February 1, 1998

10 Min Read
Operating Support Systems Key to Success

By Paula Bernier

Posted: 02/1998

By Paula Bernier

Better, faster, cheaper are the three watchwords in
telecommunications today. These words couldn’t be more salient than in the long distance
resale game.

As long distance prices continue to drop, resellers need to ensure they’re
maximizing the transport capacity they’ve purchased, so they can turn around and sell
services to their customers at competitive prices.

Meanwhile, they need to grab control of the network facilities they own or
purchase to bring services to market quickly–and ensure they can manage and bill
effectively for these services on an ongoing basis.

Operations support systems (OSS) are the common thread that enables a
telecom provider to monitor and control network facilities and services, provision and
bill for those services and more. A service provider’s OSS and the people that run them
can mean the difference between life and death for a telecom company.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

Resellers in particular must be competitive on costs, quick to turn up
services and offer stellar customer service to compete with the likes of AT&T Corp.,
says David Friedman, product marketing manager for the Framework product line at Objective
Systems Integrators Inc. (OSI).

"I need to look and see what my customer has and turn it up quickly.
That’s straight OSS," Friedman says. "OSS provide operational efficiencies that
can result in lower costs. It also means I’m able to rapidly order services and check the
status of orders. At best I can turn up services. At worst I can tell customers when it
will be turned up."

Resellers, like all service providers, need to consider how they plan to
increase market share and maintain loyalty beyond just offering the lowest price. A key
way to do that is by offering new services and bringing them to market earlier, rather
than later.

"It’s the total service issue," says Steven Murphy, vice
president of sales and marketing for Applied Digital Access Inc., which sells software
that helps manage lines and trunks in the network and the electronics attached to
transmission facilities. "Can I groom the network to meet your demands?" he
asks. "Can I ensure its availability? Can I provide a proactive performance test
assurance and customer care capability?"

Virtual private networks, which give corporate customers secure slices of
the public switched telephone network (PSTN), are becoming a hot new product area. But
carriers must be able to control the network in real-time to support such services, OSI’s
Friedman says.

Investing in Equipment

Despite the great importance of OSS, often it is at the bottom of service
providers’ shopping lists. "The cost of OSS, from the cost of software and the power
to run it, is relatively slim," Murphy says. "But (service providers) are so
damn chintzy about buying it, even though that’s where the differentiation is."

Many non-facilities-based telecom resellers are planning to spend millions
of dollars on new switches and other network equipment, Murphy says. The network and
service management pieces of OSS are tools they need to invest in to use new switches and
other electronics to their best advantage, he says. "Facilities-based is the way to
go," Murphy says. "It’s a fundamental if (resellers) are going to be serious
players. Customers want to go in and see that their carrier is running things. We’re
seeing resellers grow up, and we’re seeing competition."

Rather than invest in their own switches, resellers might consider
pressing their wholesale providers for more control, says Bob Copithorne, president and
CEO of Clear Communications Corp. For example, Clear has a product that could allow a
wholesaler to give a reseller access to a piece of a synchronous optical network (SONET)
ring or a particular network element, he says. "It lets customers (in this case,
resellers) see their part of the network, so they can control their piece of the SONET
ring even though it’s a shared ring."

CRG International Inc., a reseller that does business under the name
Network One, is among non-facilities-based providers looking to cross over to owning its
own switches. "Because we’re a switchless reseller, we really don’t have any control
(of network switches and other electronics)," says Tom Brinkman, vice president of
network and product development at Atlanta-based CRG. "We only track the completion
of a request for a change of service. We put in an order to another carrier’s switch, and
that carrier provisions the switch."

Acquiring a facilities-based carrier in CRG’s Southeast region would let
the company go beyond simply passing orders to its switch provider. CRG could then
provision its own switches to provide the services it wants to offer as needed. (CRG
recently bought Professional Communications Inc., or ProCom, a reseller in its region with
one partitioned switch. But CRG is decommissioning that switch because the cost of
maintaining a partitioned switch–a switch with ports that are divided among different
service providers–is too costly, Brinkman says.)

CRG, which also is moving into the local telecom market, plans to buy OSS
that support both its long distance and local services strategies. "We are currently
pursuing a local exchange product. We filed in 12 states and are approved in eight
states," Brinkman says. "We’re looking at OSS to provision long distance and
local exchange. We don’t want to incrementally build these systems. We want to easily
service our customers from a multifunctional base."

Using a single system to provision multiple types of services means CRG
won’t have to train its technicians on multiple systems, he adds.

A Room with a View

A single view of the network is becoming more important for large carriers
as they trim their workforce. It’s also critical to smaller or newly switch-based
providers that have small technical staffs at the start.

OSI’s Friedman says a front-end like NetExpert gives a Windows-like
interface into switches from various vendors. That can help service providers,
particularly those that may own switches from multiple vendors as a result of various
network acquisitions, to manage their networks more easily. A single window looks into the
network, thereby avoiding the necessity of multiple screens to see different switches.

