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February 2000


State-Of-The-Art Support Technology For State-Of-The-Art Service


With people routinely buying, communicating, and executing the daily tasks of life online, expectations for convenience and instant gratification are becoming higher and higher. To meet these heightened expectations, businesses are striving to redefine themselves in order to deliver their products and services at Internet speed.

For communications service providers, the customer-service bar is perhaps higher than in any other industry. Competition has given customers choice, they are knowledgeable about their alternatives and when dissatisfied they do not hesitate to switch providers. Whether they are seeking basic telephone service or Internet access, customers expect to be able to place orders easily and see them executed promptly and accurately.

People have adapted astonishingly quickly to the time-saving power of the Internet. They already take for granted their ability to order airline tickets, books, and computers online so they can take delivery within a day or two. Imagine how surprised they must be to discover that ordering a high-tech service like Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) could take a month or more as their orders make their way through a minefield of mistakes and delays. [Go to a diagram about these delays.] From the customer perspective, there is no excuse for such service delays. They are not interested -- nor should they have to be -- in the difficulties service providers face as they build or upgrade complex operational support systems (OSS) to manage the deployment of technically challenging services.

No carrier can expect to successfully offer a leading-edge service based on outdated systems and procedures. Marketing, selling, and deploying state-of-the-art service requires state-of-the-art support technology. While some customers are willing, or even prefer, to work with a service representative by telephone as they choose a service such as Internet access or wireless, most expect at least the option of placing their order through a providers' Web site. After placing an order on the Internet, customers often prefer to monitor its status and later manage their accounts online.

To deliver these capabilities, service providers must link their OSS to an Internet front-end for their customers and, on the back end, tie in their suppliers and partners. This end-to-end automation creates a ZeroTouch environment in which service providers minimize the manual tasks associated with taking and executing orders decreasing the potential for human error throughout the supply chain. Additionally, providers save time and money by eliminating duplication of effort as employees enter and re-enter information into dissociated systems. Most importantly, a ZeroTouch solution ensures that customers receive the service they've asked for in a prompt and precise fashion.

A ZeroTouch Case Study
DSL.net Inc., a New Haven, CT-based integrated services, Internet-access, and high-speed data services provider serving small and mid-sized businesses, is among the first alternative communications service providers to recognize -- and act on -- the benefits of flow-through provisioning. Several business-critical issues prompted DSL.net to invest in the creation of a ZeroTouch environment, according to Mark Shine, vice president of customer operations and IT for DSL.net. A primary goal was to facilitate through automation the often-frustrating process of acquiring a DSL-capable loop from the local provider for serving a potential DSL customer.

Prior to implementing a ZeroTouch solution, most of the placement and management of service orders was dependent on manual processes. People typed and retyped data, printed order forms, and carried these forms from pillar to post and peer. They faxed them to ILECs, which performed similar manual tasks on their end. Not surprisingly, people made mistakes; each mistake meant another delay in the customers' order. Industrywide, research shows that errors occur in as many as 60 percent of DSL service orders. The turnaround time on confirmation for local loop service requests was as much as two weeks.

For alternate service providers, the trickiest part of provisioning DSL service is gaining local-loop access to the customer. The ILECs that control the local loop operate behemoth legacy OSSs that can appear to be a Byzantine tangle of linked internal systems, legacy business rules, and archaic applications. Unquestionably, the ILECs are making strides to update these systems. But for now the burden of facilitating an efficient exchange of information rests with the alternative providers requesting local access.

In the past, DSL.net customer service representatives manually logged in to an ILEC's GUI in order to re-enter information from a customer order. Since each ILEC's system is different, service reps had to be trained in the use of each. Compounding the risk of error, there can be as many as eight service providers involved in delivering a national DSL service to a particular multi-location customer. Whenever there are multiple points of data entry, the risk of making mistakes increases significantly.

In contrast, in a ZeroTouch environment, information is logged in to the system once, the order is edited to comply with industry standards, and the "validated" version is delivered electronically to the ILEC's system. As a result, DSL.net technicians no longer carry a stack of order-placement documents by hand to colleagues who are responsible for some other piece of the process. Instead, technicians launch local-service requests from their desktops, initiating an e-commerce process that has slashed the error rate and drastically reduced the time that customers wait for their DSL service. By delivering order information to the incumbent local-exchange carriers electronically, DSL.net receives order confirmations from the ILEC in as little as a few days, Mr. Shine says, rather than as much as two weeks.

