RBOCs balk at perceived OSS shortcomings

Th Verizonphoto

Market researcher Dittberner Associates (Bethesda, MD) recently issued a report claiming that problems related to operational support systems (OSSs) may delay the deployment of triple play services among major U.S. carriers. However, an informal survey of the RBOC trio of Verizon, SBC, and BellSouth reveals that all expect to meet their anticipated service delivery schedules. Verizon is especially bullish that its new homegrown OSS suite will be robust enough to handle mass-market delivery.

When people look at the triple play market, they assume all the requisite technology pieces are already in place, contends Dan Baker, research director of Dittberner’s OSS/BSS (business-support-system) KnowledgeBase program. Carriers are building out networks. They’ve delivered voice and data services, and television has been around for a long time. They have an existing OSS. “But what people don’t seem to see is that you have to pull all those together into a fully integrated solution to make it work, and there’s where the OSS problems kind of come to a head,” says Baker.Th Verizonphoto

Verizon representatives claim they have overcome any challenges that operational support systems may have presented in the delivery of triple play services. The carrier began delivering voice, data, and video to residential consumers in Keller, TX, in September.

If the traditional telephone carriers have any hope of beating the cable providers to market, he reasons, they will require a robust OSS that can support more than just the basic telephony offering. “It must have features built into it like real time charging engines so you can bill things on the fly,” he explains. “It will need hooks to customer relationship management so you are able to determine that such and such household is ordering a lot of these types of things and therefore you should send them an offer across that channel for this type of program or movie.”

According to Dittberner’s report, “OSS Systems for Triple Play Services,” legacy systems fall short in the areas of quality of service and trouble management, service activation, interconnect assurance, and video set-top monitoring. Today, there are hundreds of people behind the scenes who handle the provisioning, trouble management, and related OSS functions to enable service delivery, notes Baker. It is often a manually intensive-and expensive-process. “Yes, you can deploy these services, but if SBC and Verizon hope to scale to the millions and millions of subscribers, that’s going to be a tremendous cost and will take some time to iron out,” he says. “Traditionally in these OSS environments, you start manually and gradually work up to the point where you say, ‘We can no longer do this manually anymore.’ At a very large carrier, the scalability problem is really going to bite them early in the cycle.

For his part, Baker maintains that most of the third-party OSSs are still very much in the R&D phase. “This is the equivalent of a moon shot for the telcos,” he says. “They’ve never introduced something so complex. How do you expect to get all the system integration issues managed properly if you don’t give it enough time to test it?” he muses.

The folks at Verizon bristle at such talk. They maintain that the development of a new OSS suite was a critical component of Verizon’s FTTP initiative from day one. “Before we got to triple play, when we launched the FTTP voice and data product in June of 2004, we had pre-positioned and designed an entirely new suite of systems,” reports Verizon’s Judith Spitz, senior vice president of IT.

The carrier has been using 40 new OSSs (some developed from scratch, some acquired via the GTE/BellAtlantic merger) to offer voice and data services to customers in specific locations since mid-2004. With the launch of video services in Keller, TX, this September, Verizon now provides full triple play.

From a service activation perspective, the transition to full triple play has been seamless, says Spitz. “We are taking a single triple play order in our ordering system-voice, data, and video with all the combinations you can imagine-and we handle that as one single integrated provisioning flow,” she explains. “We send out one dispatch technician to either add the video components if it’s a video add or do the entire installation, and then we generate one bill.” For service assurance, Verizon has developed a new strategic trouble management platform called vRepair, already in use for the voice and data portion of the triple play. “We simply created another kind of trouble-video trouble-with the appropriate attributes,” says Spitz.

Moreover, the carrier has also developed a homegrown line records system to take the place of existing Telcordia-developed systems. During testing, a carrier must pull each customer’s record to see which facilities the customer is provisioned on and what services that customer has ordered. Verizon’s new system enables a single integrated line order for voice, data, and video-something Telcordia systems cannot accomplish today, Spitz contends.

