Business/Billing Support Systems (BSS) and Operations Support Systems (OSS) are the underlying workhorses of any telecom service. OSS enables provisioning, monitors the network for troubles and makes possible overall management of the system and network. BSS hooks into the back office of a carrier, content or service provider, and literally “pays the bills” by determining caller usage and generating bills.
Interestingly, whenever Yours Truly writes a billing and OSS feature, the article inevitably focuses on billing, probably because companies are obsessed with perfecting new and exciting ways of accurately (or perhaps not always so accurately) extracting money out of customers.
Have we perfected BSS and OSS for IP Communications, or is IMS going to cause us to redesign everything and abstract them out as separate, modular items? Service providers would certainly prefer to hold onto their existing billing (and perhaps some of their OSS capabilities) as long as possible as they make the transition to IP and IMS. Will people just keep building IP-based “siloed” applications, where OSS and BSS are intimately integrated into each of these services? Inquiring minds want to know, and so I set off on my quest to check on how BSS and OSS have faired in the transition to VoIP (define - news - alert) and how IMS will affect the field as it moves forward.
For BSS on a larger scale, one finds companies such as Amdocs (news - alert) (http://www.amdocs.com) and Convergys (http://www.convergys.com), which offers a renowned managed services billing and customer care solution called InfinysTM.
Curt Champion, VP, Convergys (news - alert) Market and Product Strategy, says, “We have several offerings in the market. Our primary offering is Infinys, a fully convergent application that provides a footprint across the BSS. It was really built for people to manage any combination of products and services. It was intended to enable operators to collapse those ‘siloed’, BSS applications in step-convergent environments.”
“A lot of recent IP activity has accelerated many operators’ plans to move into that convergent environment, instead of maintaining a more traditional siloed environment,” says Champion. “This is mainly because IP creates a number of issues beyond being able to expand or bundle a new service. Improving technology and services demands are forcing operators to eliminate those barriers.”
“As for IMS, that’s really taking IP to the next level,” says Champion. “Many operators have been able to maintain most of their legacy environments to roll out IP services, but with IMS you really have to transition or transform your BSS and OSS to take full advantage of IMS and to be able to achieve such tings as fixed/mobile convergence [FMC].”
“So yes, I think many operators today have found a way to support their initial IP deployments,” says Champion. “Things such as IMS and online charging will force them to rethink their BSS and OSS situation and move to more of a converged environment.”
“A whole new set of standards are emerging with IMS and many of these are still being developed,” says Champion. “Others are still being tested with some pilot projects. So there’s still a long way to go before you have a stable standard-based environment to be able to fully launch IMS. Things like Verizon’s A-IMS [Advances to IMS] really isn’t a standard yet, right? They’re talking about A-IMS as a way to take the standards and have a deployable version of IMS, but again, it’s one thing to have a primary set of standards to be able to potentially test a small pilot project, but it’s another thing to have a set of standards that enables you to do a major rollout into the market. We’ll all learn along the way. Standards will be adapted and at the end of the day we’ll have something that makes it easier for operators to be able to roll out IMS. Fortunately, we at Convergys feel that we’re in a good position because many of our clients are working on pilots today. BT, which is probably the most aggressive operator in the IMS space, is consolidating entirely onto our Infinys platform to support the rollout of its 21st Century network.”
“Billing for IP is different than for circuit-switched environments,” says Champion, “because circuit-switched technology was predominantly voiceoriented. When talking about billing, there were definitely different things that you had to do from the order/capture perspective: the whole provisioning area, for example, was very different. The types of data that had to be collected and the way you mediated and got billable transactions in the rating schemes were very different in the circuit- switched world than what you encounter in the IP world today. The different types, ranges and complexity of the events created on an IP network are much different than the known and relatively restricted set of data and events that you get off a switched network. Just the whole bundling of services, the types of transactions, and discounting schemes are much more complex in IP than anything that was ever rolled out in a switched environment.”
“The speed-to-market, or how quickly a new product can be launched in an IP environment compared to the old switched environment, is totally different,” says Champion. “So you have to really invest in a platform that makes it very easy, both on the BSS and OSS side, so that you can dynamically build and launch new products in more of a realtime process, instead of what was probably the norm in a switched environment, where new product introductions were lengthy 12- to 18-month projects. Our customers now measure product launches in days, not months. So launching and configuring a product quickly is critical to be able to leverage operators’ investments in new IP networks and broadband.”
OSS Gets some Glamor
With all this talk over revolutions in billing and BSS, we tend to forget that OSS encompasses a lot more technology and has been subject to as great (or even greater) changes on the road to VoIP and IMS.
“OSS has been more widely affected over the last few years than has billing,” says Ben Levi, President of APEX Voice Communications http://www.apexvoice.com). With the onset of SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol] and the ability to do provisioning via XML and SOAP interfaces, I believe that the OSS interfaces are now much simpler than ever before. We don’t do much OSS in terms of provisioning for other companies but we have now interfaced with quite a few OSS systems via SOAP. So it’s a lot easier in instances where, for example, you have a prepaid calling card system or a prepaid cell phone system, they can provision users right out of their provision system via SOAP and XML through your defined WSDL [Web Services Description Language] documents, WSDL being XML format for describing a network service and the formation of such things as SOAP packets. With these standard definitions, it’s very easy for these big companies to start provisioning things such as prepaid calling cards, or prepaid cards with voicemail or call forwarding, or what-not. Real-time billing, incidentally, is offered to service providers as part of our APEX prepaid package.”
“As for IMS,” says Levi, “The BSS and OSS systems used to be highly integrated into siloed applications. Now under IMS the OSS and BSS components must be broken into modular pieces and abstracted so that they’ll work with the multitude of new services that will be developed under IMS. Some operators say, ‘That’s not entirely possible, because there’s always some sort of special connection between services and BSS and OSS’. They say that it’s difficult if not impossible to actually separate BSS and OSS from the developed applications, but I tend to disagree with that statement. People who say that haven’t yet embraced the open standards. It’s funny, because why are they playing in the IMS world if not because it’s based on completely open standards?”
“IMS uses DIAMETER for authorization and it could even use it for billing as well,” says Levi, “since it has an open interface. As for provisioning, we at APEX are in a deal right now where we’re putting up a brand new, greenfield cdma2000 network. We’ll supply the configuration’s SIP [Session Initiation Protocol] application server. But the billing company for this project is also doing the OSS and they provision all of the other parts via SOAP and XML. They provision our unified messaging that way too, which happens to be IMScompliant. The CDMA provider is provisioned that way as well. People looking toward adopting the standards find that it makes things easier to do.”
“We just had a vendors’ meeting for this big greenfield opportunity I’ve been talking about,” says Levi. “and everyone around the table was saying, ‘You know what’s still the killer app? Voice!’ Everyone hates to hear that, but it’s true. Voice is what pays the bills. The operators are looking to deliver video onto all of the cell phones, but it’s still not paying the bills. The killer app is what gets people to the provider’s server. In the US, that’s key. With Sprint, Cingular and the other carriers the service is pretty much the same. They all say that they’ve got the best network and the fewest dropped calls. But what gets people to switch carriers is a new ringback or some new application that they find cool. That’s where a good killer app in the IMS world is going to come from.”
“And with SIP, the billing process will once again become as accurate as the old TDM billing systems,” says Levi. “We had problems with SIP’s predecessor and competitor, H.323, but SIP is great.”