IT for Telecoms

This article addresses the basic build up of IT in a telecoms company and looks at opportunities for consolidation and integration of some of the core IT processes in three primary facets – business enabler applications such as mediation, rating and billing; internal facing applications such as provisioning and enterprise resource planning; and customer facing applications. Akshay Lamba explains.

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By  Akshay Lamba Published  June 11, 2007

|~|Akshay-Lamba-2001.jpg|~|Akshay Lamba is a business and technology consultant. The views in the article are attributed to the author alone and are not associated with the publisher or the employer in any way.|~|This article addresses the basic build up of IT in a telecoms company and looks at opportunities for consolidation and integration of some of the core IT processes in three primary facets – business enabler applications such as mediation, rating and billing; internal facing applications such as provisioning and enterprise resource planning; and customer facing applications. Akshay Lamba explains. Mediation The mediation system has a primary function of call data record (CDR) collection from the switches and other network elements, processing and dispatching it to downstream applications like billing and fraud management typically via a data warehouse. The last few years have seen demand for mediation systems grow to the point where operators now regard it as an issue that can really help differentiate service offerings. Traditionally an afterthought from operators, mediation is becoming recognised as a lynchpin in being able to deal with complex new services. In essence, mediation is taking on a more strategic role and moving up the value chain at an astonishing rate. With the convergence of telecoms infrastructure and the need to establish healthy revenue streams through new services and billing models, the need for a robust and flexible mediation system is now more significant than ever before. What is ideally required is a congruent view of usage data from a network with disparate network components, supporting divergent technologies, through which service providers can offer value added services. In the real world, this would mean availability of a rich feature set on the mediation system including support of distributed implementations, support for real time and batch processing of CDRs and support for prepaid and postpaid services from a single instance of the mediation system. Perhaps the first paradigm shift for mediation was when IP networks arrived. With IP, the once monolithic circuit switch was broken up into functional components: gateways, controllers, and application servers. So the information needed to bill and analyse usage was no longer located on one, convenient CDR. Mediation was needed to correlate events across multiple elements and convert them to billing-friendly data records. Yet another shift occurred when advanced wireless networks arrived. In a 3G network today, mediation has emerged as the central service control supervisor of the network - managing access to services, monitoring prepaid money balances and postpaid credit limits. During a consolidation exercise, mediation can play a pivotal role in a service provider’s consolidation strategy. However, based on the uniqueness of the markets the provider is operating in, and the mediation requirements based on the providers network architecture, consolidation of mediation systems might not even be an option. If it is viable though, the consolidation of mediation processes can have a significant effect on operational efficiency in the organisation, truly building competitive business advantage for the service provider. Rating Telecoms rating is the activity of determining the cost of a particular call. The rating process involves converting call-related data from the mediation system into a monetary-equivalent value. As competition increases in the telecoms space, rating is becoming increasingly complex. Some rating scenarios use multiple measurements specifically as new value added services are introduced. For example, rating for a video download may involve measuring the number of minutes, the amount of data, the quality of data transfer as identified by the service level agreement (SLA) and the usage (copyright) cost of the video. Complex rating could also involve non-network related parameters. Some of the rating data may come from the customer care or billing sub-systems. This is particularly true for “all you can eat” billing models for services such as internet bandwidth. When usage above a certain amount is triggered in the billing sub-system the rating engine may assign a higher or lower rate for the user. This is also known as an adjusting rate and can be complex to model in certain systems. Modern rating engines may also be currency neutral. Certain multi-national service providers offer the ability for subscribers’ settlement in multiple currencies. In this scenario the rating engine generates a currency neutral billing record. It is the billing engine that is assigned with converting the virtual currency into an actualised cost. Large international service providers are always looking at improving rating efficiencies. This platform can also be utilised as a shared service with different mediation systems as the input. Based on the CDR data, rating tables can then be applied to a particular call type. Hence, it inherently provides a considerable opportunity for consolidation, primarily depending on the volume of rating to be carried out. Billing The billing system’s functionality can be broken down into two subsets: a front-end (near real-time processing) and a back-end (periodic or batch bill processing). The front-end gathers call information as connections are made throughout the network and rated CDRs are made available via the rating system. Each CDR includes the identification of the customer and other relevant information that is passed onto the billing system. The billing system then guides the billing records to the correct account. These updated billing records are placed in a billing pool. The back-end of the billing system periodically combines records from the bill pool to create a single invoice that is sent to the customer. The customer then sends the payment to the service provider. The payments are posted in the billing system. History files are then updated for the use of customer service representatives and auditing. Due to the central nature of the billing system to the operations of any service provider, it typically interacts with a multitude of systems in the environment including fraud management and revenue assurance systems, CRM, and so forth. The billing system can be a very complex system as one injects it with different measurement units such as seconds for a voice call; Kbps for a connectivity or number of downloads for content. Moreover, convergent billing platforms are designed to deliver a single bill for multiple services to a customer – this could typically be a land line, cellular connection, TV connection and any VAS services utilised. Given this complexity of the sheer volume of transactions that take place in a typical billing environment, it is difficult to consolidate this resource amongst multiple international operations. However, consolidation of billing or more correctly convergence of billing platforms is popular today, as the market demands a single customer view across multiple services and networks. Provisioning Provisioning, in a modern day service provider, has multiple layers – from basic subscriber provisioning to add-on service provisioning to content provisioning. This makes the provisioning process critical for the top line of a service provider. This requirement also makes this process very