European Communications

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Features

European Communications discusses the latest telecom trends with telco executives, analysts and topic experts viainsightful analysis, Q&As and opinion pieces.

FOREWORD - Hearing the call

The telecoms industry appears, finally, to be giving identity management the attention it deserves.  Lynd Morley looks at the most recent initiative 

Identity management is fast establishing itself as one of the telecoms industry’s current major buzzes, yet not so long ago, an article on the subject would have been considered distinctly left-of-field in a telecoms publication.  True, groups like the Liberty Alliance, formed back in 2001 by some 30 organisations to establish open standards, guidelines and best practices for federated identity management, have been attempting to engage the industry for some time now.  But while the industry could not really be accused of turning a deaf ear, it did seem to be distinctly hard of hearing.

But then, the gradual recognition that, in an information economy, trust is the necessary foundation for secure interoperability, and central to the successful realisation of what might be possible on the web, brought identity management front and centre for telecoms players.
Most recently, the ITU has announced its own Focus Group on Identity Management (IdM), noting that the use of multiple usernames and passwords represents a boon for hacking, identity theft and other forms of cybercrime, and is causing substantial financial loss amounting to billions of US dollars.  The ITU initiative, according to the organisation, is poised to offer a technology- and platform-independent solution.
The world's key players in IdM have taken the first steps towards a globally harmonised approach to IdM, says the ITU. Developers, software vendors, standards forums, manufacturers, telcos, solutions providers and academia from around the world have come together in the Focus Group to share their knowledge and co-ordinate their IdM efforts. The aim is to bring interoperability among solutions, by providing an open mechanism that will allow different IdM solutions to communicate even as each one continues to evolve.
Such a "trust-metric" system has not existed until now. Experts concur that interoperability between existing IdM solutions will provide significant benefits, including increased trust by users of on-line services, improved cybersecurity, and reduction of SPAM and seamless "nomadic" roaming between services worldwide.
Abbie Barbir, chairman of the ITU Focus Group, and Nortel standards adviser, explains: "Our main focus is on how to achieve the common goals of the telecommunication and IdM communities. Nobody can go it alone in this space; an IdM system must have global acceptance. There is now a common understanding that we can achieve this goal."
IdM promises to reduce the need for multiple user names and passwords for each service used, while maintaining privacy of personal information. A global IdM solution should also help diminish identity theft and fraud. Further, the ITU stresses, IdM is one of the key enablers for a simplified and secure interaction between customers and services such as e-commerce.
From now to July, the Focus Group will conduct an analysis of what IdM is used for, as well as analyse the gap between existing IdM frameworks now being developed by industry forums and consortiums. These gaps will need to be addressed before interworking and interoperability between the various solutions can be achieved. A framework based on this work is expected to be conveyed to relevant standards bodies including ITU standards-setting groups. The document will include details on the requirements for the additional functionality needed within next-generation networks (NGN).
Identity management, it seems, is at last finding its place in centre field.

CONTACT CENTRES - Close contact

The telecoms sector is one of the most highly competitive industries, with one third of its customers churning every year. So how can service providers differentiate themselves from the competition and minimise the impact of churn on the bottom line?  Ofer Yourvexhal explains how major organisations are meeting challenges head on through an integrated desktop approach that ensures consistent high-quality customer service

Customer churn is one of the greatest challenges for any organisation, and none more so than the telecoms industry. The mobile phones market reached saturation point some time ago and the plethora of pricing options, different service plans and new phone models available causes customers to swap suppliers on a regular basis.

The old adage that 'service sells' has never been more applicable and good customer service can help telecoms providers hold on to their customers and provide a value added service. Take, for example, the news that UK cable giant NTL is acquiring Virgin Mobile. The Virgin name was favoured for the new company as it offered instant consumer brand appeal, but more importantly because of its renowned excellent customer service. So how can other service providers meet the growing challenge of Virgin's customer service offering? Answer? Through enhancing their own customer service.
High quality customer service
Traditionally contact centres have often been referred to as 'cost centres' and a necessary business expense, however, if used correctly they can have a significant impact on customer retention. They can add real market value and prove to be a successful business tool.
The key to keeping customers happy and ensuring that they stay with your company, is to provide them with the information they need, when they need it. This is often easier said than done. Agents frequently have to access many different databases to find all of the relevant information in order to satisfy a customer enquiry. The answer lies in an integrated desktop, which enables agents to access all the information they need through a single screen, including product details and availability as well as customer histories. This means that they do not need to separately navigate the many silos of data that may already exist within your business – freeing up agents' time to provide truly personalised service.
In addition to customer churn, agent retention is also a great obstacle to overcome for the telecoms industry. Research from global market research firm, Gartner, has shown that anything from wages to working environment can be responsible for staff turnover and with staff churn rates reaching a high of 60 per cent, and with the contact centre industry set to expand to over 37,000 by the end of the year, this churn figure will undoubtedly rise.
Agents are the most significant cost within a contact centre, accounting for up to 80 per cent of the overall budget. They are also its most valuable asset, and possibly the only contact that customers have with your business, so it's essential they are effective and reflect an accurate image of the organisation. Agents have a significant value and can generate additional revenue for your contact centre, but to do this, they need support.
The best way to help agents become more productive is to simplify the processes they carry out on every call, every day. Again thanks to an integrated desktop that provides a single view of the customer, agents are able to have all the relevant information at the right time. This enables them to optimise the critical part of the call when they actually engage with the customer.
Streamlining the first third of a call – which is needed for identification and verification, and so is not productive – also helps the agent to be effective. This should include ensuring that any information gathered in an IVR is translated to the desktop and put in front of the agent. When the agent actually takes over the call, for the final two thirds of it, they will be supported with that information so they can deliver a quality experience for the customer.
How should agents be measured?
In order to get the most out of their agents, businesses need to assess exactly what it is they are looking for from them. Every contact centre is different and will value certain metrics over others, so you must first define what areas of productivity are key for your agents.  If cross- and up-sales are KPIs, then measure those, but if agents have no involvement with sales, it is senseless to measure them. Instead, define what is important for each agent to achieve, whether its call volumes, average handle times, or first time resolution. Then the processes that are put in place can reflect these targets and make them more easily achievable.
Cross- and up-sales are a good metric to monitor in order to gain an insight into the productivity of your agents. It's obvious that the bottom line will improve significantly if every agent achieves an increase in these areas. The best way to enable agents to do this is to empower them with all the information that they need to do their jobs well. If an agent can access customer information – including purchase history – product information and special offers, all on the same screen, then they have all the knowledge that they need to complete these sales.
The important thing to remember is that agent and customer churn happens and will continue to do so, especially in today's competitive market. However, by optimising agent processes and giving staff the right equipment to do their jobs well, businesses can see churn levels – for both agents and customers – drop.