Because resellers typically buy from various wholesalers, a single
front-end also makes managing and ordering resources a whole lot easier.

"If you buy stuff from multiple suppliers, it’s hard to learn all
those systems," says Dana Brown, vice president of marketing with MetaSolv Software
Inc. "Resellers might want a front-end software to tie in with the different
wholesale facilities they use.

"A reseller’s OSS could replicate some of the information from a
wholesaler’s OSS," Brown adds. "Software could track orders of circuits or
switch ports, but also do cost comparisons and look at what services you’re providing on
whose network."

A common view of the network, likewise, allows carriers an easier way to
gauge where they might need more capacity, Brown says.

Maximizing Assets

OSS enables better traffic tracking on the provider’s network as well as
others’. "When you’re a competitive long distance carrier, you have to do things
better and tighter than everybody else. That’s how we make our margins," says Roger
Abbott, CEO, San Diego-based WorldxChange Communications Corp., which provides
switch-based international long distance. "You have to have a good solid system for
your traffic reporting and measurement. You want to make sure you’re not undertrunked, to
cause your customers dissatisfaction, or overtrunked (so a large amount of paid-for
capacity lays idle)."

Carriers need good traffic reporting and measurement tools to maintain the
right balance of available trunk capacity, Abbott says. WorldxChange started out with GST
Action Telcom Inc.’s Network Analysis Manager System (NAMS) reporting and measurement
product, but eventually outgrew the system. Because the tools it wanted were not
commercially available at the time, WorldxChange built its own reporting and measurement
system. In fact, WorldxChange has relied heavily on home-grown OSS to date.

Automation has been a key criteria in the design of WorldxChange’s home-grown systems,
Abbott says. "Even though our revenues tripled over the last three years, our U.S.
employees have stayed at 500. That’s because we’ve automated the heck out of

Ordering and Provisioning

A few years ago when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came out with the
Local Transport Restructuring docket, which changed the way local exchange carriers would
charge resellers for access to their networks, WorldxChange went to the local university
and hired some "computer eggheads" to write new ordering software. "Today
most resellers give wholesalers their orders for circuits in paper form," Abbott
says. "We said, ‘We don’t want to do it the old way. We don’t want to go through
mountains of paper.’ So they made it all automated.

"When you’re growing and things stay the same, you don’t need this kind of a
system," Abbott says. "But when things are changing, if you don’t have things
automated, you’re going to die."

Automating circuit provisioning also helps WorldxChange keep better track of the
circuits it has available, so it doesn’t lose track of the multiple circuits it buys from
wholesalers, Abbott says. "If you have it on paper, and you lose it, you’ll pay for
circuits you don’t use," says Abbott. "If you go with a paper system, you’re
going to get screwed."

Crunching the Numbers

WorldxChange also designed automated systems to validate bills from its wholesalers, as
well as from the incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) to which it pays access fees.
The systems can track the duration of contracts, recurring fees and installation fees.
That way, WorldxChange ensures it only pays the bills in its system. If other bills
appear, the company knows to investigate or dispute those bills, Abbott says.

Although WorldxChange and other carriers have built their own OSS, many off-the-shelf
tools are now available that handle these same functions, Abbott says. For example, in the
case of billing validation, Action Telecom’s NAMS has a carrier access billing system
(CABS) feature. Tri-Quad Enterprises Inc. also has a tool called LATTIS.PRO, or local area
transport tariff information system, that can be used for billing validation.

"Three to four years ago when we were hitting our growth spurt, there weren’t a
lot of OSS out there," Abbott says. "But there’s a lot of good stuff out now. I
would really urge any newcomers to buy off the shelf."

Houston-based EqualNet Corp., a long distance reseller, is in the process of converting
from its home-grown billing and customer care system to an off-the-shelf integrated
billing, customer care, provisioning and rating system called Account Management System
(AMS) from Platinum Communications Inc.

The move was spurred by EqualNet’s move from a switchless to a switch-based strategy,
says Joe Krupka, EqualNet’s vice president of operations. A couple of years ago it became
clear that a reseller strategy wasn’t a viable business strategy as AT&T’s and MCI
Communications Corp.’s prices dropped, he says. "It’s not that you can’t make any
money, it’s that you can’t make much money."

So, EqualNet began looking for a partner with a network. The Willis Group bought some
switches from defunct reseller Total World Telecom Inc. and is giving EqualNet those
assets along with some cash in exchange for shares in EqualNet, Krupka says. But owning
its own switches means EqualNet must manage its billing information in a new way.
"Historically, I haven’t worried about rating the call records. The wholesalers
already have my costs, and I get billed that amount," Krupka says. "But when I
get the information off my own switch, I need it rated."

Rating sets the cost per minute or second, so the billing system can keep track of the
customer’s usage. The new AMS system will hold EqualNet’s customer care and billing
records in a common database, which will cut the company’s operating costs. It also means
data from a new customer or service only has to be entered into one system, Krupka says,
so less time is spent keying in new information.

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