Features

While operators focus on multimedia and IP-based content as future revenue generators, it is important that they do not forget the quality of their core product. Alun Lewis explains

The last decade has been a hectic time for the telecommunications industry. A combination of new technologies and radical regulatory change – combined with the financial quagmire of recent years – has challenged the ability of operators to stay focused and on track. It's now becoming clear that these distractions have impacted heavily on the core application that our industry has grown rich on: traditional voice services.
Even the familiar acronym of POTS – Plain Old Telephone Services – illustrates the relatively low regard shown for voice services when compared with the much-hyped potential of multimedia content and IP-based applications. Despite this perception, the global market for voice – according to international research consultancy Ovum – is expected to continue to grow from $784 billion last year to around $1000 billion by 2007, so there's still considerable market share to fight for.
One of the key problems facing operators, irrespective of whether they're running fixed, mobile or IP networks, is making sure that the quality of the voice services that they offer is acceptable to the markets that they're targeting. While voice generally used to be seen as a 'one size fits all' service – sensible enough when everything was being carried pretty much by one operator over one network – the current cat's cradle of complexity involving interconnections between different carrier technologies and service providers creates major headaches for all involved.
A business, for example, may be happy to pay a lower charge for lower quality voice services for internal company use – but more than happy to pay a premium for external calls to customers. Similarly, the youth market for mobile services may be attracted away from SMS communication to speech interaction at slightly higher tariffs – and be happy for a lower grade of service than the majority of other mobile users.
In particular, the impact of VoIP and the steady growth of supporting IP-based access technologies such as DSL and WLAN are already forcing service providers of all sizes and types into a re-examination of the whole voice services market. Additionally, for operators with more traditional networks, it's also essential that they understand exactly where in the infrastructure to make the right investments that will generate ARPU or market differentiators through enhanced or managed voice quality.
But how exactly do you measure voice quality? Unlike the hard technical parameters used to measure the efficiency of data networks – packet loss, latency and so on – perceived voice quality also depends on the hardware and software of that most complex of mechanisms, the human brain and nervous system. The telecoms value chain is complex enough when it's just based on copper and silicon – add in the human mouth and ear and that complexity increases by an order of magnitude.
The good news is that part of the ITU has been working on this problem for a number of years, coordinating research to develop standardised methods that can be applied across multiple networks and different technologies. Their approach is based on a concept known as PESQ – Perceptual Evaluation of Speech Quality – which measures end-to-end voice quality based on a database of subjective listeners' experiences of call quality defined by Mean Opinion Scores (MOS):

Listening quality MOS scale
Score            Quality of the speech 
5                            Excellent 
4                              Good 
3                               Fair 
2                               Poor 
1                               Bad
While it's obviously possible for an operator to carry out regular customer surveys of voice quality, clearly the optimum solution is to automate the whole process through the use of software algorithms, so that network performance can be monitored on a regular basis. This means that they're effectively 'listening in' to calls and then reporting back to other management systems.

