Tony Kalcina is the Chief Product Officer of Clarity International Ltd; he has 30 years experience in the global telecoms industry. As Founder of Clarity, Mr Kalcina led the company as its CEO for its first ten years of operations. Previously, he was the founding CEO of a Malaysian IT company delivering BSS and OSS solutions. He also worked as the GM of IT at a newly established Malaysian telecoms company. Mr Kalcina spent ten years at Telstra (OTC) where he started as an R&D Engineer and later held senior roles in Operations, Engineering and IT. Tony Kalcina has a BE (Electrical Engineering) and BSc (Honours) in Computer Science and Physics from the University of Sydney.
Given Africa’s low ARPUs, competition and the need to build out both their services and infrastructures, operators count upon lean operations and innovative services to survive. Operators’ ability innovate, cut costs, optimise network utilisation, rollout new services, and target customer needs depends on their Operational Support Systems (OSS) and the data analyses they provide. Best of breed OSS solutions, with modules from a variety of vendors are often unwieldy and inefficient. Unified OSS answers operators’ next generation network questions better.
The economic gloom may be slowly lifting, but the telecoms industry remains hard-hit. The struggle with refinancing and technology transformation after the perfect economic storm will continue for several years to come. Yet, operators in emerging markets have proved surprisingly resilient in the current financial crisis, with 96 million new subscribers signing up across Africa in the year to March 2009. To survive, operators across Africa have learnt to support lean operations. They have leveraged economies of scale, kept up with intense competition and created innovative services to survive. Yet the challenges of low ARPU and the distorted relationship between bandwidth growth and revenue, is creating a competition driven price war that will see significant industry rationalisation. In the face of these challenges, there are essentially two routes operators can take to improve their financial situation. The first focuses on streamlining efficiency and reducing operational expenditure (OpEx) through automation, more effective asset management and better network capacity utilisation. The second route is customer-centric and concentrates on both attracting and retaining subscribers through the faster rollout of new services, more competitive service level agreements (SLAs) and better customer targeting through subscriber data analysis. Effective creation of new demand in markets without effective competition through customer centric value innovation that widen the reach within a market space that is uncontested. Few operators disagree that these are the routes to greater financial stability, or that their capacity to make such changes is dependent on their Operational Support Systems (OSS). Unfortunately, then the discord begins. The OSS dichotomy There are currently two basic schools of thought when it comes to OSS. The classic approach is to integrate many different ‘best of breed’ systems. This proposition does not seem unreasonable, with each layer of the OSS driven by proven, cutting-edge software from multiple vendors, theoretically reducing the risk of a failed deployment. However, best of breed solutions create a number of additional problems, not least of which is the inherent fragmentation of the OSS environment. In best of breed deployments, information tends to be stored in silos that require constant synchronisation. Indeed, it would not be unusual for an operator to have entirely different platforms managing the network, provisioning services and tracking customer information. Unsurprisingly, operators often face difficulties in integrating these different software units, so that they share data effectively without integrity issues or severe access latencies. In contrast, ‘unified’ OSS focuses on simplification. All the elements of a unified OSS are built on one database, a real-time correlation engine and a workflow engine, allowing operational data to be easily consolidated. By cutting through the complexity and simplifying the solution, the operators can quickly understand network and service behaviour and map it to topology to empower the customer with network capability and better manage the customer experience. A centralised workflow spanning end-to-end operational processes can manage everything from network planning to end-user fault reports. Moreover, a unified OSS can be deployed faster and with lower risks than traditional best of breed solutions, since it avoids integration and data synchronisation costs. Recent industry studies have shown that best of breed integration ends up costing three to seven times more than unified OSS implementation and take three to five times longer. A growing number of operators are now opting for a ‘best-of-suite’ approach to OSS, which is essentially a halfway house between disparate best of breed OSS modules and a fully integrated unified OSS. The greater level of product integration allows best-of-suite solutions to be more effective. Yet, while the best-of-suite approach has undeniable advantages over a best of breed approach, a unified OSS supersedes both for exactly the same reasons. Whichever OSS approach an operator selects will have a dramatic impact upon their ability to manage subscriber data and next generation network (NGN) services. Divided we fall? Until recently, simply understanding the bits and bytes of the network was the key focus for operators, but this process bore little or no relation to the customer experience. Nowadays operators are highly focused on understanding the customer experience and meeting the commitments made in the SLA (service level agreement) in order to avoid customer churn. The OSS has become an invaluable resource of data