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    SQM all grown up?


    The regular news of postponed launches of 3G services from a number of operators because of reported service quality problems is indicative of the service quality pressures that the mobile service providers are coming under. Coming close on the heels of a report by UK consumers’group Which? that effectively warns customers off 3G until prices fall and service quality gets better, it’s clear that many mobile operators, billions of euros later, are now having to put their reputations directly on the line, or at least in this context, over the airwaves.

    Quality of service has always been a fairly problematical kind of topic in telecoms, at least since the emergence of mobility and the introduction of data services. Historically, under the days of the old monopoly utilities, service quality could vary extremely widely. The networks themselves may have worked extremely efficiently, but customer service was often dreadful. With no alternative suppliers on the horizon, customers largely had to put up with long waiting times for new phones, with little comeback if bills were faulty or faults kept occurring.

    Today, the picture couldn’t be more different — at least on the surface. There’s no shortage of competition for customers in the mobile space and the increasingly widespread availability of mobile number portability in countries around the world has put the pressure up a notch or several. It’s also obvious that mobile service providers are also becoming exposed to a lot more risk as they expand into the delivery of content and applications to both the business and lifestyle and youth markets.

    Customers at a push can usually find another voice phone to make a speech call on in an emergency. The same obviously isn’t true when you’ve been expecting your mobile device to securely access a corporate database, or you find your handset keeps crashing when you try to download an expensive music and video track — yet you still get billed for the transaction.

    While 2G certainly had quality problems in its early days, with networks being rapidly rolled out and engineers having to learn on the job about radio performance in their own particular locations, the wireless and circuit-switched technologies involved were fairly straightforward. Once you bring data services and W-CDMA into the equation however, things suddenly get a lot more complex in a variety of directions.

    Lengthening value chain
    For a start, the value chain gets a lot longer, with many third parties becoming involved in service or content delivery. Secondly, the technical complexity of that value chain grows exponentially, from the multiple handset devices that must be supported to the performance of all the protocols such as SIP and RTP involved in delivering the services. Finally, there’s the internal organisation of the mobile service provider to consider. Has enough been done to create a real and unifying culture of shared quality within the operator, or are different departments still squabbling amongst themselves ? After a number of years of being in what one industry QoS expert called ‘a state of denial’ about these problems, the mobile sector has been starting to get its act together. Work by the TeleManagement Forum has resulted in deliverables such as the SLA Handbook and the Wireless Service Measurements Handbook, useful material for anyone looking to get a proper understanding of the different roles of Key Performance Indicators and Business Performance Indicators and how they can be used to both increase customer loyalty and cut operating costs simultaneously. More recently, at the TMF’s Long Beach conference, Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, NEC and Siemens jointly announced that they will work together on common OSS system specifications, standardized interfaces for peer-to-peer element management, and common testing and verification practices.

    One of the key points behind work like this is the emphasis that they put on considering the service provider organisation as a whole, rather than as purely the sum of all the different job functions and processes involved in providing what could be called ‘quality’ service. For Scott Erickson, VP of Wireless Sales at Telcordia, there’s strong evidence that mobile operators now realise that they have a problem to fix — collectively, “Historically, service quality was looked at in very network-centric ways and the chief engineer was in charge of basic quality parameters that really concentrated on connectivity. Now that mobile service providers have come to truly focus on services as their differentiator, they’re putting new organisational structures into place that span multiple organisational disciplines, from marketing to network planning.
    “Now, if these new organisations are going to work successfully, they’re going to need the right information on the underlying network and service performance and that requires new supporting systems. Systems like our own Service Director product are beginning to appear, capable of collecting performance data from a wide variety of different sources and then, just as importantly, presenting it in ways that are appropriate to the different job and team functions within a service provider. A CEO, for example, needs totally different types of information to that needed by a network engineer trying to resolve a network problem at ground level.

    “There’s a real push on at the moment for customer retention in many countries around the world at the moment as number portability takes effect. There are also, especially in Europe, drives by multinational mobile service providers to bring consistent service quality management principles and processes to bear across their different member companies. Complementing this, in some regions, is a growing awareness of the potential importance of MVNOs as significant strategic partners. If they can’t get the service quality they want from one provider they’ll soon go elsewhere with an accompanying loss of wider confidence in their services.”

    This implied threat of churn is particularly acute in servicing the enterprise market is also recognised by Kieran Moynihan, CTO of specialist SQM system vendor, Watchmark-Comnitel, “In highly developed, mature markets such as Europe, North America and parts of the AsiaPacific region service providers are finally recognising that they have to become truly customer-centric in their approaches to service quality — and manage both the network and other parts of their operations in appropriate ways. The complexities involved in offering consistent service quality over increasingly heterogenous networks where EDGE, UMTS, CDMA 1X, EV-DO and other technologies are being rolled out are definitely non-trivial, yet all ideally have to be brought in under one quality banner.

    If that’s the top down perspective, what’s the view from the ground up, where fault and performance data is actually gathered? Thomas Jensen, sales and marketing VP with network monitoring specialist NetTest explains, “As the metabolism of the mobile industry speeds up, with services being created and getting to market far faster than was ever the case in the past, some significant changes need to take place in the ways that service quality data is gathered. For most of their past, telecommunications service providers have been able to get away with largely gathering data in batch mode, with fault reporting being a historic process. That now has to shift to cope with a much more dynamic environment, not just because more services are becoming available, but because network and service conditions can change so rapidly under the influence of new data applications or variations in radio performance caused by greatly increased traffic in particular cells.
    “This is particularly true if you look at the pressures on service providers to offer self-provisioning services to their customers in an attempt to limit rapidly rising support costs. When you throw in a complex mix of new protocols and technologies, it’s essential that you can provide the data required to anticipate or resolve problems quickly.”

    In terms of service quality, there’s also something of a major re-examination underway when it comes to better understanding what customers actually mean when they talk about quality. Important standardisation work has been recently done by the ITU in defining the parameters for speech quality over both mobile and IP networks and activity continues in the commercial world to apply these principles to video as well. According to John Winchester, CEO of quality assessment company Psytechnics, “Mobile operators need to have systems in place to monitor the customer’s actual experience of voice or video services. If they do, they can find out whether a call might have finished because of voice quality problems — and, if they’re a corporate customer, find out if the service they’re getting really meets the SLAs in place. The kinds of data that you get from most QoS systems don’t provide this sort of information. To support this, we’ve developed applications that can downloaded onto platforms like Symbian, Brew and Windows CE to report back directly and automatically over SMS , as well as run on the usual network infrastructures.”

    In its widest context, service quality has to be seen as an essential risk management discipline, and one that’s important to everyone within a service provider organisation. The main problems though won’t probably be to do with the underlying systems, which are slowly but surely coming together. As ever, it takes far longer to re-engineer the human beings operating those systems, than the systems themselves.