Crossing the Chasm between the Service Provider Network and the Home Network

 

By Bram Verburg, System Architect

The core network of a Service Provider is carefully built, managed and monitored. This is done to ensure a high level of service to customers. Home networks, on the other hand, are built ad-hoc by users who are (sometimes) way over their heads. The complexity of home networks is further exacerbated by the wide range of home networking technologies available these days, a different combination of which appears to be in use in every single home.

Until fairly recently there was a clear demarcation point between the neat and tidy service provider network, and the Wild West that is the home network: TV service was delivered to the Set-Top Box (STB), and from there to the TV set; Internet services were provided by the service provider’s DSL or cable modem to a single PC. Nowadays, however, almost every consumer electronics device in the home connects to the Internet, and a wide range of video services can be accessed from TVs, tablets, PCs and even smartphones.

When a customer experiences an issue with any of the Service Provider’s services, it becomes a challenge to pinpoint the cause of the problem. And it will no longer do to tell the customer that the problem is not on the Service Provider’s side: users have no one else to turn to, and full support for end-to-end quality of experience is becoming a key factor in reducing churn and improving uptake of value-added services.

While the network in the Digital Home remains essentially an unmanaged network, there are several strategies available to Service Providers that want and need to extend support services into the home:

(1)    Help customers help themselves: self-care 

No matter how professional the helpdesk agents or how short the hold time, most customers would prefer to avoid making support calls.

Interception for self-care: When the Internet connection is not working, web browsers don’t give users a clue about what’s wrong. The broadband gateway can be used for ‘web interceptions’, similar to the ‘captive portal’ that offers pay-per-use packages when trying to access any website through an airport WiFi service. An interception page can appear, informing users that the WAN cable is not connected, that there is poor signal quality and more.

Using the gateway for diagnostics: A gateway that is aware of value added services, such as video or voice, can perform additional diagnostics to check the reachability of back-end servers, the available bandwidth and possible interference from other network traffic, etc. In many cases the interception page (or a recorded message, in case of voice services) can suggest some corrective action, or provide valuable information that can be used during the support call.

Self care portal or app: Another invaluable tool in reducing support calls is a self-care portal on the Service Provider’s website. Users are often more comfortable accessing such a service than using a built-in management interface in the gateway. The added benefit is accessibility outside the home.

A self-care application (or app) can come in many shapes: a native app for various smartphone or tablet platforms, a PC application or a cross-platform HTML5 app with offline capabilities. Like a web-based portal, the app can aggregate information from various sources, for instance using Web Service APIs to the Service Provider’s back-end servers, and it too can be used when away from home.

(2)    Using the gateway to improve visibility

The gateway is a key element in troubleshooting because of its unique position in the home network: it has visibility into both the Service Provider and user networks and is involved in many services that cross from network into the other, e.g. as a DNS proxy or a VoIP Application Layer Gateway (ALG).

As the home network gets more complex, a significant part of any support call is spent on establishing a common understanding of the customer’s specific setup. Fortunately the gateway can help by collecting information about the home network topology, and the CPE management platform can make this information available in a convenient way to the CSR or repair technician.

Mapping is particularly useful when it is overlaid with notifications that indicate potential problems or configuration settings such as: IP address collisions, network congestion, WiFi signal strength, parental controls etc.

In addition to its role as a probe into the home network, the gateway can play a more active role in home network management, using a variety of home network management protocols. Recent additions to TR-069 –  Broadband Forum’s CPE WAN Management Protocol (CWMP), enable proxy management of compatible home networking devices by the Service Provider.

(3)    Homologate, aggregate and integrate

The wide range of devices available in the Digital Home means that ‘vertical management’ of individual devices is no longer sufficient: the entire service experience must be managed, across multiple devices.

Consider a scenario in which a user starts watching a movie through the Service Provider’s VoD service on the TV connected to an IP Set-Top Box, and then decides to continue watching in bed using the second screen app on a tablet. If the user experiences any problems at this point, the CSR taking the call has to be able to quickly get a full picture. A CSR that has to juggle between different applications that each deal with individual elements, and manually correlate events, will not be able to provide effective support. The same applies to the installation & repair technician tools and the self-care tools for the user.

Modern Service-Oriented Architectures (SOAs) greatly simplify the building of web applications that invoke a variety of services from diverse platforms in the Service Provider’s back office, using open APIs, and creating an information “mash-up”.

The holistic view of the Digital Home enables new levels of end-user support that improve customer satisfaction, reduces churn and can even be a value-added service in its own right.

 

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