While IP appears to have simplified telecoms, Christoph Kupper, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Nexus Telecom tells Lynd Morley that the added complexity of monitoring the network - due largely to exploding data rates - has led to a new concept providing both improved performance and valuable marketing information
Nexus Telecom is, in many ways, the antithesis of the now predominant imperative in most industries - and certainly in the telecoms industry - which requires wholesale commoditisation of services; an almost exclusive focus on speed to market; and a fast response to instant gratification.
Where the ruling mantra is in danger of becoming "quantity not quality" in a headlong rush to ever greater profitability (or possibly, mere survival), Nexus Telecom calls something of a halt, focussing the spotlight on the vital importance of high quality, dependable service that not only ensures the business reputation of the provider, but also leads to happy - and therefore loyal - customers.
Based in Zurich, Nexus Telecom is a performance and service assurance specialist, providing data collection, passive monitoring and network service investigation systems. The company's philosophy centres around the recognition that the business consequences of any of the network's elements falling over are enormous - and only made worse if the problem takes time to identify and fix. Even in hard economic times, the investment in reliability is vital.
The depressing economic climate does not, at the moment, appear to be hitting Nexus Telecom too directly. "Despite the downturn, we had a very good year last year," comments Christoph Kupper, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Nexus Telecom. ‘And so far, this year, I don't see any real change in operator behaviour. There may be some investment problems while the banks remain hesitant about extending credit, but on the whole, telecom is one of the solid businesses, with a good customer base, and revenues that are holding up well."
The biggest challenge for Nexus Telecom is not so much the economy, but more one of perception and expectation, with some operators questioning the value and cost of the OSS tools - which, relative to the total cost of the network has increased over the years. In the past few years the price of network infrastructure has come down by a huge amount, while network capacity has risen. But while the topological architecture of the network is simplifying matters - everything running over big IP pipes - the network's operating complexity is vastly increasing. So the operator sees the capital cost of the network being massively reduced, but that reduction isn't being mirrored by similarly falling costs in the support systems. Indeed, because of the increased complexity, the costs of the support systems are going up.
Complexity is not, of course, always a comfortable environment to operate in. Kupper sees some of the culture clash that arises whenever telecom meets IT, affecting the ways in which the operators are tackling these new complexities.
"In my experience, most telecom operators come from the telco side of the road, with a telecom heritage of everything being very detailed and specified, with very clear procedures and every aspect well defined," he says.
"Now they're entering an IP world where the approach is a bit looser, with more of a ‘lets give it a try' attitude, which is, of course, an absolute horror to most telcos."
Indeed, there may well be a danger that network technology is becoming so complex that it is now getting ahead of some CTOs and telecom engineers.
"There can be something of a ‘fear factor' for the engineers, if ever they have an issue with the network," Kupper says. "And there are plenty of issues, given that these new switching devices can be configured in so many ways that even experienced engineers have trouble doing it right.
"Once the technical officers become fully aware of these issues, the attraction of a system such as ours, which gives them better visibility - especially independent visibility across the different network domains - is enormous.
"It only takes one moment in a CTO's life when he loses control of the network, to make our sale to him very much easier."
The sales message, however, depends on the recognition that increased complexity in the network requires more not less monitoring, and that tools which may be seen as desirable but not absolutely essential (after all, the really important thing is to get the actual network out there - and quickly) are in fact, vital to business success. Not always an easy message to get across to those whose background in engineering means they do not always think in terms of business risk.
Kupper recognises that the message is not as well established as it might be. "We're not there yet," he says. "We still need to teach and preach quite a lot, especially because the attraction of the ‘more for less' promise of the new technology elements hides the fact that operational expenditure on the management of a network with vastly increased traffic and complexity, is likely to rise."
The easiest sales are to those technical officers who have a vision, and who are looking for the tools to fulfil it. "They want to have control of their networks," says Kupper. "They want to see their capacity, be able to localise it, and see who's affected."
And once Nexus Telecom's systems are actually installed, he stresses, no one ever questions their necessity.
"The asset and value of these systems is hard to prove - you can't just put it on the table. It's a more complicated qualitative argument that speaks to abstract concepts of Y resulting from the possible failure of X, but with no exact mathematical way to calculate what benefits your derive from specific OSS investment."
So the tougher sales are to the guys who don't grasp these concepts, or who remain convinced that any network failure is the responsibility of the network vendors who must therefore provide the remedy, without taking into account how long that might take, and the subsequent impact on client satisfaction, and therefore, ultimately business success.
These concepts, of course, are relevant to the full range of suppliers, from wireline and cable operators to the new mobile kids on the block. Indeed, Kupper stresses that with the advent of true mobile data broadband availability, following the change to IP, and the introduction of flat rates to allow users to make unlimited use of the technology, the cellular operator has positioned himself as a true contender against traditional wireline and cable operators.
