The new dynamics in the telecom sector are compelling operators to revisit their business and operational strategies. With data now outperforming voice and driving industry growth, operators have started overhauling their existing operations support systems (OSS)/business support systems (BSS). Moreover, in the current content-driven, multi-network and multi-technology world, service providers have to not only effectively manage their voice and data traffic but also support a host of new-age digital applications. This calls for OSS/BSS that can support convergent billing since most of the users subscribe to all telecom services like voice, data, internet, video, mobile commerce and multimedia through the same operator channel and prefer to be charged through one invoice.

The migration of operators from a technology-centric business model to a customer-centric one is fuelling the de­mand for customised OSS/BSS software. Besides, customised OSS/BSS is necessary for operators to provide bundled services such as voice, video, data, wireless, entertainment, hosting and messaging across a burgeoning line-up of consumer and business devices such as laptops, television sets, mobiles and personal entertainment units, each with a separate set of functionalities.

Further, with tariffs at an all-time low, service quality has emerged as a key differentiator for telecom operators. A well integrated OSS/BSS suite that processes high quality operational data can significantly improve the customer experience. To this end, Bharti Airtel has recently rolled out “Project Next”, a digital innovation programme aimed at transforming the customer experience across all its services and touchpoints. Under this initiative, the company plans to launch several digital innovations to make customer communication simple and interactive. Project Next complements Bharti Airtel’s massive investments in building a future-ready network as part of its Project Leap. Other operators, too, are revamping their OSS/BSS set-ups in line with the recent developments.

Emerging technology trends

  • Rising adoption of cloud-based OSS/ BSS: Cloud-based OSS/BSS provide the flexibility to scale up operations on demand and simplify software upgrade procedures, thereby considerably reducing costs. Moreover, these systems entail near-zero downtime during upgrades as new versions can be deployed on virtual machines using the same physical hardware. Further, there is no single point of failure as the same software can be configured on multiple virtual machines. The market for cloud-based OSS/BSS systems is being driven by the growing uptake of convergent billing systems and the increasing focus of telecom operators on enhancing the customer experience and reducing operational expenses. The global cloud OSS/BSS market is expected to grow from $11.67 billion in 2017 to $21.77 billion by 2022 at a compound annual growth rate of 13.3 per cent. Inventory and warehouse management solutions that manage the daily operations in a warehouse and enable the centralised management of tasks, such as inventory control and tracking are expected to have the fastest growth rate during this forecast period. The demand for these solutions will be on account of the ­benefits offered, such as faster inventory movement, efficient use of warehouse space, reduced inventory paperwork, improved cycle counting, and reduced dependency on warehouse personnel.
  • Transformation of legacy OSS/BSS for SDN/NFV: Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions ­virtualisation (NFV) are transforming traditional networks into software programmable domains that are capable of running on simplified and low cost ­hardware. Under an SDN/NFV framework, services are orchestrated in a dynamic and agile way, and distributed across a shared underlying infrastructure. The virtualised infrastructure enables operators to test new service concepts, rapidly launch and monetise their offerings, and discard the investments that failed to achieve the desired objectives. For service providers migrating to SDN and NFV, operationalising new and virtualised services requires modernising their existing OSS/BSS environment and unifying cloud, resour­ces and services. The operators cannot just drop their legacy OSS/BSS as they build out their next-generation networks with SDN/NFV as these old systems are still providing basic functions such as billing and service assurance to consumers. In an SDN/NFV framework, the OSS/BSS must allow for real-time network and service changes in response to traffic content or network events. The granularity of real-time responsiveness should be at the flow level, i.e. the sub-second level. With the end goal of operationalising virtualised functions across OSS/ BSS, service providers should develop a catalogue-driven environment that allows them to re-use and bundle their product offerings and deploy them across various sales channels.
  • Use of artificial intelligence: Artificial in­telligence presents an opportunity for telecom operators to create self-sufficient networks by automating their business processes. Automation can help reduce staff requirements for addressing various customer service issues related to usage, network, calling, activation and speed upgrade/downgrade. Besides reducing the cost for operators, artificial intelligence can greatly improve customer experience by resolving these issues in real time. For example, the technology could be used for automatic crediting on poor service and reduce wait time for ­service calls, among other ­customer-oriented activities. Moreover, telecom ­companies can use artificial intelligence to re­duce the operational staff by using intelligent personal assistants for billing activities, dunning processes, provisioning issues and promotional campaigns. Besi­des, artificial intelligence can help operators make their networks ­future-ready by hosting new technologies. Artificial intelligence-powered telepresence ro­bo­ts are already being tested worldwide. They can easily handle customer queries and interact with them during upgrades and other incidents.

In November 2017, Bharti Airtel partnered with OSS/BSS provider Am­docs to introduce innovative services in India. Under the partnership, Amdocs will deploy machine learning and advan­ced artificial intelligence-based technologies across Airtel’s multiple lines of business to help pre-empt and self-heal operational issues, introduce smart bots into digital channels, and quickly launch and activate new services, thereby enabling a seamless customer experience.

  • Preparing OSS/BSS for 5G: Industry experts feel that wholesale changes in back-end systems will be necessary as the industry rapidly progresses towards 5G deployment. The transition to 5G will be an all-encompassing move, involving a complete overhaul of user interfaces, connectivity, infrastructure and operations. To cater to 5G’s inherent fluid com­­plexity, operators will require a well-structured OSS/BSS software platform with evolved capabilities. Since 5G will require operators to be more proactive in running services and networks, there will be an increased demand for analytics solutions for timely and relevant decision-making and to better predict system behaviour and identify business trends.

Key challenges for telecom operators

The integration of new OSS/BSS software with existing telecom systems remains a major challenge for service providers. Telecom operators source their OSS/BSS software from multiple vendors who use different technologies in their products, and integrating these software solutions with their devices is a challenge for telecom companies. Moreover, migration from legacy OSS/BSS systems for the adoption of new technologies is a very resource- and cost-intensive task and delays the launch of new services.

Further, as service providers roll out next-generation networks and services, they need next-generation OSS/BSS to support them. The introduction of more complex offerings on multiple platforms, and the increasing volume of services across multiple carrier networks, calls for more complex revenue mechanisms as well.

Operators are also facing challenges in the enterprise segment, which now makes up a significant part of customer portfolios. The service requirements of enterprises differ substantially from those of individual users. The former look for telecom­ solutions that can help them save on opex and also bring in business efficiency.

Other issues relate to under-billing, incorrect call records, disputes among partners, inconsistent calculations and fraud accounts. These situations usually occur due to process discontinuity, ­infor­ma­­tion gap and the lack of ­integration between network elements and interfacing systems. These challenges are only set to grow as product portfolios become more complex and the time-to-market for new services reduces.

Conclusion

The fundamental shift from physical to virtualised network functions is the next step forward for telecom operators. The ability to move traditional services such as routers and firewalls onto virtual ma­chines will allow organisations to quick­ly respond to the demands put on their network in a cost-efficient and ­flexible manner. To this end, operators will need OSS/BSS platforms that are agile enough to handle their current network services and, at the same time, ­facilitate the adoption and deployment of an entirely new set of virtualised products and services. Further, as operators start preparing for 5G adoption, their OSS/BSS set-ups will have to be transformed accordingly to facilitate network planning, designing of new cell sites and backhaul transmission. Going forward, OSS/BSS will need to be more closely integrated with customer management systems and business intelligence tools to help operators leverage the opportunities arising from the changing market ­dynamics. In this regard, artificial ­intelligence holds great promise in terms of network optimisation, revenue assurance and ­customer experience.