about the usage of products and services. Unified OSS attempts to take operational network data and turn it into something a business can use. Intelligent analysis of data might allow an operator to, for example, identify customers who are likely to purchase more NGN services and who may churn if not adequately served. This process is complex; the data correlation is separated from the operational systems, since the extensive number crunching needed can cause operational systems to grind to a halt. If you start with an OSS that stores this data in separate silos, it is a great deal harder to piece together a holistic view of the customer and their experience. As the information is in silos, even if you can access the data you need, data called Bill in one database may be Bob in another. Data needs to be stored in a unified manner, if a correlation is to make sense. Industry analysts like Light Reading agree that there is an urgent need “for the consolidation and common management of product and customer information”. Next generation services Operators are currently striving to differentiate themselves within an expanding competitive landscape by searching for ways to brand and bundle new services like VoIP, VoD and IPTV. These services hold the key to not only raising subscriber ARPU, but also to attracting new customers and reducing churn. If operators fail to implement NGN services and generate another source of revenue from subscribers, they risk becoming dumb ‘pipes’ - simple utility providers, with the new overlay players (such as Google, Skype and Apple) taking over customer ownership. An operator’s OSS not only needs to be able to support the rapid deployment of such services, it must also be capable of multiple deployments in a relatively short time-frame. This is essential if an operator is to keep pace with competitors, in an environment where the lack of a single NGN service may cause significant subscriber churn and a rapid decline in new sign-ups. In many emerging markets, OSS is helping telcos manage technology updates, reach new customers with next generation services, replace creaking infrastructure or leapfrog to next generation networks (NGN). Telcos in Africa are deploying no fewer than eight new fibre optic undersea cable projects during the next two to three years. 3G and CDMA2000 are also capturing public interest, but they may be challenged by WiMAX and by technologies such as Power Line Communications (PLC), which continue to exploit niche opportunities. Operators in Africa are evaluating technology, looking for the best fit for their specific challenges and OSS must support this evalution. Once again, due to their inherently fragmented nature, best of breed OSS solutions often fail to deliver the promise of seamless automation. These systems often require extensive system customisation prior to each deployment. Operators need to deliver new products and services without needing to overhaul their systems for each new offering. The service implementation cycle should take weeks, not months. Yankee Group has agreed that unified OSS solutions are the only way carriers can effectively streamline their service delivery and service management environment. NGN services are becoming interlinked to a greater extent and require more data sharing for their management. Operators are attempting to deliver unified service via quad-play, but this requires a unified architecture. Integrating voice, data and video traffic onto a single, Internet Protocol (IP) based next generation network lets enterprises achieve a truly converged network that can deliver any call, any piece of data and any image or application, anywhere in real-time. A converged customer-centric focus is essential, since operators need to manage fulfilment and assurance for many processes. Additionally, advanced services like IPTV are often more expensive so subscribers expect a better customer experience. Any best of breed OSS attempting to deliver these services will be under intense pressure. Moreover, these services must manage much more customer data. Gone are the days when an operator merely had to track phone numbers; now operators must monitor new identifiers, such as email and IP addresses. Operators should seek a unified service delivery engine that creates and defines new services for all their systems. OSS at the forefront of business development plans puts great pressure on suppliers, developers and integrators to increase the pace of evolution and the type of functionality offered. The principles of NGN, and more specifically IP Multimedia Subsystems (IMS), will help achieve these goals. By breaking down silos and supporting horizontal layers of common intelligence, it is possible to build highly integrated flexible systems while the opening up of IT-oriented gateways; open interfaces make it possible to extract value and introduce new partners into the value chain. The future of OSS While unified OSS may not be the right choice for every operator, the tactics it supports are certainly ones that everyone should be pursuing. The pressures placed on OSS to work with unified customer data will only increase over time. In the long-term, operators need an automated service delivery system that empowers subscribers to serve themselves. They should be able to select a defined group of products and services from an operator, using a unified order management provisioning inventory and activation engine. This information would feed a real-time analytical engine that understands the behaviour of the network and the servers in relation to the customer. This analytical engine would provide fault management, performance management, SLA management and automatically orchestrate changes in the network and activate field staff to ensure that customer SLAs are met. This kind of next generation customer management will only be possible through unified OSS solutions.