Recommended standards
At the end of 2003, the ITU announced one of the first of these recommended standards, based on a non-intrusive algorithm for use in PSTN and mobile networks, following intensive evaluation of different solutions from a number of different companies.
Iain Wood of BT spin-off Psytechnics, one of the winning solution providers and a specialist in voice quality metrics, takes up the story: "The mobile market in particular is going to have to start addressing the issue of voice quality very seriously. If they're to keep pushing ARPU it's vital that they have some systems in place to be able to monitor the customer's end experience of voice services. Was a call ended prematurely because of voice quality problems, or is a customer churning because of poor reception? The kinds of data that you get from the usual QoS systems doesn't take account of this human-centric issue, even though it's vital to understanding the overall customer experience.
"Psytechnics has recently been looking at the performance of a number of mobile networks both in the UK and abroad and has found some interesting results. One of the most significant was that there was no discernable difference in speech quality between the most expensive and the cheapest handsets - despite a price differential of hundreds of pounds. Given that for many adult users voice easily remains their primary mobile service, does this mean that operators and handset manufacturers are putting too much effort and investment into unused – and ultimately unprofitable – features and capabilities?
"Similar issues apply when you consider the attempts that some mobile operators around the world are making to compete directly with the fixed line  market through homezone tariffing. With a typical UK PSTN line providing a MOS of 4.3, UK GSM network typically operate at between 2.9 and 4.1, and this issue of perceived voice quality will make it unlikely that high spending business users will migrate unless service levels are improved.
"Even if the customer's getting a full signal strength bar, there are a host of other factors that degrade speech quality and an understanding of how voice quality is performing is an invaluable tool in how to best engineer the value chain and all its underlying components.
"This technology also has an equally valuable role to play for the end customer, especially the large corporate thats unsure whether it's receiving service value for its money. While it will certainly have strict Service Level Agreements in place to monitor its data networks – along with stringent penalties if these aren't met – both businesses are effectively flying in the dark when it comes to measuring speech quality. Because of this, we're currently working on an application that can be downloaded onto the mobile device itself. This can then use SMS to report back to the operator – or another party – to provide MOS feedback, as well as displaying voice quality metrics to the actual user."
Important role to play
While voice quality metrics have an important role to play with mobile service providers, they have an absolutely vital one when it comes to supporting the wide-scale roll out of VoIP services in both public and enterprise networks. The price and performance benefits of moving to an all-IP environment might be well understood, but customers are often rightly sceptical of its suitability for carrying mission critical voice services. The whole industry is full of anecdotes about disastrous VoIP implementations that have failed to deliver and caused nightmares for customer and vendor alike.
For companies like Psytechnics, this presents another market opportunity, as Iain Wood explains.
"IP was designed originally for computer-to-computer interaction and unfortunately humans are a lot more critical than machines when it comes to carrying on conversations. In trying to replicate the behaviour of the PSTN in a packet environment, there are all sorts of subtle perceptual cues that have to be taken into account if we are to provide a truly satisfying speech experience.
"Unfortunately, the legacy management tools that came with the IP world are incapable of supporting voice services – as the industry found to its cost in the past. Fortunately, we now have a range of techniques – similar to those now being deployed in the circuit switched environment – that can be deployed to ensure voice quality remains appropriate for the context that it's used in.
"What's important to remember, however, is that delivering voice quality in an IP environment must be an iterative process. You might start by testing a LAN for its suitability even before a VoIP solution is deployed. That can be done by running simulated VoIP traffic over it and monitoring performance at strategic locations. Then, during commissioning, it's useful to carry out end-to-end testing to fine tune the configurations and get it ready for live use. After thats done, regular monitoring remains essential, particularly given the constantly changing topology of most IT networks and the natural variations in traffic flow that affect any real world environment. In some of these scenarios, it's appropriate to use testing tools; in others, constant monitoring is best.
"We've found two ways into this rapidly growing market. Firstly through supporting system vendors by allowing them to incorporate our technology into their management systems, and secondly through providing a consultancy service for service providers, system integrators and end customers."
With the ITU about to announce similar standardised approaches for VoIP as they have already done for mobile and PSTN services, approaches to voice quality finally look like becoming definable – rather than infinitely debateable. Maybe it's time to update the old saying of the billing industry that 'if you can't bill for it, don't offer it,' to 'if you can't measure it, don't try to sell it'...   

