The Internet can be used for more than electronic payment and presentment.
The Internet is the hottest trend anywhere right now, especially in the wireless industry. Service providers are integrating the Internet into their service offerings any way they can, whether it is helping customers access the Web via a wireless device or facilitating mobile commerce (m-commerce). As the Internet weaves its way deeper and deeper into your business model, it's possible that it will affect your billing system more than anything ever has.
Kiss Client Software Goodbye
People have discussed integrating the Internet into wireless billing in seminars and on trade-show floors for the last couple of years. By now, many service providers have some sort of electronic billing payment and presentment (EBPP) plan. Now, wireless-service providers and vendors are coming up with brand new ways to use the Internet for billing and customer care (BCC).
The beauty of the Internet is that it reduces the need for client hardware and software. Business customers love the fact that they can access corporate databases, e-mail and Internet through a wireless device from anywhere in real time. Instead of downloading a document before leaving the office and risking the chance that the information will change by the time they access it from their laptops, they can dial into the same document with a wireless device and view the most recent version on the Web. If the Web can replace client software in cases like these, why can't it replace billing-system software and hardware, too?
Inderpal Mumick, Savera Systems president, CEO & CTO, said his company has eliminated the need for any client software at all by creating a 100% Web-based billing system.
"There is a difference between a billing and customer-support solution built for the Web and one that has been retrofitted to be Web-enabled," he said. "Not a single byte of Savera Systems client software ever needs to be coded, installed, upgraded, debugged or questioned for compatibility on a client's computer."
Savera Systems has created two kinds of Web-based billing systems for service providers. InterCarrier is a Web-based interconnect settlement and management solution for intercarrier billing. RealTime Prepaid is a Web-based real-time prepaid billing solution.
With RealTime Prepaid, authorized users access the billing system using only a Web browser, regardless of whether they are connected through the Internet, an intranet or a virtual private network. Because no Savera client software exists, customizations are easy. The provider installs the server in its computer room or across town, or it can skip the server and subscribe to the RealTime prepaid billing solution via an application service provider (ASP), Mumick said.
"The software works exactly the same way, no matter which option you choose, and it can grow as your business grows," he added.
InterCarrier, which also is Web-based, is designed to help service bureaus, telecom and IP service providers, resellers and trading houses maximize revenue.
"When ASPs and wireless, wireline and other telecom service providers work together, they need to know how to pay each other," he said.
Between 20% and 25% of intercarrier traffic is misclassified. For example, a wireless-service provider might not know about new, lower roaming rates and end up paying extra for service. Or, it might be charged for something it shouldn't have to pay for. In other cases, calls are not completed, or service providers are charged twice for the same call. Wireless-service providers must communicate with each other, as well as with ILECs and ASPs,about billing changes. Because it is too hard to install the same settlement sof tware on all of your partners' desktops, Mumick said Savera created the Web-based billing system. InterCarrier lets you make rate changes, launch queries or voice disputes, all over the Web.
Savera Systems also was able to use the Web to offer InterCarrier Co-Pilot, which lets service providers test InterCarrier over the Web with their own billing data. It is delivering the solution via an ASP model in which Savera hosts the application, eliminating the need for service providers to install any billing-system hardware or software.
"Traditionally, companies in the telecom industry have invested significant resources in evaluating mission-critical billing systems, but they've rarely been able to test these systems in-house using their own company data and processes," Mumick said. "By using the power of the Internet and the ASP model, we are making it possible for service providers to know exactly how a billing system works within their organization, with their own data, before they make their selection."
Savera personnel work with Co-Pilot participants to configure and deploy an instance of InterCarrier that will process transaction data in parallel with the service provider's existing IT infrastructure. A limited portion of each participant's network and agreement data is required for Savera to fully demonstrate InterCarrier's performance and functionality, Mumick said.
Wireless Customer Care
Customer self-care via the Internet is just starting to emerge. Already, there is something better: wireless customer self-care. Steven Rodin, Davinci Technologies co-founder & president, said the Internet will change the billing model as customers instantly change rate plans, buy products and add and delete features over their handsets.
For instance, you can set your billing system to download a list of customers who have exceeded their allotted minutes for the month. Then, using push technology, you can send messages to their handsets alerting them that, based on that month's usage, they would be better off switching to a different rate plan. With one button, the customer can upgrade to a new plan. In the case of prepaid, you could alert customers that they are at 80% of their credit halfway through the month and ask them if they would like to put more money into their accounts.
