Software Functionalities Draw SPs To Managed Home Network Space

Melissa Simpler, cofounder & CEO, Affinegy

Melissa Simpler, cofounder & CEO, Affinegy

January 26, 2009 – A growing number of network service providers are quietly moving into the managed home networking space on the strength of an IP device-centric software platform supplied by Austin-based Affinegy.

Designed originally to help service providers overcome the customer service hassles associated with Wi-Fi connectivity of PCs over home LANs the Affinegy InstaLAN platform has evolved to become a multi-faceted tool for enabling and monitoring connectivity of any IP device over wireless and wireline links in the home, says Affinegy cofounder and CEO Melissa Simpler.

Affinegy counts Clearwire, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter
Communications and Mediacom among its publicly identified customers. Unannounced customers include telcos as well, Simpler says.

From the outset, she notes, the solution “eliminated problems by providing a smart profile of the home network and allowing SPs to preferentially manage and implement repairs when issues arose.” Experience over several years of field operations shows SPs can expect a 50 percent reduction in support calls with use of InstaLAN, she says, adding, “The average time for subscriber self-installation of three PCs to on the home network is under 15 minutes.”

In its latest iteration the platform provides messaging support for up-selling and other customer advisories, tracks individual user behavior across all devices and offers a graphic user interface supporting subscriber’s ability to make use of the management system. “Our software can be used to discover and manage any networked IP device in the home – TV, game console, PC, wireless printer, media players, etc.,” she says.

“The Internet is becoming the entertainment network, driving a massive proliferation of devices that are broadband connected,” she continues. “The growing complexity of devices out there with different types of management interfaces and interactions with end users is creating a tremendous opportunity for a player like us to provide the glue that discovers, configures and manages these devices to enable them to provide the content and service experience consumers want.”

A major but unannounced customer that is making use of the full range of capabilities in the Affinegy platform is U.K. MSO Virgin Media, which launched what it calls “Wireless Manager” as a value-add component of its broadband services last year. “The software is going out to virtually all their broadband households,” Simpler says.

While the trend toward multiple PC connectivity in the home and the attendant self installation complexities are adding to customer service headaches across the broadband market, Virgin Media and other SPs are looking beyond the op ex savings as they put the InstaLAN platform in place, she notes. “They’re shifting from op ex cost containment to driving top-line revenue opportunities,” she says. “Fundamentally, the convergence of services over IP backbones is yielding opportunities for service providers to associate their brands with delivering and managing such services, and the home network is the starting point.”

Some Affinegy customers leveraging the platform as a value-add service have seen ARPU (average revenue per unit) go up as much as $60 to $100 per year in broadband households, she says. “They’re successfully charging for it because it’s a big savings to their subscribers compared to the costs of a Geek Squad truck roll,” she notes.

Virgin Media’s top priority in launching its Wireless Manager program is the need to simplify multi-device hookups for customers, including the complexities of security, notes Virgin CTO Howard Watson. The platform allows customer care resources to easily access essential data necessary to addressing end user issues, which speeds resolution, shortens call times and eliminates truck rolls.

“Wireless routers can be complicated to set up and therefore potentially vulnerable to attack,” Watson says. “When considering a solution for our customers we wanted to ensure our broadband users had the highest security available, whilst maintaining the most user-friendly setup process. We think the product we’ve chosen, alongside our handy tips, will give Internet users peace of mind and allow them to enjoy the freedom of wireless in safety.”
The Wireless Manager software is able to detect the Virgin Media router to configure a wireless network and apply all settings automatically, he says. This is done without having to enter complicated network settings. The software allows customers to choose their own user-friendly network name as well as their own password, ensuring there are no ‘default’ settings that can be guessed by potential thieves.

Beyond the technical support, the Affinegy software provides Virgin Media a new marketing window into the home, Simpler says. “Virgin Media is using our software to enable their presence on the desktop,” she explains. “It’s a way to touch subscribers to deliver value-added content or drive bundling take-ups of traditional offerings.”

Use of the platform for marketing new services and up selling to new packages is facilitated by the fact the software runs as a resident application with the SP’s brand on the desktop rather than requiring access through the SP’s portal, she adds. “SPs can dynamically pop messages to the front with new offers, to interconnect subscribers with user forums on topics like getting the most out of digital cameras and to generally promote more frequent interactions with end users,” she says.

In Virgin Media’s case a big up-sell opportunity has to do with the MSO’s launch of 50 megabit-per-second broadband service with implementation of the DOCSIS 3.0 platform. “Our software can be used to convert customers from lower tiers to 3.0 as well as to promote subscriptions,” Simpler says. “It determines whether the LAN node is ready, tells the subscriber they can get the service by clicking yes and then manages the transition across all the devices.”

The bottleneck, she adds, is that capacity available over home Wi-Fi networks based on the 802.11b and g standards “is almost at a saturation point.” Affinegy is upgrading its software to work with the new higher speed 802.11n standard, which will facilitate use of DOCSIS 3.0 over home networks, she says.

A big focus for the year ahead will be Affinegy’s support for customer implementations of the latest version of the Affinegy Management Portal (AMP) software, which is the SP-facing control component of the platform accessed through the AMP dashboard. “Because we have intelligence about what’s connected to the home network, we feed telemetry data about that to the service provider’s headend through the AMP portal, which allows them to better target up-sell opportunities,” Simpler says.

AMP delivers rich consumer intelligence and network performance visibility to broadband service providers, allowing them to gain comprehensive insight into key configuration, asset, performance and fault information, she says. This visibility spans wired and wireless network devices, including retail and custom hardware.

“We have the ability to manage these non-PC devices from the PC without having to embed software in the devices,” she continues. “We support OEM (original equipment manufacturer) retail-supplied as well as legacy SP-supplied gear. Anything that has a LAN side management capability, typically performed by a little embedded Web server in the device, is something we can learn and automatically add to our library to utilize the full feature set of what our software does.”

These capabilities mean that older equipment, such as retail-purchased routers, can be linked into the management system via software downloads, she adds. “The software doesn’t just depend on the CD used with a new hookup,” she says.

Affinegy’s other cofounder and CTO Art Lancaster describes the latest AMP version as a breakthrough product. “For the first time, service providers can see the subscriber service experience for the individual user, not just for the household,” Lancaster says. “No longer will the home router block service providers from viewing the information needed to deliver comprehensive support. Our service provider customers will find that support personnel can learn and begin using it the day it is deployed.

AMP is a Web-browser accessible, secure, hosted solution that is easily integrated with existing support toolsets, he adds. Future versions now in development will add functionality in the areas of remote diagnostics, control and resolution.

Another advance in the Affinegy platform is the user interface that expands the subscriber’s ability to use the system to manage their home networks “One of things we provide is a very intuitive, highly graphical user experience to describe what the home network looks like and what resources are available to be shared in that network,” Simpler says. “So in addition to the layer of automated network management and security robustness there’s a layer of how the network gets used that is the applications experience. This part is relatively new, but it’s something going into SP deployments now.”

Affinegy anticipates significant growth ahead as ever more SPs move into the managed home networking space. “SPs are definitely seeing this home network layer as something they need to get in place,” Simpler comments. “Universally our customers are looking to have an application that is extremely intuitive and responds to everyday users’ pain points like sharing files or connecting to hot spots. Wrapping their brand around our software to enable all those things to work also provides a utility that consumers can go back to when they buy their digital cameras or when they want to use the SP’s picture-sharing service or its home security monitoring service.”