The weakest link in customer experience, and the network of the future

There's nothing worse than streaming a show that doesn't work

Customer experience issue: can you find the weakest link


On a cloudy Sunday evening last month, a group of us were watching a film at a friend’s house. Our host had purchased the film from a popular online content provider and was streaming it using his Wi-Fi router, laptop and TV. We were all glued to the screen when disaster struck: after approximately an hour, at a key point in the film, the image pixelated. And less than a minute later, it froze…

Reactions in the room were mixed: “there were network issues in the area last week”, “it must be this old laptop”, “a neighbor is using your Wi-Fi”, “we should have opted for {another content provider} as this one recently had datacenter-related service outages”, “this is probably due to Wi-Fi interference”, “time to buy a smart TV”, etc.

To cut a long story short, with the help of a tablet and an Ethernet cable, we found that the issue laid with the router and the Wi-Fi connection. A few seconds later, we were back watching the film.

Although this is a specific example about a fixed-line network and Wi-Fi, it reflects the typical user’s lack of understanding of communication networks – and especially wireless networks. How many times have we blamed the network for suboptimal coverage or data throughput? But when we did so, how certain could we really be that the issues were not handset or device related?

Now, think of the times we praised social media providers and the significance of staying connected while on the move. Surprisingly, we tend to take for granted, if not underestimate, the role of the mobile network in supporting connectivity, despite the dynamic and extremely hostile wireless environment.

Of course, users are not expected to master all the secrets of the network. We just want services to work – anywhere and anytime. It’s that simple. But unfortunately, networks are inherently complex. And while there is scope for making them (appear) simpler, this complexity cannot be ignored.

So let’s take another look at the – relatively simple – online streaming incident, disregarding the TV and TV-laptop connection. The chain of links (including devices) comprises: locally, the laptop, Wi-Fi connection, Wi-Fi router and copper (ADSL) line to the exchange; remotely, the massive transport and core network behind the exchange, and the content provider’s data centers. If anything goes wrong anywhere in this chain, customer experience would be affected. As with any chain, this is as strong as its weakest link.

Perhaps, the network of the future will sort this all out. There is already excitement around 5G, which has been described by NGMN in their 5G White Paper as an “end-to-end ecosystem”. By focusing on interesting use cases – from pervasive video and massive IoT to tactile Internet and ultra-reliable communications – 5G promises to transform the way we live. As part of the 5G vision, the emphasis is on dynamic network resource provisioning and assurance, as well as personalization and (near) real-time contextual information. If the network of the future boasts such capabilities, customer experience issues should be drastically reduced and users may perhaps start receiving feedback on the exact reason (the weakest link) why such issues occur.

Until then, we may sometimes be able to find workarounds, mostly through trial and error, to resolve network and device issues that compromise our experience. Otherwise, there is a well-tested remedy: “patience”!

Interestingly, the film did not live up to our expectations. So, it was the film itself that turned out to be the weakest link in our experience that evening. Perhaps, the network of the future will also be so smart as to prevent customers from accessing content that they would not ultimately like…

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