Provisioning: What it Is, Why it Matters (Part I)


As the headlines keep bunching around Excite@Home Corp. — and the company's horrid split from the industry that gave it life seven years ago — one term seems to keep pinging the jargon meter: provisioning.

Way back in July of 1995 — before newspaperman and technologist William R. Hearst III left as interim CEO of @Home; before shares of the start-up vaulted; before @Home's next CEO, Tom Jermoluk, ceded his spot to Excite's George Bell; and before all of the ugliness intensified — Hearst was asked within these pages if @Home's purpose was to overbuild the Internet. He responded, "I'd say we're over-provisioning it, not overbuilding it."

Hearst's comment is especially poignant now, considering how under-provisioned most MSOs still linked to Excite@Home feel. If only Hearst's characterization — or at least his implied emphasis on mundane-but-critical operational matters like provisioning — had indeed become Excite@Home's mantra.

Provisioning: What is it, besides proof as to why technologists wind up with acronyms built on descriptive word groupings, rather than using one catch-all word that describes a confusing array of things?

In essence, to provision is to activate an account for a service as automatically as possible. Strategically, though, the one who does the provisioning usually is the one who "owns" the customer, from an operational perspective.

For high-speed Internet service, provisioning can include everything from loading browser software on the subscriber's PC to linking to billing systems. Assigning IP addresses — and authorizing cable modems to other equipment that might need to talk to them — is also part of provisioning.

In most of today's high-speed Internet installations, provisioning is partly manual and partly automatic. Think of it as what transpires between the installer and the customer-care representative back at the office on the day a new customer gets service.

The installer, standing in someone's den with modem and CD-ROM in hand, phones in the to-be subscriber's address or phone number. The care representative checks it against the billing system: Good money or bad?

If good, the serial number, in most cases the MAC (media access control) address of the cable modem, is tagged to that subscriber's account. The CMTS (cable-modem termination system) in the headend is given an electronic green light for a DHCP (dynamic host control protocol) server to assign an IP (Internet-protocol) address to the modem.

In a sense, both the modem and the subscriber are identified to the back-office components of the cable provider, so that usage can proceed.

Think back to the first days of addressable controllers, which talked to analog addressable set-tops. The process of automatically determining whether or not a customer was authorized to receive a scrambled premium service — and then activating the service for that customer — was, in a sense, provisioning. The only difference: It wasn't called provisioning back then.

Provisioning, in contemporary usage, also adorns itself with an assortment of prefixes that do a super job at muddying the interpretation. There's pre-provisioning, auto-provisioning, self-provisioning. There's bottoms-up provisioning, and top-down provisioning; there's device provisioning and service provisioning. Naturally, most of the terms overlap in definition.

The holy grail of it all is full, automatic self-provisioning: The customer walks into a store, buys a modem, takes it home, plugs it in, loads CD-ROM software and initiates service. Everything that happens in the background, in this case, is the provisioning.

"Everything" goes like this: The connected modem first scans for the transmit frequencies it can use. If it could talk, the modem would then say something like this: "Yoo-hoo! Here I am! Set me up, please."

The CMTS replies: "I see you, but I don't know you yet, so please take your user to this IP address." The customer, sitting at the PC, finds herself at a Web site, where she can enter in all her "information" — address, account number (if she's already a cable customer), credit card and the type of service package desired. That information is electronically conveyed to the MSO's billing system, which (hopefully) clears it, then sends the go-ahead to assign an IP address and begin service.

One step down from provisioning's holy grail — again, known as "self-provisioning" or "auto-provisioning" — is the notion of pre-provisioning. In this case, the installer walks out to the truck in the morning, with a to-do list that shows what cable modems, already logged into inventory, will be installed that day, to what customers. Maybe cable modem No. 123456789 is to go to 42 Springs Drive. In this sense, the billing system already "knows" what's up for the day, and the installer's role is to fulfill the to-do list.

Up until now, Excite@Home handled provisioning, and the associated databases, for its MSO constituents. Strategically, it "owned" that part. But with Excite@Home going or gone, the onus is now on participating MSOs to reconstruct provisioning databases — and regain full customer ownership — with or without Excite@Home's cooperation.

Those are the whats and whys of provisioning. Next time: More on how MSOs are considering bringing provisioning in-house.