To understand the need for rapid provisioning and activation, first lets briefly examine the typical processes by which consumers purchase and activate new handsets and data cards, etc.
Consumer Handsets & Data Cards
Purchase at Cellular Stores
The customer gets to the stores and mall locationsusually operated directly by the carrierand checks out the various units on display. Often, there is a line at the storethese are particularly lengthy during holiday season shoppingand the sales personnel make the customer take a number and wait.
When the customer gets to the head of the line, the sales person walks them through the process of selecting a phone or data card, describing and selecting from the available voice and data plans, getting the physical unit from their storage (assuming they have it in stock), taking down all the pertinent billing information, running a credit check, etc., etc.
After this sales process is complete, they start the process of activating the phone using the software provided at the store for this purpose.
This activation step involves reading and entering the relevant serial numberslike the Mobile Equipment Identifier (MEID) for CDMA units, or Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) Integrated Circuit Card ID (ICCID) for GSM unitsinto the system. This is done with bar-code scanners today (although in the not too distant past, these numbers were entered by hand!)
Often, the actual activation can occur an Over The Air (OTA) process. Sometimes, it requires the unit to be plugged into a programming station at the store. Whether OTA or not, this must, of course, all be completed before the customer exits the store, to avoid potential problems with service.
How long does this all take? Many, many, many minutes ... sometimes hours! And (a) the process is not available after store hours and (b) gets much longer in busy timessuch as holiday season.
Purchase at Cellular Carrier Web Sites
The purchasing process at the web sites is surprisingly similar, although it can operate considerably faster (for the initial order placement anyway) for obvious reasons.
Assuming that the customer is reasonably facile with the process and on-line purchasing, they select their phone or data card from a large number of available options, choose from available voice and data plans, enter billing information, credit card information, and place the order.
The Carrier then has some timeusually many hoursto prepare the handset, program the phone information into the system, etc., and ship the handset to the customer.
In most cases, the phone is shipped using overnight delivery and the customer receives the unit after many hours and finalizes the OTA programming. Of course, ordering over a weekend can sometimes increase the shipment time by a day or two, since the carrier provisioning systems are often shut down for many hours on Saturday nights.
How long does this all take? Generally much shorter than a store purchase processparticularly if the customer is web-facile, and knows generally what they want. But, since delivery is not instantaneous, the overall process can be actually be somewhat longer overall.
Of course, the advantages of placing the order from home or a business, using web stores, can make it simpler in most ways.
Accelerating and Delaying Factors
Process Accelerating Factors
Can the customer accelerate the above processes?
Yes, there are scenarios where the above activation processes can be faster. For example, if the customer is simply adding an additional line, or upgrading a phone on an existing service, the steps are simpler and quicker. Credit checks may be shorter ... or not needed at all.
Web site phone upgrades and service additions can be very quickly completedcredit card authorizations are quick.
Multiple new phones and lines, or adding more lines to an existing wireless account, can often be set up relatively quickly too.
However, once again, the phone delivery time cannot be shortened substantially.
Process Delaying Factors
What can delay the processes?
One source of problem: local number portability (LNP). Yes, the carriers have learned to optimize this decently, but migrating a telephones existing Mobile Directory Number (MDN in CDMA and MSISDN in GSM) from one carrier to another can be troublesome.
Sometimes, porting requires manual interventioni.e., a humanto ensure that the number is successfully brought over from the other carrier.
Another source of problem: re-provisioning. If the customer wants to re-provision an older unit, or re-start service after cancelling for more than 30 to 90 days, with the same phone number as before, the process can fail entirely. If that older MDN is no longer available (perhaps because it has been assigned to someone else), it simply cannot be made available.
And, suspending service for some billing periods for a consumer handset or data card? It cannot be done at most Carriers, or, even if possible, the charges can be prohibitive. Some years ago, my wife and son were travelling outside the USA for over a month and I attempted to temporarily suspend their phone services since they could not use their CDMA devices in that other country.
Needless to say, I discovered it was cheaper to let the phones stay unused for that month (both are on a family plan) than pay for them to be temporarily removed from service!
Consumer/Business Units vs. M2M Devices
One To One (One to Few/Many) Relationship
Clearly, one key distinguishing difference is the One to One (occasionally One to Fewwith multiple lines on family plans, for example) business and contractual relationship between a consumer Customer and the Carrier.
Even for companies providing employee handsetsno matter how large the corporate entity (a One to Many relationship)the handset provisioning and activation, issuing to a user, setting account profiles, etc., remains similar. Each activation is generally a separately managed processusually managed by corporate IT personnel, with the Carrier.
One To Thousands Relationship
In M2M Applications, the business and contractual relationship is usually a One to Many Thousandsthe corporation deploying the M2M Application usually deploys many Devices.
With successful Applications, the deployed numbers can reach Tens of Thousands and even Hundreds of Thousands. In time, they have the potential to grow into the millions.
Most importantly, achieving such significant growth for a successful M2M Application requires many hundreds or thousands of new provisioning and activations every day, week and monthround the clock.
M2M Provisioning Performance Requirements
M2M Applications require provisioning performance, and unique billing capabilities, that are not typical for consumer and corporate handsets and data devices. Here are a few of these requirements for a provisioning system:
- Automated factory floor "On-Air" testing of units (when manufactured or installed).
- Support for overseas manufacturing factories and high-volume production lines.
- Sitting in shipping or distribution for uncertain (sometimes lengthy periods)without incurring cost.
- Post-installation, suspending service for seasonal applicationssometimes for monthswithout incurring cost.
