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Feature Article
January 2001


Frictionless Provisioning In A Fractured World


These days, frictionless or "zero-touch" provisioning is a red-hot issue in the telecommunications industry, and it's no wonder why. Service providers must now provision multiple services -- voice, data, and video -- over varied networks with unprecedented speed, ease, and accuracy. If the service provider doesn't do a good job at provisioning services in a timely manner, ramifications range from the alienation of some customers to going out of business completely. Frictionless provisioning, when accomplished via the Web with minimal human intervention, is the most practical, scalable, and cost-effective way for service providers to avoid these pitfalls.

Frictionless, Web-based provisioning requires far more than a pretty interface on the Web where customers can order their own services or make changes to existing services. Customer self-service on the front end is only the beginning. More importantly, a sophisticated back-end infrastructure must be established and maintained in order to ensure that the order is accurate, flows through automatically from department to department within the service provider, is accurately provisioned, and, ultimately, informs the customer. If the provider does not notify the customer that the service is activated or the service change carried out, the customer's perception will invariably be that the work has not been completed.

There are two primary reasons why provisioning is a tough proposition. First is the explosion of available services -- from VoDSL and VoIP to broadband wireless -- the list of potential services that are available to both business and residential customers grows every day. Second is the fact that services must be provisioned over networks of seemingly insurmountable complexity. A service provider's network typically consists of legacy circuit-switched, broadband, and packet-switched (IP) networks. Each network will often incorporate equipment from a variety of vendors running various versions of software, each with their own rules for service activation and deactivation.

Unfortunately, most of today's operations support systems (OSS) -- the software-based nerve center of any service provider -- cannot automatically handle this level of complexity. Nor can most service providers afford to deploy their highly skilled network engineers solely on the relatively simple, unfulfilling task of programming network elements to turn on new services. Success requires delivering hybrid, cutting-edge services that are end-user focused, yet are managed and provisioned automatically by "flowing through" the service provider's OSS. This is the only way service providers can optimize use of their networks, maximize customer satisfaction, and eliminate costly manual tasks.

A back-end infrastructure is available today that makes frictionless or zero-touch provisioning a reality. It allows customers to place orders on the Web, but instead of going into a "holding tank" for subsequent phone follow-up by a salesperson, orders are automatically transferred to a rules-based engine residing at the service management layer of the service provider's infrastructure.

The rules engine has open interfaces and contains the carrier's complete catalog of services, an up-to-date inventory of all the network elements (including their brands and versions of hardware and/or software), and the associated rules for supporting various services. The customer's order is automatically checked against the service provider's catalog of services and the required network elements to determine whether or not the service can be provisioned.

When a customer requests a service online, the service provider's Web site can make an API call to the rules engine in order to ensure that a requested feature configuration is valid. If during the process a problem is detected, the rules engine will pass back to the Web page, via the API, a message that will assist the user in resolving the problem. If the rules engine detects a problem with the order -- perhaps the customer wants call forwarding but already has voice mail -- it will automatically relay information, via e-mail, to the customer asking whether the customer wants to resolve the problem by dropping the request for call forwarding in lieu of voice mail.

Once the rules engine gives the green light that the service can be supported and that there are no problems, the order is automatically processed and provisioned by an intelligent activation system. The activation system translates the service request into a network element command, and programs the service on the necessary network elements, even if they reside on IP, circuit-switched, and/or broadband networks. Thus, service providers can continue to leverage legacy network systems while phasing in new elements that support state-of-the-art services.

The rules engine makes frictionless provisioning a reality, so there is no need to print out a service order or have a network engineer enter the order information into an element management system. The process is handled quickly and automatically, and the possibility of costly, time-consuming data entry errors is eliminated. Then, the system automatically confirms that services are operational. If there is a problem, the system sends an error report to an appropriate employee of the service provider.

This type of system enhances provisioning both today and for the future by delivering important benefits to service providers and customers. For example, the system gets "smarter" each time it encounters an error. Once the system "knows" about an error and the corresponding solution, it can proactively query a network engineer when the error next occurs, asking whether the problem should be fixed automatically or not.

Customer satisfaction is increased because customers can check the status of their order online, at any time during the process. Because more customers are satisfied, call volumes drop to the service provider's call center. This, in turn, reduces the service provider's support costs. Customer satisfaction is also enhanced because once the service is turned on, the system follows up via voice mail or e-mail to confirm service activation and may offer training on how to use the new service.

