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    HomeMobile EuropeThe art of 'joined up' thinking

    The art of ‘joined up’ thinking

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    Getting products and services to work together seamlessly is the challenge facing operators. And Operational Support Systems can provide the key to unlocking complex value chains, as Alun Lewis explains

    It often seems like the mobile telecoms industry actually enjoys creating problems for itself. While basic voice networks were still being rolled out around the world, engineers were already hard at work, adding advanced content and gaming services to simple connectivity services. As these now start to reach market, they’re adding significant levels of complexity not only to the underlying technologies, but also to the whole multi-dimensional business value model that’s growing out there.

    The problem is particularly acute when it comes to the issue of handsets and mobile devices generally. What began as a comparatively simple voice and text terminal is rapidly morphing into a multi-function device that’s starting to resemble a traditional PC in functionality and power. Under the relentless pressure of the Laws of Moore and Metcalfe, both end-users and mobile service providers are now having to confront the implications of these advances. For the user, it’s an issue of how to learn to use this new power effectively in their business and private lives; for the service provider, it’s all about supporting exponentially increased complexity right across the delivery chain of both products and services.

    The stakes are certainly high. Get it right and the consumers will come flocking to reliable services offered at reasonable prices. Get it wrong and you’ll end up with unsupportable overheads and failing confidence amongst customers and stakeholders alike.

    Over the last year or two, there has been a coming together of the two very different communities involved in the networks and Operations Support Systems (OSSs) areas and the devices. Both have recognised the importance of ‘joined up’ thinking in getting products and services working together as seamlessly as possible, from initial sale, set up and service activation through to ongoing support and upgrades — and both have as much to lose as the other.

    At the most basic level, these issues are reflected in how the retail environment for mobiles is being changed. A recent report from the ARC Group highlights how mobile distribution networks will grow more complex over the next five years, with a sharper focus on the consumer as the sales emphasis shifts from hardware to services and new retail channels emerging. One example of this change is given as T-Mobile’s introduction in Germany of multimedia terminals in its stores to sell handsets and demonstrate content services. As Richard Jesty, the report’s author, comments, “This trend towards direct retailing will be strengthened by the emergence of the e-business route to market for mobile products and services. This could include more advanced transactional websites for the mobile consumer, or business focused extranets in the enterprise sector.”

    Big driver

    One of the big drivers for addressing these problems comes from the introduction of smartphones. Chris Wilkes of LogicaCMG explains, “While the introduction of smartphones has the potential to change the face of modern mobile communications, it is also likely to create additional problems for operators. If operators are to see the predicted data revenues arrive and manage all the extra complexity — which will increase the support costs — then they must ensure that customers have an excellent first time experience. If there are usability problems at  the start of ownership, then these will dissuade others from purchasing smartphones. There’s no point in operators investing in high-value marketing campaigns if the end-user experience is less than satisfactory.

    “Technology such as device management and OTP (Over the air Provisioning) can offer operators the tools they need to offer a higher standard of customer service — while at the same time reducing the costs of providing that support. Operators can differentiate by implementing intelligent technology now — and customers can feel safe in the knowledge that their smartphones have just got smarter !”

    Issues such as these are driving the development of new solutions for device management, as highlighted by Andrew Wyatt, vice president of marketing at Intuwave, “With operators aiming to get at least of 25 percent of their revenues from data services by 2005, they realise that there are some critical problems to solve in the area of customer support for increasingly intelligent devices. This is particularly true in the smartphone environment where the open platform approach lets users install and run third party applications. In the enterprise, these are often going to be supporting mission critical applications and so need appropriately high customer support levels.

    “In this way, they’re becoming just like an enterprise PC or laptop — but the support models set up for these pieces of equipment won’t map over into a mobile world. The central challenge is to find ways of handling device set up and troubleshooting in ways that won’t add extra costs — and that could even actually lower support costs. That’s why we’ve developed tools like our m-Support platform which allows a customer support representative with a standard internet-connected PC to graphically view and control a smartphone remotely, diagnosing and fixing problems for the end user — or helping to train them in the use of its more advanced functions.”

