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  • Guest: Greg Aston

  • Company: ETI ACS and Device Management Solutions

  • The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

    Brad:

    Welcome to The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host today, Brad Hine. Joining us is Greg Aston, Product Director for ACS and Device Management Solutions for ETI Software.

    Brad:

    I know you have quite an extensive history in device management, and in software product management, and telecommunications in the IOT realm. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started with those types of solutions?

    Greg:

    The story goes back probably 12 years or so. I started working for a company who were doing outsourcing work for British Telecom. We were providing a lot of the testing and professional services for British Telecom, all relating to device management. They were one of the first to adopt a protocol called TR-069, which is all about remote device management. That magical box in the home that gives you your Wi-Fi and your internet connection, all of that type of thing. They were one of the first to adopt that protocol for managing those devices.

    Greg:

    We were working day in day out as users of that and consumers of a platform that was doing all of that work. That started my career path from there.  That got me really thinking about device management and what that meant for ISPs, and applying what I learned as a user then, to take that and help ISPs with it. That’s pretty much been my journey. And these days, looking after that ACS product for ETI.

    ACS – Auto Configuration Server

    Brad:

    ACS stands for auto configuration server and that is an industry platform type?

    Greg:

    Yes.  You’ll have to stop me as we go on, because I’m probably going to throw all sorts of acronyms, being that telecom is a world of mysterious and overlapping acronyms. But yes, ACS, auto configurations server, which is a pretty good descriptor of what it was intended for. So the big use case for most people is wanting to get devices and services configured in people’s homes, and that’s really what it does. So devices come in and they get all their config and set up. And when we say TR-069, the TR is technical report, from a standards body called Broadband Forum.  There’s all of these technical reports and anyone who’s slightly familiar with this will have heard all sorts of different numbers like TR-181 and 143, but they all fall under the remit of this overall TR-069 protocol that they set out.

    Brad:

    You weren’t lying with the acronym comment, then.  TR-069 is a standard protocol then in the industry to remotely connect to a device and manage it. What exactly happens at that point?

    Greg:

    It’s all about taking all of the manual stuff that you used to go on in terms of day one setup and provisioning of devices – back in the day, people would have to “flash” individual devices before they shipped them to customers, or it would all be people on site doing installs, having to set up devices. The idea was to make that as automated as possible, to allow you to put generic devices in everyone’s homes, and let the software then do all the magic of setting that up. So you get your new internet installed, and that device comes in and talks to the platform, and then I can identify, “Okay, this is Brad’s device. Brad has these services, he has voice and video and all of these things that might need configuration,” and go and get all of that stuff put on.

    Greg:

    But there’s no need for any user interaction. That extends to support as well. So in life, you call and you’ve got an issue that you need some configuration change for, or you change your services. And again, all just remotely, we talk to the device, set up everything that it needs, and then could monitor it and make sure that it’s happy and providing you good service going forward.

    Brad:

    The part of that acronym, ACS, auto configuration, means that you can set automated thresholds or data marks where certain things would happen if you’re reading certain metrics from the system?

    Greg:

    Absolutely. The big value that it brings to a lot of ISPs is that business logic side, that ability to have all of these workflows prebuilt and ready to go so that I can get information from your device and then react and respond to the state of your device, as well as doing all of that day one setup stuff as well. All of that unique stuff that I’m going to go in and provision to your device – that’s really the name of the game.

    Remote Device Management

    Brad:

    Now we’ve added that layer, that you described earlier, of remote management. This would be a big benefit for operational teams trying to manage devices from a central office. Can you explain that?

    Greg:

    We tend to touch on many different areas of an ISP’s business. Operational is a big part of it in terms of just keeping the servers up and running and healthy for customers. And then the support side is a big factor in it. The idea that you’re going to call up with an issue and say, “Oh, my Wi-Fi isn’t working,” or whatever it might be. Then providing the tools to an ISP so they can remotely sort all of that out. That’s really helpful on the support side.

