VOIP MAY BE SNOWBALLING IN
acceptance among enterprises and consumers, but the provisioning of all those new VoIP customer order requests has emerged as a new front in the war against inefficiency. Service providers are discovering they have to first fulfill back-office requirements before they can fulfill the promise of VoIP.
VoIP provisioning is a complex series of interrelated steps.
Source:Atreus Systems Inc.
Order provisioning is a semi-manual process for many VoIP service providers, who simply are extending existing OSS to support the service. Also, complications stem from number portability which requires a submission via e-mail or fax to the LEC. The resulting delay in service activation and general lack of visibility into the process often results in errors, dissatisfied customers, missed revenue opportunities and an increased risk for customer churn or deactivation.
Service provisioning for VoIP includes standard steps like porting numbers, CPE configuration, configuring features, setting default attributes, enabling directory assistance and E911, integrating customer data into a self-care portal and setting up the billing. Other steps in the process may include shipping and tracking of CPE or the provisioning of access services, building interfaces with clearinghouses and wholesalers, and integrating with CRM applications.
Its a flexible, and therefore complex, service environment, says Andrew Hurrell, director of product marketing at Atreus Systems, which makes a software platform to provision VoIP, Internet access, hosted e-mail, IPTV and IMS-related services, while allowing flexible service bundling. This is not a simple flow-through process, he adds.
Also, as voice is embedded into applications, providers must treat it as the first of many IP services, and should be ready for the future. Instead of simple connectivity, service providers are now offering applications, so you need to have one fulfillment platform to handle all those services, present and future, riding on one IP network, says Mark Nicholson, CTO at Syndesis, whose NetProvision platform offers automatic configuration, activation and discovery of data services.
Thus, those service providers extending legacy infrastructure for VoIP could be at a particular disadvantage, finding themselves unable to scale in the end. If you treat VoIP like PSTN voice and try to use the same systems, you are off to a challenging start, says Nicholson. Provisioning and assurance systems have to be IPoriented. [Then] you can achieve 90- plus percent automation. He adds that while providers are loathe to shuffle off the existing systems for which they paid billions, providers can spend more money retrofitting than they would building a new stack.
Beyond the technology, number porting is one of the largest hurdles VoIP providers face when provisioning an order. Particularly businesses, but also many consumers, want to take their numbers with them when they move from the RBOC. While enabling the capability is federally mandated, the process often is fraught with delays, request rejections without notification and other entanglements.
Up to 85 percent of customers want to port their numbers, says Kirby Altman, director of VoIP solutions at Sigma Systems, whose OSS service management platform handles provisioning for IP services. Its a complex process, and the LEC has no incentive to make it easy, and there are lots of orders, he explains. Anecdotally, people have been known to wait four months for the number to port, and they dont get status updates in the meantime.
To ease the process, service providers should check and double check the accuracy of the account data, such as the postal addresses, which are critical for porting because of E911 requirements. Also, services must be unbundled. If the customers RBOC account includes dial tone and DSL, that will cause the porting request to fail. Also, if the person has a main line and a kids number, the two must be handled with separate porting requests. The key is knowing what the details are, and to ask all the relevant questions upfront, says Don MacNeil, executive director of carrier services at XO Communications Inc., which offers wholesale VoIP. A series of qualifying questions, or third-party validation of customers service records, can head a lot of grief off at the pass.
Successful provisioning for VoIP is also a question of managing the chaos of a complex service environment through process planning. Scheduling even more so than e-bonding can automate some of the steps, says Atreus Systems Hurrell. You may have 15 steps in the provisioning stream, and you can minimize the number of touch points, but you need a checklist and manual oversights to make sure things are done.
To tackle the business problem, service providers can model the process to include regulations and flexible workflow rules. An order may change during provisioning, depending on the jurisdiction, so you have to be flexible and adaptable, says Hurrell. This allows for dealing with error instances, such as not hearing back from the ILEC on the number portability request. We call those exceptions, but theyre not rare, and you have to plan for them.
