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Can cloud providers help comms providers with complex 4G?

There’s nothing more liberating than having limited options. It gives you the license to get out there and do the job and not be a prisoner to those nagging doubts that you’re doing the wrong thing. That’s why cloud services are great. They keep everything simple.

When the gods want to drive you insane, on the other hand, they give you unlimited possibilities. To crank up the torture, they could give you an endless number of options to choose from – only one of which will save you from death. So you start with a paralysing sense of fear and then continue with an awful feeling that you’re going the wrong way. That is the situation many mobile telecoms operators face now, and why channel cloud service providers could be life savers in the coming months.

The onset of 4G mobile networks has already claimed many victims who chose to back the wrong technology, Wimax. Now that LTE is the de facto standard for 4G, the pain isn’t going to go away.

The problem for the mobile operators is that they are no longer telecoms companies, they’re communications service providers (CSPs). The revenue on connecting customer A to customer B by phone or text is falling by the day. So now CSP’s must create a mobile IT infrastructure that delivers all kinds of services – video, games, apps, editorial – all the work that writers, film makers and games developers sweat blood over and that marketing and advertising suits rather insultingly dismiss as ‘content’. Never trust anyone who calls your work content!

But providing all this, er, content, is hellishly complicated, because the users, damn them, are a moveable feast. It was a lot simpler when everyone made voice calls which were all on the same tariff, but now there are hundreds of different price plans, thousands of different apps, and millions of mobile users, all demanding enough bandwidth on standby – wherever they are – in case they want to watch “fat man falls down hole” on YouTube. Unlike telecoms, where the telco only had to send you a letter in the post every three months, the CSPs have an instant deadline; they have to bill in real time, in addition to pre- and post-paying.

The mobile network, meanwhile, has to be an artificially intelligent network that’s so sensitive to change, so adaptable and self-healing that it’s practically an organic super-being. The CSPs have to create this lifelike infrastructure out of millions of intelligent cells, then harmonise them into one coherent structure that covers the entire nation. All against an impossibly tight deadline. Presumably, on the seventh day they will rest!

The good news is that 4G provides endless possibilities for solving all these issues. It’s technically possible for CSPs to tune their business and operational support systems (BSS/OSS) to achieve a perfect market for all the services running across a perfectly balanced network, says David Heaps, the senior VP of corporate strategy at CSG International. But you would need more money that there is in the world today, and an infinite budget. So it’s about prioritising and then acting quickly on those decisions. 

Sadly, since most telcos are still set up for 2G when connectivity was the order of the day, if the IT department took nine months to make a decision on when to attend a meeting, they were hailed as dynamic. Now the culture of IT departments in most CSPs could be more accurately described as Bring-Your-Own-Handbrake; the legacy IT department slows the company down.

What the CSPs need, you could argue, are service providers who can bypass the internal politics and the IT department. The bewildering number of decisions involved in rolling out 4G could incapacitate anyone. But there are companies – like Tektronix, JDSU, Amdocs, Redknee, CSG International, Aircom, Tecnotree and Oracle – that could capacitate them. So where do you start?

Though there are solutions in the cloud, few companies will go for them, says Uri Gurevitz, Amdoc’s director of portfolio marketing. “Most companies want to run their own systems,” says Gurevitz but, as he points out, “they need a system for planning LTE networks and few had an automated planning tool for the roll out of services. They used Excel in many cases.”

There are complex choices ahead for CSPs, as they have a legacy of old networks and IT systems (such as 2G, 3G and Wi-Fi) and a new system that has to be overlaid. As with many companies that have grown organically, many don’t even know what they’ve got. “The companies with the best inventories of their networks are those most likely to succeed,” says Gurevitz. Who is going to create those inventories – the channel?

The CSPS might be better off doing an inventory on their customers, suggests Timo Ahomaki, Tecnotree’s CTO. “The early adopters of 3G will be the high value customers, so there needs to be lots of analysis of what they adopt, how they respond to offerings and how they behave,” says Ahomaki.

The key differentiator is integration, says Jonjie Sena, marketing VP at Aircom. “It’s about how you do the hand off between 2G, 3G and 4G,” he says. Since 2G handles voice calls efficiently and simply, and 4G is much more sophisticated in the handling of digital data, one might expect 3G to be the first to disappear as equipment is swapped out. But that would be a mistake without an audit, says Sena. It’s like the old days of legacy IT in the City, he says, when many companies dared not remove equipment because nobody knew what the ramifications might be. Many resellers and systems integrators who are familiar with solving that problem for clients might do a service to CSPs now.

“There needs to be much tighter integration of BSS and OSS system,” says Sena. “The absence of financial metrics means the CSPs can’t analyst the cost and revenue aspects of all the holes in their networks, capacity issues and quality problems.”

These could provide an ‘in’ for service providers with a finance bias, he seems to suggest. “There isn’t enough money in all the world to create a network to give all things to everybody,” says Sena, “so don’t measure the bytes. Measure the effect on customers. You have to prioritise the value you give to them.”

A good discipline, for anyone who wants to help the CSPs with the roll out and management of their 4G networks, is to always remember that the customers don’t want to share your problems, says Redknee's CTO, James DeMarco. “We have to shield the complexity of what’s going on underneath from the subscribers. A lot of companies like to share their problems with the end user,” says De Marco. The end user doesn’t care how their film is delivered, they just want it done, he says.

The industry needs people who learned from the problems of a previous operational tool, CRM, he continues. Customer relationship management didn’t describe any relationship most people would want to be in, it was pretty much a one way exchange – with the enterprise telling the customers what it wanted to sell them. And phoning them at all hours. “I call that customer stalking,” says De Marco.

The next generation (4G) will be enormously complex, but in order to work it’s got to be stupidly simple. Maybe the cloud service providers have the people to dumb it down.

This was first published in January 2014

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