The key to tangible business success in the delivery of VoIP services is not simply in the technology. OSS can help drive through competitive advantage, says David Sharpley

As VoIP moves from early adopter to mainstream, and competitive pressures intensify, service providers must look carefully at how service fulfilment solutions can enhance VoIP business models. Simply having VoIP hardware and customer care systems in place are not enough to achieve real business success. As a key component of the service delivery model, a strategic service fulfilment operational support system (OSS) can build competitive advantage in VoIP by eliminating the complexities of provisioning a converged network, enabling the back office to meet evolving market needs and in improving bottom line performance by significantly reducing operational costs.
By leveraging six key VoIP service fulfilment strategies, operators can enhance VoIP business models and drive value and innovation throughout the entire service delivery process.
1 - Develop a new approach
When designing an OSS infrastructure for a VoIP network, an operator must take a fresh perspective. For incumbent voice operators transitioning an existing circuit-switched network to IP, it is important not to overlay legacy operational strategies on the new VoIP network. Similarly, for cable or data operators moving into the VoIP arena, there is a danger in recycling service fulfilment strategies specifically designed for data or video-streaming services.
Unlike traditional voice or data services, VoIP service fulfilment has unique requirements. With VoIP, the core IP network handles both voice and data. Also, few VoIP providers have complete control over the end-to-end service. A VoIP call is likely to traverse multiple networks, including both legacy networks and other operator networks. To manage this complexity, operators need to leverage the robust architecture and deep functionality offered by a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) service fulfilment solution that is optimised for VoIP and other next-generation services.
2 - Enable rapid service introduction
Service bundles for VoIP and other next-generation services are continually changing to meet evolving customer needs. To lead in service innovation, VoIP operators need to enhance or modify complex service offerings on the fly, without months of integration work.
To support rapid service introduction, the OSS must provide a flexible service design tool that supports the entire lifecycle of service development. In particular, it must enable operators to quickly create or update services and service bundles -- across multiple domains. The OSS must also support an intelligent product catalogue that defines products from a customer, work order and network perspective, enabling operators to quickly assess the related work order and network impacts of introducing a new feature or service.
These tools simplify service creation by shielding users from the complexity of devices and applications in the network. Rapid service introduction is further enabled by a data-driven approach to service modelling that optimises the integration of these tools with upstream and downstream applications in the overall business and operational support system (BOSS) infrastructure.
3 - Automate complex and high volume provisioning
Automation of VoIP services at the OSS service fulfilment layer is a key driver of profitability and customer satisfaction. By definition, all service fulfilment OSSs automate processes in some way. Competitive advantage in VoIP therefore requires a higher standard: the ability to automate complex processes in high volumes across multiple technologies. The true value of the service fulfilment OSS resides in its ability to deliver zero-touch multi-service flow-through provisioning in a complex network environment.
For VoIP, this means activating a wide range of circuit and packet devices -- call servers, line gateways, gateway controllers, client devices, multi-media servers, Class 5 switches and IP PBXs -- from a single service order. In today's ever-changing service environment, end users want the freedom to update service features -- like call forwarding -- on the fly, from a variety of interfaces. To meet this challenge, operators need a robust activation platform that can process millions of requests each day for multiple services across multiple locations.
4 - Implement an end-to-end service fulfilment solution
To leverage operational efficiencies and streamline service delivery, VoIP providers must deploy fulfilment solutions that support the complete service life cycle. Through strong interworking between key service fulfilment systems, the OSS can automate and optimise complex service orders.
*  IP connectivity and quality of service -- As a real-time service, voice traffic is much more sensitive to delay, jitter and loss than other types of IP traffic. To enhance performance and reliability on the VoIP network, the OSS must streamline and automate a range of advanced IP network configuration mechanisms, including: the identification, classification and marking of packets based on service type; traffic shaping, queuing and policing; MPLS traffic engineering; and the provisioning of advanced IP VPN features.
