There are some real insights in Openet’s report, Charging for the Digital Economy. To find them takes a little digging but it is worthwhile.
The top line findings are interesting enough:
- – all operators agree that pre-paid charging platforms will need to be replaced within 10 years
- – 43 percent see this happening inside two years
- – 46 percent see this within three to four years
For the 46 percent, this is presumably driven by timescales for LTE roll out than the fact that operators do not see the need. It is clear that LTE brings with it new opportunities for customers to use ‘data,’ especially in a roaming environment. Certainly LTE is the trigger.
An important question is what operators will replace their existing ‘legacy’ systems with?’
- – 95 percent of the operators said either a real-time/online charging system or convergent charging system
- – 70 percent said a real-time/online charging system
- – 25 percent said a convergent charging system
- – Only five percent said another IN solution
The real ‘tipping point’ for this new and real drive for real-time functionality has its roots in an old and very practical problem. The first discussions around real-time happened a long time ago in telecoms terms. According to report author and Senior Marketing Manager with Openet, Corine Suscens, “the initial motivation [for real-time] as far as I remember was revenue assurance, to ensure that operators can indeed collect all the money they have actually generated.” It is not strange that money is a great motivator for organisations, and “it was the era of active/real-time mediation, the goal being to generate very accurate bills,” according to Suscens. Accurate bills means less adjustments, less calls, more money to the bottom line.
Data roaming then took over as a big issue. This drove the BillShock phenomenon to the point where regulators had to step in. Even so, customers were still nervous about data while travelling, to the point that 75 percent of the 570 million roamers turned their data off rather than risk huge charges, according to Juniper Research.
The data roaming problem hides within it a huge opportunity for operators to increase roaming revenues while also increasing customer trust and loyalty, according to Suscens. By offering cost transparency and fair deals to customers who are roaming pays dividends. As a result of the capping of roaming charges, Western Europe can boast 45 percent of global roaming revenues, while having only 25 percent of roaming population. Even so, many customers still do not know that there are caps in place in Europe.
Suscens cites the case of Canadian operator Rogers, who actively used a ‘data pass’ campaign to allow customers to try data on their phones, knowing exactly what they were being charged. Built in to the offer were real time alerts so that customers knew how much data they had left. Within 2 months Rogers had converted 15 percent of data pass users to post paid data accounts, had eliminated bill adjustments by 98 %, and reduced calls to the company by 120,000 per year. This is clearly an example of a ‘win’ for customers and a win for the operator.
The results back up this example, with data passes at 62 percent and data roaming passes at 46 percent being the two most popular packages being offered by operators at the moment. The next most popular, again reflected in other research, is operators offering third party content and applications such as Deezer music streaming. This is followed closely by multiple device plans (30 percent) and shared data plans (36 percent).
What this tells us is that, whatever the original motivation for implementing real-time, and it would be naïve to think it was purely for the benefit of the customer, that is where it is heading. We have seen that revenue assurance and fraud prevention can clearly benefit the customer as well as the operator and that is a good starting point for innovation. The majority of operators in the survey are building in the capacity so that they can offer a wide range of passes, from data, to data roaming and application passes, such as free Facebook access. As Suscens says, “as data services have been gaining momentum, it has also brought new opportunities for revenue generation. The rise of data itself and of real-time charging have triggered innovative ideas and subsequent value based services.”
The other question that the report touches on is the role of the cloud in operators’ plans. What is clear is that it is not a ‘silver bullet’ solution and the majority of operators are not diving into the cloud pool. Indeed, only 17 percent of respondents believe that cloud based systems will be the whole solution – hosted either by the vendor or a Systems Integrator. This, coincidentally, is the same percentage as those who believe that everything will be kept in-house. The largest contingent thought that a mixture of cloud based and in-house solutions (37 percent) would be the answer. 29 percent (of presumably Tier One telcos) think that there will be a centralized cloud based solution that will support local operating companies.
The cloud is almost too big a concept and needs more definition, according to Brian Noble, Marketing Specialist at Openet. “It is more about what operators are trying to achieve than the type of operator,” says Noble. “MVNOs, for instance, may well be attracted to a generic way of charging customers to deliver a specific offering, but more traditional operators are unlikely to embrace the public cloud too enthusiastically. They are more likely to go for a private cloud option. Essentially, it is about agility and cost reduction while exploring new and better ways of addressing customers’ needs,” says Noble.
Having agreed that a widespread replacement of billing and charging systems is underway, the final question must be about timescales. The conclusion is that the next four years are going to busy for real-time charging vendors, with 47 percent of operators seeing the replacement happening in the next two years and a further 40 percent in three to four years’ time.
The major driver for this much heralded change is flexibility and reducing time to market. 73 percent of operators believe that this can be addressed through integrating policy control with the real-time charging platform, automating the process of making relevant offers to customers based on real-time analytics and intelligence (69 percent) and centralizing the offer process.
Reflecting another critical and timely trend in the industry, 79 percent believe that the ability to centralize the product catalogue is a vital goal for the next few years and 77 percent believe that centralized convergent charging is the key. Even those operators who did not necessarily focus on the word ‘centralization’ still believe that rapid deployment and avoiding vendor support for product development are critical success factors.
All in all, this report has crystallized some important trends and changes for the telecoms industry. While the discussions about the coming of real-time have been going on for some time, this report puts the timescales and priorities into clear perspective.
One other note–I have always referred to delivery of CDRs in the time frames of seconds to be “just-in-time”. The electrical engineer and systems programmer in me reserves the term “real-time” for those events which, if missed in a time window, can never be recovered (e.g the read-after-write head on a magnetic tape drive not being polled before the data has passed the head). The “just-in-time” term connotes the element of financial justification for the time frame in question, versus fast just because it can be fast.
With no disrespect to Corine, I’d like to pull the real-time timeline back a couple of decades– Ms. Suscens can be excused if she is not aware of the world’s first real-time CDR system, Metapath Software’s 1995 deployment into Sprint PCS, as that may have predated her entrance into the industry. We deployed that system in 180+ markets over the summer of that year, delivering CDRs to an Oracle database within 15 seconds of the user pressing the END button. And the principal use of the data in real-time wasn’t billing (it was all post-paid, invoiced monthly) or revenue assurance (nobody had an inkling of the term in those days), it was CEM! The CSR would access recent CDR information to deal with issues such as dropped calls and other Customer queries, usually able to issue credit transactions, tagging the CDR in question for exclusion from later charges (in accordance with company policy), on the spot.