February 1, 1999
Self-Provisioning: Carriers’ Next Battleground?
By Ken Branson
retail customer’s ability to get into a carrier’s provisioning system and order, change or
cancel service–is arriving this year for customers of some big long distance carriers,
pushing this enabling capability to the frontlines in the war for business and
For some business customers who have been ordering their service, viewing their records
and altering their service online for some time, the perceived difference may not be that
great. But their long distance carriers certainly will notice the difference.
"You can actually buy 1+, toll-free and calling-card service on the ‘Net right
now," says Brian Fink, vice president of systems and product development at Frontier
Corp., Rochester, N.Y. "But when you hit the ‘send’ button, [the customer’s order]
goes to a human. When one of our next uCommand releases comes out, when you click on that
button, it will automatically put you on the node."
Barry Zipp, director of online marketing for MCI WorldCom Inc., says his company’s
online customer interface effort, called Interact, will lead to self-provisioning this
year. "Interact really represents a re-engineering of our relationship with our
customers," he says. "Rather than making them rely on service reps and account
teams to analyze the bill or change routing or provision service, they’ll be completely
enabled through the e-commerce loop to order service, pay for service and manage their
services online. They’ll be able to monitor their spending. They’ll be able to set up
network routing arrangements for outbound or toll-free services, for disaster or
contingency services. They’ll also be able to submit service inquiries or trouble tickets
online, and track them themselves."
"It takes about nine forevers for an interexchange carrier to make a
— Ken McGee, telecom analyst, The Gartner
Sprint Corp.’s high-end business customers were scheduled to begin seeing
self-provisioning after Jan. 1, when Sprint’s much-talked-about ION network began rolling
out. Company spokespeople say residential customers will begin to see it by the end of
"Service won’t be locked into a particular terminal ID like the switched telephone
network does," says John Johnston, manager of service-manager development at Sprint.
"You might be off on some business trip and log into a network of services from
wherever you’re at. You might be limited somewhat by the device you’re using, but if
you’re logging on with your own computer, you’d be able to access the full range of
Zipp, Fink and Johnston use the future tense for customers’ ability to self-provision,
but the future is here for many of their retail business customers and some of their
residential customers were expected to benefit by year-end 1998. For all major long
distance carriers, the pull of customer demand and the push of available technology have
dovetailed to bring them to this point. The relative ease and efficiency of web-based
applications–from the customer’s point of view, at least–has been a major catalyst.
The market pull is not hard to find. Ken McGee, telecom analyst at The Gartner Group,
Boston, says the world has simply passed the circuit-switched, hardware-controlled public
switched telephone network (PSTN) by and left it in the dust. And, in McGee’s view, no one
is in mourning.
Reason No. 1 is that "it takes about nine forevers for an interexchange carrier
(IXC) to make a change [in a customer’s service], and bringing that control under a
customer’s oversight is a dream come true," McGee says. "As for reasons No. 2
and 3, see reason No. 1."
Frontier determined to do as much customer interaction as possible on the World Wide
Web. This policy received a boost when the company acquired Global Center Inc., an
Internet service provider (ISP), last year. Most of Global Center’s customer-interaction
was web-based already, Fink remembers.
"From a systems perspective, we’ve combined it all into one common
architecture," Fink says. "Voice and data, CLEC (competitive local exchange
carrier) and long distance. Data includes transport and applications data service–web
hosting, that sort of thing. By the end of the first quarter, it will all be the same.
There will be one point of access."
The former MCI Communications Co. made it possible for high-end business customers to
interact with MCI online about some things for years. Customers could view bills, track
bills and pay bills online. Then they could manage their networks online. But this was
what is known in the trade as a "thick-client" environment–that is, all the
technological muscle required to do these things was on the customer’s desktop, or at
least somewhere in his building.
"We used to write software that customers would load onto their PCs (personal
computers) so they could get access to our mainframe systems and get information that
way," Zipp says. "Now, they just log on to the Internet through a regular web
connection, type in their authentication and they have access to all their data."
The brains are in the network. The network is "thick"; the clients are
"thin." This ought to be fine with the clients, Zipp reasons, since they don’t
have to buy software and update it, and don’t have to be trained on proprietary systems.
In short, they don’t have to accommodate themselves to a proprietary network. Rather, an
open network accommodates itself to them.
MCI WorldCom views self-provisioning as "the next big customer battleground."
Many customers who have networks can manage them; customers who want to see their
call-records can see them online. This quarter, customers who subscribe to MCI WorldCom’s
toll-free service will be able to design network routing online; outbound call-center
customers will be able to do the same by the end of this quarter, Zipp says. Price
reporting (what calls you made and how much each one cost), trouble ticketing and traffic
reporting are available now. The next level, the grail itself, is within reach this year,
"Transactional service–a customer going online to order a calling card, or to set
up or delete a calling card account, or to order another pager–I would consider the level
of effort required to bring that up to be moderate," Zipp says. "The reason we
haven’t done it yet is that we were concentrating on the more impactful network management
Zipp expects MCI WorldCom to be ready with that kind of provisioning in the second
quarter of this year. Sometime this year–but it isn’t clear yet just when–MCI WorldCom
customers will be able to order and provision circuits online.
At Frontier, the trouble ticket a customer creates online still "goes to a human
and the human works the issue," Fink says. But sometime this year, the trouble ticket
will go straight to a work queue.
Gartner’s McGee believes that the creators of Sprint’s ION have thought
self-provisioning through most completely. "Take a look at ION, and the answer is
damn close," McGee says.
Ed Thurman, director of advanced technology development at Kansas City, Mo.-based
Sprint, says getting customers’ services into the customers’ hands had been a goal at
Sprint for years when the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 goosed the process
into high gear. Sprint already had an integrated services platform in the works.
"You start with a POTS (plain old telephone service) call, wrap added value around
that, turn it into multipoint-to-multipoint conferencing, add more service and turn it
into a video teleconference, then wrap security around that," Thurman says, like
Julia Child explaining how to make chicken Marsala. "We wanted to put the customer in
the driver’s seat on a per-session basis. Some of these sessions would take more bandwidth
than the customer would normally have, so we wanted the customer to pay by the drink for
The principles behind that platform were vigorously beaten into ION, with software
added from Bellcore and other vendors, and allowed to simmer until Jan. 1. Now, the recipe
calls for Sprint to serve the ION in a customer-premises box the size of a toaster, which
will have initiation software and dual key encryption, sometime this year.
Self-provisioning and everything else Sprint wants to sell its customers will be in that
Regardless of the specific technical ingredients, Gartner’s McGee is sure that 1999
will be the year for self-provisioning. He takes us forward to Super Bowl XXXIII.
"The major advertisers for the Super Bowl will have a unique offering, and they
expect an avalanche of calls," McGee posits. "So they go to their trusty little
device, and they key in, ‘I want more bandwidth,’ and the carrier meets that demand. It
will be going at the speed of business."
There will be bumps in the road, of course. In Sprint’s case, for example, some
analysts have questioned the company’s ability to convince people to buy and use the
toaster-sized box. Such kinks "would be a small sin to commit compared to assuming
that conventional network services will be with us for the next 10 years," McGee
says. "The genie is out of the converged network services bottle, and you’re not
going to put it back in."
Ken Branson is East Coast bureau chief for PHONE+ Magazine.
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