Monday, September 11, 2017

Musings On Customer Premises Equipment

I spent most of the period 2011 - 2017 building Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) for an Internet and television service provider. CPE gear is equipment which is installed in a customer’s residence/business/etc in order to provide an endpoint for whatever service the provider offers. For an Internet Service Provider this will be things like cable/DSL modems and Wi-Fi routers. For an electric utility, the remotely accessible meter could be considered the CPE. There are very few services which don’t require any sort of equipment on premises.

CPE devices are built very much like other consumer electronics, using the same components and software techniques. The biggest distinction is in the mindset for its development: the device you are building is not the product. The device you are building is an enabler, the actual product is the service being offered. It might seem a minor distinction but, done right, it shouldn’t be minor. It should influence the entire implementation.

For example, comparing consumer electronics built for sale to end-users to CPE devices used by service providers:

  • Devices for retail will build several variants, leveraging the same development and codebase but providing multiple price points for different market segments. They may also have slightly differentiated SKUs for large retailers to not compete directly with each other on price. For a service provider CPE, the incentive is the opposite: just one model to avoid inventory cost and CPE replacement for customers who upgrade. Multiple price points are provided by the service plan, which means the CPE will have capabilities which are not enabled for customers on the lower tier plans.
  • Devices sold to end-users will often cater to power users, as getting good reviews and positive press leads to increased sales in the vastly larger mid-tier market. They will have long lists of features, and try to check as many boxes as possible. For a service provider CPE, obscure features add support costs without attracting much additional market share. The CPE will usually target the 80% point of features which will be widely used. The kind of customer who really wants the power-user features tends to also be the most likely to try to Bring Their Own Device and make minimal use of the provided CPE, anyway.
  • For a CPE device, remote serviceability is a hugely important feature. Ability to resolve a customer escalation without having to send a technician is important for OpEx (Operational Expense). Even if the service provider charges for technician visits, it is at best defraying costs and not enough to incentivize wanting to send techs.
  • Though upfront capital cost is important, the service lifetime of CPE in the field is equally important. The value of CPE devices is in the ongoing service revenue they enable. It makes sense to leave headroom in the initial device to be able to support upgraded services in the future, and is financially preferable to having to retire the device earlier. Retirement either means mass replacement of customer devices, or writing off a portion of the customer base for any future offerings and just leaving them as is.

I found the work on CPE devices to be interesting. I hope to write about a few areas of it.