Voice-over-IP (VoIP) services have finally arrived as cable’s biggest operators have announced they are at the threshold of expanding their deployments. Yet while much of the focus has been on softswitches, embedded multimedia terminal adapters (EMTAs), pricing and billing, the crucial back office and operational support system (OSS) tools necessary for automating flow-through order management and managing subsequent fallout issues have been overlooked. The numerous interfaces that a VoIP-capable order management system must have with legacy billing platforms, network elements and provisioning systems can create a maze of complexity. This matrix extends beyond the cable operator’s back offices to third-party systems. With many cable operators choosing to partner with carriers such as MCI and Sprint, executing a flow-through order while offering visibility into each task and hand-off can be very time consuming and often requires many manual touch points. For example, a few of the key steps for IP voice service activation include: There’s plenty that can go wrong with these tasks and lots of steps outside of the cable operator’s control that can interrupt a service order. Processing the LNP request alone takes more steps than provisioning a softswitch for service and can take between two and 30 days. Vonage has informed their customers that LNP will take a minimum of 20 days. Clearly, the requirements of a full-fledged phone service will place a significant strain on cable’s back office systems, traditionally designed for recurring-charge video services.
Fortunately for cable operators, seamless order management and service assurance modules, well-honed from telephone industry circuit-switched network experience, can interface with existing cable OSS platforms to ease what can be a bumpy ride from service request to service activation. These tools give customer service representatives (CSRs), network operations center (NOC) personnel, dispatch managers and install techs the ability to offer service-oriented VoIP. Operators stand to gain from the ability to manage workflows proactively and monitor, in advance, problems that inevitably arise. Sophisticated, operator-controlled business rules can be applied to these workflows to give managers options to mitigate the overall activation process. Order management and service assurance
The two key enablers of service-oriented VoIP in the back-office are order management and service assurance. These OSS software modules incorporate a level of software "abstraction" that effectively hides the complexity of VoIP services from key CSR personnel. The use of abstraction in an OSS presentation-layer module provides integration between the familiar user interface of Windows-based desktop computers with the complex core business logic stored on servers executing customer management, workflow and service-request management tasks. Through abstraction, consistent views of order records throughout the back office, to the sales office, and customer care desk can be created. Planning for problems
Fallout and rollback are familiar concepts in the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) and telco world, but less so in the previously video-centric cable world. Fallout is an efficiency statistic that charts how many orders for service are not completed. Rollback is the undoing of executed tasks when things go wrong during the activation process. With VoIP, a rollback example would be if the VoIP service is cancelled for some reason or an error occurs during the VoIP activation process. The service provider may need to roll back service to the last logical functioning service, which may be plain high-speed Internet access. Intelligent rollback workflows will only undo tasks that are necessary, whereas simple rollback mechanisms restart the whole process and roll back to the beginning.
