.
"Theres a case for service providers to provide self-service provisioning, and the market is ready for it," Narla notes. "The technological challenge is how you tie all these things together. That is still a work in progress."