'What business are we in‾' is the classic first question in a business strategy session. It's a question tier two telcos are answering by abandoning network ownership and management.
But on the other side of the business is an area of technology complexity that no one is giving up. It's the back-end, notorious in most carriers as a domain of dedicated silos and legacy practices.
As the platform for the entire customer interface, it's the key to the telecom kingdom.
Which is why service provisioning - which covers order management, inventory and activation - is getting almost as much attention as the sexier area of broadband media.
In fact, it's the growth of broadband that's driving this change. The telecom network is no longer purpose-built for a single application. It's a platform for multiple services, which means choices for the user but complexity for the service provider.
'Most operators are assuming that once they had a customer with a basic service, they could increase ARPU by adding more and more services,' said Garry Munden, Asia-Pacific regional director for provisioning and OSS firm Axiom Systems.
'But what they have found is that competition has forced them to keep bundling more and more services, and in fact prices still keep dropping. The services packages get more complex, much more bespoke. You simply can't [provision] these manually because the permutations are too high.'
The result is that provisioning, which used to be about cost reduction, has now become 'absolutely imperative, because services are too complex.'
For companies like Axiom, it's been good business. They're certainly reporting impressive results. Telecom New Zealand, for one, has cut the cost of provisioning a DSL line from NZ$22 to NZ$3, according to Munden.
This being telecommunications, to get anything done requires an industry effort, which means an industry body. Enter the TeleManagement Forum. The TMF is driving something called the Product & Service Assembly (PSA) initiative, led by companies such as BT, Cable & Wireless, Microsoft, Huawei, Axiom and Oracle.
Put simply, PSA is all about standardizing and automating the telco order management and fulfillment system - basically creating an inventory system with as many repeatable processes as possible.
Traditionally telco service has been very high-touch, but as Munden says, that doesn't work with broadband. To take one example: setting up a broadband connection begins with an order from the CRM system for a voice, Internet and/or TV service. Then a message goes to the billing system, and a credit check is made. Meanwhile, the order process must figure out the detail - what Internet speed, what bundle of content, what price, and so on. Then the CPE has to get to the customer - by a truckroll or through a retail agent.
That's just the execution. The product lifecycle began months prior, with much to-ing and fro-ing between marketing, IT, customer service, service delivery and networks on how to map the new product onto existing capabilities.
It's these bottlenecks and duplication that PSA is targeting.
Under this model, each area of provisioning sets up its processes as a set of inventory assets that can be assembled quickly in any kind of configuration.
For hard-pressed fixed-line telcos, it's critical stuff because it's a way of strengthening their biggest asset - their customer base.
It's worth noting that a lot of this is imported from PLM (product life cycle management) practices used in software and other industries. It's a response once again to the installed complexity created by telcos' longstanding isolation from other parts of the economy.
Turning orders and activations into standard, repeatable processes is just one more step in making telecoms itself into a business like any other.
Robert Clark is editor of industry newsletter Comms China - [email protected]