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Provisioning, Part II: @Humpty Dumpty Sat On a Wall …

Ask any cable operator what they've been up to lately, and unless you're talking to Time Warner Cable, the words "Excite@Home Corp." will invariably and wearily follow.

The high-speed-data service goes dark for good in about five weeks, which means affiliated MSOs are up to their eyeballs in details and sequence about how to manage the customer transition as painlessly as possible.

The cutovers that must occur before Excite@Home goes dark are complicated — that's an understatement — and they require considerable planning, human resources and cross-departmental cooperation.

In a larger sense, the movement of subscribers from Excite@Home to in-house networks is the biggest provisioning
(translated in the Dec. 17 edition) effort ever undertaken.

To review: The term "provisioning" generally describes how to activate an account for service as automatically as possible. What's different in the case of the Excite@Home mess is the customers themselves: In most cases, they're not new.

But because Excite@Home holds most of the electronic information that represents these users to back-office systems like billing, they must be treated — behind the scenes — as though they are new. They must be re-provisioned, in a sense.

Cutting customers from Excite@Home's spine and grafting them, vertebrae by vertebrae, onto a new, wholly cable spine is just as surgical, bloody and delicate as it sounds. Just ask AT&T Broadband, the first of the MSOs darkened by Excite@Home.

Employees involved in the round-the-clock effort, which spanned the first six days of December 2001, liken it to working in an air-traffic control center or launching the Space Shuttle.

A collective adrenaline rush, similar to what relief workers feel during any major crisis, caused participants to work shifts of 36 hours or longer, then rue ducking away for a nap. @Humpty Dumpty had fallen off the wall, and had to be put back together again.

Thinking through a provisioning project this vast involves at least five categories: 1) The backbone, 2) the regional network, 3) the databases, 4) the coordination with the field, and 5) the internal and external lines of communication.

Provisioning the backbone involves the almost-always dreary task of ordering high-speed circuits — DS-3s, in data parlance, which haul data between the backbone and headends at a zippy 44 mbps. Ordering circuits is dreary in the same way getting tickets to The Producers
is dreary: Insist that you need them tomorrow, and you get laughed at. Getting circuits at all requires dogged persistence. (AT&T Broadband had a somewhat easier time with this part, since daddy owns and operates so many of them.)

In most cases, the backbone lines don't drop right into cable headends. For reasons of economics and logistics, a regional network almost always exists to shuttle traffic from individual headends to the place where the high-speed backbone (the long distance lines) picks up and drops off. That part was always Excite@Home's job, which means it must be redesigned before Feb. 28.

Then there are the databases. Perhaps the surest way to proceed is to secure an up-to-the-minute database replica of Excite@Home's "back-office system," or "BOS." From it, customer information (name, address) and cable-modem information ("MAC," or "Media Access Control" addresses) can be parsed into the billing system. Similarly, electronic mail and login information can be poured into a new e-mail server. That way, customers don't have to create a new login sequence, but instead only have to remember the new domain name (that's the part after the "@" sign).

Constant coordination with field employees is also a critical part of cutover and re-provisioning. It's sort of hard to physically remove the cables from Excite@Home's gear, plug them into the replacement gear and make sure everything works without a few smart people on-site — especially considering that every market cutover almost always involves visiting multiple headends.

Massive methods for communication — both internal and "customer-facing" — are also a big part of re-provisioning former Excite@Home subscribers. Bridge lines, e-mail updates, toll-free lines and instant messages are all useful for the cutover itself. E-mails, snail-mail reminders and phone calls go far in easing subscriber anxiety about the switch.

One of the many useful processes AT&T Broadband created, for example, was a sort of round-robin communication pool among markets. If Dallas cut over on a Monday and San Francisco was next, employees in Dallas and San Francisco got on the phone to talk about what did and didn't work. San Francisco then carried that knowledge forward to the next market, and so on.

In the end, it is possible to put this @Humpty Dumpty together again — but not without triage-type provisioning, planning and coordination.