The above require special handling and rapid provisioning capability for the customer and their M2M Application.
Lets examine them in a bit more detail.
Automated Factory On-Air Test
Corporations deploying M2M Applications frequently want to test the M2M Device when it is manufactured. Mass-production and installation in the factory can be significantly lower in cost compared to a post-manufacturing install and test method.
Yet, it is important to ensure that the installed unit is functionally normally before the unit leaves the factory floor, since manual touch for faulty Devices once they leave the factory floor can be expensive.
For example, a telematics unit manufacturer may want to test, live on the air, the functions of their unit when it is manufactured (later manual provisioning, installation and testing at the dealer can be too expensive).
High Volume Production
Manufacturers shipping large volumes of M2M Application units require a rapid provisioning capability since they may be relying on tethered Device programming where the numbers are programmed using the serial port of the radio modules.
In conjunction with automated on-air testing, this drives the need for rapid provisioningthe information must be provided in a timely fashion and not slow down the manufacturing line.
Errors in provisioning can lead to failures in factory testing. Thus, accuracy in the provisioning process is also critically important.
Shipping and Distribution
Often, the M2M Device is shipped into distribution where the time it remains in distribution can be quite uncertain. A vehicle may sit on a dealer lot for varying periods before it is sold (and the M2M Device is activated for billing).
Yet, during that inactive period, the network service must be active: for test and demonstration purposes for example. The Device must be ready to be used, without requiring a lengthy or complex process to get service activated.
Temporarily Suspending Services
Seasonal M2M Applications need to disable service and billing when the specific unit is not used for extended periods. For example, water irrigation systems are often turned off in winter months.
This suspension of service generally requires that the monthly billing for that Device be stopped and the Device be disabled from transmitting on the network.
At the end of the suspension period, the Device may be powered on manually or automaticallysubsequent data transmissions must then automatically re-activate billing for the Device on the network.
Aeriss Pioneering Rapid Provisioning System
More than a decade ago, Aeris recognized the need for rapid provisioning of M2M Devices to support the Customer requirements described.
We developed and deployed a radio Device provisioning systemnow called AerAdminthat had simple, yet powerful, concepts and high-performance attributes for our Customers:
- Simple to develop client-side protocols
- High-performance, accurate, rapid provisioning service
- Automated billing activation on usage
- Device suspension and automatic re-activation
- Reserve numbers for cancelled Devices for long periods
These attributes provided a rapid provisioning capability that handily met the requirements for our Customers. Indeed, our human portal for provisioning, called AerPort, also uses the same AerAdmin interface to ensure consistency.
Industry-Standard Interface Protocols
The protocol used for the AerAdmin interface was designed to be standard and extensible from the start: it was XML / SOAP based using a secure HTTPS transport, rather than a proprietary format.
Using industry-standard formats and communication protocols allowed our Customers to rapidly develop and deploy interface clients from their database and other systems. Software engineers can easily understand web protocols such XML and SOAP that are used in Internet Business to Business (B2B) processes.
Connections to the AerAdmin server are set up exactly the way that business expected B2B workflow and process communications on the Internet to work. Access and control to the server is protected using standard firewalls or sent over Virtual Private Network ("VPN") connections for security.
High-Performance Live On-The-Air
Our design target was to be able to provision a device such that it was live, on the air, capable of transmitting data, within 30 seconds from the Customer request. Automatically. Without human intervention.
Our first release of the system achieved this design target handily. Customer Devices were provisioned, and could be used on the Aeris Network, in under 1 second on averageof course, this was a lightly-loaded environment in the beginning.
Over the years, even though Customer use of the interface has expanded dramatically, AerAdmin can provision a Device to be ready for use in 2 to 10 seconds (depending on the specific number that is provisioned). And, we will continue to scale AerAdmin to maintain this performance edge.
Automated Transition from Provision to Active-Billing
The AerAdmin system can monitor data usage from provisioned Devices (that are operationally live on the network) and automatically transition them from a Provisioned state into an Active-Billed state, where they then start incurring monthly service charges.
The monitor functions can include the number of SMS messages sent and received, the number of bytes of packet-data transmissions, the elapsed time since provisioning, the number of days a Device has been powered on continuously, etc.
Seasonal Suspend and Automatic Reactivation
The AerAdmin system can support seasonal M2M Applications (such as agricultural water monitors) that do not need service during off-seasons. Using the AerAdmin interface, Customers can suspend the Devices that are not used during certain months and shut them down using standard Mobile-Terminated data transmissions. Later, the act of powering on the Devices and sending data, automatically re-activates the billing for the Devices when they begin transmitting.
This billing flexibility for such seasonal M2M Applications is essential to achieve a low cost of deployment.
Reserve Numbers for Cancelled Devices
When Aeris M2M Devices are cancelled, quite often, there is a need for reserving the allocated numbers for longer periods than traditional handset Customers. The end-user of our Customer may have terminated service for a while (for example, a security device is not used when an apartment is vacated or a house is sold, or a telematics account in a car is cancelled when a car is sold), but now needs to re-activate service.
For some of our numbers, we can maintain the number reservations for long periods. This enables the Customer to receive the same number as before when the Device is re-provisioned and simplifies their database and device management.
It is clear that M2M Applications and Devices have unique provisioning requirements that are quite different from consumer and business handsets and data card provisioning.
Aeris has optimized the systems for these unique requirements and provides an automated capability that ensures that speed, accuracy, and performance are paramount. This enables the Customers to rapidly provision and deploy units with the full expectation that the units will function on the Aeris Network from the moment that they are turned on.