20/12/2005 - 21:00

Next generation networks now

20/12/2005 - 21:00

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I found out the other day that broadband digital subscriber line (DSL) principles were developed 20 years ago.

Next generation networks now

I found out the other day that broadband digital subscriber line (DSL) principles were developed 20 years ago.

As a communications development manager in a past life, I found it a trifle disturbing that a concept with such potential has taken 20 years to develop up to a point where it is being adopted by consumers and businesses at a frightening rate.

The broadband phenomenon, however, signifies an exciting time in the world of telecommunications.

Just one example is the growing popularity of Internet shopping.

This has been enabled by the broadband up-take; it is making the experience of shopping on-line so much smoother and pleasurable.

The journey for broadband however has only just begun, it is a long way off being ubiquitous to all citizens and its speed is unacceptable for emerging services requiring feature-rich content such as video on demand, and Internet protocol TV.

While the broadband debate rages on, Telstra recently announced its next generation networking (NGN) strategy, which will radically overhaul its services, network and IT systems.

As a nation Australia is lagging in telecommunication services, however I think the NGN plan could be a catalyst to redress the balance and stimulate competing providers in Australia to look at their own strategy.

The ultimate outcome should be increased investment in the Australian telecommunications market.

A little over a year ago, British Telecom announced a similar strategy called 21st century networks (21CN).

Its $23 billion plan would project BT into a world of next generation network, a world-first for a telecommunications provider and potentially the start of a revolution in communications services.

I worked for a competing telco and was responsible for investigating the implications of the 21CN announcement.

The findings essentially meant planning a complete overhaul of the business product strategy, its processes and its technology - a complete service transformation.

What is the vision of next generation networking? It’s a world where you could access your voice, video and your data from any device at any time from anywhere.

Where you never have to worry about bandwidth because it is as wide as you need it, all of the time.  

It’s a fundamental step change in functionality and a complete service transformation.

Big and bold statements I know, but this is an emerging reality.

If Telstra acts on its vision it will have the ability to offer innovative services that will enrich our working and social lives.

It will provide a cornerstone for multi-services such as high-speed Internet, voice over IP, multi channel TV and video on demand, all over a single connection into your home or business.

I envisage that Telstra’s plan to implement a next generation network will have varying effects on businesses, depending on their own reliance on communications and the state of their corporate infrastructure, but it is worth first trying to summarise Telstra’s plans.

Telstra plans to provide a single network that will replace the multitude of disparate networks it currently has to operate and maintain. Simplicity is the key.

A simple solution will enable quicker one-touch service activation, the ability to offer more innovative products, shorter development cycles, bundled services, enhanced customer reporting and cost savings in operational support.

The business case, I’m sure, is compelling.

A unified network will mean Telstra’s legacy networks can be retired. Gone will be the traditional voice switches, gone will be the data networks and gone will be the multiple mobile networks.

Welcome to a new dawn, a converged environment.

However, there is a big step between providing a next generation solution and retiring the legacy technology; it’s a step called migration and it will affect all customers using Telstra services because at some point your service will have to be migrated onto its NGN network.

The migration and de-commissioning process will be a lengthy task, taking two to three years. That may sound a long time but don’t get complacent, as this will soon creep up on us.

There are a number of challenges that will have to be considered along the way.

First, large businesses could well have their own ‘be-spoke’ solutions to satisfy their demands for unique service capabilities. Migrating to an NGN platform runs the risk that these solutions will not be compatible on the new platform.

Second, telecommunication providers sometimes ‘tweak’ standard product offerings to suit a customer’s needs. These ‘customer specials’ are not always documented. This poses a risk that the solutions are not fully understood and therefore cannot be analysed, replicated or planned as part of the migration process.

Finally, each product and solution must be transferred seamlessly with no customer impact onto the NGN. In order to have confidence that this will be successful, the customer solutions will be modelled in a captive test environment, and be rigorously tested on the new platform to ensure compatibility.

To support this, activity migration and transfer procedures will be written to prove migration is possible with minimal impact. Best practice dictates this exercise must be performed for each individual solution. This adds up to a lengthy exercise, needing an immense amount of effort in hours, auditing, documenting, testing and implementing the diverse solutions.

The migration to a next generation network will have implications for competing service providers.

For over a century telecommunications architecture has changed very little. Traditional telecommunications providers follow a similar business model. They have separate networks that provide voice, data, call centre and Internet services for their customers. The re-structuring of an incumbent operator will mean carriers will have to re-think their own business model and strategies.

There are a number of issues I would address as a competing operator; the first would be to forecast the competitive landscape post NGN.