Ofer Yourvexhal is Senior Vice President of International Sales, Jacada

IP-BASED INFRASTRUCTURE - Gateway to simplicity

Moving to VoIP and converged networking can be challenging. Organisations must take care to choose the right systems, processes and partners if they want to realise the full cost and flexibility benefits of these new communications technologies explains Guy Clark

A decade ago, life was very different.  The typical enterprise had separate voice, data and video conferencing networks, which were inflexible, expensive and complex to manage.  The growth of frame relay and ATM networks - both evolving point-to-point services – lead to inefficient management of the networks and their components.

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Multiple hardware and software vendors with multiple support and maintenance contracts added to the cost and complexity.  Few, if any, of the networks “talked” to each other and separate access was required for each network, causing costs to escalate. 
Although, generally, demands on data were much less onerous than they are today – it being the days before e-mail and more aggressive time-critical applications - if an individual application was slow to perform it was difficult to pinpoint the cause because there was limited visibility or control over activity in the network or bandwidth utilisation.   
Enter simplicity
Fast forward to today.  Businesses that have fully embraced IP convergence and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) have resolved most, if not all, of these issues.  Indeed, as companies look to focus more on their core competencies in the face of ever-tougher competitive and regulatory pressures, many now outsource the management of their newly unified networks and on-premise routers to an experienced solutions provider. 
Enterprises typically pursue two outsourcing arrangements.  Some customers prefer to manage the routers themselves and select a wires-only service.  This gives them a broader choice of vendors and a wider range of costs to choose from for customer premises equipment.  It also gives them more control over how and when they configure parts of their network.
Of course, this arrangement assumes that the customer is bearing the burden of all router maintenance and vendor interaction.  As a result, many end-users opt for a fully-managed service.  In this instance, the provider installs routers on the customer's premises in addition to providing ongoing maintenance, support and management – in effect, a true one-stop IP VPN shop.
A fully-managed solution clearly provides businesses with more control and flexibility over their network quality of service. This is especially important at times of potential congestion when it is essential to preserve a premium class of service for voice and video applications. 
One example of this may be when the CEO needs maximum bandwidth for a worldwide video conference.  Bandwidth can then be reallocated to the videoconference, while less important applications, such as e-mail and Internet access, receive a lower priority.
In a converged and unpredictable world, usage-based charging for bandwidth may be a viable alternative.  This arrangement can help businesses optimise the cost versus benefit equation.  Customers only pay for what they absolutely need on a fixed-monthly-fee basis and are charged for bursts of capacity over and above this as needs dictate.
The greater inherent simplicity of an IP converged network also should lead to significant cost savings.  This is true despite the growing emergence of e-commerce and overseas call centres, for example, which have increased network complexity with the introduction of new components into the network.  Although these additional components tend to increase network costs, it's widely acknowledged that businesses need to do more to be competitive today.
Having said that, there remains a clear cost advantage to migrating to converged technologies.

Application performance monitoring
Similarly, a single, converged IP service simplifies maintenance and, using a managed service, provides customers with a single point of contact.  Customers gain direct visibility into their network, so they can take control when they need to, and can provision, troubleshoot, control, monitor, and manage their provider's services and network.  For example, it provides access to bandwidth utilisation, creates and tracks trouble tickets for fault management and provides billing and other reports to enable detailed business analysis.   
This critical capability saves time, improves transaction speed, reduces cost and improves productivity, allowing end-users to focus on their core business. 
At the same time, service providers can use Application Performance Monitoring (APM) to help ensure that optimum performance is maintained across its own and customers' networks. 
Essentially, this means placing probes (on a temporary basis for professional services activities or on a permanent basis for constant management and optimisation) on both the customer premises and in the provider's network.  These probes collect valuable information from the packet headers and the packets themselves, and use it to provide intelligence on how each application is performing.  Packets are assessed in terms of bandwidth utilisation, jitter, latency and packet loss between various points in the network.
Each application has its own unique “signature” at the packet and header level, so it is easy to identify.  Reports can then be generated based on individual applications or application types, such as e-mail, web-browsing, SAP, or CRM.  Using a special algorithm, the APM software can even provide mean opinion scores to indicate the quality of VoIP traffic.
So, for example, if a customer experiences a delay remotely accessing a particular application screen that provides account details or experiences a decline in voice quality, it's possible to request a report - in near real-time - that shows how a particular application performed against key metrics during the period of sub-standard operation. 
Normally, 'bursting' among the lower classes of service wouldn't affect performance, but examining the relevant statistics may reveal that there was unexpected bandwidth utilisation by another application which may have been caused by an unauthorised transfer of an extremely large amount of data.  This could prompt the customer to respond by preventing similar future transactions during business hours or increasing bandwidth to enable the transfer to occur.
In the case of premium-class service (used for real time applications, such as voice or video), “bursting” is not possible if more bandwidth is required.  In this case, existing bandwidth needs to be reallocated among the various classes of service, or the customer needs to request larger circuits.  Another approach could be to request more bandwidth in the network core (if the access circuits already are over-sized) to increase the total bandwidth available to this premium class.
Clearly, APM is an invaluable way to identify activity in a converged network, yet it can also form an important part of a service provider's broader professional services offering.  The ability of APM to assess total bandwidth and performance requirements against existing capacity within a LAN and WAN provides a meaningful gauge to businesses considering implementing an IP VPN or IP converged solution. 
These are just some of the reasons why APM helps enterprises make informed decisions about how best to manage future business growth.  By analysing and projecting industry bandwidth utilisation trends, it's possible to determine when a business may need to increase its overall bandwidth or reallocate among different classes of service. 
Alternatively, by highlighting a dramatic growth in one application, such as email usage, use of APM metrics may prompt a decision to tackle the issue in another way, such as by introducing a policy of zipping large file attachments or encouraging staff to use shared folders that reside on a server as opposed to emailing files to each other.

