Jeff Gordon: Operators tend to have disparate systems to
address each service, such as network operations, roaming
and messaging, and so on. Now, Syniverse provides a
simplified way to bring together the data behind these systems
into a single view
Jeff Gordon, the new CEO of Syniverse, shakes his head in dismay. “Most operators struggle with a customer service model that’s still in the 2G era,” he says. “Data is siloed, it’s not necessarily fresh, and it’s not acted upon as quickly as possible.”
Yet the data is readily available: his colleagues at Syniverse know firsthand what is available to imagine what’s possible. “We see all the network traffic, including the roaming data and the SMS data,” he says. “What companies really need is real-time intelligence. Think of the possibilities.”
Gordon has been CEO of Syniverse since the beginning of July, when predecessor Tony Holcombe became vice chairman of the board of directors, but he has been with the company since 2008 and in the industry for more than a quarter of a century.
That history has given him plenty of practical experience of what really goes on in the industry. He helped the company that became Verizon Wireless launch one of the first PCS — personal communications services — networks in the US. “We built up the operation from winning the licence to serving millions of subscribers,” he recalls today.
He’s just spent 60 days visiting 40 of Syniverse’s customers around the world. “It’s an exciting time in the industry,” he says, reporting a huge interest among operators in rolling out 4G networks in the developed and developing world. Operators are enthusiastic about “the video wave”, he reports: “The prospect of 4G wireless right to the home creates a lot of excitement.”
But things could always be better, he says. Networks are complex and customers are expecting them to deliver more and more. “There’s an impatience factor. Customers want real-time engagement. And if something doesn’t work they get upset.”
He’s not criticising his customers — far from it. Rather he sympathises with the challenges they’re facing and he wants to help operators exceed subscribers’ expectations. He knows Syniverse has something to offer them that they haven’t been able to do alone.
“With real-time intelligence we can tell you when the customer has a problem,” he says. “For example, if a customer who is provisioned for international service can’t get service when he steps off a plane, we can detect that; and if you give us the rules, we can fix it — before the subscriber even detects a problem. Turn on the phone and it works wherever you are— that’s what should happen and that’s what Syniverse does.”
The problem is a need for increased investment in and attention to service management, he suggests. Syniverse rolled out a first wave of intelligence solutions in July 2010. The reception from operators has been very good, he says.
“Our intelligence solutions now serve networks with 600-700 million customers and it should be one billion by the end of 2011. We are live in the US, China, Latin America and elsewhere. Many operators are now starting to realize the potential.”
Why is there still some resistance? Two reasons, he says: First, organizations are functionalized — not designed to be customer-centric. Many different units in a company have to be coordinated to aggregate a customer-centric data model, he says.
“There is nobody that will argue with the need for internal collaboration because everyone struggles with the organizational structure.”
Second, Gordon says there have not been solutions to pull all the disparate information together. “Operators tend to have different systems to deliver each service — network operations, roaming, messaging, and so on. Now, we provide a solution that fuses all of them together. We know networks — from SS7 technology up to the IPX backbone. We process millions of messages a day. We know all of the different network types, including CDMA, 2G, 3G and 4G.”
When you gather all the information together the results can be significant. “The finance department can see fluctuations in revenue, spikes and so on.” That may indicate, for example, that there is a problem with one of the operators to which traffic is delivered: “It could mean the service level has degraded or it may mean that there is a potential fraud problem.”
As well as the finance department, the network operations centre, the roaming centre and other departments like marketing and finance will use the centralised information in different ways.
“What we’ve been finding is that when the information is fused together, different parts of the organization want the same alerts with the ability to perform different actions. There is a multiplicity of possible actions, some of them technical, service-related, financial or marketing.”
Alerts provide customer relations staff in operators the chance to address problems before customers have even noticed — and take proactive steps to minimize the potential damage caused by a problem. For example, says Gordon, the system allows an operator to flag its VIP customers and the big enterprises it serves.
“If you get an alert that 20% of those customers are suddenly not able to access text services, you can do something about it immediately.” For a start, you get the problem fixed. Then, if any customers have been affected, you alert them that it has been sorted out.
But it’s not just undoing damage, he says: there’s an opportunity to see where you can sell more services to such customers.