This proactive outreach reduces billing disputes because customers are told exactly when the service is activated. This, too, reduces calls to the call center. Up-selling is also possible as customers are given the opportunity to learn about related services that might be beneficial through these voice and e-mails.

Together, the rules engine and activation system prevent the processing of orders that have improper information or cannot be supported by the network. They also free up expensive engineering talent to focus on more challenging tasks, such as optimizing the network to deliver value-added services. Since the time needed to provision services is accelerated, the service provider realizes or receives additional revenue from the customer sooner. In addition to dramatically reducing order-processing errors, the rules engine and activation system offer the ancillary benefit of optimizing network utilization.

Low flow-through occurs when a large number of orders require manual intervention. A primary cause of low flow-through is the fact that the service provider has an inaccurate inventory of the components of its own network. The rules engine can be customized to automatically query network elements to ensure that the rules in the rules engine are always in sync with the actual network inventory. By actively entering network changes in the rules engine, service providers can reduce provisioning errors and further improve flow-through and network utilization.

While residing on the service management layer of the network, the rules engine and activation system can physically be managed from anywhere within the network. The rules engine, or knowledge base, has an open application programming interface (API) based on CORBA (common object request broker architecture) and XML. It comes pre-populated with the rules for most common network elements, covering about 70 percent of the equipment that comprises most service provider networks. Rules for additional equipment can easily be added to the system.

Instead of building their own rules engine from scratch, carriers can take advantage of an off-the-shelf system, pre-configured to include rules for most common network elements. This not only reduces costs, but significantly speeds time-to-market. Additional applications can be created by the service provider and plugged into the system to meet the unique needs of its network.

Most of today's carriers do not use a rules engine tied to both the network and an activation system. Thus, order errors are not identified and corrected up front. Instead, they are often detected late in the process when there is a stronger likelihood of disappointing the customer. In addition, when errors occur, they usually must be fixed manually, using costly, skilled resources.

With increasing network and service complexity, low flow-through is becoming a major bottleneck for service providers. The inability to solve the bottleneck in some cases has a major negative impact on the service provider's ability to deliver value-added services to the customer and, in turn, hurts its competitiveness. By utilizing a back-end infrastructure that links Web-based customer self-ordering with activation and service confirmation, service providers can achieve the instant-on, error-free, and zero-touch provisioning that will enable them to thrive in today's fiercely competitive marketplace.

Glen Hellman is vice president and general manager of 3Com Carrier Networks OSS located in Reston, VA. 3Com delivers Web-enabled solutions to consumers, small- to medium-sized business locations, and network service providers. 

[ Return To The January 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Are You Ready For EBPP? Watch Out! Here It Comes!


Today's e-world is buzzing with EBPP -- Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment -- and it's now proving to have a significant impact on the worldwide Internet landscape. EBPP, which has been around for the past few years, was originally conceived of for viewing and paying bills online, directly from a biller's Web site. That role is now expanding to include new ways to view billing information, as well as converging it with other customer information.

One of the major reasons for the rapid growth of EBPP is the important role that it can now play in e-CRM (electronic customer relationship management). It can be made the cornerstone of a rich and fully integrated customer care solution.

"Fast-moving technology companies that want to control the billing and payment process are poised to take over the online financial aspects of that customer relationship," says James Van Dyke, an analyst with Jupiter Research. The New York City-based market research firm predicts EBPP will grow faster than both online banking and online shopping over the next five years. Furthermore, they predict the following:

  • EBPP adoption will take off quickly in 2001.
  • EBPP will then double in volume through the next two years.
  • In 2003 the ability to view and pay bills online will, for the first time, become more popular than simply conducting online payment of bills that arrived via traditional delivery methods.
  • By 2005, more than 40 million households will view and pay their bills online.

Several North American billers are taking the lead in embracing EBPP, including telecommunications companies, financial institutions, and utilities. These industries see profound benefits in adopting EBPP -- with no paper bills to print and mail, operating costs are reduced significantly. A customer-centric environment is also created, which drives loyalty and creates a certain stickiness in the customer relationship.

