Social Telecom

by Jay Cuthrell
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About a year ago I spoke in front of the Atlanta Telecom Professionals (ATP) audience on the topic of social media and telecommunications. It was a great crowd.

I was also afforded a glass of Scotch. Trust me when I say the crowd was great regardless of the Scotch I had consumed as the panel pulled together. It doesn’t get much more telecom focused than the group of folks assembled that evening.

The panel included me. Oh, and AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast… oh wait… Comcast ducked out on the panel. More on that later.

I was on the panel to represent the outsider. I wasn’t a carrier. I wasn’t a wireless operator with spectrum, lobbying forces, and a war chest. I was just a person lucky enough to know folks that knew folks that might enjoy my specific brand of insight and humor on the stage.

As I sat in front of the assembled group with the titans of telecom to my right and to my left I remarked to my fellow panelists that I’d be putting my favorite devices in front of me. To my left I placed my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry International Edition and to my right I placed my AT&T Wireless iPhone 3G.

One of the benefits of Comcast not showing up was that we could talk about them. Good times. Good times.


Before I arrived for the panel I jotted down some notes. I had some ideas that I really wanted to throw out there and see if anyone grabbed on to what I was saying. You never know how that approach will work out since panels are often driven by the need for consensus and keeping things on a timeline. Often, the panel is driven quickly to Q&A.

The question for telecom is how well has the social toolset served them and when will it serve them or their subscribers — and can this be a relationship as social between the cold exterior of a conglomerate media machine and the monetized unique personal attribute collection formerly known as a subscriber.

Looking back a year later, here are my notes — not predictions but my own reflections and the observations of others about the connections made possible by what was happening in social software spaces and how this might be applied to telecom or affect telecom:

Base decisions on most recent parallel events vs. previous events.

I was imagining a screen that tracked keywords in a disposition code format of lifestream updates for the CIDR blocks known to the telecom that represent a given area that was referenced against weather patterns to provide a living view of plant.

Sure, it’s something for the big screen in a NOC. But does it have to be? Couldn’t these interfaces be nimble enough for the important items to bubble up to a CSR view or a executive manager view?

The notion of stratification by CLLI codes would be a good example. Basically, some variety of feedback loop with a base station or aggregation node view is important. i.e. subscribers being vocal (or silent) in a localized view format

You want to see that a lull or non-characteristic gap in updates for a geocode set turned out to be a plant dip. All of this would play back against a lower sub screen view of the network as a whole to determine if there is a degradation or other anomaly not presently identified and tracked adequately.

This could be two users in the same CIDR block where an update arrives via third party API to talk to an account or rep much in the same way power outages attempt to use callerid to fast track tickets for outages.

Distributed network monitoring and SLA based on channel mix bundle for customer class action crediting for outages

This might have some meat to it. After discussing this amongst some others in the same general field I am in the consensus was “yeah, why not”. In general this would form the basis of an ad-hoc class action customer experience fee recovery system.

Assuming the AUP/ToS did not preclude a resident agent/process with this goal in mind (and really, that’s not the point) one could feed back a quasi-SLA to residential tiers of service. This is part of my larger focus on the shift to a truly utility approach to granular billing if “the cap” ever makes it out of the ham fisted iterations we’ve seen so far.

XMPP of the customer experience as a sparkline

This was pretty simple in that seeing a lot of chatter about your brand from accounts known to talk about you might be an interesting data point for marketing groups and operations teams. Fake meme and trending notwithstanding. 😄

Unprecedented access to correlate and improve plant and service delivery

One idea was to make a simple mailto link in a follow up email with five options that generate updates to social networks indicating your level of satisfaction with the provider. Since the panel, the API options have exploded for gaining feedback including the ubiquitous click here to share on Facebook and prefab Twitter responses.

Just as there are sites the give a shortcut to bypass inane IVR there is Twitter and Getsatisfaction and Uservoice or even Atlanta’s own Skribit

A frustrated subscriber wants to get issues resolved. It’s very simple.

The subscribers might not know what a back channel is but they would probably call or interact if they could update from a SMS to their provider when the broadband is out — something as simple as the word “down” or “not working” where the provider is digesting streams is one thing but the goal here is Digg for Down and Outage situations.

i.e. I’m having this issue — with 10-100 subscribers saying “me too”

Remember, a growing number of subscribers have multiple networks at their disposal. Just like the legacy view is “call if you have a problem” a new view is Twitter updates, smartphone access, etc. So, being down doesn’t mean being silent.

As with all these new social tools for gathering and refining feedback, the critical step is to test and think about how obtuse the tools are implemented. Don’t make extra work. That just frustrates the subscriber even more.

DSL Reports will move beyond a bulletin board of threaded discussion to a real time mediation of issues and “me too”

This is the notion that subscribers will form pools of affinity and the Fan pages that will not be a scripted corporate controlled medium. It may not be the most exciting news story but for a provider — this is shaking in your boots level technology — but only for the providers that choose not to participate and let the chips fall.

I’m seeing this happen as DSL Reports refines their hierarchy (shades of Usenet?) for discussions. When I was thinking about this originally things like Stack Overflow came to mind.

Again, this is about regular subscribers. So, the tin ears have to be small ones for any UI/UX approach.

I’ve repeatedly said that asymmetric broadband is going to be a thing of the past. We have applications that stream updates in realtime more now than the year prior with no easing to the trend. For every optimized code loop the software world throws into production, a new nimble startup will figure out a new payload to push the limits. And in that push — the upload will be as critical as the download. The new downstream is the upstream.