"Using rules engines, carriers can define business rules," Rodin said. "You can tell the system that if a certain thing happens, send a certain message, advertisement or reminder."
M-commerce combines with your billing system in that you can sell accessories and other service upgrades to customers over wireless devices. For instance, if a customer is traveling and needs another battery, he can touch a few buttons to order it from you, right over his handset. He could have it delivered to his hotel the next day and apply the charges to his next bill, instead of putting it on a credit card.
Additionally, using a WAP- or HDML-compliant device, customers can add or delete features to their own accounts, which cuts down on calls to customer service. Rodin said each time you remove one call from the call center, it saves you between $7 and $10.
Canada's Bell Mobility Cellular is using Davinci's Active Statement technology for wireless customer service, Internet self-service and online feature activation. Telus Mobility in Canada also is evaluating Davinci's data services on its CDMA network and anticipates providing wireless e-care and other wireless-data applications to its digital customers this spring.
Prepaid on the Net
Carla Schneiderman, Corsair vice president of marketing and business development, agreed that the intersection of WAP-enabled phones and the Internet is one of the industry's biggest trends. Corsair and other prepaid companies have readied themselves for WAP with new product offerings. Corsair's PhoneFuel is its first m-commerce application, offering WAP-enabled phone-replenishment and account-management services for its PrePay Open subscribers.
E. Y. Snowden, Boston Communications Group (BCGI) president & CEO, said his company has invested more than $60 million in network infrastructure to facilitate m-commerce for the 61.5 million Americans who will use mobile phones to access the Internet by 2003.
"Prepaid and the Internet naturally go together," Snowden said. "Prepaid is youth-oriented. The Internet is youth-oriented. Wireless markup language allows you Web-enabled access from a wireless device, and our system already is set up to take cash collection and debit e-commerce purchases in real time."
One BCGI customer, Cincinnati Bell Wireless, already is integrating prepaid billing with the Internet. Its Web site, www.i-ontheweb.com, has a definite youth focus, with words like "cool" and "free" on every page. Branded i-wireless, the service allows users to talk with other i-ontheweb users about "music, sports, relationships or life, or create a private room" for their inner circle. The i-wireless phone is capable of receiving text messages of up to 150 characters, and it works as a free e-mail address. Before and after users make a call, it tells them how many minutes are left on their prepaid accounts. Users also can check balances for free by calling 611 from their i-wireless phones and following the instructions. One i-wireless package, the Nokia 5160 offering, comes with a handset and a $50 i-wireless prepaid card.
CDRs & IPDRs
Other industry experts believe the Internet will affect your call-detail records (CDRs) most of all.
"The biggest issue we found when we changed our billing system is that in IP services, there is no physical equipment," said Stephen Combe, Primal Billing Solutions senior director of product management. "Typically when you buy service, you pick up a handset or a pager. In the IP space, it is just a logical device ... an e-mail or IP address. A carrier's billing system has to be able to handle the fact that there may or may not be physical equipment, and they assume, in a lot of cases, that there is."
Also, service providers will bill customers for data services differently than for voice. Right now, Internet access is a flat fee. But soon, data connections will be billed per packet or per byte. Once service providers offer aggregated billing, they will be able to offer volume discounts and promotions.
Today, the average customer makes five to seven voice calls per day, but data undoubtedly will increase call volume. People look at dozens of Internet sites each day and receive hundreds of e-mails.
"The pure volume of CDRs is dramatically larger," Combe said. "That affects the ability to rate calls and keep up with billing."
Also, bills will be larger so processing time may be longer. Service providers need to decide if they will offer the same itemized details regarding Internet-related connections that they do with voice calls. Last, service providers will need to be able to provision, rate and collect money for IP services. Primal's new Connect CCB (customer care & billing) product was designed to provide the next generation in CCB services with unified messaging and voice-over-IP capabilities.
"Connect CCB meets the needs of the evolving communications market by offering a scaleable architecture to support the extensive growth projected for IP services, as well as broad functionality and flexibility to support the back-office requirements for the new variations of services," said David Haynes, Primal vice president, business development.
In wireless, Newton's law applies to billing. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and you can't do much without affecting your billing system in some way. The Internet has the potential to differentiate you from your competition.
Harter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in Athens, GA.
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