Is the telecom back office ready for momentous change? In the face of revolutionary developments in the last 10 years — the cloud, big data, mobile broadband, and coopetition with OTT players — will tier one operators continue to maintain their quilt works of legacy and adjunct platforms? Will that be sufficient?
Or will they cast their dice and choose to radically transform their BSS architecture into something more integrated, more flexible and specifically designed to address problems and opportunities of the new telecom era?
Well one BSS company, AsiaInfo, is decidedly in the “radically transform” camp. People in EMEA and the Americas are just getting to know AsiaInfo, but as the leading BSS vendor in China, AsiaInfo has proven it can manage BSS systems that scale. One of its customers, China Mobile, has no less than 750 million subscribers.
I wanted to find out more, so I spoke with the VP of Product Marketing at AsiaInfo, Andy Tiller. Andy, headquartered in London and responsible for AsiaInfo’s push into EMEA, gives us a wide-ranging view of the BSS opportunities and issues in this interview: real-time analytics, billing for enterprises, partnering mashups, an update on his company’s on-going transformation work at Telenor, and more.
Andy, why don‘t we start with analytics where AsiaInfo has a lot of experience particularly on the real-time side of things.
Dan, real-time for us is usually about understanding the context of a customer: what are they doing right now? Are they visiting a particular website and what type of device are they on? That information can be used in real-time to trigger a response.
Maybe you know they are running low on their data allowance and they are trying to watch a video. So at that point you could remind them that they will be out of data soon and so you make a “Click here” offer to them to get an extra day’s worth of data for a modest extra charge.
Something like that is a win/win for the user and the operator.
Now to make this work, you simply must do it at exactly the right time. If the message is delivered at a random time, the customer just doesn‘t need it quite then. And if you submit your offer for an extra day of service two hours too late, the customer is disappointed to see what he could have saved.
Real-time is also important for providing timely support. For instance, one operator is keen to know exactly when a person swaps out the SIM card into a new device — and what that device is. It may be the customer bought an unlocked smartphone through eBay, which could be an opportunity to reach out to the customer and offer them advice and support.
Or the customer receives poor service: they had three dropped calls in the last 24 hours. So maybe that triggers an outbound call or a promise to give them some credit and an apology via SMS.
The whole idea is to improve customer experience by turning a poor experience into a delightful one. When that happens, then the customer’s on your side because you noticed straight away that they had a bad experience. And maybe you prevented them from putting something negative on social media.
How do you technically achieve this real-time capability in the BSS?
In the case of Veris C3, our convergent context awareness center we essentially packaged up our own technology for deep packet inspection (DPI), stream computing, and IBM’s analytics-tuned database.
We packaged that all up to create an appliance that’s easy to drop into the network. Now DPI is usually associated with in-line software to control the network or change policy etc. Ours is different. We use DPI as part of C3 to identify what application the subscriber is using on their smartphone right now, what’s their location, which categories of websites are they visiting?
It basically works off a copy of the in-line data stream; we feed that into our platform which structures it in real-time. And while the DPI engine is collecting and organizing the data, it’s also in real-time figuring out the context — somebody opens a music app at a music festival and that might be the time to send them an offer.
This technology is mature since it’s been used in China for many years. But you have to keep your libraries up to date, so if Skype changes its protocol, you can still recognize the Skype signals. In that respect, it’s like your anti-virus software. You have to keep it refreshed.
For web categorization, we can plug in third party libraries to determine whether the particular page the user is looking at is a sports page, news page, etc.
As well as C3, Veris also includes a comprehensive CRM suite and real-time analytics is part of that, particularly when the call center agent needs an up-to-date view of what the customer’s context is right now.
In self-service applications, too, operators want to present a message to the customer that is relevant to them. So there’s great interest in systems that can customize the offer ad — what the customer sees on the eShop web page or when they open up the app.
The Telenor deal is significant, not just because it’s AsiaInfo’s first big win in EMEA, but also because major BSS transformations are rather rare these days.
Yes, it truly is big because it calls for a full replacement of the IT assets Telenor uses in Denmark, with other countries planned afterward.
In Denmark about 100 total systems are being replaced and they include: billing, CRM, and analytics. As you know, there’s risk involved in changing so many systems, but Telenor considered this overhaul a business necessity.
One key driver was they wanted to differentiate through the customer experience. That’s where the analytics and other real-time capabilities came in. Secondly they needed to transform the business to make money in new ways. For instance by adding more value to OTT services and running two-sided partnership models with OTTs.
They also wanted to reduce the cost of operating their business IT systems. And it’s not just the high cost to maintain multiple systems and keep them integrated, but also the daily operating costs. For instance, if call center agents are opening 5 different applications to complete one task, then your average handling time goes up.