Kupper notes: "For years in telecommunications, voice was the data bearer that did not need monitoring - if the call didn't work, the user would hang up and redial - a clearly visible activity in terms of signalling procedure analysis.
"But with mobile broadband data, the picture has changed completely. It is the bearer that needs analysis, because only the bearer enables information to be gleaned on the services that the mobile broadband user is accessing. The network surveillance tools, therefore, must not only analyse the signalling procedure but also, and most importantly, the data payload. It is in the payload that we see if, for example, Internet browsing is used, which URL is accessed, which application is used, and so forth. And it is only the payload, for which the subscriber pays!"
He points out that as a consequence of the introduction of flat rates and the availability of 3G, data rates have exploded.
"It is now barely possible to economically monitor such networks by means of traditional surveillance tools. A new approach is needed, and that approach is what we call ‘Intelligent Network Monitoring'. At Nexus Telecom we have been working on the Intelligent Network Monitoring concept for about two years now, and have included that functionality with every release we have shipped to customers over that period. Any vendor's monitoring systems that do not include developments incorporating the concepts of mass data processing will soon drown in the data streams of telecom data networks."
Basically, he explains, the monitoring agents on the network must have the ability to interpret the information obtained from scanning the network ‘on the fly'. "The network surveillance tools need a staged intelligence in order to process the vast amount of data; from capturing to processing, forwarding and storing the data, the system must, for instance, be able to summarise, aggregate and discard data while keeping the essence of subscriber information and its KPI to hand - because, at the end of the day, only the subscriber experience best describes the network performance. And this is why Nexus Telecom surveillance systems provide the means always to drill down in real-time to subscriber information via the one indicator that everyone knows - the subscriber's cell phone number."
All this monitoring and surveillance obviously plays a vital role in providing visibility into complicated, multi-faceted next generation systems behaviour, facilitating fast mitigation of current and potential network and service problems to ensure a continuous and flawless end-customer experience. But it also supplies a wealth of information that enables operators to better develop and tailor their systems to meet their customers' needs. In other words, a tremendously powerful marketing tool.
"Certainly,' Kupper confirms, "the systems have two broad elements - one of identifying problems and healing them, and the other a more statistical, pro-active evaluation element. Today, if you want to invest in such a system, you need both sides. You need the operations team to make the network as efficient as possible, and you also need marketing - the service guys who can offer innovative services based on all the information that can be amassed using such tools."
Kupper points out that drawing in other departments and disciplines may, in fact, be essential in amassing sufficient budget to cover the system. The old days when the operations manager could simply say ‘I need this type of tool - give it to me' are long gone, and anyway their budgets, these days, are nothing like big enough to cover such systems. Equally, however, the needs of many different disciplines and departments for the kind of information Nexus Telecom systems can provide is increasing as the highly competitive marketplace makes responding to customer requirements and preferences absolutely vital. Thus the systems can prove to be of enormous value to the billing guys, the revenue assurance and fraud operations, not to mention the service development teams. "Once the system is in place," Kupper points out, "you have information on every single subscriber regarding exactly which devices and services he most uses, and therefore his current, and likely future, preferences. And all this information is real-time."
Despite the apparent complexity of the sales message, Nexus Telecom is in buoyant mood, with good penetration in South East Asia and the Middle East, as well as Europe. These markets vary considerably in terms of maturity of course, and Kupper points out that OSS penetration is very much a lifecycle issue. "When the market is very new, you just push out the lines," he comments. "As long as the growth is there - say the subscriber growth rate is bigger than ten per cent a year - you're probably not too concerned about the quality of service or of the customer experience.
"The investment in monitoring only really registers when there are at least three networks in a country and the focus is on retaining customers - because the cost of gaining new customers is so much higher than that of hanging on to the existing ones.
"Monitoring systems enable you to re-act quickly to problems. And that's not just about ensuring against the revenue you might lose, but also the reputation you'll lose. And today, that's an absolutely critical factor."
The future of OSS is, of course, intrinsically linked to the future of the telcos themselves. Kupper notes that the discussion - which has been ongoing for some years now - around whether telcos will become mere dumb pipe providers, or will arm themselves against a variety of other players with content and tailored packages, has yet to be resolved. In the meantime, however, he is confident that Nexus Telecom is going in the right direction.
"I believe our strategy is right. We currently have one of the best concepts of how to capture traffic and deal with broadband data.
"The challenge over the next couple of years will be the ability to deal with all the payload traffic that mobile subscribers generate. We need to be able to provide the statistics that show which applications, services and devices subscribers are using, and where development will most benefit the customer - and, of course, ultimately the operator."
Lynd Morley is editor of European Communications