In fact, Insight Research predicts online billing services will save telecommunications firms more than $36 million in 2000, and close to $400 million by 2004. That's because customers are notified via e-mail when the bill is online and ready for payment, providing a convenient way to pay bills and simultaneously improving the organization's accounting process. Instead of spending $2.50 to generate each paper bill per customer, states Insight Research, it costs just 20 cents per customer bill with an EBPP solution.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of EBPP is the positive affect it has on customer service. The electronic bill becomes the mechanism through which organizations can drive electronic commerce transactions, generate additional revenue, and extend the customer relationship beyond the traditional. Just as the sun must rise every morning, so too must bills be paid every month. With EBPP, the customer is guaranteed to make that trip back to the Web site because there's an online bill to be paid. Each time a customer visits the Web site, whether to view a bill or pay online, organizations have yet another opportunity to promote new services and offer solutions tailored to the customer's individual needs.

When a customer reaches a pre-determined threshold, for example by exceeding her 100-minute rate plan -- she can receive an alert to her mobile device asking if she'd like to buy more time. It helps customers to understand exactly what they are spending and encourages them to buy more services. Let's say a customer has a basic plan, but not a voice mail package. The next time she arrives at the site to pay her bill, up pops information about the latest voice mail solution. If she likes what she sees, she can automatically activate the voice mail feature without needing to speak to a sales agent or visiting a store. The result is that customers become better informed while organizations drive revenue through increased usage. Again, this is driven by way of self-service through the customer's favorite touch point, be it a printed or electronic bill, arriving via computer, mobile phone, or handheld device.

Many companies who have adopted EBPP early are extending their offerings by taking advantage of available software that allows them to wirelessly send targeted messages with an interactive component to their customers. The ability to message one-on-one quickly and cost-effectively will separate them from companies without this ability. Ultimately, the entire customer-activation process can be automated, saving those forward-thinking companies significant resources. This will not only decrease the time required to activate the services, but also increase customer satisfaction.

Oakville Hydro, one of Canada's leading utilities, recently moved into the world of EBPP to combat intense competition due to deregulation within the industry. The goal is to improve customer relations and overall customer care for the utility's 50,000 customers. Oakville Hydro allows customers to view their bills online in a fully secure environment, with plans to add an online bill payment option by early 2001. The EBPP solution will allow Oakville Hydro to add full-scale applications such as wireless meter reading in the future.

"Being an innovative service provider is a whole lot more than just providing good service at reasonable prices," says Jerry Hluchaniuk, director of information technology at Oakville Hydro, based in Oakville, Ontario. "In today's newly deregulated utility environment, our emphasis on ensuring our customers have as much access to their information wherever they want is key. Electronic bill presentment and payment allows us to complement our traditional customer care channels by offering a convenient and personalized e-care experience."

An effective EBPP solution is only as good as the platform it's built on. Presenting information to the customer involves a multitude of components including notification, integration with existing systems, promotion, and marketing. The payment mechanism must be tightly linked to an organization's internal business processes, allowing payments to be received from the Web and then easily integrated into the billing system. A mechanism must be in place to suppress paper bills for the e-bill customer. The solution must be inherently secure, involving a solid registration and authentication process.

Introducing a new service to customers doesn't mean they will automatically flock to it. A successful marketing campaign starts with education, and explains what the service does, why it's beneficial, how it works, and why it's safe to use. Initially, education could start with information inserts mailed with the paper bills, but might later be extended to online tutorials. Customer service agents must be made fully aware of what's being delivered online so they can walk customers through the initial hurdles involved with the new service.

When choosing an EBPP technology partner, look for a vendor and a solution with staying power, and make sure that it has the capacity to evolve as the industry matures. Today, EBPP in North America is mostly a Web-based phenomenon, with most of the presentation of basic information being accessed through a Web browser, but soon customers will be treated to anytime, anywhere access to billing and account information via wireless devices. This will occur through several very forward-thinking wireless carriers.

As EBPP gains ground, organizations at the forefront will win big. By offering customers the freedom to manage their accounts when and where they choose, customer loyalty will undoubtedly increase. In a nutshell, that's the key to success across industries competing for market share. 

Steven Rodin is co-founder and president of Toronto-based Davinci Technologies Inc., a leading provider of wireless and Internet customer care products and solutions. He welcomes comments at [email protected].

[ Return To The January 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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