Life after the bandwidth bubble
In an ongoing quest to remain competitive, in recent years carriers have deployed a variety of new network technologies, including wavelength division multiplexing, to allow for vastly increased traffic capacity.
But, with the collapse of the dot-coms and no imminent "killer application" to inspire widespread adoption of broadband connections that absorb the capacity, the fixation of carriers with driving network traffic further and faster has been replaced with an imperative for efficiency and profitability.
This rediscovered emphasis on profitability has supported strong growth in the operational-support-system (OSS) software market, where relatively small investments can yield dramatic improvements in network use and profitability. Industry analyst RHK predicts that the market for OSS service fulfillment software — a small subset of the overall OSS space — will climb to USD4.8bn in 2003 as carriers turn to OSS systems for cost containment and revenue enhancement.
In the service fulfillment area there are enormous opportunities for improvement, given the highly manual nature of existing processes which leads to lengthy, highly error-prone service fulfillment cycles that do not effectively leverage network resources. Typically:
- Service delivery cycles range from 15 to 90 (or more) business days.
- First-time service delivery failure rate is in excess of 70%.
- Asset usage ranges from 30% to 60%.
In the rapidly expanding telecoms market of the late 1990s and early 2000s, excess capacity, easy capital and large support staffing masked these inefficiencies. When the market slows or stalls, however, these challenges need to be addressed with minimal staff and resources to keep costs low and maximise profit.
Since the telecom bandwidth bubble burst, service providers have shifted their focus from fibre exhaust to positive cash flow. This is where OSS enhancements come into play to provide significant financial and operational benefits at relatively low cost and in a short time-frame.
There are four areas within the service fulfillment environment where there are opportunities for efficiency improvements: order entry, design and assign, provisioning, and test and turn-up (see Figure 1).
Each functional step plays an essential role, and bad decisions at any stage can dramatically and adversely impact overall fulfillment efficiency and accuracy.
However, design and assign as well as provisioning are particularly prone to error and inaccuracies in network usage. During this part of the service fulfillment process, the resources to satisfy the service request are selected. Because network equipment and cabling are so expensive, inefficiencies here can impact profitability severely.
A large part of the problem in these areas is that, even today, service fulfillment remains a highly manual process. In the current environment, service designers receive a service request based on information extracted from the service order — another highly manual process. They then use maps or other visual representations of the service provider's network to help determine available resources.
Unfortunately, this information is often inaccurate, incomplete or out of date, so that service designers create a design that frequently has errors and must be redone. Given a typical error rate of 70%, they would have to create more than three designs for each service request. Not only does this add to the length of the service fulfillment process, it is also highly frustrating.
Given the high failure rate, service designers tend to focus on finding the first workable design, not necessarily the most efficient design. This contributes to networks with low usage levels. If service designers were provided with an intelligent tool that took a more up-to-date network snapshot and automatically presented alternative designs that fulfill the service request, along with business information associated with each option, they could focus on selecting the best option based on business guidelines.
The result would be shortened service fulfillment intervals, fewer errors, and higher network usage levels. A by-product of this tool is improved job satisfaction for service designers — they only design a service once and can focus their talents on selecting the best design.
Design and assign and provisioning are areas of focus for several independent software vendors (ISVs). Based on their internal analyses, they can save even tier-three service providers millions of dollars with a pay-back period of less than 12 months. Typically, an intelligent OSS automatically retrieves information from the service provider's database(s) of record — generally one or more inventory systems.
Next, it converts this information into a visual and logical (e.g. SDH/SONET rings) representation of the service provider's network. To fully automate the design and assign and provisioning processes, these systems must completely model all the equipment and cabling in the network, showing how each piece works independently and together, how it is currently connected, and how services are currently provisioned.
Once loaded, using the intelligent system to fulfill a new service request is a fast and simple process. A service designer enters the service requirements in an order-entry panel or transfers them directly from the order-entry system. For a SDH/SONET service, for instance, the designer can specify:
- ,li> The number of circuits required.
- The bandwidth associated with each circuit.
- Whether SDH/SONET restoration is required.
- Whether diversity is required.
- If all circuits must take the same path.
- The cost constraints.
- The delay constraints, such as hop counts and/or distance.
- The routing method, such as shortest path or least cost.
For most of these attributes, the service designer can set defaults ahead of time, minimising the amount of information the designer must specify for each request.
Once the service request information has been entered, the design and assign system provides the designer with route options in seconds, along with constraint violations for each option. This information enables the designer to quickly determine the best route or routes for the service request. Once satisfied with the selection, the service designer accepts the design, and it is turned into the necessary electronic or paper forms and work orders to turn up the service.
More sophisticated automated service fulfillment systems give service providers the opportunity to expand their service requests to include reservations. Reservations are not contracted orders but highly probable future orders. This capability enables service providers to reserve bandwidth for specific routes and customers.
For example, if a service provider and a customer were moving toward a contract and had discussed that customer's bandwidth requirements, the account executive could submit a reservation for the bandwidth under discussion. Once the contract is signed, the account executive requests the reservation be converted to an order, minimising the time for service turn-up.
A by-product of reservations is a significant reduction in expedited orders — the process to reduce significantly service fulfillment intervals to satisfy customer time-frames. Service providers could also expand the reservation capability, enabling customers to enter their own service requests.
Again, the end result is a reduction in the service fulfillment interval. From a customer-relationship perspective, this functionality would further involve customers in service fulfillment and give them a greater degree of flexibility and control over the services purchased.
Many service providers are well aware of the benefits that an automated service fulfillment system can provide. But frequently a major hurdle to incorporating such a system is the integration process. It is crucial for ISVs to select software architectures that can be integrated easily without requiring excessive changes to current business processes and existing systems.
For an intelligent design-and-assign system, this barrier is often lessened by highly manual, existing service fulfillment processes that reduce the number of systems that must be integrated. Figure 2 details a typical service-provider environment in which the design and assign process has manual inputs and outputs (i.e. paper in and paper out).
A service designer receives a paper order, enters the order into a design and assign system, selects the route, and receives the necessary circuit layout record and work orders from the system.
Over time, service providers may choose to transfer orders to the design-and-assign system and send the circuit layout record electronically to an automated activation system, achieving true flow-through service fulfillment. However, the decision to move to a fully automated process should be driven by service providers' business objectives and not simply the introduction of an intelligent design and assign system. This approach enables service providers to quickly leverage the system's benefits with minimal introduction costs while leaving the path open to a flow-through service fulfillment solution when necessary.
Not long ago, it was common to claim that bandwidth is "free". It is clear now that not only is bandwidth not free but, if it is not cost managed with the utmost care, carriers may find that achieving profitability is impossible. The need to manage the network with greater efficiency has put new emphasis on more sophisticated service fulfillment solutions that automate and optimise the process.
Well implemented, these systems can reduce service fulfillment intervals, reduce error rates, and increase network efficiencies — all in support of greater profitability. Crucial to the rapid and successful deployment of such a system are minimal integration requirements that do not alter current service-provider business processes. By introducing an intelligent design and assign system, service providers not only reduce capital and operational expenses and enhance profitability, they also increase customer satisfaction through timely and accurate service delivery.
President and CEO