    Greg:

    But we also deal with things like sales and marketing as well.  For example, looking at performance of devices in certain areas, capacity, and that type of thing so that an ISP can go out and target an area where there’s capacity available, or where they see certain patterns in customer usage. The operational side is very much sort of the day to day of what the ACS does. But there’s a lot more of what you can do in terms of pulling the data out and all of the analysis and analytics that go along with that.

    Reducing Operational Costs, Increasing ROI with ACS and Data Analytics

    Brad:

    This must have a great impact on operational costs, and even cost reduction, and more favorable ROIs t for a service provider.

    Greg:

    Absolutely. Again, support is a big one. The idea that you don’t have to have support users trained to use multiple systems. You’ve got a one stop shop for all of the devices in the customer home, so you just need to train your users to use this one platform and then they can interact with anything that might be out there in a very standardized way, is a big thing. And then getting the people in the field, the actual techs who are out there, doing more of the installation stuff they need to be doing, and taking a lot of the legwork out of the configuration side for them. And get them fixing infrastructure rather than having to spend all of their time at the customer premise can make a real difference for an ISP. It’s a real cost saver today for a lot of ISPs out there.

    Network Agnostic Device Configuration and Management

    Brad:

    You talked a little about a technology. I’m sure there are different devices that can run a standard such as TR-069 now. Specifically the networks that these would run on, is there a specific network or types, or is it varied?

    Greg:

    It’s incredibly varied. As an ACS server, from that perspective, it really doesn’t care what kind of network the device is on. It could be on a DSL network, fiber network, cable network, mobile network…as long as the device has an IP address, because all of the communication is just done via HTTP, just the same as web browsing and all of that type of thing. So it’s nice and straight forward for that traffic to get to the server and those communications to happen. And in terms of what we can do with a device, that’s all defined by the device itself. There’s this TR-069 client that’s running on the device itself that we’re communicating with and leveraging, and that defines the scope of what we can do. And then we can really do that on any network and any device that has TR-069 support.  In the telecom world there’s a million different equipment vendors, large and small out there.

    Greg:

    And a lot of ISPs, especially those who have got any kind of legacy “real estate”, they have this plethora of devices. So, bringing those all onto a single platform where you can deal with all of this sort of disparate stuff in a common way is really, really helpful. That’s a really big part of what we do.

    Brad:

    It sounds like the standard just levels the playing field.  Any technology, any device on any type of network, as long as there are certain standards that allow you to connect to that device, and then aggregating that all under one centrally managed system. That sounds like a massive benefit for a service provider.

    TR-069 Standard Based Centrally Managed Device System

    Greg:

    The TR-069 support in devices is very, very widespread. In fact, you’re kind of hard pressed to find devices that don’t support it. Going back to the history of British Telecom, and there was, I think it was AT&T in the US, who got on board with this very, very early. Because they, around 10 years ago, mandated that this needs to be a standard part of the home premise equipment that they buy, it really just became a baked in part of the firmware for most manufacturers. So as part of their standard firmware that they put on any device, this level of support is included. It’s pretty ubiquitous at this point and means that we can work with an incredibly broad range of vendors and individual devices.

    Brad:

    Let’s take this into a context of today. Clearly we are in the middle of a world pandemic where there are challenges that we didn’t have before. Before we could say remote management is probably about cost savings. Now there’s a risk involved if you don’t manage remotely and actually have to take trips or have manual processes regarding your subscribers. What would you say with some of the surge in the network traffic today due to COVID-19? What are some of the challenges and maybe some of the solutions?

    Remote Device Installation & Management Critical for Safety During Pandemic

    Greg:

    It’s really interesting right now. A lot of our customers are using our platform even more intensively than they have previously. And like you say, not wanting to have to send people onto customer sites, and all of the social distancing measures, and trying to do as much of that as possible is a really big thing. A lot of the call centers ISPs are incredibly strained right now. So in a lot of the world the networks are very highly developed. So in terms of the traffic, there is a lot more traffic than usual. I think the number that seems to be thrown around everywhere to a 40% increase on the averages of traffic, especially daytime traffic, but there’s still a lot of capacity there, and networks are generally coping quite well with the additional traffic that’s going on.