Planning change     
It's no secret that good timing is essential to the success of any plan and implementing a VoIP migration is no exception to the rule.  The move to VoIP may be appropriate, for example, if the business has a tired, legacy PBX that needs a major upgrade to continue serving the business at current levels.  What if the business is relocating, opening new offices or rolling out a call-centre application?
In some cases, the objective may be to contain or reduce maintenance and management costs.  For other businesses, the overriding issue may be the need for additional functionality, such as unified messaging or the availability of presence-based information.
Whatever the objective, it's essential to view the problem holistically to ensure the solution meets the broader objectives of the business.  That's why it's important to ask these questions:
•    How do staff interact with each other on a daily basis?
•    Are they office-based or do they work remotely?
•    Does the business operate multiple offices across multiple geographies?
•    What forms of communication are used to interact with customers?
•    Do staff members typically face specific logistical issues, such as parcels or parts tracking?               
Having established these parameters, the next step is to design a network that would support the applications necessary to not only bolster the business today, but also help it move forward into tomorrow. 
Essential to this exercise is finding a solutions provider with the expertise and flexibility to understand the business issues, to help design a solution that maintains or reduces costs, and to provide the scope of functionality necessary for the business to achieve its corporate goals.

Open dialogue
Finding the right solutions provider for your business can be a time-consuming task.  Many businesses issue requests for proposals in order to assess the range of options available in the marketplace, what individual suppliers can offer and at what cost.
Unfortunately, this process can take up to a year or more to complete – precious time that many businesses can ill afford in today's highly volatile and competitive markets.
Engaging an experienced solutions provider can lead to an open dialogue about a business's existing network infrastructure, a discussion of end-user requirements and assessment of potential challenges the business may face during the transition. 
Enterprises also should consider other requirements before inviting a solutions provider to become such a fundamental part of its day-to-day business.  Is the systems integrator or communications network provider financially stable?  Does its network offer sufficient geographic coverage?  Has it developed a forward-looking product roadmap that provides flexible IP solutions?  Are those IP solutions supported by a comprehensive portfolio of services that address the business's needs? 
Put simply, does the solutions provider offer a truly 'one-stop shop' for today's and future networking needs? 
The past two years have seen a major shift towards IP VPN adoption.  And as the adoption rate of VoIP-based solutions accelerates, the market is gaining greater awareness and confidence in the benefits of this new technology.  Industry research confirms this growing trend, predicting a marked increase in the implementation of VoIP solutions over the next five years.
Clearly, in a fast-paced commercial environment in which agility and responsiveness define the fine line between success and failure, the network visibility and control provided by today's best-in-class solutions providers may be key to tipping the balance in favour of the business.
          
Guy Clark is Acting Marketing Vice President, Europe, Global Crossing

CARRIER ETHERNET - Anyone for Divergence?

Convergence is the plat de jour in service provider thinking, but like service charges in the small print, is divergence back on the menu asks Paul Gainham

There are many who believe that Ethernet should not have followed the example of a certain famous rock ‘n roll star in ‘leaving the building’; that as a technology, its home was the enterprise building LAN and that is where it should stay.

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But, following in Elvis' footsteps, Ethernet did leave the building, on a promise of lower cost, ubiquitous service transport in the eyes of many service providers. Certainly the early promise, on the surface, was appealing. Take predominantly enterprise-focused Ethernet switching products, add hardware redundancy and deploy in Service Provider Metro network areas to deliver 10/100/1000 Ethernet services at a lower cost point than other technologies of the day.
It is not being unkind to say that the first experiences of Ethernet in carrier networks were as appealing as a trip to a mediaeval dentist.  Quite simply, the basic technology was not geared to the levels of scale or reliability that carrier networks demanded.
Unbowed, the Ethernet vendor industry forged ahead, focusing its efforts on trying to correct the underlying issues by gradually introducing a raft of new protocols in an attempt to address Ethernet's fundamental issues of scale, reliability and performance.
Whilst these enhancements improved matters in certain areas, similar to a circus clown's car, these networks were still prone to unpredictable behaviour.
The key lesson from this period for the future is that 'good enough' is not good enough for service provider networks being asked to carry ever more critical, highly demanding voice and video services.  The service delivery benchmarks of the PSTN and television distribution networks are both set at an established, extremely high level in the eyes of end customers and this is the level service providers need to meet and exceed in the new “packetised” environment.
Exploring this point further, the demands on the packet network are changing rapidly from a predominantly data focused to a real time centric service environment.  Suddenly, the requirements for zero packet loss in a flow increase rapidly as there is no re-transmit option in voice or video flows. This drives two fundamental changes within the network.  Firstly there is the need to look at the network in its end-to-end entirety from a QOS perspective, instead of a hop-by-hop basis, to ensure real time flows can be introduced on to the network and handled consistently for their duration. This drives the need for an effective, scalable policy and control system end-to-end. Secondly, the routing and switching products at the transport layer itself must be capable of supporting real time flows (both unicast and multicast) at scale and be able to react rapidly to network changes or disturbances with minimal service impact to the real time flow.
So what's the answer?
MPLS (I hear the screams of the 'too' crowd – too expensive, too complex, too core centric, too MPLS!) has proven itself at the heart of many large, very complex and highly scalable service provider networks worldwide. Most importantly, it is well understood operationally in terms of service deployment and ongoing network management and provisioning.
A number of vendors are now beginning to see and promote the effectiveness of MPLS as a metro Ethernet network protocol, both in the data and control planes.  The reasoning and thinking is simple – a common control plane end-to-end that has all the resiliency, reliability and QOS functions necessary to provide a true carrier class scale network, capable of hitting the PSTN and TV service benchmarks mentioned previously.
Picking a vendor that can deliver the MPLS deployment expertise combined with the technologies and products capable of meeting those benchmarks is still a decision that service providers need to weigh up carefully as they migrate further towards an 'all packet' environment
Let's be clear, this is not a battle between Ethernet technologies old or new and MPLS as some Ethernet vendors would forcibly suggest. The technologies are mutually beneficial in the metro network, the control plane resilience and service plane richness of MPLS combined with the flexibility and cost effectiveness of Ethernet makes for a very powerful combination.
In a highly competitive and aggressive market, most service providers are driving towards greater operational convergence, not just network convergence.  Effectively they are looking to reduce the costs of operation associated with the network and the service delivery riding over it, not add additional complexity and costs.
A very sobering thought is that based on Juniper Networks estimates, typically, Service Providers receive on average one fault call every 14 years for PSTN customers, yet during the early deployments of IPTV services, this has been in the order of one every three months.  Whilst not all are attributable to the underlying network, quite clearly, this is not a sustainable business model and again points to the dual needs of reducing the operational complexity of the network whilst demanding the most stable and proven combination of hardware and software from network vendors.
At a time when many are beginning to see the benefits of combining the strengths of MPLS with Ethernet towards that goal of operational convergence, the vendor industry in some quarters decides it's going to re-introduce divergence, in the shape of new protocols which claim to offer the usual nirvana of a fix-all solution.
Have we not been here before?  Enterprise Ethernet vendors with minimal large-scale service provider network design and deployment expertise trying to diverge from the basics in an attempt to confuse and stall the market at a time when service providers need all the help they can to simplify and operationally converge?
As always, the market will decide, but with MPLS technologies becoming ever more cost competitive, with huge advances in operational management combined with an established knowledge base, is there really anyone for divergence?

