SLAs spell wireless industry’s future – service-level agreements

SLAs spell wireless industry’s future – service-level agreements – Industry Trend or Event

Dan O’Shea

Wireless has never been a business built on reliability, which is odd because so many wireless carriers believe they were built to compete. However, the fact is that they have always competed on price and packaging before anything else. They have never had to worry about attaching their reliability records to their marketing plans because reliability in wireless voice has never held more weight than the simple fact of having mobile access.

“You don’t hear a lot of rumblings from wireless carriers about making reliability part of their marketing focus,” says Andrew Cole, senior manager for wireless consulting at Renaissance Worldwide Inc.

“Network uptime has never been assumed to be an issue in the wireless voice world. It just hasn’t been the critical factor,” adds Dan Taylor, managing director at The Aberdeen Group. The fact that the vast majority of wireless traffic-at least 97% of it-is still voice bears out this observation.

But what happens as a market full of new competitors, such as PCS players, develops to the point where price and packaging differentiation bottoms out? What happens as wireless carriers-keen on eventually competing head-to-head with wireline carriers-are forced to prove their reliability to customers who do not think wireless will be reliable enough as a replacement? What happens when these carriers attempt to sell wireless data as a mission-critical data transmission medium? What happens to wireless resellers that cannot hold their wholesale carriers somehow accountable if promised capacity is not delivered? What happens when the wireless industry eventually completes the last phase of its world takeover by replacing wireline service with wireless local loops? Service level agreements (SLAs) may provide the answers to all these questions.

Sometimes called service guarantees or performance guarantees, SLAs are indigenous to the corporate data networking market. This was one of the first telecom industry segments to see heated competition, mostly between telcos, competitive access providers and private network integrators. As a result, big data customers were able to demand service providers to jump through any and all hoops to win their business.

In recent years, an increasing number of wireline carriers have had to resort to SLAs to win or keep important data accounts. The SLAs were basic contracts that promised discounts and other benefits to users if carriers breached thresholds for service disruption, busy hours, undelivered packets, measurable latency, mean network downtime and other factors.

In effect, the emergence of SLAs has created a boom market for vendors that offer management systems, monitoring solutions and performance report generators. Most of these products address SLAs for frame relay or Internet traffic. Several vendors interviewed for this story all agreed that they have yet to see demand for solutions to manage wireless SLAs.

If that demand arises anytime soon, it will not be driven by the historic wireless voice service model. However, many industry observers agree that the wireless industry should prepare to deal with SLAs as competitive and service models change.

“Dropped voice calls may annoy customers, but it’s not mission-critical traffic,” says Cole.

While general service reliability may eventually become a worthwhile competitive asset for wireless carriers, this is likely not a near-term concern of most carriers, he adds. In fact, many smaller carriers most likely see reliability as a low priority right now because signing up customers has to be their most important issue.

That does not mean SLAs will never apply in the wireless world. On the contrary, a move to SLAs will have to happen if wireless carriers are going to carry mission-critical data traffic, says Cole.

Indeed, the modest growth and bright future for wireless data and Internet trafficking pose the issue that large amounts of data may eventually be moved wirelessly-if carriers can win the corporate accounts that allow them to do so. SLAs could prove to be a valuable competitive tool for measuring wireless data reliability.

SLAs also may prove useful in another area. Developing wireless resale as an alternative to building networks is a popular idea for some carriers, but it is one that can be risky for resale carriers. For instance, if a reseller’s base carrier fails to deliver promised capacity, resellers may be forced to swallow a lot of customer complaints and potential service cancellations, says Taylor.

SLAs could allow those resellers and their customers a sense of security they currently do not have. SLAs could be employed between resellers and wholesalers as a way to ensure consistent performance availability from wholesale carriers, possibly with discounts or rebates for resellers if anything goes wrong.

“We don’t see SLAs as a wireless thing now, but that could happen as there is more wholesaling in wireless,” says Taylor.

While these service models do offer some promise for SLAs in wireless, the industry is likely far from supporting the successful market that exists in the wireline data industry. In that arena, SLAs already have revolutionized the market to the point that they are a central element and an important consideration in the management strategies of wireline carriers.

Cole advises that wireless carrier think about this eventuality, but some important strides will have to be made before wireless SLAs are commonplace. “Something like wireless packet latency can be easily measured, but the carriers will need sufficient tools to do that,” he says.

Though vendors generally say they have current technology to support wireless SLAs, there are no such products currently on the market, and most vendors do not acknowledge plans for developing such products. Some say that the hurdles to developing such product have not even been fully considered.

“SLAs have become a real differentiator in the wireline world, but as you apply them to wireless, you’re dealing with something that isn’t a terrestial link and is susceptible to uncontrollable influences,” says Ed Kurzenski, director of wireless marketing at Objective Systems Integrators, a vendor that has supported the wireline network management market for some time.

“When you are dealing with Sonet, you can pinpoint a bit payload for analysis, but an air interface is something that is out of your control,” adds Kurzenski. “There are management solutions available that collect any kind of information from any device on a wireline network, but how do you collect the same level of information from a wireless network?”

“It’s theoretically possible, but I don’t know of anyone who has done an SLA on a wireless link,” says Everett Brooks, product manager for T-1 products at Adtran, which has both frame relay SLA and wireless connectivity products but has never merged the two efforts. Several other vendors used nearly identical language to explain their position on wireless SLA products.

Still, there is good indication that this may change soon. An increasing number of companies with expertise in wireline network management are beginning to target the wireless market with their solutions as well. For example, Euristix is a developer of element management solutions that have been deployed in highly complex Sonet networks, but the company recently started marketing its element management system to the wireless industry. The solution has functionality to support the generation of SLA reports relating to different kinds of technologies, and the company sees SLAs as a top future issue in both the wireline and wireless markets.

Vendors of similar products also are beginning to rally around wireless opportunities, especially as the potential for wireless local loops-whether in broad public deployments or smaller campus configurations-seems to beg for solutions that can control and monitor wireless network reliability. Carriers will eventually have to offer some kind of proof of reliability if they are going to convince customers to drop their incumbent wireline services for wireless local loops.

Still, despite recent surges in data usage, the seemingly bright potential of the wireless resale market and growing interest in wireless local loop, OSI’s Kurzenski has not yet seen an SLA-related request for information from wireless industry network operators.

While wireless carriers have not given SLAs full consideration yet, it is at least positive to see that some carriers have figured out the general importance of service level management. Long-time cellular operator Cellular One has already employed service level management processes and monitoring software in its San Francisco Bay Area network, a crowded network with various geographic features that have sometimes played havoc with service reliability. The carrier deployed NetCool, a service monitoring solution from Micromuse, a company whose primary focus has been Internet service monitoring (Figures 1 and 2).

“We saw wireless develop as a market because there are some common reliability problems that wireless and Internet service share,” says Jill Huntington-Lee, vice president of marketing communications at Micromuse. Cellular One had a legacy management system in place that offered limited visibility into service disruptions before it deployed NetCool.

It’s significant to note that not many carriers have similar service management strategies in place, especially among the PCS industry.

The road to managing reliability may be the road less traveled in the wireless industry now, but service and network complexity, in addition to increasing competition, may make it the chosen path-and SLAs the preferred vehicle-in the future.

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