As legacy provisioning systems grow long in the tooth and are rendered obsolete, a new breed of provisioning vendors has emerged.
These companies bring with them lucrative promises of quick, automatic service installations to light up the nascent retail high-speed data market and a vast reduction in expensive, operator-funded truck rolls.
Though the word "provision" is derived from the Latin term proviso
(the act of providing), when ported to the cable industry, it generally means enabling communications lines along the broadband network and making that same network able to register and activate consumer devices such as cable-modems or set-top boxes.
Provisioning will also play a key role in cable's inevitable open-access era, allowing customers to select their Internet-service provider and to choose from several service tiers.
The technology's fingers will touch all aspects of the cable network, from the back office to the home or business.
And-as in any emerging business sector-some observers foresee a provisioning shake-out in which the strongest will survive and the weakest will be consumed by their competitors.
"An intriguing aspect of provisioning is its multiple definitions," said BroadJump COO Kenny Van Zant. "In the cable space, we usually think of DOCSIS [Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification] provisioning as the technical ability to get a cable-modem ready to exchange data between a computer and a network.
"To me, it means ensuring you have done everything to both the physical network and its support systems to facilitate delivery of broadband services to a subscriber," he said.
A more comprehensive definition comes from Ray Bennett, vice president of product management for Interactive Enterprise, the maker of Conexon provisioning products.
He describes four layers of cable provisioning. One is the activation and configuration of the subscriber's device using the trivial file-transfer protocol (TFTP) to download the service level parameters, such as a modem's speed range. Another is activation of the cable-modem termination system (CMTS) to assign an Internet-protocol address.
A third is configuration of the back-end operations support system (OSS) and the business support system (BSS) for account management and billing. Finally, one must enable other network elements to deliver broadband services.
"Provisioning does not stop at the modem," Bennett said. "It also can include all backbone providers, third-party ISPs under open access, voice-over-IP services, even content distribution networks with mirror servers in your cable plant."
There's more at stake than semantics.
A jumping-off point is Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s Data Over Cable Interface Service Specification (DOCSIS), the interoperability standard for certified cable modems and qualified headends.
According to Rouzbeh Yassini, executive consultant to CableLabs and CEO of YAS Corp., DOCSIS was created in 1996 and based on working technology from his former company, LANcity; General Instrument Corp. (now Motorola Broadband Communications Sector); Broadcom Corp.; and 3Com Corp.
Those vendors authored DOCSIS 1.0 along the lines of existing network-management protocols for provisioning dial-up modems and other network elements.
With the 1.1 spec, DOCSIS is quickly evolving to handle additional back-office elements.
Pak Siripunkaw, a member of AT&T Broadband's technical staff and a CableLabs visiting engineer for the DOCSIS project, said DOCSIS 1.1 "has been expanded for transparent back-office automation." It also features a tool set that cable operators can use to provision and manage their data services securely.
For instance, 1.1 defines a standard application interface [API] for billing software during autoprovisioning. But it does not address back-end applications. Cable operators must pick and choose which billing applications best fit their business models, then provision the applications they prefer.
"You should not have to talk to a customer-service representative to get a new service," said Emperative CEO Abraham Gutman.
He likened autoprovisioning to a bank's automated-teller machines. "The bank does not need to increase the number of tellers to significantly increase the number of transactions," Gutman said.
A related trend involves the set-top based autoprovisioning of such digital-cable video services as video-on-demand, noted AP Engines Inc. vice president of broadband business development Ragan Wilkinson.
FORUM PROVIDES HOPE
"Only end-to-end network management can achieve fully automated flow-through provisioning for all cable services," said Frank Lauria, vice president of strategic business development at CommTech. "You must be sure all the network elements can talk to each other, so service delivery is constantly monitored and managed.
"The quality of service [QoS] needs to be contractually obligated, too, so customers feel complete assurance about getting what they're paying for," he added.
Lauria looks to the Tele-Management Forum, a non-profit organization with 361 members from 36 countries that represents the full spectrum of telecommunications outfits.
Proposing a business case for an integrated operations support system (OSS), the TM Forum on Nov. 14 released its first tangible fruit, the New Generation Operation Systems and Software (NGOSS).
The NGOSS gives an aggregate view of the costs and benefits of various provisioning options. It also offers a financial modeling tool that companies can use to build their own business case.
The goal is to get NGOSS-based products to market by early next year.
Companies engaged in the NGOSS initiative include AT&T Broadband, British Telecom, Korea Telecom, Lucent Technologies, Motorola Inc. and Telecordia Technologies Inc.
Meanwhile, AP Engines' Wilkinson wants DOCSIS, OpenCable and PacketCable extended to cover the provisioning of billing applications.
He supports the Internet-protocol detail record (IPDR) for IP billing traffic.
He says the IPDR.org initiative is specifying data-exchange protocols between network OSS and BSS elements for an open-standards solution to the automated provisioning of back-end systems.
Backing that play are AP Engines, Convergys Corp., CSG Systems International Inc., Lucent Technologies and Microsoft Corp.
IPDR.org in October released version 2.0 of its "Network Data Management-Usage" (NDM-U) specification as a step toward fully automated billing communications.
"Provisioning is not a subset of billing," Gutman said. "It's the other way around. It's not about how well you can bill the customer, but how well you can offer services. Without provisioning, you have nothing to bill your customers for."