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March 2019

Dynamic Reference Data: How Symmetry Helps O2 UK Simplify its Processes, Reduce Errors, and Keep its Businesses in Synch

Dynamic Reference Data: How Symmetry Helps O2 UK Simplify its Processes, Reduce Errors, and Keep its Businesses in Synch

The life of man is a self-evolving circle that expands toward new horizons and larger circles without end.

Yet a man’s ideas are hemmed in by his own circular wave of circumstance.  So it is that our empires, social rites, rules of art, and commercial customs tend to heap themselves on a ridge and solidify.

Only when a powerful new idea commands them can men burst over their boundaries and expand another orbit on the great deep.

          R. W. Emerson, Circles, Essays: First Series, 1841 adapted


A love for software and systems has dominated the 25 years I’ve been following the telecom back office as an industry analyst.

In the mid-90s, commercial-off-the-shelf software was the rage as dozens of billing/OSS solution vendors entered the market.  At the height of this buying frenzy, the Telestrategies trade show packed 2,000 sweating people in the poorly air conditioned basement of the Washington Renaissance Hotel.

Soon enough the excitement faded as cooler heads settled on solutions from the dominant players.  Amdocs became the clear billing leader as Ericsson and Oracle invested heavily on the OSS side.  And in recent years, smaller waves of buying sprees emerged in areas like CRM, analytics, assurance, and Big Data.

But today we’ve entered a new phase, the Agility Era, where the key question is: how can we make better use of the resources and systems we already own?  How can we coordinate the scattered systems we bought or built in the prior era?

Well, risk assurance consultant Luke Taylor introduced me to Symmetry Solutions, a small UK-based firm who has a proven solution to this problem.

Over the last several years, Symmetry has built up a central linchpin platform that exploits a telco’s reference data to: 1) quickly update master data across the enterprise; 2) simplify complex enterprise processes; and 3) get quick answers to key assurance and marketing questions without the need for costly and time-consuming big data explorations.

Joining us to explain his company’s solution is Nev Phillips, Symmetry’s CTO — with Luke Taylor chiming in on the discussion.

Dan Baker, Editor, Black Swan: Nev, please give us a quick overview of the value that Symmetry delivers for telecoms.

Nev Phillips: Dan, we are about taking the much-talked-about concepts of master data management (MDM) and data governance and implementing them in an active way that creates great value in connecting business silos and making key decisions.

For seven years now, O2 UK — our largest customer — has been using our platform.  And in that time, they have built up their intellectual property to deliver a true 360 view that interfaces with their many different departments and business units.

Now while MDM is often considered a kind of static data that merely sits there, the flavor of MDM that O2 has implemented is a very active one.  They use their reference data all the time to audit systems, to look at offers, and to go to market.

So at O2 UK today, data governance and MDM is no longer a future vision: it’s a standard way of doing business.

What’s the scope of the Symmetry deployment at O2 UK?

The amount of reference data they maintain is overwhelming.  To give you an idea, O2 UK has something on the order of 40,000 tariffs and 200,000 rate entries across their billing systems.

The reference data platform we started at O2 UK has grown and grown.  When we started with them we looked after 7 billing systems and today our scope has expanded to 19 billing or operational systems.

We designed our platform to audit systems in place.  For instance, we can create a “master copy” from design documents the customer has.  Along the way we reduce the need to re-process data taken from billing, routing, mediation and other systems and we simply analyze from the reference data alone.

At O2, whenever they have a new product launch or new set of tariffs, we can test those very efficiently.

As long as the product is billed in the billing system, we can say, “OK, we tested that reference data and it’s fine.”  This is not a physical test but a quick bench test that saves a lot of re-rating.  Think about re-rating 40,000 tariffs.  That’s insane!  But querying the reference data, we know nothing has changed and therefore nothing should have changed in terms of how the old products work.

Can you give us an example of how you use these “master copy” references?

Dan, apart from the broader aspect of tariff assurance activities as we do with O2 (that touches on revenue assurance, marketing, finance, compliance, etc.), the Legal/Procurement function can benefit, too.  Think about all the intelligence in enterprise contracts: it took great effort to negotiate and fine tune these contracts when these were initially undertaken many years ago.  You’d like an efficient way to leverage that painstaking work for the future.

So how can do you do that?  Well, one way is to OCR scan these enterprise customer contracts and align that with what’s in the billing systems.

And rather than cut a new contract from whole cloth, you can preserve some of the wonderful clauses, caveats and allowances in the old contract with the customer.  So, by analyzing the data within the billing system, a master copy of this “truth on the ground” can be formulated.

