Because cable operators have focused on serving residential subscribers, commercial markets remain largely untapped, representing potential sources of new revenues. While the market for commercial services exceeds $120 billion, customer expectations and technical requirements exceed those of residential offerings. In the near future, deployable technology will mature so operators will be able not only to reach parity with telco offerings, but also surpass them in speed, innovation and customer experience. This is no time for operators to wait for technological developments. Rather, they must begin a phased entrance into commercial services, growing in step with developing technologies while seizing customers. While most operators are familiar with new residential services technologies, commercial opportunities will extend into a range of multimedia services and features. To exploit these new opportunities requires a well-planned approach to operational support systems (OSS), stressing visibility, speed to market, minimized expenses, automation and customer control. The OSS cannot be an afterthought. Business models Looking into the competitive landscape, taking on incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) in the large enterprise segment is not a sensible first step. Though there are long-term opportunities, in the short term such a strategy is not feasible because of the complexity of requirements, geographic range of customers, and provider loyalty or contractual obligation. For years, however, ILECs have overlooked small and medium businesses (SMBs) in their effort to focus on large enterprises. Wading into the SMB market first makes sense for cable operators, but consider the differences between a residential customer’s requirements and those of small or home-based business. The differences boil down to more stringent demands for quality, reliability, problem diagnosis and resolution, and quality of customer experience. A phased, incremental approach begins to unfold when one considers the possible approaches to launching commercial services targeted to SMBs. The majority of services are based on an operator managed, single or multi-site model, contrasting with customer-managed models, often the preference with large enterprises. Typical SMBs have neither large IT nor telecom management staffs, so pushing management’s burden onto them, in such cases, fails to exploit the opportunity to improve the customer’s experience. The cost and risk can dissuade the customer from trying new services, making the operator-managed approach sensible. Initial ventures into the SMB should focus on customers whose requirements are within reach. The idea is to target the "low hanging fruit" initially without over-extending the deployable technology, waiting for technology that isn’t market-ready, or stepping too far outside the cable operator’s ability to support services and deliver quality customer experiences. With all the recent arguments around session initiation protocol (SIP) and other technologies, focus is often lost on delivering quality services to the customer based on technologies that, if somewhat simple, are at least ready for prime time deployment. Rather than stressing the available feature sets from the get-go, cable operators can gain critical competitive advantages by focusing on high quality customer experiences and increasing levels of customer control over services through self-care portals. As service technologies become more intelligent and the supporting back office fully automated, customer self-service portals will become increasingly functional, serving both administrative and end-user functions. This kind of personalized functionality is ultimately dependent on the strength and end-to-end automation of the OSS managing background processes and the combination of network and service technologies. Technical debates Rapidly advancing services and features are the direct result of maturing technologies, becoming increasingly integrated, re?ned and productized. It is important to understand the current limitations, however, and how ongoing development intends to address them. Today, basic arguments revolve around voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) signaling, though this is ultimately only the tip of the iceberg. Currently, PacketCable supports network control signaling (NCS), essentially mimicking the public switched telephone network’s (PSTN’s) central and end of?ce model. (See Figure 1.) In NCS deployments, device intelligence remains within the network domain, and the end points-such as telephone handsets-are essentially dumb terminals. PacketCable bolsters NCS with security and quality of service (QoS) features as well as regulatory requirements such as network power, E911 support and Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) readiness for compliance with law enforcement. SIP, unlike NCS, operates in a peer-to-peer (P2P) mode with intelligent end-user devices enabling advanced features, multimedia integration, presence and mobility. (See Figure 2.) While offered by more vendors in more con?gurations than PacketCable or NCS, SIP does not include any inherent QoS, security features or regulatory compliance. From an OSS perspective, supporting SIP’s nonstatic mode of operations sets the stage for future multimedia deployments. The question-should the operator choose to adopt nonPacketCable SIP capabilities today to pursue commercial opportunities, or do its best with NCS? Doing the latter means waiting for PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) to bring dynamic QoS (DQoS) and PacketCable V2.0 which will incorporate SIP and add security and regulatory compliance. An OSS timeline The role of OSS is critical because the right approach can drive major competitive advantages, while the wrong approach guarantees high costs and lethargy in getting to market. The overall goal of an integrated service management platform is to transform the OSS from being a roadblock to innovation to being a key differentiator for deploying multiple services. Today we see an opportunity not to repeat the mistakes telcos made in deploying OSS infrastructures on a service-by-service basis. After the fact, these organizations attempted to stitch systems and groups together with loose, slow, error-prone and payroll-intensive manual processes. By focusing on end-to-end automation and management from a common platform, cable operators can gain notable advantages in ef?ciency, time to market, expense and awareness of each customer. A possible 0-12 month timeline for the rollout of commercial services with a small and home business focus might include: Multimedia ups the pace Once a cable operator begins offering multimedia services, the pace of service introduction and ful?llment accelerates. The life cycle of service introduction must collapse by several orders of magnitude to meet customer demands, beat competitors to market, and decrease the risk involved with launching new services. Further, with IP technologies