Verizon also utilizes an in-house test system known as Delphi, which is already performing voice and data testing on the copper network as well as voice and data testing, including Layers 1, 2, and 3, on the FTTP network. “We can test all the way from the home-in fact, inside the home-to our edge router, which is where we drop off to the Internet,” says Spitz.

She cites the recent addition of video to the service roster available in Keller, TX, as proof that Verizon “really has this thing nailed.” Rolling out triple play services in a limited geographical area is one thing, but rolling them out to millions of subscribers in a nationwide footprint is another. For her part, Spitz isn’t worried about the scalability of Verizon’s new OSS suite. “The thing that we’re really focused on is reducing fallout or increasing flow-through to as close to 100% as we can,” she admits. “As you scale, what might look like 2%-3% fallout when the numbers are small-that same 2%-3% becomes a problem if that’s the fallout rate when the numbers get bigger. The pressure to reduce fallout to close to zero becomes much greater.”

According to Spitz, Verizon’s flow-through provisioning process is designed to work as follows: No human being should touch the order other than the person taking the order from the customer and the technician dispatched to the customer’s premise. Everything that happens in between, including the order management, provisioning, and pre-activation (Verizon pre-activates all network elements up to but not including the optical-network terminal at the side of the house), is completed and tested by the automation system before the technician is dispatched.

If an error should occur at any point during any of these processes, the order is considered fallout. If the order does not fall out, says Spitz, then the Verizon OSS suite can complete the automated portion of the flow-through process from order-taker to technician in about three minutes.

Verizon maintains it is not using any Telcordia systems in its new OSS suite, which puts it in a unique position. According to Baker, Verizon is the only carrier with an in-house OSS suite (besides AT&T, which is now part of SBC). The others, including SBC and BellSouth, rely on third-party vendors to satisfy their OSS needs. Though neither SBC nor BellSouth were as forthcoming about their specific OSS plans as Verizon, both confirmed they are not anticipating any delays in their triple play deployment as a result of OSS problems.

“OSS/BSS are a critical factor in any mass market deployment of new services,” wrote BellSouth spokesman Brent Fowler in an emailed response. “BellSouth already has deployed a region-wide multivendor MPLS network that supports multiple service offerings, so we have experience in building and operating next generation multiservice networks.

“Our approach is to define our target network and OSS/BSS infrastructure, and then to incrementally deploy both network and OSS/BSS components consistent with that architecture as the various components are needed to support specific service offers. This roadmap-based deployment approach allows us to deliver the services our customers want today, with an evolution path to the services they will need in the future.”

The folks at SBC declined to comment on their OSS plans per se, citing competitive reasons. However, they confirmed that triple play service rollout would move forward as scheduled. “In terms of our planned deployment for our IPTV service, we’re on track with our controlled market launch around the end of this year, beginning of next,” reports Denise Koenig, spokeswoman for SBC’s Project Lightspeed initiative. “Then we’ll be scaling the service starting in mid-2006.”

Even if the RBOCs are successful in delivering triple play services using whatever OSSs they adopt, the challenges are far from over. From an OSS perspective, the next frontier for carriers is service activation on demand, says Verison’s Spitz. Video on demand is the most common of these services, but others may include webconferencing, videoconferencing, and bandwidth on demand.

Under normal circumstances, consumers would not have access to a carriers’ provisioning system, says Spitz, but a service like bandwidth on demand necessitates this level of interaction. Provisioning systems typically allocate bandwidth on a one-time basis, but suppose a customer needs to increase bandwidth for two hours to support a videoconference. In this case, the carrier needs to be able to re-provision the bandwidth, maintain that level of bandwidth for the duration of the conference, re-provision the bandwidth according to the original contract, then generate a bill.

“This gets into a phrase that I started to talk about a few years ago, which is, ‘the systems are the service,’ ” explains Spitz. “The systems, meaning the OSSs, which we normally think of as back office, they become the enablers of the actual service that the customer is buying. This is the next frontier from an OSS perspective. This is where we’re headed next.”

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