Panel: Integrated networks top challenge

Taking a page from their colleagues in marketing, technical representatives from four major vendor and service provider companies spoke of the challenges being issued to network managers as they enter an age where “the customer is king.” The speeches were part of a plenary session given at the recent Networks 2000 conference in downtown Toronto.

Len Weller, director of the masters programme at British Telecom, described his vision of a world where commerce is totally mobile and computing devices are always connected, “anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”

“How do we manage it?” he asked rhetorically. “The customer’s not interested. That’s our problem.”

And the problem may get worse as customers come to expect interoperable, responsive, and efficient networks that can deliver bandwidth-hungry content, suggested Tom Moylan, manager of process engineering in core networks for Ireland’s eircom.

“The challenges today are the same as those 10 years ago,” Moylan said. “Building a fully integrated network management model is very difficult.”

Moylan said the challenge is even harder for network managers whose companies lease portions of its network; and for whom many customers dial in to the network, rather than being directly connected.

And, at a time where building vs. buying a network is the concern of most companies’ senior executives, Moylan said network managers should be allowed some input into the decision.

“Maybe we should build the network so it makes managing it easier,” he said.

Integration was a common theme among the four speakers. Bruce Whittaker, director of next generation systems for Lucent Technologies, told attendees that for service providers to fulfil their promise to customers of an integrated multi-service network at a reasonable cost, they must learn to integrate sales, service fulfilment, service assurance and billing into a customer-driven mechanism.

That means figuring out how to allow customers to add, change or delete IP services without requiring them to go through the service provider, he said. And it means that every packet of data has to be tracked and eventually billed, a statement Weller later echoed.

Peter Carbone, vice-president of service commerce portfolio management for Nortel Networks, agreed with Whittaker about the importance of developing the ability to differentiate services and bill customers for them properly. He also sees a need to build an intelligent subscriber-aware networking environment that puts users in control of their network “experience.”

When customers will gain this control is another matter entirely. Though all four speakers said the industry must change to accommodate customer needs and wants, Weller admitted the competition that would drive this change has not yet surfaced.

“Right now the incumbents are still the major players,” Weller said. “But as the industry becomes much larger, the competition (will arise).”

Weller added he expects that once true competition flourishes, the need for government regulations on service provider pricing will cease to exist.

“Then the issue of where the money to build the networks will not be there, because costs will not need to be regulated,” he said.