So they wanted to rationalize, simplify and upgrade to a much more modern architecture to enable all of this.
What do you feel were the chief reasons you won the bid.
Well, we could show them that a lot of the things they wanted to do we have done before in Asia. An example: they wanted a multi-country operation using multi-tenancy, so you could have a centralized BSS stack that runs in a central location, but from which multiple countries can serve local requirements.
Multi-tenancy really tilts IT towards the cloud model where the software can be in a private cloud and operated by the individual country with full control. You gain a lot of economies of scale and operational efficiency that way.
Also our ability to resource a project like this at reasonable cost was a strong factor too. With our revenues of $600 million we can afford to employ 11,500 people whereas a lot of similar size competitors have 3,000 or 5,000 people because their core competencies are in much higher cost markets.
So while it’s expensive to have a team in Denmark, overall our cost base is much lower because the bottom of the iceberg is in China.
What about the systems integration aspects of the project?
AsiaInfo is the prime systems integrator on the project and we’ve contracted with other firms to help out in specific areas. The heart of the system will be our own technology, which includes CRM and billing. And that’s where we differ from an Accenture or Capgemini. If the operator wants to use third party software and none of the core pieces are ours, then we wouldn‘t volunteer ourselves as a systems integrator for that.
And yet we are agnostic. If an operator wants to work with a systems integrator, that’s ok with us. But the trend in the marketplace seems to be that operators increasingly don‘t want to do it that way. Many favor the approach Telenor is using: have a direct relationship with whoever supplies the core technology at the heart of the BSS. And in that way they can fix end-to-end responsibility.
As the telecom business moves forward, how important is serving enterprise customers going to be?
It’s very important. But the operator needs to go beyond its traditional communications services to exploit that to the maximum. A lot of operators might offer cloud-based infrastructure as a service to business customers. Increasingly enterprise is covering M2M services where in order to add more value, operators need to do a lot more than provide a bunch of SIM cards and simple connectivity.
Certainly it’s starting in places like health care and in-car telematics, but in practice I’m not sure that the majority of operators are doing a lot there yet. China is the biggest market for M2M today and we are working with the operators there. We helped China Unicom to provide the end-to-end in-car telematics service for BMW in Shanghai. The SIM cards are located in the rear-view mirrors.
Now billing for enterprises requires greater sophistication. For instance, the system must recognize that employees of a company may also be consumer customers of the operator as well. Especially with BYOD there’s an increasing need for split billing: certain things the enterprise pays for and other things the employees pay themselves. Why would a company pay for a music app?
Also, the self-service aspects to serving enterprise customers are quite sophisticated. First of all, there’s probably an administrator inside the company who maintains the hierarchy of departments and users. An operator doesn‘t want to do that for its business customers.
It’s the enterprise’s administrator who adds accounts and reassigns phones from one person to another. There are also different rules associated with different departments. So the sales department might get a gold package of communications services by default, whereas people who work in marketing get a bronze-level of services. However when someone moves into sales, as they transfer over, their account may be automatically switched to the rules for gold-level services.
The operator wants to capitalize on other enterprise-related opportunities as well. When an employee leaves the company, for example, the operators want to follow up with that person before you lose them for good. So maybe you reach out to them and offer a plan that uses the same network and provides a personal phone with many of the same features they enjoyed on the previous company phone.
So there’s a lot of potential to use modern billing and CRM systems creatively to give a better experience to business customers.
M2M and working successfully with OTTs is hard for the BSS because it requires a more sophisticated partnering ability within the BSS. How do you address that issue?
Well, we have something called the Open Operational Platform (O2P); its purpose is to enable operators to collaborate more effectively to create multi-party offerings.
Often it makes sense to combine telecoms services with the services provided by a partner. A simple example is a movie streaming application where instead of paying a monthly subscription to Netflix and separately the data charges to the operator, you can package it into a single product that contains both.
Or you might use the operator’s more sophisticated platform to create something that appeals to different segments. Normally music would be a subscription, but if you want to target prepaid customers without credit cards, you can create specific offers for prepaid such as 6 songs for a fixed price.
So the telecom’s IT system needs to enable these mashup offers. O2P enables that. It opens up the telecom operator’s IT systems so the OTT company can access APIs to mash up the operator’s services with its own offers. The operator basically publishes APIs to O2P and the platform enforces the business process for approvals and taking the mashup service live.
O2P also orchestrates the order process and provisioning between the two companies‘ IT systems. If you want to order the new mashup service using the partner’s or operator’s self-care website, both ends get provisioned and activated. So O2P provides the glue between the external parties’ systems.
Andy, thanks for all the interesting subjects you discussed. And good luck in your on-going work with Telenor.
This interview was originally published by Black Swan. It has been reproduced with their permission.