enabling a range of presence and mobility services, management must shift from being physically oriented to becoming logically oriented. To enable these changes, the OSS must incorporate: These factors are critical to the make-up of successful OSS for commercial cable services. Collectively, this kind of flexibility and service-awareness is necessary to deal with the demands of a real-time, quality-sensitive, multi-service environment. Orders, authorization Commercial orders are more complex than residential orders, involving multiple services to be delivered. The OSS platform must decompose multi-service orders into individual service line items while validating the order to detect any input errors or duplications. These capabilities enable customer care systems to capture and submit orders for service bundles without having to model all their details. Strong order management also results in reductions in order fallout stemming from incorrect or duplicate order entry. In the fast-paced multimedia environment, not all service requests follow a typical order management process. Once services are in place, orders for features and applications will need to be ful?lled instantly using real-time authorization. Premium content services may operate in a single or limited use mode. Capabilities such as SIP telephony and video streaming will depend on minimum QoS levels, particularly if a service level agreement (SLA) is involved. A service authorization component should enable instantaneous self-care for service subscription while integrating with existing industry standard identity management platforms such as Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS) and lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP). Topology and automation In this dynamic, real-time, quality-sensitive service environment, the ability to track and manage network and service topology is critical. The OSS cannot remain static or become inaccurate, which places a premium on auto-discovery capabilities. The OSS must discover and model all the physical and logical relationships among network devices, service delivery platforms, services, customer locations and subscribers. The goal is to be aware of the resources required to deliver any particular service while maintaining the relationship between speci?c subscriber service instances and overall service topology. In conjunction with topology views and detailed service portfolios, the OSS should incorporate as much end-to-end automation as possible-ideally zero-touch automation, minimizing or eliminating manual processes. Operators don’t need to make the mistake of throwing people and payroll at service order and trouble ticket volume after the fact. Focusing on end-to-end automation from the start sets the stage for rapid service de?nition and launch, minimized order ful?llment intervals, dramatic reductions in order error and fallout, speedy problem resolution, and vastly improved time to revenue for new services. Integration As the foundation on which an OSS solution is built, an integration framework should enable interworking with other business support systems, OSS platforms and network and service platforms. Open APIs should allow the framework to manage and submit orders, access and manage the contents of the information model, and integrate with external, hosted content and application systems as well as third-party business partners. Con?gurable and off-the-shelf adapters in the framework should support multiple protocols for exchanging data and commands that manage connection management, failover and error handling, as well as expression-based data transformation. When a customer calls, whoever answers the phone should understand who the customer is, what services he uses and has available, and what problems-if any-he is experiencing. For new subscribers, the customer service representative (CSR) should be able to support the customer in customer premises equipment (CPE) set-up and recognize when a new device becomes active and ready to support service. The CSR should then be able to make instantaneous changes to the service portfolio by subscribing or unsubscribing the user to available services. The ultimate goal is to extend this same type of point-and-click functionality directly to customers through self-service portals. Administrative portals give the person responsible for managing the customer account control over services, usage and costs while reducing the cable operator’s call volumes, hold times and need to staff service centers. It is far less expensive for operators to provide Web-based automation to customers rather than hiring and training more clerks and CSRs. An incremental approach Naturally, not all OSS functionality discussed will be necessary from day one, so any solution should be incrementally deployable, growing in parallel with service complexity. Relying on a quick and dirty solution that is not already designed for the future network state will simply lead the operator into a difficult cycle where operations are constantly trying to catch up with the network, but always seem to fall further behind. Such is the nature of most ILEC operations. Today we see an opportunity to gain competitive advantage by planning for the future service and OSS capability set from the start. Along with a proven OSS partner, cable operator participation is necessary to ensure success. Operator expertise and familiarity with its own operations must be captured and channeled into business and operational planning for product and service de?nition. The operator must also participate in de?ning processes for order capture, order management, equipment procurement and installation, service provisioning, and service diagnostics. IS/IT, engineering, customer care and operations must work closely with the OSS partner to de?ne these requirements as well as de?ne and deploy services jointly once the OSS environment is established. If these groups operate with solid walls between them, or with distinct operations systems, the operator will unnecessarily delay every service rollout, add arbitrary costs to the equation, and increase the risk of either failing to deliver a new service on time or failing to beat competitors to market. Building an integrated OSS suite correctly from the start, with a clear road map demonstrating incremental growth, delivers advantages that competitors cannot match. Competitive advantage Most competitors-including ILECs and competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs)-are themselves struggling to coordinate disparate systems and organizations that were neither designed nor tasked to integrate. All that is required is for the operator to remain in a forward-thinking mode, understand the speci?c needs of the IP services market, and recognize the relationship between the investment of time and effort in creating OSS automation and the distinct competitive advantages that result. Tim Spencer is president and chief operating officer of Sigma Systems. Reach him at email@example.com.