Telstra’s NGN will provide simplicity meaning their product development cycles will be shorter, hence leveraging time-to-market advantages over the competition.

This advantage will also provide the capability to launch exciting new feature-rich products, driving customers into the arms of Telstra.

From a carrier’s perspective, having a future-state network that can support multi-service offerings will enable it to provide bundled services, such as voice, Internet, movies and messaging.

Having this option provides greater margin on revenue and lower customer churn.

Secondly, here’s a question for you. When you use your phone have you ever considered just how many networks the call is routed across? You would be alarmed by the answer. Essentially all telecommunication operators must connect to each other, at points known as ‘interconnects’.

As Telstra retires its legacy technology, these points of interconnect will slowly dwindle. Unless the change is carefully managed, this will cause customer disruption. The solution is to provide ‘interconnects’ onto the new network as the old connections are being retired. All carriers will have to perform this exercise.  It will need careful planning, industry consultation and collaboration to ensure a seamless transfer for the customers. The cost implications will vary depending on numbers of connections a carrier has but it will be pricey.

The points raised provide a compelling case for all carriers to take a close look at their own product, service and technology strategies.

You will need to plan a future direction that has NGN in the equation or risk losing customers and revenue to those that are planning the move into the new era of communications.

Business planning

Businesses are not immune to the change either, although it may affect them in varying ways depending on size, location and preparation.

However, they should all adopt a common approach and assess the Telstra strategy to quantify the likely implications it will have for their corporate network.

At some point in the next year, all businesses should be auditing their telecommunications estate and roadmap a plan to convergence. 

Once NGN arrives, internal networks will have to support converged services.

This means that the connection between each business and its service provider will be a single ‘pipe’ carrying all services, voice, data and control.

I would recommend performing an impact assessment to determine the impact NGN will have.

The hardest exercise in the past for IT and telecommunication managers was substantiating a move from their disparate voice and data networks to a converged solution.

The key is the business case, which has always been ‘flaky’, concentrating too much on obvious benefits of reduced operational costs, rather than trying to measure the intangibles such as increases in productivity.

The operational cost savings alone are often not enough to substantiate the initial technology investment. This has meant only a limited number of businesses have moved to a converged environment while a lot of others are still struggling to convince their executives of the key benefits.

The NGN announcement will renew executive interest in the corporate convergence story, and I would recommend that managers who are responsible for their corporate network revisit that business case, blow off the dust and re-evaluate the benefits and figures.

By planning your own destiny you can move in a controlled manner in your own time. Wouldn’t you rather jump than be pushed?

ndustry effects

Telstra has announced strategic equipment partners who will help plan their service transformation.

My initial impression is that the decommissioning and building of networks in aggressive timescales will require a lot of very experienced resource.

The equipment suppliers are not likely to have this depth of experience in-house, so it is likely they too will be investigating their own alliances to support the program’s implementation.

I would expect a varied set of disciplines being needed, ranging from the building, environmental and power service providers through to the communications and IT consultancies.

There will definitely be opportunities to support the large vendors in the program if you have contacts and the right disciplines.

Widening the field a bit further, the boundaries between hardware communications and software applications have begun to blur.

In a next generation network, the voice services will not be handled by a traditional public branch exchange (PBX), a piece of hardware, it will be a software application hosted on a computer server.

The same model will apply for multi media and IPTV services. The intelligence is moving up the ‘food chain’.

Suppliers of communication services should take note of this change in direction and start expanding their core disciplines to accommodate the fact.

I can foresee opportunities to develop software applications providing services that can integrate into desktop environments that leverage this concept and help provide the mobility functionality that the NGN will bring.   

It’s an exciting time in the communications world, the dawn of a new era. In the past, telecommunication services have been a commodity, but things are about to change.

The catalyst that NGN provides is a stepping-stone for feature-rich flexible services that will enrich the business and social fabric of Australia. It will shape the way we live and conduct our working days.

Businesses that embrace the change early can steal a march on their competitors. It is vital to accept the synergies between information and communication technology and how it contributes to improved business performance. The link has never been stronger and businesses that are willing to accept and act will have better opportunities to succeed. Are you willing to take the risk and miss the boat?

The Telstra plan to overhaul its business will be a defining moment in the Australian telecommunications market. As a famous songwriter and singer once said, ‘Welcome to the Revolution’. 

• David Mcallister has worked in the telecommunications industry for 18 years in Australia and the UK. He currently works at GHD Consultancy Services responsible for the Information & Communi-cation Technology (ICT) team.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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