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December 2010

Mobile Broadband: The Customer Service Assurance Challenge

Mobile Broadband: The Customer Service Assurance Challenge

Be careful what you wish for.  Operators in Europe and North America once looked with envious eyes at the mobile broadband success stories of Japan and Korea.

But now that the service has arrived on the continents with a gusto, those same operators lament how ill-prepared they are to monitor and satisfy the unquenchable thirst for service quality.

When customers experience poor service quality, mobile operators usually feel the pain first in their call centers.  In fact, customer support costs have risen sharply at many mobile broadband operators.

There are number of issues here: signaling problems, traffic congestions, the iPhone surge and others.  But most of all, carriers struggle with their business case.  Traffic is rising — the flat rate, all-you-can-eat bait is clearly attracting business — but ARPU is not rising proportionally.

Michele Campriani, CEO of Accanto Systems, is smack in the middle of this issue.  His company is growing fast delivering customer experience management (CEM) systems to a number of European operators, such as Telefonica o2 Germany.  And he attributes part of this success to his company’s unique approach that he’ll soon discuss.

Michele is a global executive who spent most of his 15 years in the service provider business at HP.  In fact, two years ago he had worldwide responsibility for HP’s OSS business and OSS Consulting.  With his home in Milan, the fashion capital of Italy, it was easy to spot Michele in the B/OSS conference crowd.  I found him through a little known quality measure called QoN — Quality of Necktie.  Sure enough, Michele’s necktie was an order of magnitude better than my Walmart special.

In this interview, you’ll learn a lot from Michele as he explains the nuances of service assurance and how it’s changed dramatically since the mobile broadband revolution.

Dan Baker: To begin, Michele, it would be great to hear how the Accanto Systems business began and why you left HP.

Michele Campriani: Dan, while at HP I realized how telecom monitoring systems vendors were growing in importance in specific areas of the B/OSS space and in particular in Customer Service Assurance.

I joined Sunrise as I knew there was great promise in that company, because their Protocol Product Group division had a great protocol analysis capability and my vision was to groom that into a customer service assurance system.

Well, with the merge of this group and an OSS consultancy practice from Finland — LTE Innovation — to form Accanto Systems, luckily my plan worked and we’ve doubled our employees to about 100 people now with about 60 percent of our business now in the service assurance area.

HP’s a great company, and I loved my many years there, but the chance to get involved with a startup and execute my vision was too exciting to pass up.

It would great to get an example of how your system helps an operator solve service quality problems.

OK, let’s talk about the case of a customer of ours who launched mobile broadband using a tiered data service.  They offered five tiers starting with 384K for 10 Euros all the up to a 5 meg service for 60 Euros.

The operator computed where to put its routers based on average bandwidth required, but they were never able to associate each subscriber with the actual bandwidth he or she experienced.  So they hired Accanto to help them do exactly that: Measure the quality of experience and associate subscribers to services as well as to network and devices.

In this case, the data revealed a very large problem.  The operator found that its 5 meg customers (paying 60 Euros a month) were actually getting — on average — only a 1 meg service.  In fact, none of the 5 meg subscribers was getting over 2 meg and probably the luckiest guys were the 384 K group who were getting nearly 500 K most of the time.

Seeing this for the first time shocked the operator, who said, “My gosh, we are basically not taking care of our highest-value subscribers.“ And the ensuing investigation revealed something quite interesting: The 5 meg customers were all concentrated in the financial district of the major city of that country, so they were basically eating each other’s bandwidth.

So this network intelligence told the operator it had to invest in more capacity in a place where it previously assumed it was well covered.

When the operator sets up the system, how do you separate the customers you want to closely track versus the subscribers who are less valuable?

Well, to begin, we actually capture all transactions that happen in the network, regardless of how important the subscriber is.  And that allows us to — in a reactive way — figure out what happened for a specific customer, for a specific service at a specific time.

For instance, the customer care rep receives a call from a customer, saying, “Hey, my handset is dropping calls all the time, what’s going on?“ So a trouble ticket starts and the network engineer, using our system, enters the mobile number and traces what happened to a specific call in the network and why it was dropped.

Now that’s a typical troubleshooting capability.  Now what Accanto has added is an ability to select specific customers — could be corporate, business customers, or specific VIPs — and then proactively get dashboards or alarms to conduct a 24x7 monitoring for that restricted number of customers.  And if it’s important to you, you could monitor the data of about 15 million subscribers on this basis.

In fact, there was a funny case where one operator was monitoring the service quality for its CTO to make sure that he never gets bad service because whenever he does, he calls up the network ops guys to shout at them.

So to repeat: Reactively, you can trace back everything that happened to a specific customer.  Proactively, you as an operator can select any number of customers, tell the system to track them and we will monitor them continuously.  And the biggest cost restriction is the amount of storage you want to dedicate to saving all the network transactions.

Michele, there are quite a number of companies in the service assurance business.  How do you differentiate yourself?

First, a big differentiator for us is that we capture both signaling and the actual content from the traffic.  And this is where I saw the potential of doing something different at Accanto.  Traditionally an OSS vendor will get information mostly from the nodes of network element managers, which is fine in the voice world, but not when you’re dealing with IP.  For as we know, the IP infrastructure is completely decoupled from the network itself — and from the actual quality of service experienced by the subscriber.

When I was at HP, we tried really hard to associate what we could from the node as to what was happening to real customers, even at the service level, but it was very tough to do.  Now, don’t get me wrong, understanding the health of the infrastructure is still very important, but we need very specific information about what an individual subscriber is experiencing.  So, it requires a totally different approach and because of that, we do have to collect tons and tons of information.

The two toughest parts of the process are: 1) digesting the mountains of information required; and 2) correlating it to get a perspective on quality.

We use data collectors, probes and other means, but the important point is we get session information, and we combine that with a signaling perspective to tell if the call is connected or is dropped.  Relying on signaling alone, you don‘t really get at the quality of the voice or data that’s transmitted.  But by combining that information with what we call the user plane, we can apply algorithms to calculate the actual quality of the service.

So where I think we differ from competitors is our commitment to the IP side, not just signaling.

I know it’s hard to associate the monitoring of customer experience with actual customer satisfaction or churn, so I’m curious what KPIs do you use to prove you’re making progress.

Like you say, it’s tough to make a one-to-one correlation, but one tangible KPI is the decrease in number of calls or trouble tickets — and also how long it takes you to actually solve a specific trouble ticket.

If you can close trouble tickets much faster, it means you can really pinpoint the cause of problems very quickly.

And it’s a great feeling to get those numbers down.  At one customer, their mobile data support costs dropped 400 percent.  Now one reason for that dramatic drop is that data services assurance is still a immature practice.  These days it takes it takes operators on average 10 times longer to fix data services issues than traditional voice.

Data services is more complex because of the mix of different nodes, servers, and even applications.  Traditional voice is much simpler and predictable that way.  So, it is very difficult to understand where the problem is and what really is causing the problem.  It is a reflection of data services being more complex and it’s a newer service type to monitor.

Many mobile broadband operators are struggling to improve network quality, but they don’t know where to start.  What’s your advice to them?

The first thing is get a grasp of your network from a service standpoint.  How is your network being used to deliver specific services?  And on this point, I’ll tell you, very few operators have a clue.  They know that there’s a certain amount of bandwidth being consumed and where, but they don‘t know why people are using it or whether it is being  monetized or not.

Interestingly enough, China Mobile has come up with a totally different take on how you do service assurance.  They basically created two IP networks.  One network is for the Internet and peer-to-peer things, and that network is not managed too strongly or closely.  Then they have a parallel network for high-value services.  In that way, they can guarantee the experience.  So this is a novel approach, but I don’t think too many operators can afford to have two networks like this.

But back to your point, Dan.  Mobile broadband is in the middle of a whirlpool.  Everybody was swept into offering mobile broadband at a flat rate but that flat rate is not sustainable because now you need to add more capacity but you are not getting the revenue to justify it.

The only way to get out of this jam is to optimize your infrastructure and better leverage what you already have instead of buying more bandwidth.  If you understand how your customers are using mobile broadband, you see the congestion points and who’s being affected by it.  Knowing that, you can focus network investment in places where you will get the biggest payoff.

This article first appeared in Billing and OSS World.

Copyright 2010 Black Swan Telecom Journal

 

About the Expert

Michele Campriani

Michele Campriani

Vic Bozzo is responsible for leading the global strategy, marketing and communications functions at Telarix.  Prior to joining Telarix, was President and General Manager of Pac-West’s Emerging Technologies division.  Vic holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Manhattan College.

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