Paul Gainham is Director of Service Provider Marketing, Juniper Networks EMEA

NEXT GENERATION BILLING - One-stop hybrid

As leading telecom operators take significant, albeit cautious, strides towards global 3G rollout, they are confronted by threats posed by innovative business models, increased customer demand and ever-intensifying competition. The emergence of niche players specialising in next generation service provision, and the entry of cross-sector operators into the communications arena has taken competition to dizzying heights. Amidst such a dynamic telecommunications environment, Siddharth Puri explains, customer care and billing (CCB) solutions have transformed from mere back-end support systems for service providers to strategic tools in customer retention and management

Over the past year, convergence across the telecommunication industry has become apparent. Carriers, cable operators and wireline service providers, increasingly competing for the same customers, are evolving to create a new breed of communications companies. Some will be pure-play voice or just data providers, while others will emerge as truly integrated communications companies offering varied combinations of mobile broadband voice, video, data and broadcast services. Service providers see the potential of generating new revenue streams by becoming a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all the communication needs of a customer, and are in the process of constantly refining their service offerings.

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With operators migrating to an IP-based next generation network, the convergence of voice, video and data – termed as triple play – has received a major boost. In the early stages of deployment, triple play services were introduced purely as a mechanism to reduce customer churn. With a bundled service offering comprising voice, video and Internet services, the service provider's brand grew stronger as it became harder for the customers to switch between operators while maintaining all of their services. From the end-user's point of view, the benefits in availing all services through a single operator were twofold - overall convenience derived from such an arrangement and the price discounts that usually came along with such service bundles. Next generation triple/ quadruple play, however, refers to much more than just tying these basic services together.
The communications industry has graduated from a rather technology-centric ideology to a user-centric value creation model. Service providers recognise that migration to a convergent environment would not only help retain existing customers and defend their current revenue, but also generate additional revenues by introducing more sophisticated services. Moreover, operators can deliver innovative customer-focussed services by offering new functionality in the areas where all three components of voice, video and data converge.
Challenges for billing vendors
An important factor restricting the deployment of a truly convergent environment is the inability of legacy CCB systems to handle the entire gamut of services that possibly a single operator can now offer its customers. The in-house systems used by the erstwhile telecom operators providing simple voice services worked well for what they were designed for - charging customers a flat rate based on time and distance. In the context of next generation services, however, billing becomes far more complex. Three major challenges facing vendors today are:
•    Multi-level convergence
•    Evolving value chain
•    Flexibility and scalability
Multi-level Convergence
Service providers have achieved convergence at the network, service, device and application levels. This allows them to strive for complete customer ownership, as a single operator can offer the whole spectrum of communication services to its customers. Now that operators possess the technology to provide such a multitude of services, the challenge is in attracting customers with the right service mix - therein lies the gap. Several operators still possess independent billing modules for the different sets of services that they offer. To tap the full potential of a truly convergent infrastructure, the need is for a unified customer care and billing platform, a system that can handle the complexities of a convergent environment and at the same time, provide the operator with dynamic rating and billing capabilities such as cross-service packaging and discounting. Moreover, the implementation and maintenance costs involved in deploying a unified billing platform would be considerably lower. In this context, the role of mediation and correlation engines has shifted from mere collation of usage records to a more strategic function of information gathering, validation and intelligence creation.
With prepaid-postpaid integration becoming a reality, operators are able to offer different payment options to customers on a service-by-service basis, rather than at the customer level. Service providers can realise an increased ARPU through service differentiation and service innovation strategies as they would be able to offer all services to all customers, irrespective of the payment method. In order to achieve prepaid-postpaid integration capability, some postpaid billing vendors have opted for alliances with established players in the prepaid arena, rather than developing a prepaid solution on their own. This strategy allows them to combinine their respective skill sets, and also saves on time and capital investments.
Evolving Value Chain
Emerging business models around a multi-level convergent environment have led to the introduction of numerous entities into the value chain, vis-à-vis, network operators, service providers, content developers and aggregators, and application providers. The value chain is extending in both horizontal and vertical directions, and the complexity of value chain management is also on the rise. Revenue realisation and settlement become issues of grave concern when multiple players stake their claim on the revenues generated from a customer. The number of leakage points to be monitored by the operator is also higher in such a scenario.
In an era where telecom service providers depend heavily on third-party content providers, multiple-party billing capability is critical to any service provider's business. Real-time revenue sharing coupled with cross-service discounting capability is becoming the de facto standard for billing vendors. Furthermore, as content services are catching on with consumers, the mounting revenue leakage issues are becoming even more pervasive. Next generation billing solutions should be able to identify, and thereafter enable the operator to successfully plug leakage points across the entire value chain.
Flexibility and Scalability
Service providers were stifled in their approach to global 3G adoption due to the inflexibility of existing infrastructure. Legacy billing systems could neither scale up technologically to manage the wide expanse of services that next generation networks promised, nor could they effectively match up to the growing customer base expected from a multi-service operator setup.
Service providers and billing vendors alike, realise that the CCB system needs to be as dynamic and interactive as the network that it is supporting. Estimates show that nearly fifty per cent of all billing systems become obsolete, on an average, every four to six years, primarily due to their inflexibility. It is quite obvious that solutions would need to possess the prerequisite of scalability ingrained deep into their development philosophy.