Alun Lewis is a telecommunications writer and  consultant. alunlewis@compuserve.com

 [l=www.psytechnics.com/]http://www.psytechnics.com/[/l]

If providers want broadband customer loyalty, they must prove they can be trusted right from the start, says Kieran Moynihan

The transformation of the world's wireline networks is already well underway in many countries, with the ability to deliver broadband content and entertainment services to a wide variety of non-telephony devices within the domestic environment already centre stage within the strategic planning departments of most fixed line operators.
Even straightforward voice services are about to be reborn in fresh guises, using new protocols like SIP -- along with simple presence and location information -- to widen the depth and breadth of traditional service portfolios.
However, in this headlong rush towards new revenue streams, it's vitally important that service providers don't lose sight of the actual customer sitting at the end of what is going to be an ever-lengthening value chain. It's not going to be any good just pumping more and more bits at them in the hope they're going to pay for this on the basis of sheer volume alone. For the customer -- who's already becoming far more discerning about the range of possibilities on tap to them -- other criteria are also important, particularly the overall quality of the total service experience that they get from their provider. The raw truth is that if you want them to come on the broadband journey with you, you're going to have to prove to them -- right from the start -- that you're a trustworthy partner.
For some fixed service providers, negotiating the service quality management route in the broadband environment could end up becoming rather a problematic kind of journey. Managing speech quality in the circuit-switched world, while not simple, is at least a well-understood and standardised discipline that's been practised for many decades. By contrast, making the move into the broadband IP world necessarily involves far higher value transactions for content services from the customer's perspective -- along with an accompanying increased exposure to uncertainty and risk for the provider. Before asking the customer to transfer all their communications services -- including broadcast  -- onto the shoulders of one single provider, we'd better make sure that we're up to the job.
Fortunately, one part of our industry -- the mobile sector -- has already been here before and there are valuable lessons for the fixed operator to learn from that experience.
Consider the essentials of the wired broadband mix:
*  A variety of different access technologies, each with their own particular behaviours and physical limits
*  A need to support a multiplicity of services in a consistent manner
*  Great variation in the actual terminal devices being used by the customer
*  A potential separation between ownership of the actual physical network infrastructure and the providers of services to run on them              *  Complex and often highly distributed value chains, involving third parties and intricate settlement procedures
*  A fickle and often fragmented customer base, prepared to churn at a moment's notice
*  Customers who will use the network for both business and personal use -- with appropriate levels of security and reliability
Sounds a bit like the mobile environment -- but with one important difference. Customer expectations in the mobile space have largely kept pace with the network's actual ability to deliver on these. In comparison, consumers of broadband services will usually be approaching their relationship with their fixed line service provider with already high expectations, based on years of consistent performance. To them it's irrelevant that something called VoIP is letting them talk cheaply to friends on the other side of the country -- they just expect it to work.
In this context, the main lesson that could be transferred from the wireless community to their fixed line cousins is the importance of appreciating the totality of the customer experience -- and that means taking a far more holistic approach to the systems that support service quality. In the steady-state world of circuit-switched services, the data needed to monitor service quality was pretty basic, as only a handful of performance parameters actually impacted on the user's experience. Did the call connect, did it complete, was it successfully billed for and so on?
By contrast, there are a host of different issues that can impact on the broadband experience and, just like the mobile environment, not all of these will be under the direct control of either the service provider or the network owner. In taking a leaf from the mobile book, fixed line operators are going to have to start seeing things from the customers' -- not the network's -- perspective, and this involves a shift in focus to what in the mobile arena is called customer-centric service management.
That involves pulling together all the currently separate and discrete functions of network operations, customer care, billing, enterprise account and product management and integrating them in ways that add value to the customer, to the whole business and not just to narrow departmental responsibilities. With the right kind of service quality management system in place, it becomes possible for faults that will have an immediate impact on customer service to be quickly identified and resolved, while triage can readily be performed to prioritise less urgent problems. Internal Service Level Agreements (SLAs) can also be defined and monitored across the organisation, leading to a greater coordination between all the different departments actually involved in creating, deploying, marketing and billing new services.
Given the critical place we're at in the rollout of broadband services, there's a strong argument to be made for adapting that old adage 'If you can't bill for it -- don't offer it' into 'If you can't guarantee its quality -- don't offer it". Fortunately, help -- and real world experience -- is at hand.                                                        n

Kieran Moynihan is General Manager, Service Management Division, Vallent Corporation
www.vallent.co.uk

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