Empowering Customers With Internet-Based Ordering
This success is no accident. It is the direct result of implementing a ZeroTouch solution that applies Internet-based software and services to the order-management and service-provisioning processes so that customers can easily select, order, obtain, and use high-bandwidth services. Automating these tasks increases customer satisfaction, gives providers a competitive edge, and accelerates revenue growth.

"Think about thousands of orders being walked around a business, versus being managed electronically in an information system that has the intelligence to route the work and validate tasks," says Mr. Shine. "It's a huge benefit."

The ZeroTouch architecture that DSL.net has implemented simply involves applying technology wherever possible to automate and integrate the steps involved in placing, tracking, and executing orders, as well as managing and billing for the services that customers have chosen. DSL.net turned its attention to two specific points in the value chain: The interface to its customers and the interface to the local service provider. The company's goal was to create an end-to-end flow of information -- a ZeroTouch process -- from the customer placing the order, through its OSS, to the OSS of its partner delivering access to the local loop, back to the DSL.net OSS and finally, to complete the process, back to the customer.

For DSL.net to achieve this goal, the company worked with several partners. NightFire Software, Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., conceived and trademarked the ZeroTouch process. By automating DSL.net's service-order management process with its SupplierExpress 2.0 solution, NightFire provided a critical component of the high-speed Internet access provider's next-generation OSS. Rather than attempting to build its own solution, DSL.net elected to link best-of-class solutions from companies that specialize in specific aspects of DSL deployment.

DSL.net's integrated OSS solution, which comprises MetaSolv's Telecom Business Solution (TBS) software and NightFire's SupplierExpress 2.0, among other partners, provides customer care, trouble ticketing, network inventory, element management, workflow, billing, and middleware capabilities. The systems integrator on the project, BusinessEdge Solutions, Inc., worked with DSL.net to link MetaSolv's TBS software and NightFire's interface to DSL.net's suppliers. The MetaSolv and NightFire professional service teams played key roles in assisting the DSL.net team in the deployment. The result: DSL.net is bringing new services to market faster, managing them in real time and increasing customer satisfaction.

Since many service providers are finding that the fastest, most effective way to upgrade their OSS to support Web-based transactions with customers and other suppliers is to seek outside help. NightFire has created a family of packaged software applications that automate the service providers' business processes, from pre-sales inquiry through workflow assignment.

The Next-Generation OSS Environment
While DSL.net's solution functions as an integrated whole, it is essential to understand the individual components that combine to create a ZeroTouch environment. The process begins when a DSL.net customer qualifies themselves on-line. This data is captured by MetaSolv's order management and workflow subsystem, which provides the means for DSL.net to monitor the order process, and workflow of the service request, the utilization of its resources -- in terms of personnel, systems and the network itself -- and ultimately turn on service. As part of the workflow process, MetaSolv maps the retail order to an industry standard LSR (Local Service Request) then triggers NightFire to take the LSR information and send it directly to other trading partners.

NightFire's SupplierExpress 2.0 provides a uniform interface to all DSL suppliers, regardless of the interface standards or connectivity mechanisms they support. The individual ILEC interfaces incorporated in SupplierExpress are ready-to-install gateways that eliminate the need for DSL.net to write and add its own LSR and Access Service Request (ASR) gateways from the OSS to trading partners. Once the order is clean and ready, SupplierExpress for DSL version 2.0 takes over. SupplierExpress uses standard object-oriented software and hardware to create Web-enabled order management, provisioning and supply-chain management processes. In the DSL.net case, NightFire automates the supply chain management processes and MetaSolv is the order front end.

SupplierExpress is continually upgraded to stay current with changes that occur to service-provider interfaces, and new supplier interfaces are easily added using a drag-and-drop tool that dynamically incorporates these new components without additional software programming.

Getting The Local Loop
The DSL service order challenge stems in part from the lack of standards: Each ILEC has developed a different process for accepting, processing and responding to service requests. Automating a non-standard process is difficult and potentially would consume too much time, energy and money -- resources that few alternative providers have to spare. With customer requests for service piling up, the natural temptation is to try to swim faster, not to learn a new stroke. This is where proven, off-the-shelf solutions can be invaluable.

Using SupplierExpress 2.0, DSL.net is able to automatically order local loops -- the phone lines that complete a DSL connection -- from whichever incumbent provider the customer uses for local telephone service. SupplierExpress 2.0 includes links to Pacific Bell, US West, GTE, Southwestern Bell, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, and BellSouth. The direct link that SupplierExpress provides to the ILECs eliminates the need for DSL.net to fill out and fax lengthy forms. The time-consuming and expensive practice of manually preparing and faxing forms is a tremendous burden on alternative service providers like DSL.net. Assuming the process is error-free, each service-order can easily cost as much as $17 a piece to fax. In truth, mistakes and retransmissions are common and the total cost of faxing a service order to an ILEC can skyrocket as high as $200 per order.