A strategic outlook
Service providers, who are in the process of rolling out triple play, 3G services and beyond, realise that as the technological divide between operators closes down rapidly, it will be service differentiation in terms of total customer experience that will hold the key to success in the long run. Operators understand that each customer is unique, and deserves to be treated differently. In order to achieve this level of differentiation, the marketing teams need to design innovative customer-specific service bundles, taking into account factors like services availed, prior usage patterns usage data and customer loyalty. There is a need for dynamic and interactive pricing solutions with the ability to analyse historic customer data, and come out with best value plans based on individual customer preferences.
From a vendor point of view, the evolution to a truly convergent communication environment presents a great opportunity. Billing systems of yesteryear clearly do not possess the capability to handle such a technologically rich and functionally dynamic setup. However, owing to financial constraints and existing license agreements with vendors, it is unlikely that operators would opt for a complete replacement of their billing infrastructure. Rather, an alternative approach being adopted is a gradual move to an integrated billing infrastructure - a phased replacement driven by the introduction of next generation services. The key for vendor success lies in developing a highly modular system that is flexible enough to incorporate an ever-evolving, complex and innovative service portfolio, and is future-proof in terms of its scalability.

Siddharth Puri is Product Manager, GTL Infrastructure Limited

SOA'S - Supporting business

As industry excitement over service-oriented architectures (SOAs) continues to rise, Terry Riches looks at the benefits that SOAs can deliver and how these can be realised in the enterprise

Why are businesses adopting SOAs? Well the short answer is that they promise three things that businesses desire from their IT infrastructure, namely:
• increased business agility
• faster time to market
• lower costs by re-using what you already have.

New IT strategies – both in the applications and infrastructure layers – are needed because the business environment is changing. The growing effects of global competition and the increasing speed of change mean that all types of business need to become more agile – that is, able to react more quickly to change – while also complying with regulatory demands and improving their management and use of business information. At the same time to stay competitive they have to continually work to improve productivity and lower costs.
Neil Ward-Dutton and Neil Macehiter, writing in late 2005, comment: “Improving IT-business alignment requires an evolution both in technology and technology thinking, which makes it easier for organisations to more effectively exploit their existing IT assets; and re-prioritise IT investment, delivery and strategy so that IT assets can be more readily directed to deal with business change.”
Service-oriented architectures (SOAs) have arisen as a response to these requirements. The aim is to make IT systems more responsive to ever-changing business requirements and to do so at a lower cost than traditional approaches. Cost reduction is key. IBM recently surveyed its customers that had implemented a SOA and found that around 92 per cent of respondents had started a SOA initiative in order to reduce costs, with 51 per cent saying that they had actually realised cost savings.
It must be emphasised that although there is a lot of hype surrounding SOAs, real-life implementations suggest that this approach delivers tangible benefits to the enterprise. While the initial interest in an SOA implementation may very well be to save money, experience shows that more important benefits are delivered including improved agility, better alignment of the business and IT, user adoption and support for business innovation.

So what is an SOA?
While there are multiple informal definitions of SOAs, there is thus far only one formal definition. The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) defines SOA as: “A paradigm for organising and utilising distributed capabilities that may be under the control of different ownership domains.  It provides a uniform means to offer, discover, interact with and use capabilities to produce desired effects consistent with measurable preconditions and expectations.”
Analysys Research's Teresa Cottam offers a simpler definition of an SOA as “an integration architecture that views applications and information as services that can be used to create new, flexible business processes. ” In other words, an SOA is a software architecture that defines the use of loosely-coupled software services to support the requirements of business processes and application users. An SOA sees applications as building blocks for services provided to end users. This allows re-use of applications across the enterprise; in contrast to the approach of continually implementing new applications in a stove-pipe fashion to support individual services. The most commonly-used components of an SOA are technologies such as web services, portal frameworks, application servers, integration frameworks and security frameworks.
Traditionally, applications have often been delivered piecemeal, paid for out of departmental budgets. This results in higher total cost of ownership (TCO) for the company as a whole – pushing up IT costs while not delivering optimal results for the business. The desire to reduce costs by re-using what an enterprise already has, and also increase flexibility by reducing the time to implement a new service, has led enterprises to adopt SOAs, which is basically a new approach to deploying and integrating applications. SOAs allow re-use of assets in the applications layer and enable quicker and easier integration (thereby reducing the so-called “integration tax”). Overall they can increase flexibility and the speed of deployment while also reducing the cost of deployment through consolidation, re-use and lower integration costs.

