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November 2010

Putting a Database at the ‘Nexus’ of Service and Revenue Assurance

Putting a Database at the ‘Nexus’ of Service and Revenue Assurance

The forward slant in the term “B/OSS” signifies a connection between customer- and revenue-facing systems (BSS and Billing) and network-facing systems (OSS).

Now at most operators today, that connection is rather weak.  And one good reason for that is their B/OSS software suppliers have not yet closed the B/OSS gap themselves.

True, many software firms are “on the path” to fuller B/OSS integration these days.  Telcordia and Comptel, for instance, have grown that capability organically.  And firms like Oracle, Netcracker, Subex, and Amdocs have a broader B/OSS reach thanks to acquisitions.  But on the whole, we’re still a long ways away from the TM Forum’s idyllic NGOSS architecture.

So when will that day arrive?  Well, certain events suggest that it’s already on its way.  Subex, for example, has implemented a virtual Revenue Operations Center that looks at service profitability through a highly granular view of network costs and billing data.  And here’s another telling event: TEOCO, the leader in North American cost-management solutions, acquired Israel-based TTI Telecom, a pure service assurance software play.

While the B/OSS integration needle seems to be moving in the right direction, ironically, the biggest obstacle isn’t the lack of software skills or money.  The biggest problem is simply finding B/OSS experts who can make sense of the immensely complex technology and vendor-specific nuances in the telecom back office.  Company acquisitions, product mergers, common information models, APIs, and SOA — by themselves — don’t add up to much.  The benefit of integrated B/OSS software comes only when the business processes plus flesh-and-blood subject matter experts are there to guide and manage the integration work in the real world.

So where, you ask, can you find these rare subject matter experts who can bridge the gulf between BSS and OSS?

Well, one place to look is Zurich, Switzerland, the home of Nexus Telecom.  The Nexus name (wonderfully appropriate for a firm at the center of B/OSS action) is certainly not a well-known brand.  In fact, TRI didn’t have the company on its industry radar until recently.  However, Nexus has an impressive list of client references: AT&T, BT, Telecom Austria, Beeline (Russia), Telstra, and Deutsche Telekom, to name a few.

Nexus’ skill-sets cut across two functional areas.  First, it leverages passive and active probes to do full network /service monitoring and testing.  Besides classic monitoring, it does network and service performance management linking network assets to services end-to-end and linking performance to the customer experience.  Then it also has a major business in BSS and OSS mediation.  Mobilink Pakistan, the largest operator in the Orascom Telecom Group, is its biggest mediation reference with 35 million subs.

I met Nexus’ Michael Olbrich, director of Business Unit Performance and Revenue Management, at this year’s B/OSS conference, and he granted me this interview.

Dan Baker: Michael, I made a trip to your website to look at your major product categories.  And alongside “performance management” and “network monitoring,” I saw the term “revenue monitoring.” And I found that analogy clever and fresh.  Yes, activities like revenue assurance and mediation can rightly be called “revenue monitoring” especially if you see the B/OSS worlds converging.

Michael Olbrich:  Dan, telecoms have hardly begun to realize the power of bringing the BSS and OSS sides of their houses together.

As you know, telecoms own monstrous multi-vendor, multi-device, and  multi-technology networks.  And they don’t introduce these technologies sequentially.  There’s  always an overlap.  Then there are GSM, then Wi-Fi, then LTE.  And we all know that GSM still has a few decades of life left in it.

One of our customers is a large mobile operator in Germany with 40 million subscribers.  And the roots of their technology run very deep.  I liken it to cutting down a large tree in the forest and examining the rings on the cross-section of the trunk.  The whole history of T-Mobile’s wireless technology can be seen in those rings — from launching analog in the 1980s to 2G, then on to 3G and Wi-Fi, and finally LTE can be seen in the outer-most ring.

Now there’s immense intelligence in these heterogeneous, multi-generational systems, but telecoms can’t extract and leverage that.  And this is what Nexus Telecom is all about — we monitor the performance of networks and services and in the same database tell you what subscribers are doing — from a revenue or usage perspective.

The same services that you model for the network you will ultimately bill or charge for.  So it makes sense that the revenue assurance guys should use the same definition of services as your network operations people.  There are tons of things to analyze once you have an end-to-end and B-to-OSS view.  Capacity management, revenue leaks, trending, marketing opportunities, forecasts.  You name it.  And operators are headed in this direction.  What are large operators doing these days?  They are folding their fixed network, residential, and mobile properties back together again to achieve these intelligence and management efficiencies.  Besides, of course, cost advantages.