    Greg:

    There’s a lot going on at call centers. I saw that Vodafone in the UK, has just hired another 500 support staff because all of the issues that might be going on with the device in the home, or just the service in the home in general.  These are really magnified at this point because people are just online all day and impacted for work and education – really vital things like this. So, this ability to do remote management, and make changes remotely, and also just be practical about monitoring things is a really big factor. It’s become a focal point.

    Greg:

    Especially with a lot of our existing customers, we’re seeing them come in with a lot of different questions and see what they can do around that. In Spain, they’ve got a fairly open access model, so it’s quite easy to move between providers, and you don’t have to have someone come out or anything like that. But they’re blocking people moving between ISPs just to avoid that strain on call centers. That whole support side is really, really, really in focus at this point, and is a big focal point for us as well.

    Brad:

    I was thinking that, with the change in environment, and work from home patterns, that peak performance times where residential uptime and connectivity would probably be higher after 6:00 or 7:00 at night when people would get home from work and school. Clearly that’s leveled now. There’s a requirement change now because it’s 24/7.

    Greg:

    In the UK, the thing that we used as sort of the high watermark for online traffic, was over the Christmas period. You have everyone home, and Amazon was showing the soccer, Premier League soccer, and that caused incredibly high network traffic, and that’s the comparison that’s being used for what’s going on right now. So it’s like the few days where that happened spread over the course of weeks at this point. So, it’s an incredibly intense time for ISPs. But they generally seem to be coping well. It’s really just that avoidance of site visits that’s the big thing right now.

    Brad:

    Especially in this environment with the risk that we talked about is involved, remote processes like installation are a must at this point.  There’s really no other option than to just be savvier with remote connectivity into those devices. But I want to make a distinction also, you mentioned networks and different types of networks as opposed to in home devices. Is there a difference in the data that’s coming from a particular network as opposed to an in-home device that your products would necessarily be more attentive to?

    WISP Device Management & Monitoring

    Greg:

    There are key metrics of performance on different types of networks, and linking in with your previous question as well, in certain areas it’s really easy to move between different providers remotely. In places where you’ve got open access networks, which are generally fixed-line new fiber networks where there’s multiple different ISPs providing service through the infrastructure, you can do a fully remote installation. You can send someone a device in the mail, they just plug it in, and again you can do all of that configuration and then begin monitoring all of that WAN internet connection side of things in terms of performance. That ability is quite limited in the US especially, due to the small footprint of those open access networks. In a lot of places the line to your home is from a particular ISP, so you can’t easily jump between vendors without someone having to come on site.

    Greg:

    That is where we do a lot of work with wireless internet service providers. When what you’re talking about in terms of the data and the metrics that are collected, in the case of wireless, that is even more demanding than it is on a fixed-line network because things are so variable. There’s so many different environmental factors. Say that I’ve got a wireless network and you live within the area that I cover, I can send you a device in the mail and you can just plug it in and try and get online. But the actual towers that are providing the cellular coverage, there’s a lot of very finicky setup that need to go on with those. And especially as we were coming into spring right now, and there’s leaf cover on trees and things like this. These are all things that impact wireless performance.

    Greg:

    There’s a huge demand right now from all of these wireless ISPs, a lot of which cover very underserved parts, especially the rural US, for all of this monitoring. We’re collecting all of the radio stats and the performance stats from each individual device and then doing a lot of aggregation of that, so people can get a more overall view of the health of their network and their footprint. There’s a range of different stats that are useful for saying whether things are good or bad on different types of network. Wireless, is really important in the US right now, but it needs that extra level of monitoring and babysitting to make sure that you’re providing consistent service to people. That’s been a really big thing for us.

