As Asia's mobile markets continue to grow and become increasingly competitive, cellcos are faced with the challenge of increasing revenues via new next-generation services while differentiating themselves in a way that increases customer loyalty and reduces churn.
If that wasn't a tall enough order, they are also facing challenges in managing the quality of these services, which are becoming more complex thanks to IP convergence, via their existing, outdated stovepipe OSS systems. And complicating things even further is the need to assure the successful delivery of these services across multi-vendor/multi-technology network environments at low cost.
As such, cellcos in the region are focusing on service assurance solutions, which promise to address not only operational costs, but also service differentiation, says Marco de Booij, Asia director of global telecom business solutions at LogicaCMG.
'They are increasingly adopting sophisticated causal analysis techniques to bolster their fault management capabilities, and adopting service quality management [SQM] solutions to invigorate their service level agreement capabilities,' he says.
But while SQM solutions enable operators to monitor and manage services from a network performance perspective, they provide no direct measure of actual service quality as perceived by the end-user, says Nathan Rae, director of channel sales and marketing at Vallent.
'The challenges facing mobile operators today is that network management solutions are designed to monitor network level faults and performance, but they do not provide a view of the customer experience,' Rae says. 'This makes it extremely difficult to prioritize engineering activities toward the most valuable customers.'
Business support systems (BSS), on the other hand, are focused on managing customer activation, provisioning, billing and basic care processes. As a result, Rae says, the customer-facing customer care and sales departments have no view of network data like dropped calls, unsuccessful attempted calls and a number of other variables that impact the customer's perceived experience of using a service.
'The only level of detail customer care has is 'successful' calls made, as those will have been billed for,' he says.
To bridge the gap between network data and customer-facing teams (and their tools and applications) vendors say operators should move toward a customer-centric SQM process that gives them a view of the customer experience coupled with holistic end-to-end service transparency.
Companies such as Vallent and Telcordia have already introduced advanced SQM solutions that analyze services through advanced service modeling and correlating feeds from performance management, signaling and network probes. IBM is also introducing a similar concept called 'user quality management' (UQM), which extends service management and monitoring to the end-user experience.
One of the key benefits of customer-centric SQM/UQM solutions is that they deliver different views of quality required by several groups of people across the network from the same communications thread, so it can be rolled up into a single view, says Dan Baker, research director of OSS/BSS KnowledgeBase at Dittberner Associates.
In this way, 'SQM has the long-term potential of breaking down organizational barriers within telecom operations, helping to promote cross-departmental efficiency and cost savings,' Baker says.
More significantly, customer-centric SQM/UQM enables operators to manage and monitor their services and network in a pre-emptive way rather than a reactive way, solving network and server problems before they affect customers.
Baker says although the customer-centric SQM/UQM market is just getting rolling, he expects cellcos will increasingly adopt such solutions as a means either to retain high-value customers or enhance QoS for revenue-generating services.
'It's not something that's needed right away,' he admits, 'but in more advanced markets it's going to be needed.'
In Asia, there is a strong demand within the region's wireless markets for the customer-centric SQM/UQM solutions, particularly in high-penetration markets like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and to a certain extent Malaysia, according to LogicaCMG's de Booij.
IBM is working on UQM programs with wireless operators, one of which is to monitor user quality for its VOD service, says Con Yianakos, business unit executive for Tivoli Netcool solutions at IBM Asia Pacific.
'Just knowing that a service is up or down isn't really good enough in today's environment,' he says. 'Operators need to be able to manage and monitor it to make sure their customers are getting the best service all the time and know when customers are not getting the best service before they call them. They need to know whether there is no flicker in the video and the voice quality is good.'
Paradigm shift in thinking
Dittiberner Associates predicts that global telecom spending on network/service assurance and remote network testing and monitoring solutions will grow from $2.8 billion in 2005 to $3.7 billion in 2010. Of that, customer-centric SQM apps will experience the fastest growth - from $174 million in 2005 to $416 million in 2010, driven largely by cellcos that use the solution to improve the QoS of MMS and other sophisticated services.
Indeed, cellcos are already the biggest buyers of assurance solutions, accounting for 52% of global market revenues in 2005. That will grow to 55% by 2011 as more 3G services roll out, particularly heavier media services enabled by deployments of HSDPA and EV-DO Rev A.
Despite the optimistic market outlook and strong interests among operators, not all the operators are ready to move toward the customer-centric SQM/UQM.
Rae of Vallent says this is because such an approach is still relatively new to operators, compared to the traditional network-centric service-assurance domain.
'It's still in an educational state at the moment, and it does take a long time to help operators understand how we should model services, what the processes are and why,' he says.
The biggest challenge in implementing customer-centric SQM, Rae says, is getting operators to stop thinking solely in terms of network monitoring and make the shift to focusing more on their customers' experiences, as well as to make differentiation via by providing the best customer experience in their particular market a higher priority.
'Taking advantage of SQM requires a paradigm shift in terms of how an operator deals with their customers,' he says.
In other words, SQM will change the process and the way the organization work. Operators need to consider a number of issues, such as product integration and management of multiple data sources, determining whether the existing network elements can provide data to monitor the identified key quality indicators (KQIs), how to prioritize different services and coordination across different departments.
'The operator should seriously consider how this information should best be leveraged when it comes to the way they interact with their customers,' Rae says. 'This is something that needs to be very seriously considered before embarking on an SQM project.'
Yianakos at IBM Asia Pacific concurs, adding the key to a successful implementation of any service assurance project is that 'operators need to understand what they are trying to deliver and how they can leverage the technology.'
Baker of Ditternberger adds that it also requires 'a lot of integration work and coordination within the organization as the systems are all spreading out.'