When the first ISPs started offering services to customers, the main features were web browsing, file transfer, email and news group access. Most of the internet content came from the US and the main access platform was dial-up through modems. Often, the ISP’s biggest headache was maintaining the large banks of modems used to allow customer access. Security issues such as viruses and worms were almost unheard of and since the dial-up lines provided a natural control on the maximum through-put of the customer’s internet connection, poor performance issues happily went unnoticed or were accepted as the norm.
The services demanded by today’s internet consumer are very different, resulting in new network management challenges for ISPs, requiring different approaches. ISPs are now expected to provide high-speed internet access via broadband for real-time applications such as VoIP, gaming and video streaming. Minor problems that were tolerated with dial-up access are no longer acceptable as they can significantly affect the performance of real-time applications. Delays in upload and download times combined with poor customer service result in dissatisfied customers turning to other ISPs for their broadband needs.
The customer churn that has now become a characteristic of the broadband market represents diminishing average revenue per user (ARPU) as ISPs focus on attracting new customers with deals and benefits that reduce their already low margins. ISPs are trying to build revenues by providing more than just connectivity, offering a range of higher margin services such as VoIP or IPTV. However, performance problems with these higher value offerings are far more noticeable and have a greater effect on customer experience.
ISPs need to accept that issues will arise, and address these as quickly and painlessly as possible for the customer. The real problem here is a lack of visibility and control. It is vital that ISPs increase the visibility of their customers’ experience if they want to improve the service being consumed. By doing so, they can recognise when there is little or no internet service available to the customer.
When a resolution to the problem is not so quickly found, being able to spot performance problems quickly will at least enable the ISP to approach the customer and reassure them that they are aware of the situation and are addressing it.
Visibility also offers ISPs benefits beyond those around trouble-shooting. The increased level of understanding of the dynamics and use-model of customers improves the ISP’s chances of successfully up- or cross-selling services, increasing potential margins. So in effect, not only is visibility needed to respond to any problems that occur in the delivery of highly sensitive voice or video real-time applications; but the insight gained can help ISPs sell these higher-margin offerings, significantly increasing ARPU.
Ultimately, visibility gives ISPs greater control so they can determine how best to manage and advance the networks and services offered to clients. This approach can help ISPs emphasise that they are not only providing a commodity product, but an internet service.
Michael Allen is director of service management at enterprise software and IT services provider Compuware