What we might still call _ TV’s _ are going to be shipping in the wake of CES with ever increasing symmetric communication. Skype (big TV brands) or something like a TinyChat (thinking Walmart brand TV’s) is going to push against the notion that an ADSL link or the pitiful cable modem package of many down and few up is acceptable.

The application mix and managed routers will evolve to WAAS like features that improve branch to branch experience

I wasn’t specifically calling out Cisco solutions but this was something I obviously had in mind. At work, everything you experience with broadband at home is a reasonable (if not double) expectation for business class services at a job site. Yet, business class services often are slower in areas where higher speed residential broadband is available.

During the panel, things like cloud computing and low latency or high throughput applications came up as reasons why the business class expectations will change. IP Centrex phone services based on VoIP with a SIP trunks model is growing at a faster pace now due to economic benefits but it is unclear that the connectivity has kept pace.

That said, the point of bringing up Cisco’s role in this was to point out that the same topology and traffic management concerns of larger enterprises is now being packed into the form factor of a common Cisco ISR and would likely become a fire and forget feature to address chatty and high overhead protocols. The availability of such technology will mean a lot to the small remote office connected to a regional office. The natural conclusion is to see this played back in subscriber CPE.

Putting the intelligence in endpoints is the key to seeing benefits overall. Again, it’s about pushing the envelope with what social oriented technology brings as a demand.

VoIP and general voice costs will continue a race to zero

Does this really come as a shock? It got a laugh of course.

What this really means longer term is that all providers have to get into a higher value service. Since the panel there have been any number of big things happen in this area from Google Voice to all you can eat packages.

The important point is that there are still challenges to how providers plan to fund initiatives and relying upon the legacy service model or product is flawed thinking. Flawed might not be the right term but in the absence of seeing Skype embedded in more places more of the time there is a closing window on the POTS and circuit-switched world.

Social services will deprecate younger buyer concern for uptime and availability premium as part of lowered expectations from growing up mobile I.e. All providers suck

This was the concept of how mobile phone call quality and Twitter Fail Whale and cryptic web errors gained a fever pitch status with younger users. In fact, the older users see this as well but they remember when things like uptime and availability meant something and how a land line call really did sound better.

The term users is also key. Subscribers vs. users is a word choice I try to be careful with in panel settings. Generally speaking, the provider has to handle the customer and the manner in which a designation is applies tells a lot about the background and direction of a service and company as a whole.

When you think about a concept like price elasticity, you have to wonder about lock in as a viable model when the youth market has been raised to see fads come and go online and in communications.

What happens when AT&T becomes a Friendster to a new Facebook?

Remember, it’s not always going to be an absolute assumption that the bigger players win. The FCC tremblings and rumblings even before the panel indicated things might just change (for once) in how we think of a nimble operator or service provider.

Younger consumers will assume that the provider knows more about them and will be less tolerant of flawed CRM

In the face of privacy and how providers treat CPNI, there is a desire to opt on either the side of flat out ignorance or the Sprint Now Network commercial. Some might view this as a all or none proposition. So, which is it? Full on unfettered use of DPI with tremors of conflict in other nations quashed and monitoring in a dystopian future… or not so evil aggregation of personalized trends to give you a better service?

Example: Twitter’s very own @comcastcares

As I was saying at the start, Comcast ducked out on the panel. This was unfortunate because I actually think they were to be commended for their role in adopting a back channel to augment their existing channels of communication with the subscribers.

Comcast has issues. The difference now is all their subscribers flock somewhere other than a support line to complain.

If you are a service provider, expect this is happening in your subscriber base as well. In fact, bank on it.

One thing to take away though is the almost lancing effect @comcastcares has on the pressure of a subscriber issue. In general, if the broadband is down one might wonder how you reach them — simple — Twitter is a backchannel available through just about any mobile device with a data plan or even SMS

Service providers: your suck cannot hide

And as a perfect example of the new type of subscriber all service providers will have to contend with now: power subscribers

The power subscriber is the service provider equivalent of what Enterprise 2.0 faces with their own power users. Enterprise and service provider are still vastly different worlds, so I think it is important to highlight the differences since there is a distinct economic associate for subscribers. The subscriber pays for and expects a service level.

For a power subscriber to take note of an issue is the moment a service provider has to take note as well. It’s not just the fact that service providers find themselves providing connectivity or a service used by industry pundits. It’s more than that. It’s the fact that those pundits are connected with wider audiences that can quickly and efficiently compare notes on a provider in much lower latency ways than ever before.

If there is a service blip, people will know.

In there is a service issue or quirk, people will know.

A power subscriber like MG Siegler is an example of someone that has kept track of their issues and has a long memory. He is not alone. His series of articles on AT&T and iPhone issues were and are relentless. When his coverage and TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington coverage becomes content placed in syndication on the Washington Post, watch out folks. The FCC might just notice.

What this translates to for service providers that have come to be regarded as lethargic is simple: if you have problems, the new social tools available will amplify and coordinate the uprising from your subscriber base locally, regionally, nationally, and perhaps internationally. If you get picked up by tech press for having issues, it is a very short walk to the end of the mainstream press channel.

So, in the end, what social telecom might really mean is a implicit expectation from subscribers (users) of a service that works well almost all of the time. The keys to achieving this will involve using the same technologies within the service provider that their own subscribers are using outside the service or on the very same service itself.


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