Telecommunications providers, looking for ways to reduce costs and differentiate themselves in a competitive arena, are racing toward automated service provisioning and management services.
The move, being made by the likes of AT&T Corp., WorldCom Inc. and others, should not only put more power in the hands of carriers enterprise voice and data users but also result in lower costs for the providers and the users who take advantage of the self-service options, industry sources said. But the transition wont be without its rough patches.
In the first quarter of next year, AT&T will add a real-time, dynamic map of its IP network to its customer service portal, which will show the status of connections among an enterprises sites. Over the Internet, a customer will be able to see equipment and lines and be able to add capacity, change port speed and change T-1 configurations, among other things.
The map will display an alarm when there is trouble on any of the lines. One hundred customers are testing the map now, AT&T officials said.
The electronic service platform, called AT&T BusinessDirect, will also allow customers to place orders and check order status, check account information, send payments, reroute network connections, and perform electronic maintenance online. This year, use of electronic ordering has increased more than 50 percent, and electronic maintenance use increased more than 150 percent.
AT&T, like all telcos, is looking for ways to cut costs in the economic slump and must justify its limited research and development dollars by doing more for less, analysts said.
WorldCom, despite its financial troubles, has been adding functions to its online Customer Center. In the coming year, the bankrupt Clinton, Miss., carrier will add enhanced routing capabilities and expand the billing and payment options on the portal, a company spokeswoman said.
AT&T has been working on its automated ordering and provisioning platforms for about five years but has run into problems. By boosting investment in software development and improving processes, it has improved the platform.
In 2000, the system experienced 6,271 defects per million, which translates to availability of 95 to 96 percent. Today, the system has exceeded 99.99 percent availability, said Robert Sloan, vice president of AT&Ts eSales & Service, in Washington.
Rather than looking to other telecommunications providers to set the bar for automated services, AT&T is holding itself to the standards of leaders in other industries, including Dell Computer Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., Sloan said. While a commendable goal, analysts said AT&T will face considerable challenges before meeting it.
"Carriers [are] all still at the early stages of Web self-service," said Jason Briggs, an analyst at The Yankee Group, in Boston. "Running a telecom business is very difficult. Its not like selling PCs or packaged goods."
Also next quarter, AT&T plans to add to the portal ordering tools with Wizard functions. Ultimately, customers will not have to deal with people at AT&T unless there are complex issues to address, Sloan said.