time sensitive. It is critical in today’s world that subscriber provisioning is done within the shortest time, though a keen eye is needed for potential revenue leakages. As its most central responsibility, the provisioning process monitors access rights and privileges to ensure the availability and security of an enterprise’s resource. As a secondary responsibility, it ensures compliance and minimises the vulnerability of systems to penetration and abuse by only allowing authenticated users to access network resources. Provisioning becomes a central nerve centre for revenue leakage management. In many instances, service provisioning platforms integrate with a number of other systems, typically, for collection of provisioning requests from the order management/customer care system, conversion of requests into specific network element man-machine languages (MMLs) and execution of the MMLs on the network element. The service provisioning platform also collects the provisioning responses from the network elements and forwards them to the requesting application. This plays an important role for services like GPRS and WAP where an application needs to push settings to the subscriber’s handset once the provisioning has taken place on the network level. ||**|||~||~||~|Enterprise Resource Planning To succeed in the current environment, service providers require solutions that can help them navigate the deregulation process, automate and streamline business processes to improve quality and increase efficiency, and enhance relationships with customers and partners. For this purpose, enterprise resource planning (ERP) provides capabilities that support and enhance processes associated with producing and delivering telecoms products and services. Features tailored to meet these organisations’ unique requirements help these companies efficiently and cost-effectively manage processes, expand opportunities, and maximise the value of customer relationships and existing assets. A clear view of all data across the company is necessary to support sound decision-making. By integrating data from heterogeneous sources, ERP systems provide details on finances, human resources, operations, and other critical business functions. Enhanced insight into all external and internal processes and operations allows organisations to better track trends, anticipate problems, and identify opportunities. In addition, support for the complete life-cycle of critical production and operational assets enables businesses to improve facility and equipment performance and track costs for individual assets and production lines as well as entire facilities. The feature set of ERP packages used by service providers includes operations management such as procurement, logistics and distribution, asset management, and order cycle management. It also assists in extended ERP functions such as regulatory compliance and corporate governance. Since ERP systems are established based on a logical design of an enterprise, consolidation across multiple international operations could be a little tricky. However, standardisation and subsequently building the skill sets available in-house for the standardised platform can bring in a certain amount of operational efficiency. Customer relationship management Much of business today is conducted between people who have never met before and are likely never to meet again, and who experience each other only as disembodied telephone voices. Customer relationship may be defined as the sum total of a customer’s experience and interaction within the contact zone, which today is becoming more virtual than physical. The three main elements of this new, virtual customer contact zone are, firstly, the customer care applications that provide the repository of information about a customer, and allow the business to perform transactions with that customer. Secondly, the call centre provides the means to create live, real-time connections between customers and the customer service representatives who use the customer care applications. Lastly, the web provides a whole new zone of customer contact, and increasingly, options for self-service business transactions. In the service provider space, customer relationship management (CRM) forms an integral piece of the puzzle. It must integrate with the billing and service provisioning systems in order to be able to deliver to customer expectations. While most service providers now have an integrated CRM in place for all the different type of networks and services (landline, cellular, internet access, value added services, and so forth), integrating these pieces of information to deliver a single customer view and consequently running customer profile analytics, usage analytics and preferences analytics is really where the value generation is for the business units and subsequently for the customers. Due to its inherent nature, this process has a large potential for consolidation especially for backend use to build business analytics and market analysis models by the business units. This can be a tremendous tool in the hands of the marketing gurus to target services. With virtual segregation of the customer base within the system, this process lends itself to the consolidation theory very well. It can also help in building business advantage by creating centralised call centre rather than market specific call centres where language is not a barrier. Service delivery platform Service delivery platform (SDP) is primarily a framework built in order to manage and deploy value added services rapidly. This has not traditionally been a part of IT in a service provider environment. This is because of its comparatively recent injection into the service provider environment. However, SDP today plays a critical revenue generation function for a service provider, and its management and deployment gives the IT organisation a chance to lead revenue generation for the enterprise. Perhaps, for the first time, giving the IT organisation the ability to transform into a profit centre. A SDP is an integrated set of software modules that, collectively, enable carriers to launch and manage potentially thousands of services to fixed and wireless customers alike, and is regarded as an important step towards true fixed-mobile convergence. Once integrated, an SDP enables an operator to provision, manage, and bill for services delivered across its network, whether those services are created by third parties or by the service provider. SDPs are emerging as a critical enabling technology for both wireline and wireless telecoms carriers to deliver next-generation services profitably, reducing the costs and time needed to acquire, provision, maintain, and deliver applications. Heavy Reading’s Caroline Chappell, author of a recent report on the emerging platform, notes that SDPs are, “now being positioned as the critical enabler that will allow network operators to extract revenue”, from the potentially inexhaustible number of niche services that third-party developers or the carriers themselves can develop for converged IP networks. The SDP environment is probably one framework that can be utilised very well during a consolidation exercise. Moreover, it gives the service providers the ability to launch new value added services in multiple markets simultaneously without multiple deployments. It also naturally leads to operational efficiencies in delivering these services but the impact generated comes from the ability to launch a service in a specific region and based on market feedback. In conclusion, the IT shop in any service provider is a very complex being, with a multitude of systems running and integration between all the disparate systems a major point of contention with the chief IT officers. ||**||

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