That was the verdict of a five-man panel of vendors, industry pundits, and one carrier here at Supercomm 2002 yesterday. Led by Rich LaPerch, CEO of Vibrant Solutions, which makes software for managing carrier revenue records, the panel included Randy Browning, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers; Yuval Shahar, cofounder and CEO of P-cube Inc., a software vendor specializing in IP billing systems; Rob Rich, executive VP at the Yankee Group; and Drew Caplan, VP of national network services at wireless carrier Nextel Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTL).
As the sole carrier representative on the panel, Caplan took center stage (literally) in voicing concerns about the state of carrier OSSs. "As much money is wasted on OSSs as is spent productively," he said. "No one is doing as well as possible... The false starts, the reworkings... are tremendously costly."
Estimates of growth in the market for software to create and manage network services seem incredible (see RHK's Fat OSS and Billing Software Market Worth $30B?). But even skeptics say OSSs are a big-ticket item for most carriers, requiring big money outlays on an ongoing basis.
"The purchase price [of OSS products] is only a down payment," Caplan said. Over time, carriers must continue to shell out resources to the software vendors and integrators to maintain their OSSs. Often, suppliers yoke their customers to elaborate, highly customized architectures that soak up millions annually in ongoing care and feeding (see Telcordia's Osmine Goldmine).
Horror stories abound: Rob Rich of Yankee said a client spent $70 million on a customer resource management (CRM) software suite, only to have huge portions of it lie fallow in the IT department. "It's too much for the customer to handle. They don't understand it. The integration costs are killing them."
So what's the solution? All panelists agreed change is needed, particularly if carriers expect to start making money out of emerging packet-based, wireless, and video services. Some of the suggestions to carriers that emerged today:
- Buy carefully. "We focus long and hard on vendor partners," Caplan says. In today's tough times more than ever, he says his team investigates a potential supplier's qualifications from top to bottom, especially its track record with other OSS customers.
- Recognize unrealistic expectations. Compromises must often be made. Nextel wasted a year, Caplan says, when a configuration product it bought couldn't meet the goals originally set. "After we recognized what we wanted to do wasn't possible, we broke the project into bite-sized chunks," he says. And Nextel started thinking in terms of getting a percentage of benefit for its effort, rather than expecting unqualified success.
- Encourage vendor partnerships. Carriers don't like having to buy into resource-sapping architectures, but they're not having much luck piecing together different products on their own, either. Panelists would like to see vendors get together and present integrated solutions at the outset of an OSS project.
Still, partnerships should be well considered, not merely expedient. "Too many suppliers are making tactical partnerships [just] to get business," Rich noted. Pair-ups need to make sense and lead to real action.
- Avoid quick fixes, flashy gimmicks, or cheap solutions. "Too many new vendors aren't focused on solving customer problems," said panel chair Rich LaPerch. Ideas that are interesting but hard to implement are disasters waiting to happen.
- Look for information, not data. Carriers face no shortage of data about their networks, panelists said. The challenge is to get meaning out of that data -- for instance, to see how revenue actually balances against network investment. Products should aid that effort, not just generate more data to analyze.
- Assign top staff to managing OSS processes. Panelists cited the need for top management assigned specifically to setting OSS goals and revising plans that don't make sense. Rob Rich cited a two-year survey Yankee conducted that shows carriers with well-run OSSs are in the minority. "Only about 35 percent of Tier 1 carriers have good, well-disciplined processes in place," he maintained. Having people devoted to the process full-time might help.
- Don't expect standards to help. Panelists agreed that looking to organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a dead end. To date, OSS vendors have guarded their wares and discouraged true interoperability, ostensibly to keep the OSS integration gravy train moving. The panel said the most that should be expected of industry groups like Telemanagement Forum is to get people talking.
— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading