It’s not even a term everyone agrees on to describe what it does, but there is no doubt OSS has a higher priority within operators than ever before, Keith Dyer finds.
At Vodafone’s recent results announcement in London, the cto was present and willing to answer questions. Remember, this wasn’t a service launch, it was purely a financial briefing, but the cto was there to talk about how Vodafone was aiming to make billions in cost savings as it integrated its multiple networks around the world.
What this principally meant was not that the network themselves would somehow be merged into one physical entity, but that the process and platforms used to introduce new services and provision new mobiles on the network would be merged. Vodafone’s name for this process is One Vodafone, and the name itself tells the story. Vodafone wants one way to implement service introduction and management, across the whole range of its operations, and in doing so it thinks it will save billions. All those supplying Vodafone in any of these areas need to sit up and take notice.
Keith Willetts, the Telemanagement Forum Board Chairman, says that this escalation of OSS up the operator hierarchy (and it doesn’t get much higher than sharing a platform with the ceo of the largest operator in the world) is typical of the activities of his members, as is the focus on platform and network integration, and cost reduction.
The roots of this, Willetts says, lie in the way telecoms businesses were originally structured, and how they ran their businesses.
“A few years ago, if we weren’t exactly in a monopoly situation then it was one of managed competition. There were regulated rates of return and so there was an incentive to increase operational expenditure because operators could put the prices up accordingly.
“The industry had no incentive to be highly efficient. Allied to this, in the run up to 2000 there was also a belief in unlimited traffic growth, and operators were looking at revenues not cost. Only in the last three to four years have people been looking at the telco business as they would at any other business.
“That internal focus has come in the last two to three years, looking at how a business was organised and how it worked. And what people found was in the most part it was working as lots of little businesses — one for data, for voice, for internet, etc. I make the analogy to a supermarket in that it was the equivalent to having the greengrocery department next to the household wares and having a different checkout and billing system for each.
“Admittedly a lot of that mentality came from the fixed line operators. But one mobile operator for example has got one of everything. It has an Ericsson sub-network and a Nortel sub-network and going from one to the other is like dialling network to network. So although the mobile community is not as bad as some fixed operators it has had the same kind of mentality, being organised around the networks not the customer.”
Mobile has been through some pretty significant cost savings in he last two to three years and that has led to people looking at the business and saying “we can do better,” Willetts says.
Organisations have begun to begin with the customer, and drive their requirements through the business, instead of operating in little departmental islands. This in turn means that operators have had to look at what technology makes the process work, not the other way round. There is also going to be increasing pressure on margins and introducing services quicker.
“Mobile has had the luxury of high margins but in a saturated market new revenues will not come on stream so easily. You need cost containment and to do things faster. If a person has got to go to each little fiefdom and make changes to each standalone system, it takes a year to get anything out the door, ” Willetts sums up.
Putting this all together, planning all the systems that make an enterprise work, as Willetts puts it (“I don’t like the term OSS”) means the amalgamation of all the systems in an operator — customer care, billing, service assurance, network management, fault labelling and so on. With this in mind the TMF is in the process of producing a document called the Telecom Application Map, which is a picture of what it thinks the landscape is. Mobile Europe has seen an advance copy, and we can tell you that it is not simple. Far from it. But Willetts says such work on definition is essential as more and more functions within an operator come to rely on and take an interest in the OSS.
“Say a marketing guy has a scheme or content or a free service to promote, and needs a view of customer activity, of service availability and what billing systems can deliver. Even a simple offer can mean the operations folk say, ‘That’s difficult’, but marketing people are talking to us about the art of the possible.”
Such cooperation has not just been within operators, equipment vendors too have begun to come together to address operator concerns, although it has taken a little coaxing.
“But in times where everyone is tight for cash, that brings people to the table. Cooperation is about reducing the cost of deployment in multi-vendor environments. If Nortel is supplying into an Ericsson environment the cost of integration is higher than it should be.”
Willetts takes up the Vodafone theme. “Vodafone is rationalising its infrastructure across 80 countries, looking for a common architecture. It is using the (TMF defined) NGOSS to reinvent the architecture. And we are seeing other operators doing the same thing. NGOSS is a process map, a data map and an application map to get a common view of all the pieces and a common way of integrating.
“The impact is there is not a supplier that has not got Vodafone at the top of their list. If a supplier is in with Vodafone then he has a large landscape to address so there is a lot of bending over backwards to meet demands.”
But there is another imperative driving OSS development, and that is in fact, according to one industry expert, coming from outside the mobile industry. Not only that but OSS may be vital in the decline of the mobile industry itself in the face of an aggressive push from fixed line multi-service players.
Competition and OSS
Brian Buggy, senior vp OSS Architecture at Cramer, says that fixed line service providers’ OSS is way in advance of their mobile counterparts, as a result of already coping with triple and quadruple play environments.
“The big thing happening is that people are going from circuit to packet switched, and fixed operators from a network with one or two services to VoIP, high speed VSL, Internet access and all the rest. And it’s taking place now. The big fixed line players have an OSS structure sophisticated enough to commoditise and resell mobile telephony, but integrated with their other three plays. They have the technical horse power to stretch into the mobile business.
“Are the mobile people really aware of the threat coming over the hill, that the fixed providers want to control all the telco spending of a resident?
There is some evidence from Japan that they are, where NTT DoCoMo has started to offer a form of integrated fixed and wireless service mobility, involving the docking of a 3G handset into a homephone environment.
“I can see many other applications,” Buggy says, “But it takes the back office of a fixed operator to do that. Mobile operators don’t have the technical sophistication to do that. It’s not a symmetrical competition. BT for instance has already launched mobile services without building a network and I don’t see a mechanism by which the wireless guys could reverse the threat.”
The other view is that the marketing power of the mobile operators will come out on top in the long run.
“But the problem is you have to deliver,” counters Buggy. “If you don’t have the mechanism of delivery then you are not going to part of the future.” This will lead to mobile operators looking at how they can partner with other players, and at the modes of that partnership. To do that, OSS will be key.
“Before they invest in OSS they need to know what it is you want to make. It needs a change of behaviour from mobile operators first. Is the product catalogue of the mobile operator big enough to last them a long time?
They have been very successful with a small product range, but they have only been around for sixteen years, and need to outlast the initial wave of enthusiasm.”
Operators who may be feeling more relaxed about this are those like France Telecom, T-Mobile and Telecom Italia which can exploit fixed and mobile assets.
“If you have fixed and mobile assets then they are feeling pretty happy about themselves. If they are pure play mobile then they have more to worry about, they don’t have the wireline experience and the sophisticated OSS.
But even operators with fixed assets in one country don’t have it in other countries. So what do they do there?
“We have seen a one-stop approach by the telcos who have invested in a very focused and inflexible service delivery platform. Because there are so few products they don’t need a complex environment behind service delivery.
Investment in infrastructure for a service-ready network for three and four play is on a different scale and sophistication to that of a mobile operator.”
Mobile has been a niche application, Buggy says, and is still behaving like one. “When you look at video you are talking about making one minute editions of a popular soap. The rest of the world is thinking about high-definition video with hundreds of channels.
“There is a real danger of over-investing in certain services rather than leveraging services from sister fixed companies. In the long term as a consumer I want transparency between all my services and that transparency is what OSS has to do. The credibility of the wireless operators is about how they are going to get into your home and exploit the bigger bandwiths available. OSS will be key to that.”
And, if you follow the argument, key to their survival. It’s perhaps a slightly alarmist vision but even if you believe only a little of it, then it shows how high up the list of priorities OSS has climbed.