Monthly Archives: May 2002
Why Cable Billing Systems Matter So Much (Part 1)
by Leslie Ellis // May 27 2002
Billing. So vital & so vexing.
Vital, because most cable billing systems do so very much more than billing. A hulking glob of entwined databases, cable’s billing systems are “the back office.” They make bills, sure. But most are also the control knob for new service and equipment activation, customer care, collections, even technician dispatch and fleet management.
Calling these database behemoths “billing systems,” in fact, is like calling the sun a light source. It’s that, sure. But it’s also life-sustaining, sometimes in a life-draining way.
Vexing, because billing systems always land within the top three reasons why such-and-such a new service can’t be launched more quickly. A million dollars and 18 months, the grumble goes, to add data service tiering, multiple ISP accommodation, or subscription video on demand (SVOD) to an existing billing system.
Paying the million for the go raises risk of being late for the popularity party of the new service, once it finally launches, 18 months later. And what if it’s a dud, and needs to be replaced with the next new thing, as soon as possible?
When your brain says “Ramming speed!,” and your body proceeds at a shuffle, it’s hard to be competitive.
Cable providers and billing system suppliers offer a mix of reasons about how the billing situation became so much like bindweed. In a big generalization, the incumbent billing systems became back office giants at around the time of analog addressability, they say. Something needed to tell the addressable controller that a new customer was clear for service, or that a disconnect was needed. That something was the billing system. Most additional automation of day-to-day operations, for cable, emanated from the billing system, patch by patch.
Some point to Time Warner Cable’s Hawaii properties, which always seem to be able to launch new stuff really fast. Why? Because they built their own billing system, and run it themselves.
Fine, then. Switch over to a more flexible system. Decouple the databases.
As tempting as a wreckout and remodel may be, changing billing systems is painful. Cable’s billing systems are textbook intrinsic. The replacement decision is like deciding whether to replace your own veins, or hope they don’t collapse: Take the pain now, or take more pain later.
See for yourself. Walk up to the general manager of any cable system and suggest that its time to change billing systems. You’ll probably get an impressively loud non-verbal — one the scale of winces, somewhere between a pencil in the eye and periodontal surgery.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. Billing systems can and do get overhauled. It’s just one of those things that makes for some anxiousness and long hours, in a shrunken workplace, where not many (employed) people are wandering around looking for new projects.
Overhauling the billing system usually involves a blackout period — a few days during which the mambo databases are converted, record by record, to the new system.
What’s “blacked out” is any automated thing that happens, or needs to happen: Service level changes, billing questions, credits, installations, disconnects, work orders. The activities can still happen, of course, but recording them is manual until the new system is ready.
Somewhere near the blackout period — hopefully before — everyone who uses the old system needs to learn how the new system works.
And if anything goes bump in the night during the actual billing cutover, the blackout period lengthens.
Some operators sheepishly acknowledge another reason why billing systems so frequently take the heat for being sluggish: The internal people responsible for the system sometimes aren’t alerted to new service launch plans early enough.
If you haven’t noticed this already, the people we brand “MIS” (Management Information System) and “IT” (Information Technology) do a lot more than absorb our teeth-clenched freakishness when the laptop crashes. They make the automated core of the cable business work, and they probably have piles of ideas about the types of advanced planning that would make life, and launches, easier.
And, of course, there are other, probably bigger impediments to swifter new service launches, like the maw of software integration, and the thin-ness of the installed base of digital set-tops, to mention only two.
That’s what people are talking about when they list the billing system among the things they’d like to shore up for an increasingly transaction-oriented marketplace. Next time, the types of billing challenges ahead.
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.
A Little Fat Wireless Update
by Leslie Ellis // May 14 2002
Last week’s industrial spotlight shined on the wireless community, which convened in New Orleans for it’s annual show: CTIA, for Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
Perhaps not surprisingly, what’s hot in wireless parallels what’s hot in wired: That giant slurping sound that is consumer broadband usage.
On the eve of CTIA, Sandvine, a consistent counter of bandwidth, released its latest data on wireless broadband trends. It shows that we cellular subscribers (meaning here in North America) are chewing up 309 Megabytes of broadband every month. Half is streaming video, 21% is web browsing, 10% is Facebook and social networking.
(People in the Asia-Pacific region are eating up 602 MB/month. Heartening! One area of life exists where we are not the most gluttonous!)
Also hot in wireless: Wi-Fi advancements, particularly the body of work called “Hotspot 2.0.”
Which isn’t to say there was an official “Hotspot 1.0.” More that a community of people, including Shaw Communications and Cisco Systems, among others, got to wondering: What could you do with Wi-Fi, if you could fix its current shortcomings?
That’s why HotSpot 2.0 is mostly focused on getting rid of that big nuisance of Wi-Fi: Finding signal and authenticating in. If you’re like me, your iPad pesters you constantly to sign up for a cellular package with your carrier – which is tempting, because otherwise finding signal involves the ordeal of authentication.