The key advantage is when it comes time to re-sign — or more importantly renegotiate contracts — understanding what that customer has already got means a new contract can be structured which is beneficial to the customer and critically good for the operator.

Can you give us a feel for the various areas where reference data is being put to use?

Sure, Dan.  Let me give you a quick rundown, a reference data 101 if you wish:

  • The starting point for exploiting reference data is usually Data External to the Operator, such as international dial strings, premium rate dial strings.  This external data is often supplied by an outside specialist, like Telcordia, BIAAS, PRISM etc. who maintains global phone numbers and dial codes.  The challenge is to ensure these numbers are maintained and kept current across multiple billing systems.  A solid reference data platform makes that task easy.
  • Tariff Rates are another important set of reference data.  And tariffs, of course, are anything but static because a matrix of things drive each rate.  Bundles and discounts are applied to particular call types, times of day, and origins.  And rates are staggered: the first hundred minutes you get free, the second hundred at 50% discount, and so on.  As tariffs change, our platform automatically audits these changes across multiple billing and charging system.  We also audit that these changes are properly implemented.
  • We also audit the Offer to the Customer, which includes the rating plan, a roaming plan, data allowance, and some kind of data policy.
  • Device Payback Decisions — When a mobile device is paid over the life of a contract, the offer needs to be carefully constructed.  What should the tariff on the device be?  How much should the customer pay, and over what term length?  What is the early payback offer?
  • Data Policies are examined for speeds promised and capacity limits.  Is the user prompted to buy more data?  If so, what messages do they receive?
  • Many miscellaneous Operational Data are maintained such as finance reporting codes and routing.  In CAMEL roaming data, for instance, we verify correct routing and check when a spending cap gets triggered.
  • Marketing often turns to reference data to check if a new product will be profitable or not.  The reference data is used to build the offer you make.  The business intelligence guys at O2 use Symmetry as one of the first ports of call, as we can help sort that out and deliver clean data to them.
  • Yet another use of reference data is in Margin Analysis.  Maybe you need to rationalize the traffic sent to each of your four international wholesale providers.  On the retail side, you can work out what rate to charge to make X percent margin.  And again those rates can be dynamically altered in the systems.
Symmetry Solutions Trap
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How do you go about building a reference data system from scratch to populate your platform?

Well, to begin, we need to understand how the underlying systems work at a detailed level.  We say, “Tell us exactly how it works.  Why did you structure reference data this way?” Many find our questions probing and challenging, but it’s essential groundwork for modeling the data correctly.

New pieces of functionality are being added all the time.  So again, we engage with the client to ensure we model it properly.  We ask ourselves, “If something goes wrong, what’s the best way to detect this?”

The goal is to build the simplest solution to discover and remedy problems.  We are about using knowledge — rather than heavy iron — to solve problems.

I’m curious how reference data can be used in revenue assurance, fraud, and other risk management activities?

Risk is the starting point for all our designs.  We must first figure out where failures and fraud are likely to occur.  What can really go wrong?  How likely is it to go wrong, and what control is needed to detect that?

Yes, CDR files do go missing, but very rarely.  CDRs do get corrupted, but not very often, and lower level controls tend to correct those errors.

Once you analyze the risks, you can then discover the simplest ways to get things done.

So if it’s CDR analysis, the question becomes: Do we process billions and billions of records per day just to find out if a mediation file was processed or not?  Or do we simply look at a log to tell you the answer?

A reference data audit often provides a more efficient way of finding billing and operation system problems and that’s where we like to start.  If your reference data is solid, then you can answer many question with almost no extra effort.

A lot of CDR reconciliation is about answering the question: Are we charging the right rates to the customer?  And the answer is usually to re-rate the CDRs.  But if the billing system is rating things correctly in the first place, you don’t need to duplicate it.

And how do you ensure the billing system is doing it correctly?  The answer is to look at the reference data.  If we understand how the system works and the configuration is correct, then it is going to work correctly.

In terms of fraud, reference data is ideal for assuring subscriptions across a variety of network elements.

Again, we hold the reference data that says: “If you bought this tariff, this is the provisioning string that went down to the HLR; this is the info that went to billing system; and this went to the SMSC.”

The reference data basically tells you where things aren’t going to reconcile.

Luke, what’s your take on using reference data in assurance?

Luke Taylor: Reference data management complements revenue assurance systems.  It doesn’t compete with the likes of Subex and WeDo in reconciling EDRs with subscribers.  It’s actually a conduit for extracting insights on how all systems that touch billing and ordering streams interact.

I think reference data management — though it’s often seen as not so important — is actually critical as the telco business changes and diversifies.

