HomeMobile EuropeBeyond basic provisions

    Beyond basic provisions


    Provisioning new customers onto a mobile voice network was a relatively simple process; provisioning a customer for a specific data service which itself must be provisioned on the network and at other points on the value chain is far more complicated. Alun Lewis explains the new requirements and what they mean for operators looking to build a data business.

    For nearly a decade now, the mobile industry’s equivalent of spin doctors have been talking up visions of a future filled with advanced services of many different kinds. From video streaming to the delivery of location-based information, the concept of a broad portfolio capable of attracting revenue streams from subscribers, and from organisations seeking to reach the mobile consumer with entertainment or lifestyle content, has been an attractive one.

    As ever, the actual reality has turned out to be a little murkier than those initially optimistic dreams. Adapting technologies, architectures and business models that grew up during the relatively stable era of voice services to fit a new content-oriented universe has proved rather more problematic than first thought. While the telecommunications industry is generally very efficient at designing its own future, the move towards offering more advanced services has brought it into contact with a host of industries such as TV and record companies. Many of these in turn are interested in contributing content and services of their own to the mobile mix to the mobile service provider’s customers.

    However, while the flow of new service possibilities has be relatively free, the process of turning these into the foundations of a viable business, has stumbled its way forward. The reason — parallel changes need to be made to all the back office systems involved in the actual provision of services. As content and advanced services cause an almost exponential increase in the complexity of the management issues and associated data that must be gathered and controlled, how can we ensure that these systems are up to the job?

    Ronnie Beggs, wireless product manager at Cramer Systems, scales the problem, “With margins under pressure, operators are following the call of mobile content services to boost usage and revenue. But, as they move into 3G, they will enter a new realm of ‘perishable’ services that is infinitely more complex than anything before. The problem: provisioning content, IT infrastructure and delivery capabilities all at the same time and all within a very narrow window.

    “Although operators already have experience of bringing up offerings for time-sensitive events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, the task of turning on a continuous flow of perishable mobile content services represents a major step up. Instead of having months to plan an offering, they will face a steady stream of content changes for new products. If they miss the deadlines, the products are useless !

    “To be successful with mobile content services, operators need to squarely address the problem of simultaneously provisioning content, infrastructure and service capability. The first steps to this are to give a great deal of thought to how they build service delivery platforms so that there’s little change in the underlying transport network, and to design service catalogues around modular components that can be reused.

    These views are echoed by Gareth Senior, cto at Axiom Systems, “There are a number of core issues around mobile provisioning: how to provision service assurance and the have ability to test the network; how to provision third parties into the market-place and de-provision those who aren’t performing — there are only a certain number of content options a phone can take and so these need to be the best ones; how to allow third parties to provision and de-provision their customers directly; and finally how to support corporate services such as VPNs, where new services need to be deployed and cancelled as frequently as employees start or finish their employment.
    The challenge for mobile operators and provisioning in particular is that a customer who wants a value-added service such as gaming, gambling or even porn will need to register first with the service provider and the third party content provider — and for all parties to deliver, at the same time and in what is short period of time. This whole process needs to be connected and this is what we term ‘dynamic service provisioning’. Fixed service providers already have a problem delivering simple services like DSL to their customers on time — only a multi-functional OSS product can solve the content delivery problem for them.”

    The demands being made on the back office environment by the leaps in functionality of new mobile devices and advanced services, extends right across the value chain from the end customer to the billing systems, as Jennifer Kyriakakis, Portal Software’s senior manager explains, “Many mobile service providers — in an effort to reduce OPEX — are swapping out network- and service-specific OSS components for convergent back office applications. Ironically, as many service providers are under pressure to consoli-date fragmented back office appli-cations, the breadth of what any one pro-visioning system needs to handle is expanding.

    “With the growth of SMS, MMS, GPRS and other content enabling services, provisioning systems not only have to support multiple in-house components — but must also interface with third party content servers. And, with the growing popularity of ‘self-service’, provisioning systems must handle requests for content and services from multiple sources — not just from their own customer service representatives, but also from self-service websites and third party content sites. More than ever, end users are demanding instant gratification — the value of mobile devices has always been built on the convenience of delivery.

    “The result is a set of often conflicting objectives within the OSS environment. Service providers are struggling to enable a multitude of new content services while simultaneously moving towards a more convergent OSS/BSS model. Only service providers that are able to streamline their back office applications onto a simplified architecture that is flexible enough — and agile enough — to handle the processing of service requests from multiple sources will be able to compete effectively.”

    While the debate around the optimum architectures for the OSS of the future continues within the TeleManagement Forum, some vendors see a centralised inventory as the most sensible solution for dealing with this complexity. Simon Gleave, head of EMEA marketing at Metasolv provides the detailed view, “It’s becoming increasingly important that we have all the important data residing in one central repository to try and get as clear a picture as possible of what’s happening and the implications of any changes. Provisioning these advanced content services is not a ‘clean’ process and you need to be able to interrogate multiple systems. There’s also a requirement to manage SLAs back to the content originator as well as provide them in some circumstances to the end user and the ability to provide an audit trail in this context can be very useful.”

    One of the main problems in this whole area is that what was once a compara-tively straightforward provisioning process with well understood standards is now starting to encompass other telecoms disciplines, particularly around service creation and associated techno-logies such as Intelligent Networks, MMS and XML, as well as deal with far more powerful handset devices. “Provisioning has to be seen in the retail context of successfully closing a sale,” comments Wim Harthoorn, wireless solutions architect at Micromuse. “That means taking a truly end-to-end perspective on all the activities that have to happen and seeing how service quality can be guaranteed across the whole of the value chain.”

    But if mobile operators are to stay in control, this is something that they’re going to have to address seriously as John Salter, general manager at Granite Systems explains, “The old battle of the ‘walled gardens’ is still underway to a certain extent. If mobile service providers are to make the step to becoming more than just wireless connectivity providers for these new services, then they’re going to have to invest more in taking control of the value chain. That means extending the system reach out towards the end user themselves in some circumstances, or out to retail staff in electronics stores, and for that to happen the provisioning interfaces need to be as easy to use as possible. The trouble is not so much a lack of standards but a profusion of them and, while the OMA has been invaluable as a consolidator, the increasing diversity of handset devices — as just one example — means that complexity keeps on growing.

    These issues are coming to fore now as the industry begins to concentrate on rolling out multimedia messaging, where it’s expected most of the traffic will come from commercial content providers rather than peer-to-peer exchanges. According to Richard McConnell, COO at MMS gateway specialist Mobile Cohesion, “Camera phones will enable the creation of some personalised picture messaging content, but mobile operators will look to ‘best in class’ media brands to inject compelling mass-market, multimedia content into the messaging stream and so generate volume traffic through superdistribution — the process by which content is passed from one to many subscribers.

    “There are however two fundamental gaps in today’s technology chain. The first involves service creation as multimedia messaging service centres only offer telecoms-based APIs for submission of content which must also be created in a mobile-centric format. While mainstream media companies can create internet-based web content, for most the technical barriers to MMS service creation are too great to overcome. The second issue is scale. In order for the mobile operator to fulfil the promise of MMS — ie more revenues and profits than with text messaging alone — they must offer a wide range of ever-changing content and services with billing models which provide good incentives for the content providers. However, the integration of new services into the mobile network has until recently been a labour intensive and bespoke task.”

    If the mobile industry is to make its next steps from what was effectively a one product shop to the virtual information department store, then all those familiar silos — both technological and cultural — are going to have to be broken down. As provisioning now involves far more than just voice — and extends out beyond the traditional boundaries of the service provider — a new mindset, as well as new tools, is vitally important.