What’s the starting point for operators?  You obviously can’t implement a common database from scratch.

It doesn’t matter where you start.  What does matter is choosing a strategic vendor who can move you to the single database in a modular, step-wise fashion.  Carriers need to rationalize the many mediation layers, ETL layers, and enterprise application integration layers they have.

A typical operator customer of ours has an average two or three mediation devices.  Plus there are usually five to 15 ETL (Extract Transform and Load) layers.  And in addition to lots of point to point integration scripts, he probably has a high-end EAI type of systems with related costs and complexities to manage.

Network and service applications have mushroomed for years.  Another customer of ours is a leading operator in  Italy who has 15 performance management tools.  Now at that company, the CEO is driving assurance consolidation very strongly, even to the point of integrating with telecom assurance with enterprise network management  tools.

A performance management (PM) competitor of ours sells data analytics reporting as an add-on to its PM software product.  But wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy one database that combines your data analytics and reporting of performance data?  Well, that’s what Nexus sells.

And our customers have multiple consumers of that information, such as the fraud department, revenue assurance, network planning, and network operations.  All of those departments synchronize from one engine and get a holistic end-to-end view.

The billing and mediation side is equally ripe for consolidation.  After all, we’re in the days of triple- and quad-play services — voice, set-top box video, mobile, plus data access at home and a dongle on your laptop.  Customers want to get one invoice for all of that — and a consistent user experience across the three screens (TV, PC/laptop/tablet and smartphone).

In wireless billing today there are serious issues around revenue assurance, and it’s the result of trying to combine the best of postpaid and IN prepaid worlds.  In many cases, the operator loses money because it’s stuck in the middle of two vendors and the tariff plans are not implemented correctly.  Each side has different rules for rounding, peak hours, and dozens of other parameters.  It can be a real mess.

So this is the attraction of a unified rating environment that allows you to de-couple real-time charging from how the subscriber pays you.

Nexus has done very well  for itself without spending a lot on marketing.  In addition, you’re going up against some fairly large and entrenched competitors, especially on the network and service assurance side.  How do you win customers and convince them to invest in a relatively small vendor?

As the world knows, the Swiss culture is big on engineering prowess — being it watches or the famous Swiss army knife.  But as you suggest, marketing is maybe not our strongest point.  Being a private company allows you to focus on long term customer relationships, end-user satisfaction and growth with the pace as your customer grows.  Especially these days of a financial crisis we are not hammered by quarterly results.

At Nexus, we rely a lot on very good contacts with senior people at the operators.  And having spoken to many of them I can honestly say these people face big pressure in rolling out LTE and saving costs at the same time.  So these people are quite receptive to our story about the benefits of  consolidation, unified applications and taking advantage of the latent intelligence that sits inside billing and network systems.

In a larger sense, what we tell people is less persuasive than what our execution says about us.  Like any marketer, I carry around product white papers to show people.  But the two papers I’m most proud of don’t talk about our products.  Instead, they are testimonials from two long-term customers that testify to our customer support capabilities.

Look at it from the operator’s perspective.  For each vendor  it has in its portfolio, there’s a roadmap and a relationship it needs to manage.  And if a vendor is only delivering 50 percent of the capabilities he advertised and he requires constant management, he’s probably on his way out.

Now we publish a roadmap of where we’re going on each of our projects and products.  And if the customer drills down on that roadmap and asks, “Where did this requirement come from?” we talk about how we arrived at that by comparing the needs of different carriers on different continents.  And when the CEO sees the rationale behind your roadmap and — most important — sees how we executed to that roadmap, then he begins to look at us more strategically.

So I think the way forward for operators is to arrive to a smaller group of trusted suppliers, then manage the remaining ones closely.

Michael, this is the first time I’ve seen Nexus exhibit at a show in North America.  What brings you to the land of Elvis and Bill Gates?

We have customers in the U.S. and Canada since many years.  Now with the rise of mobile broadband, LTE and 4G we are very well positioned given our product portfolio, existing customer base all over and therefore believe we have a compelling offer.  A perfect fit for a very demanding market like the U.S.

This article first appeared in Billing and OSS World.

Copyright 2010 Black Swan Telecom Journal

Michael Olbrich

Michael Olbrich

Michael Olbrich has 15+ years experience in the global IT and telecoms space, responsible within Nexus Telecom for the business unit for performance & revenue management.

Before joining Nexus Telecom he held senior roles in the area of sales, marketing and product management with companies like Ericsson, Hutchison 3G and Vodafone.

Nexus Telecom provides off-the-shelf products and services to monitor, test and measure how a subscriber experiences the service provided by an operator.

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