What happens when you need to bill and monetize 5G and IoT?  That calls for some immensely complex migration.  But when you have a good handle on reference data, that migration will go much easier because you have so much greater visibility over operations, revenue generation, and profitability.

If you look at large big data projects and digital transformations, most of those are failing or stalling today because operators don’t have a good understanding of their reference or master data.

Finally this weakness has come to light and people are now eager to get more agile.  To be honest, the reference data that most telcos have today is just sitting there and not being exploited.

Symmetry Reference Data Management
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Nev, can you give us a couple examples of areas where you’ve actually made customers more efficient and agile?

Well, one of the ways we work is to turn complex processes into managed services.

In roaming, there are 30 to 40 processes to actually get a new roaming partner installed.  Somebody sets up the switch, somebody configures the billing system, and all different teams or people are notified and need to be coordinated.

Now by wrapping those processes under a managed service, a request comes into us and we fire off all the things necessary and make sure all the responses come back.

How about data accuracy improvement?  Well, consider how Rates and prices are posted online for customers to see.  But rather have marketing load this data from a content management system, we automatically send JSON files to the website from the actual reference data.  So because we validate the data is correct in the billing system, we’ve closed a costly error point: the publishing of incorrect prices and rates.

So here we act as a central data governance hub that coordinates and orchestrates everything across all the systems.  We validate each task has been done correctly — and that’s done without getting loads and loads of people involved.

Lots of miscommunication happens with big processes.  But with data governance at the front end, accuracy improves because the process is simplified and centralized.

Nev, thanks for this splendid tutorial on how telcos can leverage their reference data.  And now I understand Symmetry is reaching out to attract new clients.

Thanks, Dan.  Actually this not the first time we’ve tried to reach a broader number of clients.  We tried about five years ago and I think at the time people didn’t quite understand what it was about.

Fortunately, today we’ve got a richer story to tell because of our many years of experience implementing day-to-day reference data programs.

We’re also in a better position because cloud systems have matured.  Our platform runs on an Oracle cloud database with a full web front-end.  It’s also multi-tenanted, so you can have multiple business units of an organizations overseeing different parts of the data.

We are now talking to group carriers and group revenue assurance departments.  One of them has about 30 operators across 30 different countries.  And knowing our system is cloud-based has got them excited about the ability to organize their reference data centrally and do updates from one point.

So we’re looking forward to stepping up our marketing again.

Well good luck with the roll out, Nev.  Luke, your final thoughts?

Luke Taylor: Dan, something’s got to give.  The world is moving super-fast, and yet telco organizations are still operating in silos.

There’s too much infighting over who owns what and who is responsible for X, Y, and Z.  People try to hide things under the carpet, but everyone’s responsible to do good data governance and contribute to the mission of the larger business.

Revenue assurance has been a buzz word in years past, but today I think the baton must now pass to reference data and data governance because that’s the path for a telco to truly become more agile, coordinated, and scalable.

Copyright 2019 Black Swan Telecom Journal

 

About the Experts

Nev Phillips

Nev Phillips

Nev is a founder and Chief Technical Director of Symmetry Solutions and the designer of the TRAP Tariff Assurance application.

He has worked with or consulted for companies such as Telefonica O2 UK, Tesco Mobile, Virgin Media, Vodafone Germany, France Telecom, Equant/Orange Business Services, Global One, Energis Ireland, Oi Brazil, Algeria Telecom, Sky UK, TalkTalk, Etisalat UAE and others.

Nev has significant experience of large, complex projects in the telecoms industry.  He has worked in Telecoms for over 25 years for operators, vendors, consultancies and resellers.

He has gained significant knowledge in billing, charging, reference data, revenue assurance and operational assurance practices, and has deep technical skills in IT and solution design, as well as a substantial knowledge of network infrastructure and operations.

Nev is very hands-on and has helped operators detect, stop and recover hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue in his tenure in the telecoms industry.  He maintains his thought leadership in the ongoing development of Revenue Assurance best practice.  He has worked and contributed with the TM Forum, actively assisting in the development of the Maturity Model v2.   Contact Nev via

Luke Taylor

Luke Taylor

Luke is a seasoned business executive with a deep knowledge of telecoms fraud management and business assurance from his 20 years in the industry working for a risk management software vendor.

He founded Lateral Alliances in 2017 to offer business management and consultancy services focused in the IT sector and specifically telecoms risk management.

Luke has also established his own not-for-profit awards body, Risk Reward Awards with the goal of recognizing the best work done by risk professionals in the telecoms sector.   Contact Luke via

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