Fallout management can be a much more manually intensive process. Because activating VoIP service involves not only internal coordination by operators, but also a timely convergence of functions outside the operator’s control (competitive local exchange carrier, or CLEC, partners; hosted solutions; etc.), fallout becomes a key issue. Processing LNP is a good example. If a customer requests LNP, the incumbent provider may not release the number because of outstanding credit and collections issues, DSL tied to the phone number, or a mismatch between the service address and the record on file. How is the order handled once these rejections or error codes come back from the incumbent carrier or CLEC partner? How are the archaic error codes used by telco carriers translated? How does the back office get visibility into all the tasks associated with the work order to inform the customer of the status of the request? If those requests don’t go through, service activation, including a customer premises visit to install service, must be rescheduled. Fallout ratios below 3 percent are desirable and can be achieved through an order management system that flags problems as they develop. Without the service assurance tools to monitor fallout, the fallout ratio easily can exceed 10 percent. The rework cost of each work order can be as high as $150 if truck rolls are involved. Thus, managing the impact of fallout with an enabling service assurance engine has a direct impact on the bottom line for a cable operator. Today’s order management systems allow service assurance managers to establish "jeopardy windows" that can flag, for example, whether after a certain time an LSR has been made (say, three days) the request remains unanswered. In this way, an automated truck-roll request can be rescheduled, installation techs can be reassigned, the LSR can be resubmitted, or other mitigation actions can be taken (such as installing and activating other services-video and/or data-that the customer may have ordered). Or, operators can roll back services to existing data services in the event of an activation snag. Moreover, they may assign temporary telephone numbers in the event of failed LNP. XML order management
The emergence of extensible markup language (XML) as a data format has allowed order management systems to create flexible messaging schemes to share data across multiple systems. For example, well-engineered order management engines can generate XML-based service orders with a fulfillment agent that sends data to a Cisco Systems broadband access center server to direct the cable modem termination system (CMTS) to turn up an MTA, assign media access control (MAC) addresses to specific MTA ports, activate them, directly provision supported softswitches, and add the call features asked for by the subscriber. These XML transactions, transparent through abstraction layers to order-entry personnel, filter through the order and provisioning matrix to touch every network element and system needed to activate voice service. Additionally, a complete history of transactions can be built for troubleshooting.
Order management, then, through the use of well-understood XML-based messaging, becomes the controlling element that tells the IP network what to do in the sequence each task must take. By interfacing with the network layer, a VoIP-capable order management system also can determine nuances in the network specifically related to voice, such as whether a cable modem that may be in use for existing data services is PacketCable-ready. If it isn’t, the system, to prepare for IP voice service, must disconnect the existing cable modem service and communicate with the CMTS to replace it with a voice-capable cable modem-all in a sequence that ensures the existing cable modem service is not disrupted. Templates and flexibility
Flexible OSS modules employ software user interfaces based on templates managed by a software development toolkit (SDK). Templates may exist for order entry, field defaulting and configuration augmentation. This allows information passed from legacy billing engines to be augmented to increase flow-through capacity. Activity templates also can be leveraged to provide definition and monitoring for network, partner and business system integrations. Activity templates can provide the "standard" transaction set for activation and can be customized to allow operators to incorporate their own business rules, provisioning workflow execution rules and fallout automation. Bundle, scale and personalize
With the industry focused on service bundles combining voice, video and data, an order management system must be able to create bundles made of atomic service elements so that CSRs can offer prospective and existing customers a competitive offering. With the price to consumers of IP voice services plummeting and with Vonage and AT&T leading the charge of low-cost unlimited local and long distance services, service and feature differentiation will be the prime drivers to attract customers, especially business customers. The opportunity for revenue in what is quickly becoming a commoditized service environment will be in sophisticated call-management features, hosting and managed IP services with service level agreements (SLAs) for small and mid-size businesses. More complex service bundles and more subscribers targeted for IP voice service translates into the need for scalability, which can be accomplished through several methods, including server clustering, stateless servers, database-connection pooling and distributed partition views. A big reason why regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) and ILECs have been able to offer quality circuit-switched voice services is the level of investment they’ve made in back office and OSSs. According to Gartner Dataquest, U.S. wireline telecommunications service providers spent almost $11 billion in 2002 on business and operations support services. Cable and satellite providers spent nearly $2.5 billion. The gap can be attributed in part to the steep OSS requirements of voice services. Cable operators need to look at true flow-through order management systems and service assurance tools, not just a "bolt-on" to legacy billing systems or siloed order entry systems. With the growth of IP services and mobile services, the triple-play is poised to expand into quad-play and beyond. Handling complex orders, bundles and pricing plans should receive more focus and investment. Emails, screen scrapes and manual workarounds are a favorite tactic to manage complex orders, but when margins get squeezed and customers are demanding real-time account access and Web-based account management tools, automating the order management process is critical. Apollo Guy is vice president and general manager of Telution’s Cable and Broadband practice; reach him at email@example.com. Rob Kunzler is director of marketing for Telution; reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.