ViewsLetter(SM) on Provisioning

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ViewsLetter on Provisioning         20 January 2004     #34
     A fortnightly look at provisioning automation.


   Technology supports plans to cut labor costs
   through Web-based order entry and provisioning
     --William A. Flanagan, Editor and Publisher

Must have been a lot of people who liked Verizon's announcement earlier this month that it would convert central office switching from traditional circuit switches to packet switches and Voice over IP (VoIP).  Not only did Nortel's stock jump up, expected because that company will supply the equipment, but so did Alcatel's--presumably in the belief that other carriers would place similar orders with that vendor.

What didn't get much coverage is what this change in infrastructure will do for and to Verizon, besides reduce cost and save floor space.  That's why we're here.

First, Verizon has been letting customers order through the Web for years.  For the most part, the web interface provides account management (look at the bill, pay it) and the ability to order some services, such as the CLASS features:  call waiting, caller ID, etc.  These features have always been available in the CO switch--it's just a matter of turning them on by configuring an individual customer's database record in the switch.  Such small adjustments to existing service are done easily, through a well-defined command language (for example, TL-1) that lends itself to automation from a web server.

Get beyond a simple order, however, and you still need to phone a service representative.  The slow web site may drive you to that anyway, but it is necessary because the man-machine interface to a circuit switch still benefits from man's ability to understand the configuration inside the machine.

Now, add the software-based switch to the central office.  Most of them have anticipated the need for automated provisioning.  They have Application Program Interfaces (APIs) that use more modern communications formats (XML and derivatives) that mesh more easily with similar languages and formats built into almost every web server.  The linkage is easier to set up, easier to manipulate, less reliant on human understanding of switch configuration.

In short, designers of the software switches (softswitches) expected them to be configured by other computers.  Some softswitches already have internal web servers for technicians:  a graphical interface rather than the old command line.  Graphics and menus make configuration easier, reducing errors, but it also makes the job easier to learn, cutting down on training costs and reducing the impact of staff turnover. 

Extend that argument to its logical conclusion:  Configuration for provisioning is so easy to learn that any customer can master the process in a few minutes.  So let them. 

No, make that "encourage them!"  If you want DSL, "First month FREE--if you order online!" (quoted from the Verizon web site).  With the cost per transaction for service reps, a carrier can afford to give up some recurring monthly fee and come out way ahead.  With large enough incentives, Telcos may never have to try something like the fee some banks charged each time a customer used a live teller rather than an ATM machine.

There may be no need to offer much encouragement for consumers to take on the order entry job.  They do it now almost every time they buy something over the Internet.  Younger people seem to prefer the convenience of web ordering, and the fact that they don't have to leave their Instant Messaging. 

Converting orders automatically into services will take more development of "middleware" and probably new billing systems to capture the revenue.  But with the central office converted to a server and a media converter, there almost nothing that can't be automated.  The the "lights out" central office has been around for decades.  Soon we'll see the "lights out" business office:  web servers taking orders 24x7.

Don't forget the parallel project to replace copper in the outside plant with fiber--almost 100% accomplished in the long-haul portions of networks.  Fiber continues to take over the stretch from the CO to the remote terminal (RT, the SLIC96 inside the green box on the corner).

From the RT to the customer premises, copper local loops still dominate.  When several major carriers selected a common technology for  Fiber to the home (FTTH), they ensured volume production would drive down the price and make fiber an economical alternative to copper.  While FTTH didn't make as much of a splash as the softswitch, it certainly caught the attention of the splicers and installers trained only on copper--they have rushed to learn fiber splicing to avoid becoming later-day buggy whip makers.

There's still some work for local software people (with the aid of coders in India, Eastern Europe, and China), and even servers and gateways need some installation and maintenance by live persons. 

Some day, though, after the public telephone network will be converted to high-reliability servers, self-healing redundant gateways, and corrosion resistant glass.  At that time a telco will enjoy an enviable position.  
    --It won't be supplying power any more--hard to do over glass cable. 
    --It will have sharply lower labor costs compared to the past, the result of a drop in head count comparable to the elimination of live operators when switching was automated. 
    --It will face almost no immediate pressure to replace strikers, putting it in a strong bargaining position. 

Set up that way, the PSTN could operate practically unmanned, compared to today, for years.  A national or global catastrophe that removed most of the population (a popular topic in science fiction novels) might not cut off dial tone as long as the power lasted.  In one of those stories, a dozen hydroelectric generators continued for years, until the one person who put oil on the bearings had to quit and couldn't find a replacement.

Cutting back on the crafts, telcos risk losing the pool of skills needed to rebuild a damaged network, or deploy the next wave of updated technology (which we should understand is inevitable).  The Military-Industrial Complex understands the problem.  The "defense" budget in large part maintains the structure, facilities, and core staff needed to invent, design, and produce weapons that we don't need right now.  Is it waste or is it maintenance? 

With weapons, the answer depends on whether there is a need for them in the future.  We know there will be a need for communications.

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 Updated: 17 July 2004 2003

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