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Reliable number management in a complex telecoms world

Numbering resources are a key asset to wireless telecoms operators. Yet they can also become a liability if not managed properly. Number management is now more complicated than ever due to the impact of local number portability activity, complex service offerings from providers that might include both mobile and fixed-line numbers and increased reporting needs to meet regulatory requirements.

Managing the number inventory accurately is a challenging and critical requirement for all operators. The operator needs to keep track of what numbers it has been assigned by the regulator and what numbers it has assigned to customers. It must also ensure that it never runs out of numbers, never allocates an already active number to another user, always makes effective use of its assigned number ranges and perhaps most importantly of all, proves that it is doing all this to the regulator.

Poor management can lead to inventory quality concerns, multiple assignments of the same number, and complex multi-system data synchronisation difficulties. In turn, this is likely to result in unhappy customers, who may then leave and an unhappy regulator who may not provide extra numbers and may even impose a fine or another form of sanction as a penalty.

Changing Challenges

To add to operator’s worries, the number management challenge they are facing has grown dramatically over time. A decade ago, they were mainly concerned with acquiring numbers, allocating them and then reporting their utilisation to the regulatory authorities. Operators had to show ‘true need’ every time they ordered numbers and if they could not demonstrate to the regulators that they were using the relevant numbers within a specified time-period they were forced to return them. The challenge for operators was understanding and reporting the utilisation of numbers across a range of regional business centres.  It was a complex requirement but, even so, many operators tried to accommodate it through bespoke systems or by customising existing solutions.

Today, as demand continues to grow, the management of phone numbers and associated resources has become more complex. The need for a combination of usage monitoring and accurate reporting is still key for most operators, especially as emerging regions become more stringent about how numbers are managed and allocated.

However, we are now also seeing growing interest from operators in better understanding and managing the lifecycle of individual numbers so that when a customer leaves they can more effectively manage the reallocation of the number they leave behind. This capability is becoming increasingly important in wireless communications, where numbers must always be available to support rapid allocation and ultimately the expansion and growth of the operator’s footprint. Further, ensuring a number is ‘clean’ before assigning it to a customer is ever more important but difficult to achieve as number inventory is often dispersed across multiple CRM and billing systems.

Making the challenge still more complicated, users in many countries often purchase a new SIM card when the previous pre-paid balance is used up, leading to significant growth in the volume of number churn. Increasingly too, the dynamic growth in machine-to-machine wireless services both increases the demand for new phone numbers and makes their management more complex.

Without an effective number management approach, operators invariably find that when they look to activate subscribers there is either no number available or the number they try to allocate is already assigned to an existing customer. Typically, this makes it difficult to provision a particular service to the customer, leading to the loss of business and ultimately competitive edge.

The challenges facing operators are further compounded by a related number management concern – the need to manage other number-oriented resources in line with the diversification of the sector. Today, SIM cards, and the MSISDN and IMSI numbers associated with them all need to be dealt with effectively. And this relates both to provisioning and the additional resources required to activate a wireless subscriber.

As they grew their wireless subscriber base, operators began to realise that when they activated a new subscriber they did not just require the right telephone number for a specific region, they also needed to manage the allocation of the corresponding SIM and IMSI needed to activate the relevant handset. Just as importantly, all of these numbers would have to be managed efficiently from initial receipt to activation, provisioning and then through the complete customer lifecycle.

Issues with the Legacy Approach

So, how effectively have operators overcome these challenges so far? Historically, they have taken one of two approaches. Some operators decided to use their in-house IT team to create their own internal system while others have preferred to extend the functionality of existing third party-provided billing or network systems to cover the requirement.

Unfortunately, with both of these approaches, there are issues with scalability and flexibility. Both methods tend to be error prone and work intensive. Often, both will fail to handle large volumes of telephone numbers effectively and both struggle to manage the requirement to continuously activate new numbering resources on the network. Such systems will also typically neglect the need to efficiently manage the numbering resource lifecycle.

As communications services have steadily evolved, operators have become more aware of the difficulties of expanding their capabilities associated with management of numbering resources.  The inability to manage resources by a variety of states and combinations also raises significant challenges for those operators wishing to market new innovative services. For example, an emerging practice is to reserve and price numbers based upon business value. With legacy systems, it is often difficult for operators to search numbers by patterns and then either pre-provision them or set them aside to be allocated later.

The Next Generation

So, with legacy systems failing to deliver the necessary functionality to handle their increasingly complex needs, operators are now looking towards a new generation of number management solutions, which enable them to enjoy the business benefits of expanded and flexible resource management on cost-effective computing platforms.

The best of these solutions expand core capability in several key areas. They are capable, for example, of handling the standard need to categorise and store numbers and manage their state proactively throughout the lifecycle. In turn, this capability allows operators to more accurately monitor and understand number allocation and create and submit the requisite reports to meet any business or regulatory need.

The best of these solutions have also evolved to the point where they allow operators to define their own number states – ‘active’, ‘inactive’, or ‘pending activation’, for example – and then track and monitor those states across the lifecycle.

Managing Complexity and Delivering Efficiency

To be effective, today’s number management solutions must translate complexity into straightforward solutions delivery. They must support a single number inventory source for all types of numbering resources such as mobile, fixed line and VoIP, for example. Equally, they must provide extensive yet simplified integration support for multiple and diverse systems such as billing, network, and number portability through service oriented architectures.

For efficient management of numbering resource inventories, it is important to consider the ability to gather and react to information through near real-time updates, process automation and the flexibility to handle difficult exception scenarios. The most sophisticated solutions are beginning to incorporate key functions that can significantly improve number management efficiency.

Typically, these new capabilities include inventory dashboards that provide number administrators with up-to-date utilisation calculations and forecasts for all markets and regions, the ability to create custom rules to ensure number inventory never empties of available numbers and automated utilisation notifications that allow operators to find out about number shortages before they become an issue.

Into the Future

Today’s operators are increasingly demanding open, centralised number management systems with the necessary scalability and flexibility to allow them to store, assign and track their mobile number inventories.  By using the latest number management systems, operators can not only make sure that they better manage their number-related inventory but also that they have the numbers they need to meet customer demand, which today is becoming ever more difficult to predict.

Greg Council is group product manager, numbering solutions, at Evolving Systems


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