One Touch Switching and the Legacy Pandora’s Box

April 12, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

The UK regulator Ofcom has recently faced a battle with British broadband providers. While the details are UK-specific, the issues are ones which many in the industry globally will recognise.

Ofcom recently launched an investigation into the why a process to switch broadband providers has failed to be implemented. One Touch Switching, or OTS, was intended to make it easy for consumers to switch between fibre networks. There was already easy switching between broadband providers that rely on the wholesale Openreach network, but the intention was to simplify switching between fibre owned by different providers and using different technology. Mandated in 2021 it was due to be implemented by April 2023. However, as a piece by Ofcom on April 3 outlined, this had not happened to a meaningful extent. The article notes that:

“Despite extensive public consultation and engagement with industry over a number of years, providers have not met the deadline for launching the new service, and they are yet to give an indication of when they will be ready.”

Ofcom has underlined that they will be imposing penalties for non-compliance.

Recent research conducted on behalf of Vitrifi highlighted that the most common reason for failure to comply was due to a reliance on legacy systems which couldn’t cope. Of those companies preparing to support OTS, more than half were implementing three or more services to enable the switch.

“The UK’s telco sector has been collectively trying to migrate off legacy OSS/BSS systems, but due to complexity has been challenged with the network and cost economics of the changes required,” commented Richard Jeffares, CEO of Vitrifi.

Mobile and Fixed Penalties

The story above might give mobile experts a chance to sit back and smile complacently at the antics of the old-fashioned broadband world. However, there are a few important points underlying this particular market failure which also apply to the mobile ecosystem.

Firstly, the UK was at one point a technically advanced market in a rich economy. Competitors in the country’s broadband market have tried to build best-of-breed solutions. However, with the passage of time the problems of ‘tech sprawl’, and of building solutions to new problems on top of previous investments, have caught up with them.

A heavily-regulated sector doesn’t want to take the risk of rip-and-replacing systems without good cause; nor does it make financial sense to swap out systems and learn new ones before the implementation cost of the previous ones has been amortised. The side effect of these very reasonable approaches is a situation in which new systems build on the old, leaving dependencies on legacy technology, systems and even hardware which may not even be obvious if people with relevant expertise have since left the company. In many networks – for example within banks as well as broadband – there are often servers or pieces of hardware which are just not touched so as to avoid the risk of SNAFU.

Does any of this sound familiar to the mobile industry?

Ironically, the UK’s mobile industry faces a similar challenge in terms of hangovers from legacy systems. The UK was one of the first countries to introduce mobile number portability in the 1990s as a way to make the country’s mobile telecoms environment more competitive. While this is a commonplace today around the world, in the UK the processes for managing the system are the same as they were when introduced. In a recently-published research report, Omnisperience Chief Analyst Teresa Cottam pointed out how this opens the door to an increasing number of problems for the telecoms sector and its customers:

  • The outdated system includes no centralised database of numbers, increasing the scope for identity theft and related fraud.
  • Number portability is managed by bilateral agreements between the service providers, creating inefficient routing of traffic.
  • The system also processes porting for IoT devices. “The CFCA reported in 2021 that only 41% of service providers monitored IoT devices for fraud risks and abuse, but 35% said they had already experienced IoT-based SIM swap attacks,” notes the Omnisperience report.
  • Finally, the system was never designed for the scale of porting we might see as IoT devices proliferate alongside mobile phones. The result of this, unless addressed, could be a restriction on the ability of UK service providers to compete effectively.

The risks to the telecoms community could be severe. A UK parliamentary report on fraud recommended that “corporate criminal liability should be extended to companies that cannot prove due diligence in preventing fraud is similar to the way GDPR makes companies liable for not adequately protecting personal data.”

As Cottam pointed out, “the UK’s existing number portability process is antiquated and vulnerable because it was built for a very different era – long before cybercrime existed at this scale.”

Customer Experience and Legacy

The challenge of legacy systems is liable to intensify as the industry explores the closer integration of broadband and wireless. 3GPP has already spelled out how to perform interworking and traffic aggregation between WiFi and 5G, while side-loading through other technologies such as Bluetooth should help expand networks’ reach beyond the previous orthodoxy. Ultimately there are proposals that future networks should be access-agnostic across broadband, mobile and non-terrestrial networks, but to do this will require a leap forward. There is the option to overlay further systems to mask the underlying complexity; the question is at what point this stops being either cost effective or flexible enough.  

Vitrifi, mentioned above, is a relatively new firm, part of a group owned by energy provider Octopus Energy. In a recent interview with 6GWorld, CEO Richard Jeffares explained that:

“[Octopus has] some fibre assets in Devon and Cornwall, some in Hampshire, some in the Southeast, a little bit around the M25 and the home counties. We wanted to unify them as one common experience and put common tools across the top to make it really self-service and customer experience driven.”

This has led them to develop a tool to transfer and manage customers across different physical fibre networks from scratch. So far Vitrifi has been focussing on enabling customers to switch seamlessly between fibre providers in the UK, something which they needed to solve internally to make their fibre footprint usable. Hence their relationship to the One Touch Switching problem. A veteran of telecoms in Asia Pacific, Jeffares is bringing a different approach to a start-up.

“It looks more like Uber and Facebook in its back room than it does like a telecoms operating environment,” he commented.

“The underlying premise behind all of this is reducing the cost of service in the workload during the initial connection journey, then the transitions into service assurance and operational management of a customer long-term in the life of the customer, the upgrades, the downgrades, the moves the adds, the changes, the eventual disconnection or movement of service.”

However, even here there is frustration at some of the underlying, legacy approaches.

“Telecoms standards have been around for a long time, but in fact a lot of things people think have been standardised are actually just accepted ways of doing things within telecoms – ‘This is how you authenticate a user, that’s how you assign an IP address’,” Jeffares commented.

“But sometimes my Wi-Fi can’t get an address today. Why not? Because the protocol was written in 1984. DCHP works, but it doesn’t work well when you need it to.”

Jeffares gave the example of arriving into the UK at Heathrow airport.

“Your phone doesn’t connect when you’re standing in the baggage hall at Heathrow. Now, is it because the Wi-Fi is toast, or is the cell overloaded, or is it the IP address that couldn’t release to the customers? Were there too many people with unreleased IP addresses because they were in and out of the baggage hall? I don’t know, I’m standing there waiting for my service to work.”

The telecoms world has been struggling with the problem of ‘legacy’ equipment and systems for decades. While it may be a striking coincidence that these particular topics have bubbled up in the UK recently, most markets face similar challenges. The fact is that the role of telecoms, and particularly mobile, in society has changed.

With threatened regulation to crack down on fraud, the industry will have a fresh impetus to revisit some of the assumptions made decades ago. If the industry is going to move away from its current position as a utility provider of voice and data to something more flexible and scalable, it needs to bite the bullet and break out of ‘legacy mode.’

In the USA Verizon tested something like this with sub-brand Visible, a company built with the latest systems available and no legacy. At the time, the thinking was that if everything worked smoothly, the parent company could migrate to the same setup. This has not worked out as planned. Again, processes such as customer activation and customer service have been at the crux of the matter.  

What should the ultimate objective be? Finding ways to deliver a simplicity of experience to mask the complexity of the telecoms environment. As Jeffares puts it, not just a good service delivery but “backing that up with tangible workflows that are completely refined, reduced in instruction, reduced in complexity and fully automated.”

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