Using SOAs in the real world
AMR Research conducted a survey of 134 enterprises in 2005, which found that 44 per cent of early SOA adopters were concentrating on internal business processes. The most common projects were application integration and IT help desk .
Comunica has already implemented a re-usable service-oriented architecture in response to the needs of its large enterprise customers. The driver to designing our SOA was a project initiated by a large corporate customer who wanted to exploit the power of their Intelligent Infrastructure Management (IIM) investment  There has long been a recognition that IIM applications should be integrated with a client's service desk application. The practical barriers though were the sheer number of applications, their tendency to be customised and keeping track with version releases. In addition to this, a service ticket that relates to an IT issue will more than likely be passed to a team who are not using the same service desk application interface, which means that the integration complexity is doubled.  The opportunity in this case was to:
•    provide the service desk with access to additional information about the state of the user's IT environment
•    contextualise this in a no-nonsense way that would assist the fault process
•    as a minimum, reduce the call time by an average of one minute – thereby recovering two minutes of productivity.
The Comunica service-oriented architecture employs a three-tier architecture which comprises a data source layer, a middleware layer and a presentation layer.
The level of automation achieved means that when an end user calls the helpdesk, the call handler  can quickly identify who is calling  and, using the information gathered from the intelligent infrastructure management system, see all the devices associated with this person, where they are and what their current functional state is. This speeds up resolution since the end user does not have to explain who they are or what the problem is. The client was able to exceed its goal of cutting one minute per call to the service desk, which when multiplied across the whole site equated to a saving of over 3,000 minutes per month.

Terry Riches is Senior Business Manager for Support & Intelligent Infrastructures, Comunica Limited
www.comunica.co.uk

PRE-INTEGRATED BILLING AND CRM - Looking both ways

The emergence of pre-integrated CRM and billing solutions is helping operators to provide not only the highest quality service possible, but also the most straightforward, and so, says Dominic Smith, help prevent customer churn

In today’s converged telecoms market, there is greater diversity than ever before in services, providers and pricing. For operators, it means managing an extensive array of network infrastructures and partners while, at the same time, developing a broad service set is an increasingly complex business. One of the greatest challenges in delivering simple but effective customer service is the sheer range of solutions on offer.

There is a vast array of packages and price schemes available in the mobile communications sector alone.  Operators' portfolios typically include 2G GSM, SMS, MMS, GPRS, 3G and HSPA basic services, not to mention the range of value-added services, content and applications accessible on top. In addition, there may be slightly different versions of some of the services, depending on the user's handset capabilities, and these in turn can mean alternate pricing plans.
In addition, in all sectors of the market, operators have to maintain and bill for a broad array of legacy services. And they need to be able to tailor their offerings to meet the specific needs of a wide variety of market segments - from large enterprises to individual consumers.
The challenge for operators is to simplify this often convoluted tangle of different service types. After all, looking beyond the headline prices, most end-users are interested in three key elements of the operator's service.
First, they want high quality and easy-to-use services.  Second, they need clear and accurate billing. Finally, if they do encounter difficulties, they want a straightforward and reliable way of sorting them out.
This means access to an efficient single point of contact, with the necessary knowledge and expertise to resolve any issues quickly. From the operator's point of view, the most effective way of delivering this type of simple, effective service is through the provision of pre-integrated CRM and billing solutions which customer-facing staff can use to support the interaction process.
By implementing high-quality CRM and billing systems and integrating them with their surrounding network infrastructure, operators have all the information they need in one place, ensuring they can provide a consistent, responsive and professional service to customers. They also have the reassurance of knowing that no data will be lost between systems, that updated information is available instantly to other users and that their systems provide a joined-up integrated 360° view of their customers.
The best of this new breed of fully convergent CRM and billing systems also give operators a bi-directional view of their customer management activities. In other words, they enable them to manage the dataset from the point of view both of the customer and the business itself. They can, for example, highlight not only the types of complaints made by one individual customer but also the total number received by the organisation as a whole, over a given period.
To deliver this functionality, it is critical that operators have not only a tightly integrated component set but also a single unified database, which links to these components. This optimised technical infrastructure enables them to examine all of the system data associated with a given customer and acts as the foundation for simple but proactive customer service.
At one level, it allows operators to escalate events. As part of most corporate service level agreements, they can define exactly how long they have to action certain events. If this time limit is exceeded, an alarm is triggered, notifying both operator and end customer of an infringement. Receiving this type of information in advance of a customer complaint helps the operator to deliver proactive service to end users, by acknowledging a fault on their system but at the same time reassuring them that the problem is being addressed and rectified.
At another level, the technology enables the operator to define its own business rules about how it sells services. In particular, by providing a stable and robust platform, it allows the operator to configure processes and procedures that build on the functionality of the systems infrastructure and ensure that customers receive a consistently high-quality service. 
Currently, few UK businesses are collating or leveraging their customer data as effectively as this. According to the findings of UK CRM consultancy firm, Detica, only 13 per cent of companies can be categorised as leaders when it comes to collating customer data and subsequently using it to improve customer relationships, while 40 per cent are categorised as 'strugglers', having very little good data and limited ability to exploit what they do have.
The results of the survey clearly illustrate the challenges businesses face in achieving a good understanding of their customers and using the insights gained effectively across the enterprise as a whole.
To be successful in building customer loyalty, operators need to focus more clearly on the customer. With the help of closely integrated CRM and billing solutions they can manage the relationship from a single entry point.  This means ensuring that customer-facing staff have all relevant data about a given customer instantly available as and when required.
There is a multitude of information to be gathered: typically including details of previous interactions with the customer, payment histories, information about average monthly spend, the types of services previously used and so on. Critically, having access to this kind of intelligence should enable the operator to deliver 'right first time' customer service.
Ease-of-use is also important. Any such systems need to be intuitive. When they purchase a bundle of services from an operator, customers must be sure that each service is activated on the network in a logical order and that follow-on services are provisioned, as and when required. The operator's customer service representative (CSR) should also be able to view the status of these services at any one time.
In addition, particularly in today's fast-changing telecoms environment, chosen systems need to be flexible enough to manage a broad spectrum of technologies from PSTN to 3G and from ISDN to ADSL. This is critical for operators who are migrating into new technology sectors either through business growth, merger or acquisition.
Today, with an ever-growing number of players in the market, it is increasingly easy for users to switch from one operator to another. In order to prevent churn, therefore, it is vital that operators provide not only the highest quality service possible but also the most straightforward.
The emergence of pre-integrated CRM and billing solutions is helping to achieve this. Equally, with the onward march of convergence and the consequent desire of many of the larger players to try to be 'all things to all people', these solutions can play a key role in enabling alternate operators to offer a bundle of services tailored to a specific market segment.
Operators can do very little about the increasing complexity of the telecoms marketplace. However, what they can and increasingly will need to do, in order to maintain their competitive edge, is to mask this complexity from the customer. Operators will need to ensure that their multi-play service offerings are straightforward to use, that billing is accurate and that the latest customer information is available to all service staff.  Pre-integrated CRM and billing solutions offer an excellent means of enabling them to transform this vision into a reality.