Since NightFire's packaged SupplierExpress interface is integrated with DSL.net's order-management system, orders are carried out quickly following the business rules and workflow processes that are built in. For example, the workflow system incorporated in MetaSolv's TBS enables DSL.net to evaluate each order to determine which services have been requested and then assign the component actions that must be carried out by DSL.net itself and by its external suppliers and partners. Throughout the process, each action can easily be monitored to ensure everything is on track and the customer's order will be completed in a timely fashion.

Perhaps in the future, these processes will be standardized. The success of the Internet, in large part, stems directly from the commitment service providers, software vendors, and equipment manufacturers have exhibited to standards. With a similar approach in the telecom industry, it would be much easier to create automated processes to support new services like DSL because information could flow unchanged through all of the systems in the supply chain. Without such standards, DSL providers must assume responsibility for expediting and integrating these processes.

Building A Scalable Solution
The tools that automate the order, provisioning and supply-chain management processes are complex systems. While they are mission-critical for all alternative providers -- be they competitive local exchange carriers, broadband service providers, Internet service providers, PC vendors, or Web portals -- it is not necessary for these providers to attempt to create a solution on their own. As we have seen, even software developers are choosing to focus on parts of the process, develop their expertise, and partner with other software developers to create a complete solution.

Since NightFire and MetaSolv have incorporated gateways and open Application Program Interfaces (APIs) into their solutions, service providers like DSL.net can reach more markets -- including customer, business-partner and supplier -- electronically. By developing flow-through electronic order and provisioning capabilities, service providers effectively extend the boundaries of their OSS and even the network itself. Calling on the expertise of a specialized eBusiness integrator like BusinessEdge Solutions allows complex OSS integration projects to be executed quickly and cost effectively. BusinessEdge and NightFire installed SupplierExpress at DSL.net ahead of schedule, which will enable DSL.net to deepen its market penetration and support increasing demand for DSL services, according to Mr. Shine.

Behind a commitment to industry standards, the vendors have created solutions that are open and scaleable; they can be customized to suit the needs of all providers. Furthermore, these systems can be implemented in stages, allowing users to increase functionality or incorporate new features as business demands and market opportunities dictate.

BusinessEdge has worked extensively with NightFire to incorporate the latter's ZeroTouch automation methodologies with its next-generation OSS strategy. Together, NightFire, MetaSolv and BusinessEdge deliver the competitive advantage associated with Internet-enabled transaction processes, flow-through order placement and service provisioning, and automated customer-relationship management.

The rapid uptake of DSL services last year coupled with projections of millions of new customers this year has made it clear that this broadband solution is here to stay. Providers have a window of opportunity right now as customers make their choices. But the stakes are high and the competition is stiff. The winners will be those providers that take ZeroTouch to heart by allowing customers to place orders and manage their accounts on the Web; and automate and integrate their OSS to enable flow-through order-placement, provisioning, and billing.

Creating a ZeroTouch environment can help a DSL provider stay ahead of its rivals by facilitating the potentially troublesome process of gaining access to the local loop and allowing them to respond more quickly to customer demands and market conditions. The technology and expertise are available to create an integrated OSS capable of handling a broad range of indispensable processes, ranging from service deployment, work-force automation, and quality of service management to billing, customer care and customer-relationship management. Once automated and integrated, these fundamental business processes become market differentiators and competitive weapons.

Few alternative providers have automated their business processes enough to reap the exponential gains that are possible, but this is changing rapidly. Service providers are learning more about the solutions and expertise they can leverage for the future. The market for broadband services -- both business and residential -- is up for grabs. Providers that focus on their core business while taking advantage of packaged, customizable solutions and skilled integrators to build a next-generation, ZeroTouch OSS will garner their share of this promising market -- and perhaps their competitors' share as well.

Keith Giarman is vice president of worldwide field operations for NightFire Software, Inc. NightFire, based in Berkeley, CA, streamlines broadband deployment to businesses and consumers by providing communications service providers with unique e-infrastructure solutions. NightFire's ZeroTouch approach automates the entire service management process -- from selection to fulfillment. Visit them online a www.nightfire.com.

DSL Today: Agony For Subscribers
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DSL Today: Agony For Subscribers

Graphic courtesy of NightFire.

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