Consumers are loading up their home networks with eclectic combinations of multiple vendors' devices that run on various operating systems. Sometimes, the only common theme is the WiFi humming between each piece of gear.
Regardless of the bandwidth load or conflicts between disparate products, subscribers often turn first to their home-network provider if problems arise. With little or no insight into what's running on the network, operators rely on costly truck rolls for customer service, looking to transform consumers from needlessly angry at their broadband operators into satisfied subscribers.
Simultaneously, operators want to open the door wider to opportunities: Already well-known locally, providers seek new ways to cement relationships and build ongoing revenue streams through smart-home offerings -- installation, cloud-based subscriptions and even products, in some cases. Without insight into the network, however, supporting these customers is costly, both financially and from a brand reputation perspective.
When Broadband Forum released Open Broadband - User Services Platform (USP) Agent (OB-USP Agent) in May 2019, the organization designed the code to give vendors and operators a future-proof, open and interoperable basis they then can use to create and accelerate connected-home deployments.
OB-USP-Agent is the latest development to Broadband Forum's User Services Platform (USP) aka TR-369, the evolution of its popular TR-069 standard. Broadband Forum’s open source OB-USP-Agent accelerates the ability to remotely monitor, analyze, manage and control virtually any broadband-enabled home network device.
Bringing Set-Tops Under Control
With USP and OB-USP-Agent, operators can finally fully control set-top boxes and analyze the data they generate, says John Blackford of the Broadband Forum and CommScope.
With OB-USP-Agent, vendors' and service providers' software engineers can add control and management capabilities to devices such as set-top boxes, WiFi access points and IoT devices, for more seamless, accelerated integration into a home network. Because the device capabilities are defined within a data model, development of both the Broadband Forum standard data models and device software is much faster; in fact, the Broadband Forum can produce a new version of the Device:2 root data model in as little as six months, said John Blackford, co-director of the Broadband User Services (BUS) work area at Broadband Forum, OB-USP-Agent project leader and product management director at CommScope, in a phone call with Broadband World News.
"We started with a set of building blocks for modeling IoT devices," he said. "Now, we're at the point of modeling the basic concepts, like sensors and controls. For example, on a ceiling fan, you'd have a fan 'control' that allows the user to set the speed to high, medium or low. We can use specific combinations of these controls and sensors to model most existing IoT devices."
Some vendors are buying into the idea. In July, Friendly Technologies -- which develops carrier-class platforms for IoT, smart home and TR-069 management -- launched a user service platform based on TR-369, and QA Cafe began offering training on the platform. Others supporting TR-369 include CommScope-Arris, Domos and Plume.
USP represents a significant change for the industry, with a standardized protocol for managing, monitoring, upgrading and controlling connected devices, said Ilan Migdal, CEO of Friendly Technologies, in a statement. As subscribers add more and more devices to their smart-home networks, management and visibility are imperative, he said.
With USP and USP Agent, authorized personnel -- such as service providers, family members, corporate IT departments or consumer electronics developers -- can securely manage connected devices, upgrade systems and onboard new equipment from multiple vendors. In addition, they can monitor the smart-home network without rolling trucks. This obviously reduces providers' opex costs; it also allows providers to monitor and vastly improve quality of experience for residential customers, CommScope's Blackford noted.
"I see a lot of newer devices that are becoming prevalent and operators want them to come under remote management," he added. "Set-top boxes specifically are always the ones that have been out there on the fringe, kind-of managed, but now people really want to put them under remote management and analyze the data to make sure the quality of experience is really being met. That's where we're seeing a lot of pick-up in USP deployments."
USP Agent also adds an always-on capacity to connected devices. Unlike TR-069, which required some tweaking and must be turned on to connect, USP has a native always-on feature. In itself, this creates business use-cases in areas like self-service and technical support by reducing the time agents take to answer questions, Blackford said. If each call takes four to five seconds less to answer, backlogs rapidly shrink and respondents are more productive, making customers are less frustrated, he noted.
The Key to Opening Smart Homes
Open, standardized platforms and tools are the fastest way for operators to unlock the connected-home opportunity, says Broadband Forum Chairman Robin Mersh.
Added Robin Mersh, Broadband Forum chairman: "This idea of managed, smart-home services is something operators are talking about. If we arm vendors with an open, standards-based, holistic solution, USP is going to find its way into a lot of RFPs."
Indeed, some operators already are including the standard in their requests for proposal, CommScope's Blackford said. One driver is USP's always-on communication channel which takes seconds off each customer service representative's interaction, improving support and subscriber experience, he said.
Standards are now standard
Operators and vendors recognize standards and interoperability accelerates customer adoption by removing uncertainty. Standards also trim the costs associated with supporting multiple platforms. Broadband Forum saw membership surge this year; many additions came from the consumer-electronics and smart-home IoT arenas, said Mersh. USP and OB-USP-Agent give manufacturers the tools they need to develop the products they want to design for residential customers and make their products attractive to operators that can sell, support and maintain them as part of a living, growing home network, he said.
"Vendors and operators are plugged in to the ability to open up the smart home market," Mersh said. "People have historically tried to do it with TR-069, and it's not that they couldn't do it because there are installations out there that used TR-069 that have delivered some pretty thorough smart-home solutions, but it was pretty difficult. Now, they can easily add USP into their product portfolio, because that's the way we designed it… we used the data models to smooth that migration."
Early interest in USP comes from operators and vendors experienced with TR-069, as well as smart-home developers. The combination of demand for open standards-based solutions and a market hungry for connected-homes, plus operators seeking revenue-generating opportunities, puts pressure on participating companies to get USP and USP Agent done right, Blackford said. Everything is moving a lot faster than it did for predecessor TR-069, executives agreed.
TR-069 adoption was steady but slow, said Geoff Burke, Broadband Forum chief marketing officer. "It took 15 years for the billionth home enabled by TR-069 to be installed," Geoff Burke, Broadband Forum chief marketing officer, told BBWN. "Nobody involved in USP expects a similar timeline given the urgency of the connected home opportunity -- given what we've learned from the ramping of TR-069 and now with the advent of open source and tools like OB-USP-Agent, adoption will be much faster."
Service provider acceptance, then demand, for non-proprietary, open source and standards-based solutions took over as cable and telco industries matured over a decade. With global players like Google, Amazon and Apple already trying to capture the opportunity of the smart home for themselves, lack of a cable- and telco-focused open standard focused on the needs of the IoT era could barricade smart homes from the industry if they don't act fast. USP and OB-USP-Agent aim to retain that smart home opportunity for operators.
Residential customers' desire to run best-of-breed devices -- perhaps Amazon Alexa, ADT security, Bose speakers, plus a Samsung smart fridge, Nest thermostat and Sleep Number smart bed -- across their home network may hurt the performance of providers' networks and any of their combination of fiber, DOCSIS, fixed wireless access, coax or HFC if not managed properly.
Support in a world without standards or interoperability, one where broadband customers contact providers, is today's reality. For operators to turn opportunities into realities and for consumers to avoid lock-in from electronics vendors or alternative suppliers, smart-home networks require interoperable monitoring tools based on open standards.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.