HotSpot 2.0 works in the background to automatically authenticate you and your gadgets, and to keep you connected to signal, without having to logon every time you move. In that sense, it’s like roaming, for Wi-Fi.
Hard to imagine, at this stage of the game, but operators like Shaw are into it as a way to attract new broadband customers, and keep those they already have.
Businesses with waiting areas are an active target for HotSpot 2.0, for instance, to keep all of us happily heads-down into our screens while passing time.
What’s the technology of HotSpot 2.0? It’s a roundup of extant stuff, and shepherded by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Remember the IEEE 802.11 series? This one is 802.11u, which provides all the protocol-level “hooks” for infrastructure vendors to link up with back office services (proxy servers, user databases). It also enables client devices (our stuff that needs signal) to “learn” what roaming is available — which, over time, is what obviates the logon.
Other HotSpot 2.0 components: The impressively nerdy duo of “EAP-SIM,” and “EAM-TTLS,” where “EAM” stands for “Extensible Authentication Protocol,” “SIM” for “Subscriber Identity Module,” and “TTLS” for “Tunneled TLS Authentication Protocol.” (That nested “TLS” stands for “Transport Layer Security.” Iy-yi-yi.)
They’re all about those backend handshakes that happen, so that we can keep using our digital stuff. In the immortal language of Caddyshack: So we got dat goin’ for us. Which is nice.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Getting Over the Threshold of the Gateway
by Leslie Ellis // May 13 2002
Part of the reason technology gets confusing is the lack of suitable words to describe the things that matter.
Not only are the things of interest wedged between nonsense adjectives, stifled in a hyperbolic fog nearly as thick as the air in New Orleans last week. They also masquerade as each other, descriptively. On the 2002 NCTA show floor, things called “gateways” lined the booths of set-top, home networking, telephony, and cable modem suppliers. (It’s the industrial version of To Tell the Truth. Will the real residential gateway please stand up?)
In each case, the “gateway” descriptor was legitimate: All existed to usher new services through one door or another. But that hardly helps those of us trying to distinguish the scary from the benign, the useful from the useless, the real from the hype.
We live and work in a time when the worlds of data and telecommunications are on an unstoppable and widening junction with cable’s core video business. It follows that equipment suppliers old and new are in development frenzy: If multiple services can be folded into one box, instead of one service per box, everybody wants to be the maker of that box.
Set-top suppliers want to add a cable modem, router and hard drive, in various combinations, to the piece of hardened plastic that does its work near the TV set. Cable modem makers want to adjoin the stuff of voice services, or latch on a router, or a bridger, or all, making the PC the head of the broadband household.
Because these decisions carry enormous economic and strategic implications, few cable operators are far enough along in the thought process to know what hardware combinations make the most sense.
So perhaps it makes more sense to look beyond what these things are called, and more at what they do. Reverse translations, in a sense.
A digital set-top with a built-in cable modem adds two things: A better background signal path for the basic back-and-forth stuff of everyday operations, and a way to incorporate the fruits of the Internet. (Today’s press releases call this box “advanced” or “next generation.)”
Add a hard disk, and it becomes a cable-specific personal video recorder, or PVR, with a list price ranging from $650-$800. Add a router, and it can shuttle the stuff of the Internet, as well as captured content, to other TVs or the stereo. (Today’s lingo is all over this one – “residential gateway,” “home media server,” “media gateway.”)
Then there’s the cable modem camp. Add the circuits that handle voice over IP, and a few RJ-11 jacks, and it’s a box that does both broadband Internet access and phone calls. (This usually goes by “multimedia terminal adapter (MTA).”) Add a router, and it becomes a way to link all the PCs in the house. (In today’s language, this device is also sometimes known as a “residential gateway.”)
Economically, the least expensive combo box is probably the combo cable modem/VOIP unit. Cable modem prices are (unbelievably) in the north $50s now, which is a far cry from the $200+ starting point for digital set-tops.
Strategically, the most interesting is probably the box that also handles high definition TV, for four reasons. One: Upwards of 2 million HDTV displays, now in the $1500 range, are expected to sell into multichannel video homes this year. Two: Offering HDTV over cable requires a new box. Three: A new box means a visit to the home. Four: The people who buy $1500 TV sets are probably the same people who like the idea of on-demand TV, networking other TVs and PCs, and getting to the Internet faster.
And, of course, it’s never just the box, despite convention hoopla. There’s the physical cable network, and how it’s architected, which affects available bandwidth to and from homes. There’s the headend controllers, and the back office tasks to initiate service, handle trouble calls, terminate service, and send bills.
As far as terminology goes, unless we create wholly new words – Liberate’s Mitchell Kertzman gets two gold stars for “splatform,” to replace “software platform” — the needle on the jargon meter will probably remain tilted toward robotic gibberish. That’s the list of shapeless adjectives that unseasoned almost all of last week’s technology news releases.
You know these words. Really. Robustly. You do. As a solutions provider in this scalable space, you’re end-to-end in them.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.