Ten years ago I was a firm believer and early proponent of centralized online billing via an application service provider (ASP). With two colleagues and a small team of dedicated professionals sharing the same vision, Copernicus Global Billing emerged from the heady dot-com boom days only to die a premature death in the bust that soon followed.
The whole concept, now referred to as a cloud service, was revolutionary then. The idea of having a single billing infrastructure that could be partitioned and “rented out” as a white label service to anyone wanting to sell or resell communications services was sound, even when internet links left a lot to be desired.
Today, billing as a service (BaaS) is seeing a revival and even Tier 1 players are making the move to cloud-based online charging and billing systems as part of their transformation process. Leading billing vendors have adapted their software to run on virtualized environments, and operators with multiple properties spanning international boundaries are toying with using them to manage charging and billing activities almost anywhere.
We now find online charging systems (OCS) being used for all real-time pricing and balance management and billing systems being used primarily for post-paid invoice management. Let me clarify that my definition of each may not be shared by all, but having an engine that calculates a value is one thing; having another that collates those charges and applies them to an account balance and produces invoices and statements is another. In some cases, both functions are done on the same platform. But what’s next?
Five years ago I became besotted with the idea that billing could be decentralized from servers to the handset. At the time smartphones were emerging as powerful processing stations. I wrote a paper on the possibility of downloading an app to any mobile device that could perform basic rating of data, voice or any other service on the handset itself and provide the user with a running total of transactions and balances – whether pre- or post-paid. I saw this as the ultimate form of virtualization or processing distribution, but there were many reasons it would not be easy to do at the time. Managing multiple handset operating systems was one; preventing hacking and fraudulent use were others.
Pushing functionality to the handset is not new. Susana Schwartz, writing for Oracle Tekelec, said that operators “can no longer rely on congestion-mitigation strategies that force them to design networks for peak usage, leading to under-utilization much of the time. The better approach, they will find, will be to extend policy to the mobile device. Then, smartphones, tablets and other devices can become both enforcement points and application functions, thus opening up a world of new use cases.” If you could do it for policy management, why not billing?
Openet’s recent research paper, Charging and Billing for the Digital Economy, stated that “a recent area of innovation is the extension of policy and charging control (PCC) to the device using a secure interaction gateway between the policy and charging control network elements and an application on the device. This, for instance, enables operators to provide on-device usage visibility to customers via the app. This allows them to set personal controls on spend and to present upsell and loyalty rewards offers on the device.”
Would customers want it? Well, as a customer of a number of communications service providers myself, I would welcome it, but maybe as a different animal. Is there any reason these days that we can’t have an app on any device that collects a rated call record or charge from the OCS at the end of every session/call? Could we have a running statement of everything we’ve done up until my last invoice or top-up, at our fingertips?
No need to open a web browser or have encrypted link messages sent by the operator – just a reminder that a payment is due, a quick check of the app, and maybe even a one-button payment or top-up from one or more accounts already registered with the service provider. Oh, and what a boon for the fearful roamer, so frightened to use their phone because of recurring bill shock issues.
I can hear cries from vendors shouting that they already have this capability and can demonstrate it, but does any service provider have an app for all its customers that works in this way? If so, I’d love to hear from them and if they operate in one of the countries I frequent, I would immediately sign up for the service. How many others would feel the same?
Tony Poulos is a market strategist at TM Forum