Dominic Smith is Marketing Director, Cerillion Technologies

IPTV REVENUES - A Question of confidence

Searching out the reality behind the hype, Ray Dogra points out that IPTV looks likely to generate significant revenue within its first three years of service, while cautious optimism surrounds its long-term potential

More than half – some 60 per cent - of communications industry executives believe that Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) can generate significant revenue within the first three years of service, according to findings of a survey recently released by Accenture and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).  The survey of nearly 350 executives from telecommunications, broadcasting and media companies across 46 countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia revealed industry-wide confidence in the longer-term outlook for IPTV.

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However, confidence in the short-term outlook remains mixed, with slightly more than half of respondents saying they are not confident in the ability of IPTV to generate significant revenues within the next 12 months.  On the other hand, one-fifth of respondents said they are confident or very confident, and more than one-quarter said they are somewhat to fairly confident, that IPTV will generate significant revenues within 12 months.
When asked what they believed would be the principal revenue source for IPTV, about half of the industry executives surveyed selected advertising. However, network operators, as a subset of all respondents — which included equipment vendors, consumer electronic companies, content providers and broadcasters/studios — disagreed, with three-quarters saying they believe that subscription fees for premium content will provide the largest recurring revenue stream, followed by basic content subscription fees and then advertising fees.
Further, when queried the reasons for pursuing the IPTV market, the greatest number of respondents cited new revenue streams, followed by acquiring new customers, and increasing sale of broadband access connections.
Overwhelmingly, executives believe that discounted pricing through service bundling will be the primary motivation behind consumer spending.  Nearly two-thirds of all respondents — and three-quarters of network operators surveyed — said they believe that discounted service bundles provide the greatest enticement to buy IPTV.  The ability to move content between devices was also cited as an important enticement, selected by some 38 per cent of respondents, as was the convenience of a single bill for multiple services.
Yet there are obstacles to IPTV adoption. One-quarter of respondents said that the primary short-term obstacle to IPTV adoption is a quality-of-service issue relating to unproven architectures, low bandwidth and other technology issues.  The same number said they believe that quality-of-service issues will be resolved over the next three years, leaving stiffer competition from alternative TV providers as the toughest challenge to the adoption of IPTV.  Another challenge to IPTV adoption, cited by respondents, is high subscription fees due to the high cost of network access and equipment.
Lastly, when asked which types of companies are most likely to generate revenue from IPTV, the vast majority of respondents selected content providers, followed by telecommunications providers.  Not surprisingly, more than two-thirds of respondents said that traditional broadcasters have the least to gain from IPTV, a view held strongly by respondents across all company types, including broadcasters themselves.
IPTV will fundamentally alter the traditional television advertising model. Because the set-top box will become essentially a database of viewing and purchasing activities, IPTV will unlock opportunities for more personalised advertising—including one-to-one, targeted offers and interactive ads. Advertisers can identify the commercials that customers are watching, and this data can be used to improve the efficiency of marketing campaigns.
That functionality will mean that the value of advertising will increase for everyone in the IPTV value chain. Consumers are more likely to pay attention to an offer targeted to their expressed interests (and they will be able to opt in or out, easing the concerns of privacy advocates), and advertisers are more likely to pay for it. Even small businesses—a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, a florist—might be willing to pay for an IPTV ad if they knew it would be targeted only to people living within a certain distance from the store.
When it comes to IPTV, it is true that “content is king.” The experiences of providers both in Europe and the United States have made quite clear that the “killer application” for IPTV solutions is the programming content. Acquiring and processing that content are not skills that a telecommunications provider necessarily possesses. Hence, providers must decide how to get those skills. One option is a joint venture model in which the IPTV provider teams with cable and satellite operators to acquire wholesale premium content. A second option is a sales package model where a company forms a direct content acquisition relationship with film studios and other content providers.
In either case, the cost of content will be substantial for IPTV platforms. Accenture's business case analysis indicates that content acquisition will become the most significant component in the cost/revenue model, reaching more than 40 per cent of costs by the fifth year of operation.
Stability of the service is the most important ingredient of IPTV success; and that means stability of the platform and architecture itself. If the IPTV service is unstable, high customer churn will result, and operators may end up with a customer base where churn negates their customer acquisition efforts.
A truly comprehensive IPTV solution encompasses the systems, video infrastructure and network elements required for an end-to-end solution, as well as definition of the processes to operationalise the video services being offered. The most important success factor, in Accenture's experience, is creating a stable and scalable IPTV service over a broadband multi-service platform. This has proved to be challenging to almost every operator. Monitoring and measuring quality of an IPTV feed, for example, is difficult. Network experts know how to measure network quality, but that does not necessarily translate into measures of what a customer perceives on a TV screen. If a customer has video-on-demand and then complains about the picture quality during a movie, knowing where the problem occurred is vital to deciding whether to issue a refund to the customer.
In general, 'cautious optimism' is the most appropriate summary of executive sentiment today about the future of IPTV. In Accenture's view, a degree of caution and careful planning is appropriate. A number of issues remain when it comes to creating a stable and scalable IPTV service over a broadband multi-service platform. These challenges can be addressed, but players in the IPTV industry will need to consider a broad range of technical, content and customer service factors as they proceed.
In short, providers that miss the mark on quality may not get a second chance in a competitive market. The experiences from providers both in the UK and the US have made abundantly clear that the TV service itself must work as well as consumers' existing level of service. No 'me too' TV service will succeed—regardless of its interactivity—unless it functions as well as or better than existing TV services.
The business case for IPTV remains attractive in the long term, yet certainly not simple to create or realise.  For now, IPTV will probably be simultaneously the most complex service a provider has, and also the one with the lowest gross margin.  Success with IPTV means remaining skeptical about the hype cycle of IPTV, and the 'bells and whistles' of interactive services. Being visionary in long-term thinking but practical in the short term will be key to achieving high performance through IPTV.