    5G Impact on Device Management & Monitoring

    Brad:

    In terms of the wireless environment, currently 4G and LTE connectivity, and moving into 5G. Do some of the same challenges still exist moving into a more powerful 5G network?

    Greg:

    It’s probably even greater demands of the same type when it comes to 5G. 5G is a very broad thing and there’s a lot of different things that sit under that umbrella, some of which is even more finicky to work with and more delicate, so it needs more monitoring. It’s interesting because this was meant to be the year of 5G, and there was going to be a huge rollout, and right now there was going to be a lot of activity in terms of getting infrastructure in place to provide 5G access to different areas, and that’s simply not happening. Where 2020 was meant to be the year of 5G, it’s more likely to be 2021 at this point, and that’s probably a positive way to look at it.  It’s something that’s going to require even closer monitoring to ensure high quality of service in all of the cases. That’s something that we’re keeping a very, very close eye on.

    Brad:

    You’ve done this for well over a decade now.  What continues to keep you interested and curious about a business such as this in a platform with which you work with?

    Passion to Keep People Connected Especially Now

    Greg:

    It’s the connectivity. I think seeing how important internet connectivity is to everyone right now, and the fact that it is a utility at this point, that must be the way that everyone looks at it after this. It should have really been how everyone’s been looking at it for a while.  I was reading some stats that there’s about 20 million Americans who don’t have broadband at this point. You think in a situation like this, how important that connectivity is and how we’re all using it all day every day – to be part of that world is really important to me. I find that a real motivating factor to be in the broadband world and to try and contribute to that.

    Greg:

    This current situation has really brought into sharp focus that this is something that people need, and that focus will probably continue following the current crisis that we have.  As the way that people work, the way that people communicate, all of these things will probably be different because people have adapted to this situation. Things like remote working might become more commonplace and more standard than it has been. It’s just going to require all of this infrastructure and a good level of service to be provided to people all over the world. I find that a real strong motivator to be involved in this area.

    Brad:

    I believe we’re going through a paradigm shift in terms of how we communicate and where we communicate from. It’s interesting how internet connectivity, and especially immediate access to world news, has become a priority even over some of our current utilities that we pay for through our municipalities these days. It would make total sense that that would be a utility at this point moving forward.

    Greg:

    That’s certainly a priority – getting all of the news. Especially in the US where you’ve got various different things going on in different states, getting all of that information out to people and making sure people are aware of what they need to know is vital. I think it’s probably just brought into focus some of the stuff that we take for granted when it comes to communications. Hopefully this will drive things on. And you think about maybe some parts of the developing world where there’s still predominantly 2G, 3G, and how important it is to bring high speed internet to everyone around the world and provide that level of connection for everyone. Even in rural US where there’s a surprising amount of people without high speed connectivity, it’s just going to become something that everyone’s going to be laser focused on moving forward.

    Brad:

    Seeing this change that we’ve been talking about in our world, because you and I can both speak from the side of the subscriber, we just want uptime. We want to constantly be connected. We don’t ever want it to go away. And we would hope that if that connectivity’s ever threatened that it gets fixed in some, we’ll say proactive way, so we never have to experience downtime.

    Greg:

    The bar for what’s a good internet connection, the watermark for that, is forever rising. We’ve all got our 4K TVs and things like this, and we expect that high level of Netflix, or whatever your streaming service of choice is, to be providing very high-quality services to you at all times. That needs infrastructure, and that needs fiber rollouts, and all your 4G, 5G cell tower infrastructure. All of this stuff needs to be there and in place, and constantly monitored to make sure that people can get that level of service. And it’s not just a magical thing that happens, there’s a lot of work that goes into making all of this happen.

    Brad:

    How can folks learn more about you?

    Learn More

    Greg:

    You can contact me directly at gaston@etisoftware.com and I will get back to you or check out our website to get more details on our device management and monitoring solutions.

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