“At the moment in the 3G and 4G world there is a lot of talk about wifi offload, using hotspots to avoid data charges, particularly when people are roaming in foreign countries. That’s particularly a worry when people read newspaper articles about travellers incurring hefty data charges” says Gordon.
So what’s the opportunity? “If you see that one of your customers is roaming in Paris, for example, but is generating only voice revenue and has the data facility turned off, perhaps that’s a sign that they are worried about the bill. You can send them an SMS letting them know the price of data roaming, and telling them that they can set a limit to their data charges and that they will receive a message alerting them when they are getting close to the limit.”
In other words, customers can be educated that the cost of data roaming is less than they might think. And then you can take the next step to customize alerts to the customer’s usage pattern, he says: “If you see that the person is visiting the city a number of times, you can provide a special offer.”
It’s common for customers — even high value customers — to have their data turned off when roaming abroad, says Gordon. “In the industry we call them ‘sleepers’ or ‘zombies’, and they’re a huge loss of potential business.”
Ultimately operators can use this sort of data to identify a group of customers to whom they can offer a new class of service — with features such as faster data transmission rates and reduced latency. “Using this intelligence in context will bring the mobile network operator closer to the customer,” he says. “For the most part, real-time intelligence is the best way they can keep up with their customers’ dynamic needs.
Underlying all this is the fact that the package of services that customers access are a lot more complex than they used to be.
“I came into mobile 16 years ago, at which time the operator represented the promise of mobility, simplicity and interoperability,” he says. “Just about anyone can use the phone. You pick it up and call or text any one of five billion people on the planet. Thanks to interoperability, you don’t have to worry about the device the other person is using, or the network they’re on. No community in the world has been so significant.”
Yet simplicity and interoperability are not always the case for newer services.
“Why isn’t there an IM community in the world that is five billion strong?” he wonders. “There is still this lack of interoperability.”
That just goes to illustrate the potential that mobile operators have with access to actionable data, he notes.
“Now you can be a smart pipe at the centre of the ecosystem that can promote the value that has brought the mobile community so far.”
However, the sort of network intelligence that Syniverse is offering means that operators can take on some of these challenges, he says. The next big one is 4G interoperability, says Gordon.
“As we deploy more and more 4G networks, there will be a greater need for simple interoperability.”
But the challenges will be more complex: not just overcoming compatibility issues between 4G networks, but also determining what happens when customers fall back to 3G networks or wifi hotspots. “You want to do all this seamlessly, and then you will continue to see great growth.”
Services need to be accommodated too — not just voice and text. “You have to think about interoperability problems with over-the-top services. You have multiple providers of different applications and somehow you have to ensure that all of them are compatible across the different delivery mechanisms to ensure a seamless end user experience.”
What’s the real challenge that Gordon and the team he leads at Syniverse see for the future? In a word: video. “How can you convert declining voice revenue into video calling potential?” he asks.
Mobile video telephony has never taken off — despite many attempts — because the calls are limited to a closed group with like standards, networks, device types and mobile providers, but Gordon believes video calling can replace voice calling and become the new norm. He returns to the standard availability of SMS: send a text message to someone and it will get through, regardless of the recipient’s network, mobile provider, or device type. The key to adoption is seamless interoperability.
Yet, as the industry accepts that smartphones will become the norm, even in emerging markets, over the next few years, there is still no universal standard for video calls.
“I’d like a system that works across five billion smartphones around the world. If you have a smartphone, you would be able to place a video call to anyone, anywhere in the world and it would go through. Just like a voice call or a text message today, it’s as simple as that,” says Gordon.
“That’s one of the next big things the mobile industry has to offer, and this represents what 4G is all about. It’s a significant opportunity for growth.”
More than that, “that’s what we do at Syniverse. It’s in our DNA,” he says. “We solve interoperability problems all day long around the globe, between networks, devices, across standards and mobile providers. Simplifying complexity is nature of the business whether it’s pulling together disparate subscriber data through real-time intelligence tools or solving the issue of video interoperability.
“The winners in this industry will be the operators that deliver a real-time customer-centric service and seamless applications that exceed customer expectations every day.” GTB