*  VoIP inventory management -- The OSS must provide a centralised, accurate database of records for managing all facts involved in designing and implementing multi-service networks. For VoIP, this involves tracking, reconciling and assigning all logical and physical VoIP resources, including telephone numbers, IP addresses, voice and signalling trunks, call servers, media gateways and routers. It also involves managing regulatory requirements, inter-carrier orders, telephone number portability, telephone number reservations and the allocation of IP addresses according to pre-defined business rules.
*  VoIP subscriber activation -- The OSS must provide a robust, scalable activation platform with capabilities across multiple technologies, equipment types and network layers. For VoIP, it must support the activation of both residential and business VoIP services and offer pre-built VoIP support. Given that a VoIP service uses multiple network elements, and is often bundled with other services, the activation component must provide transactional integrity across the end-to-end activation process and offer a range of advanced processing features including order control, cancellations or supplementals, intelligent error processing and configurable rollback.
*  VoIP mediation -- The OSS must shield the billing system from network evolution and handle the collection, enhancement and aggregation of VoIP usage records from both circuit and packet networks for billing purposes. To meet the needs of VoIP, this system must be highly scalable and support flexible voice pricing options such as minutes of use and event-based pricing.
By productising the integration between these key service fulfilment functions, the OSS can further streamline and maximise efficiencies in the overall VoIP service fulfilment cycle.
5 - Leverage pre- built vendor-independent VoIP support
Most operators are inclined to extend their existing service fulfilment OSS to support VoIP rather than purchase a COTS solution. The thinking goes that it is cheaper and easier to extend the existing solution rather than implement a new one. The reality, however, is that an in-house VoIP service fulfilment OSS is often more costly to implement, in terms of time and resources, and provides less flexibility than a pre-built commercial solution.
By offering pre-built VoIP support, a COTS service fulfilment OSS can enhance agility and operational performance while reducing the cost of ownership. When VoIP functionality is pre-developed and tested, there is minimal reliance on expensive professional services resources for implementation and ongoing support. Also, by leveraging pre-built VoIP hardware vendor cartridges and network design templates, deployment is faster, resulting in shorter revenue-generating cycles.
Given that VoIP technology is still evolving and vendor leadership in VoIP technology remains uncertain, it is also critical to consider the degree to which a pre-built VoIP service fulfilment solution is vendor-independent. An OSS that supports only a few types of vendor equipment is risky.
By deploying a vendor-independent solution, the operator ensures that the OSS can adapt quickly to changes in VoIP technology and retains the flexibility to select the hardware solution best suited to their needs. Also, in the event of an acquisition, this approach facilitates the integration of acquired assets into the primary OSS solution.
6 - Take an evolutionary approach
One of the biggest challenges faced by incumbent voice operators is how to cost-effectively transition customers from a circuit-switched network to an IP network without disrupting service or jeopardizing financial performance.
The complete evolution to an all IP network can take years. To de-risk this process and protect existing investments, the service fulfilment OSS must support a staged approach -- providing the ability to interoperate with existing OSS assets while, at the same time, support the evolution to a next-generation service fulfilment platform that offers a unified provisioning system for all voice resources, Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) and VoIP.
With this capability, VoIP providers can commission, deploy, reconcile, discover and manage all assets, old and new, that support the VoIP infrastructure. Given that customers will transition to the new VoIP service one customer at a time, the service fulfilment OSS must also enable an efficient and accurate process for gradually migrating data from legacy systems to the new data repository.
As the competition for VoIP subscribers heats up, operators that make informed choices regarding their service fulfilment infrastructure will have a distinct advantage. Given the complexity of VoIP, it is essential that operators seek out OSS partners -- not OSS vendors -- that have an established track record in delivering IP services and can provide an integrated and cost-effective solution that is adaptable to the long term needs of a converged network.
Although VoIP is a relatively new service, there are OSS applications already in production and proven effective in VoIP service fulfilment.                                     n

David Sharpley is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Product Management, MetaSolv Software, and can be contacted via e-mail: dsharpley@metasolv.com

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