    But these are only one particular aspect of the multi-dimensional complexity currently seething out there. Pascal Coutier, senior partner at international consultancy Logan Orviss, sets out other areas of concern: “Among the key issues facing mobile operators are understanding which device — and its associated software — is connecting to its network when they only support and sell a fraction of all devices; or who is the actual user of the service requested by this device. The device itself is part of a complex service delivery value chain and, ironically, is the aspect of the chain that the service provider has least control over…In an ideal world, the service provider would have access to all information about an user, such as what other devices they own and what other services they make use of. However, as an operator can only currently control SIM cards and operator service numbers, this limits their knowledge of a customer to the services associated with a specific SIM.

    “If the mobile service provider wishes to know uniquely who is using a specific device, an element of Single Sign-On capability will need to be incorporated. User names and passwords will no doubt be gradually deployed with some data services but, as yet, this is not standard practice.

    “Another important issue is ownership of content. If the individual owns several mobile devices and, for example, downloads antivirus software onto one of those devices, does that mean that they can share that software with other devices at no extra cost?

    “Finally, with an increased proliferation of embedded devices, the service provider is going to have to decide how services will be activated and how they will be charged to the user. For example, if a user purchases a PDA that already has embedded encryption in the device, the service provider will need to establish some kind of pricing model for activating the security functionality when the end customer demands it. Hence the management challenges for these devices are mounting, whilst operators remain ill-equipped with the kinds of software and systems capable of properly performing these essential management tasks.”

    Handset issues

    At this point, handset issues start impinging directly on the traditional OSS space and all the other back office systems such as billing. One company targeting the issue of subscriber identity and related management processes is White Obsidian. Their Jonathan Hamblin identifies some key issues: “Whether we like it or not, every device has an identity at several different levels — from the device’s own identity to the identity of the user. This can be leveraged to give the device and the subscriber character and this in turn can be used to enhance the management of both.

    “OSSs should control the device based on the identity and the user. By using traditional autometric techniques with the subscriber’s character, the OSS process can devise a method whereby a device can be monitored, auto-repaired, and configured – based on the subscriber identity and requirements. This could be anything from the configuration of the device itself and the provision of services — such as automated handset-based anti-spam functions or remote identity-based address book synchronisation.

    “In essence, the OSS sees the subscriber who has the device. The OSS does not need to know that there is a device, just that they have a subscriber and it is associated with the device. An identity-managed solution has information on the associated device in use — either the known device recorded against the subscriber, or the last known device type in use. An Identity Management (IDM) system then manages the handset to ensure that it always holds the correct subscriber driven settings, provided as a generic from the OSS or inherited from within the IDM system through the device type.

    “When the subscriber requires a new service, the OSS just tells the IDM system that a new service is required. The IDM has the identity of the subscriber and their devices and so deploys the service remotely, without the OSS needing to know anything about the device. Device management should be an automated, identity-based solution that is managed centrally, but applied in a distributed fashion — without the OSS ever needing to know about the actual devices in use.

    “The concept can also be applied to support CRM processes. Here, services can be targeted at individuals or groups of users — but without the CRM system knowing the handset type. Instead, offerings are aimed based on the accumulated identity of the subscriber.” 

    A similar approach — that of separating user and device characteristics from the underlying OSS systems — is also advocated by Gareth Senior, CTO at OSS vendor Axiom, “In handling the growing complexity of devices and user identities, it’s useful to be able to put a layer of abstraction into the environment, with a policy platform of some kind able to control and broadcast information on the user and devices to the other systems involved. It will also be important in some situations to also carry information about the location the user is calling from and the limitations that imposes on the services — DSL, WLAN, GPRS and so on. This policy-based information can then be mapped across to the relevant OSS components and applications servers to control service access and keep it consistent, whatever the access methods or device being used.

    “Solving these problems is a real challenge. Not only must the environment be incredibly dynamic, but is must also be able to interwork with a wide variety of related components to keep everything up to date.”

    As content, applications and devices increase in complexity, the rallying cry of ‘anyplace, anytime’ communications that drive the mobile industry through the 90s is going to have to be revised in the short term to ‘anyplace, anytime — as long as you’ve got the right device and your service provider has invested in the appropriate systems’. Important steps are already underway, but we’ve a ways to go before we achieve the vision of truly ubiquitous services.

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