Atreus Systems uses a workflow process engine to model a success path, including each provisioning step and how long it should take. The model includes rules saying step A must be complete before step B can be done. We wire in exception processes, such as flag triggers and automatic e-mail notifications, says Hurrell. The platform also has standard steps embedded and pre-integrated interfaces to NeuStar Inc. and top VoIP wholesaler Level 3 Communications Inc., with the ability for providers to add tiers of customized functionality as needed.
Preston Gilmer, vice president of product marketing at Sigma Systems, says his platform defines unified messaging, voice mail, call features and dial tone generically, so providers can apply business rules and automated processes to adapt the system for how they tie services together, whether thats over FTTH, DSL, wireless, cable or other means, and tracks the data for management reporting. Even on the best days, there are problems, he says. VoIP orders can take two weeks and many steps so errors can snowball before you ever realize it. Manual tracking cant relate it to the area of the process that needs the management attention.
Atreus Systems also provides metrics to pinpoint trouble spots. When going from order to provisioning, you can get lost in the details, says Hurrell. But if you can look at a volume of data, you can find some chronic things in the process, statistics and patterns that are helpful to diagnose issues.
Another challenge for VoIP providers is a cultural one. Providers entering the VoIP world often lack a familiarity, endto- end, of the service they are getting into. In IP, many people come from a nontelecom background, explains Altman.
They dont have the expertise in the 150- odd years of regulation and telephone arcane. Ports can be rejected for all kinds of reasons. A skilled staff is needed to read the process data and figure it out.
VoIP presents a challenge even for those with telecom expertise, says Leonard Sheahan, director of provisioning solutions at MetaSolv Software Inc., which just released Provisioning 5 to orchestrate provisioning and manage internal network buildouts for broadband, IP, data and mobile services. The VoIP network is distributed multiple access paths, call servers, media servers, feature servers and so on, he says. In the old days, an order would talk to a switch, but now its a totally different game. In a fixed network, the telephone number and the phone are uniquely coupled. Not so with VoIP.
To handle the cultural shift, MetaSolv meets with back-office staff specifically to air concerns and put together processes to handle new services and material challenges.
Since the sheer complexity involved in provisioning can suck all profit out of a business model, service providers could offload provisioning to a wholesaler such as XO, Global Crossing, MCI Inc. or Level 3.
With VoIP, like it or not, you just got into the consumer phone business, says XOs MacNeil. So scaling the back office becomes critical. You have to be able to do a one-number transaction and still make money. Thats what we can do well.
Even if outsourcing order activations, setting realistic customer expectations is advisable because the road to provisioning for VoIP potentially is riddled with potholes. That includes guaranteeing reasonable delivery dates and making sure the self-care process is intuitive. CLEC integration alone requires hundreds of interrelated steps, and the operational pain point comes a lot quicker for VoIP, says Gilmer.
VoIP customers also expect a whole new level of service. Beyond PSTN-like quality, they want more value-added features … call control and customization, says Nicholson. They want to go to a portal and set rules of interaction and have it done. From a fulfillment point of view, that requires a high level of automation, from the configuration to the back office to the network, then back out to the self-care portal.
Hurrell adds, If it takes two 30- minute calls to get a consumer VoIP customer up and running, its hard to make money and hard to scale, says Hurrell. An unhappy customer will churn back to the ILEC.
In theory, the better the fulfillment experience and ease of use, the more customers will use value-added features. Youre packaging this amazing, complicated technology to enable Grandma to order and make use of it, says Hurrell. This is the hairy edge of using the really cool stuff, but not making it rocket science. In order for VoIP to change how the communications industry works, we need to get past the table stakes. Saving $5 a month is not a compelling enough case to put in a packetized version of what I already have in my house.
|Atreus Systems www.atreus-systems.com
Global Crossing www.globalcrossing.com
Level 3 Communications Inc. www.level3.com
MCI Inc. www.mci.com
MetaSolv Software Inc. www.metasolv.com
NeuStar Inc. www.neustar.biz
Sigma Systems www.sigma-systems.com
Syndesis Ltd. www.syndesis.com
XO Communications Inc. www.xo.com