ViewsLetter(SM) on Provisioning

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ViewsLetter on Provisioning    4 August 2003      #26
A fortnightly look at provisioning automation--chips to business software.

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--By William A. Flanagan, Editor and Publisher

Here's another glimpse of the future for service provisioning that popped up on a recent trip.  The hotel room offered Internet access via 10 megabit/second Ethernet, and a web portal to sign up (turn it on).  This was very basic self-provisioning--only one level of service offered, at a single price per day.  But the means for more complex offerings are available now.

Recent announcements about a more-complex version of this self-provisioned data service show that MUCH more is possible.  The Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas offers a wide range of services in addition to guest-room Ethernet for Internet access.  Exhibitors in that hotel's convention center can order wireless connectivity from exhibit booths at four different throughputs (256 kbit/s to 1 Mbit/s)--temptingly priced to double your bandwidth for just a fraction more money.  Wireless delivery means that the users of this broadband service in the trade show display can also use it with their notebooks in the restaurant or lobby (even the bar), but at a lower throughput. 

The platform that makes possible this instance of self-provisioning is Nortel's Shasta product.  It has enough processing power to keep track of 16,000 simultaneous users and give each of them a virtual router, individual traffic shaping (bandwidth allocation), firewall protection, and encryption for VPN connections.  It also authenticates each user and integrates with the provisioning web portal. 

Nortel and other vendors offers these "service-enabling platforms" to incumbent and competitive local exchange carriers and Internet service providers so the SPs can add more features to basic Internet access.  Already mentioned are firewalls  and encryption, but these platforms also provide virus protection and some defense against denial of service attacks such as a barrage of SYN packets.

Firm believers in the old saying  that "You don't have a service if you can't bill for it," Nortel integrates eCommerce software that offers an API to accounting programs and has a link to a merchant account at a processing services (this thing takes credit cards), or passes charges to the hotel's bookkeeping system to add on the guestroom account.  The billing transaction follows the service order automatically.

If you are the manager of a venue that offers data services on demand, you'll want to optimize income.  For example, you can make Voice over IP (VoIP) a premium service by blocking RTP or the signaling messages, to reduce cannibalizing revenue from normal voice service through the PBX.  To use this power, you may have to develop some of the application yourself--the services are not standardized and you may want to "invent" something that fits your own situation.  Most vendors provide software tools and design services to help with implementation.

But you do have to be realistic about what you expect.  Mandalay Bay reports a payback calculation of 6 months, for a very busy location with good existing IP infrastructure.  Nortel tempers that enticing prospect with a more realistic forecast of about 13 months on average.

Even then, you'd best be careful to test, test, test to remove bugs, make the provisioning interface absolutely clear and user-friendly, and ensure the system works reliably.  The experience mentioned to start this report wasn't entirely satisfactory--for me, the hotel, or the service provider.  The service lost connectivity several times, and throughput was very low.  I complained;  ended up not paying for the Ethernet link--an opportunity lost all around. 

It's sad, but even a few experiences like this one can slow down the adoption of new technology by reinforcing our natural resistance to change.  Next time traveling, will I want to spend the time and money for a connection method that failed me in the past?  Or shall I go for the well-known dialup modem?  Eventually, the answer is Ethernet--the service as defined and promoted is very attractive. 

The hospitality industry just doesn't have enough experience yet to support new telecom technologies the way we'd like.  So looks like it's up to the telecom industry to make it easy for everyone else--KISS, "keep it simple, stupid."  However, as engineering students learn, keeping it simple can be the hardest part of a good design, and we haven't finished all the hard parts.

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 Updated: 17 July 2004 2003

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