Ray Dogra, Accenture
www.accenture.com/iptvmonitor3

DATA TRANSFORMATION - Telecoms colonic tonic

Have you got a dirty data problem? Too embarrassed to talk about it in public? Is it sapping your business vitality? Well you're not alone, and the good news is that 2007 has been widely touted as the year when the telecoms industry finally starts to sluice away its data blockages. So, without getting too anal about inconsistent data semantics and all the other symptoms that you may be experiencing, the message is that 'new-age' therapies are available to help you deal with these problems quickly, effectively and reliably, enabling you to become the business you've always wanted to be.  Paul Hollingsworth looks at the mismatch between business and technical issues and the challenge of continual data and business transformation

The sad fact is that even mentioning data migration or data management issues is a sure fire way of getting most business-level executives to instantly turn off and stop reading. It’s ‘dull as ditch water’ to use a common British idiom. But just before you give up on this article, let’s go back to that water analogy. You might not be all that interested in your home plumbing either, but it has this habit of grabbing your attention when the sink is backing up or when there’s no water coming out of the tap doesn’t it? At this point the solution is usually very expensive and involves an overpaid plumber simultaneously tutting and sniggering over his bill. And if you’ve ever been in a plumbing-centred crisis like this, you’ll know just how stupid and out of control you feel. Which brings me back to data.

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Business managers hate the idea of data migrations primarily because of fear of the unknown and that horrible out-of-control feeling they get every time they have to think about them. Having signed off a project they have absolutely no certainty over when that project – if ever – will deliver real, hard business benefits. They also know it'll almost certainly overrun on cost or time, or both. And the really scary thought is that this could be the one in every five projects that's doomed to fail completely, having burnt through millions of dollars in the process.
Statistics from the likes of the Standish Group, which has made a business from analysing IT project failure, make grim reading. In 1994 when Standish first began collecting data, around 84 per cent of IT projects were deemed to have failed in some aspect. Ten years later the figure had improved, but still stood at 71 per cent.
Here in telco-land, I regularly come across architects who say that they can't remember a single successful data migration. Which is rather worrying given that in 2007 we are standing on a fundamental pivot point in our industry. Behind us lies the halcyon days of relative tranquillity when change was relatively slow and profit margins plentiful, while ahead of us lies the uncertain future of cut-throat competition with increasingly complex services delivered at increasingly fast speeds. Transforming from a tier one telco, to a strong, next-generation service provider is no mean feat. It involves transforming business norms, organisational structures, but also IT systems, architectures and data. It means learning a whole new content-driven, media-rich language, and requires companies to get fitter, leaner and more agile (both on an operational and technological level).
On a business level, we can articulate what is required to respond to the change drivers our industry is facing. For example, we need to:
•    cut costs and improve revenue management
•    innovate and get products to market more quickly
•    retain customers
•    increase or at least stabilise ARPUs
•    comply with regulation and legislation
•    use business information more effectively.   
But this is where the gap between business and IT becomes so very obvious, because translating business goals into technical strategies requires getting to grips with 'issues' that we have been putting off for a long time, such as consolidating and upgrading supporting systems, migrating data, transforming architectures and so on.
Surveys undertaken by UK-based Kognitio have highlighted that 57 per cent of respondents thought that decision makers did not have the information they needed to run their business optimally. The issues identified were the disparity of data, the sheer volume of data, the scale of the task to access the required data, unavailability of data and speed of access. Another survey unveiled in January found that 56 per cent of decision makers in 100 companies polled admitted that they had been discouraged from undertaking data migration projects because of the risk, cost, time and resource needed for such projects.
But in telco-land we now have a new reason to pay attention in the form of agile, lean new entrants that are extremely adept at using data to analyse and improve their business and their offer to customers – such as Google-coms and Walmart-phone. It's easy to underestimate how such companies can transform the market. Look, for example, at the telecoms arm of UK retailer Tesco, which in less than two years became the third largest prepaid mobile phone company in the UK. It acquired around half a million customers in its first twelve months, and has since added more than a million to this. And that's in a saturated mobile market where customers have to be prised away from competitors. Tesco Mobile states that it has done this by providing better customer service and understanding their needs – all of which requires good, accessible customer data. 
Of course you might take the line that fighting the retail fight is just not for you, and you're quite happy just to provide the pipework and go wholly wholesale. But don't get too complacent. Even then your partners are still going to demand data from you, and to be a successful value-added wholesaler you're going to have to get much better at providing it. You're also going to need to get better at managing your cost base, which also requires better data management. And to get from where you are to where you want to be probably means some form of data migration.
There's just one other little factor you mustn't forget. The industry formerly known as telecoms is no longer a market that will stand still or even change at a leisurely rate. So whatever solutions, systems or architectures you come up with absolutely have to accommodate the need for change. Otherwise you risk entering a never-ending project hell, whereby even if you deliver your clearly defined, properly scoped project on time and to budget, in the meanwhile the requirements have changed and the new solution cannot cope with them or support unknown and unforeseen ongoing change.
So before you throw up your hands in despair, remember that some data migrations – even very complex ones – are delivered on time, to budget and with a low risk profile. One feature of such projects is that they have business and senior executive buy-in. They combine business and technological strategies and deliver against both. To help you become one of the winners, here are five uncomfortable questions we suggest you should consider:
•    Will your data migration project deliver on time and at budgeted cost?
•    Are you comfortable with the risk profile you are assuming?
•    What happens if it doesn't work?
•    How much is it costing your organisation for every day of delay?
•    How flexible is your new architecture, will it be able to respond to inevitable change?

Paul Hollingsworth is Director of Product Marketing at Celona Technologies