Unified billing scales telecom agenda

Telcos in the Middle East turn to unified or converged billing solutions as they compete to retain existing customers and fend off competition with liberalisation just around the corner.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  October 2, 2004

|~|Franco-Recotta111.jpg|~|Franco Ricotta, chief technology officer at Wataniya Telecom.|~|Comium Group has inked a deal with Eskadenia Solutions to deploy the vendor’s turnkey billing & customer relationship management system (BCRM) at Comium-Liberia, the Lebanese group’s GSM division. The modular real-time billing system and the web-enabled mediation gateway will help Comium streamline billing services for its 400,000 domestic subscribers. Built from scratch at Eskadenia’s Amman development centre, the BCRM adheres to both the GSM and CCITT recommendations for billing and number plan standards. It also supports billing for landline telephony services and intelligent network services. A growing number of the region’s telecom providers are implementing unified billing solutions as they compete to retain existing customers and fend off competition from new market entrants. “The main focus of the incumbent operators is now on billing — they had been using outdated billing systems from their monopoly times. [Better] customer service, revamping their call centres, improving their CRM and [investing] in auto payment systems are their major initiatives,” says Mohsen Malaki, senior telecom analyst at IDC. Until recently, the region’s state run telecom monopolies had less reason to overhaul their billing systems, since the services they offered were the only ones available to consumers. For instance, when Kuwaiti GSM mobile operator Wataniya launched its services in December 1999 it was content with running disparate billing systems, since 90% were post-paid and 10% prepaid. “The incumbent operators are batch oriented — they process their call detail records (CDR) and billing systems separately and end it there. How they [utilise] their call records, how flexible their billing systems are and how fast they can roll out new services is vital to compete — telcos need this information more than they need the lines,” says Leo Miklas, regional country manager at EMC. CDRs are data packets which contain detailed information about each call, including who called, the number dialled, the time of call, the call’s duration and other relevant pieces of information. CDR’s are then used to settle costs between carriers, as well as develop the bill presented to the end user. Like most operators, Wataniya would collect such CDRs from its switches everyday and at the end of the month churn out all the bills and send them for collection. But post-paid subscriptions also brought in their share of bad debts and slowed down cash flow. After five years of rapid growth in its customer base to 1.7 million subscribers, Wataniya was forced to consolidate its billing systems. “Earlier, pre-paid was for low revenue subscribers, since the network couldn’t trust them to pay at the end of the month. But pre-paid was very convenient for users on low wages to afford mobile services. However, when pre-paid scratch cards came along, we wanted the money upfront because of exposure to bad debts,” explains Franco Ricotta, chief technology officer at Wataniya Telecom. As other industries look to consolidate operations support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS), as well as simplify business processes, the telecom vertical is no different, says Ricotta. “Why should you have two billing systems from multiple vendors, when you can reduce the costs with one billing system? It’s actually the suppliers who have kept it apart rather than the operators. It’s much better, if the suppliers give you one billing box… with common support and maintenance,” he argues. However, with the telecom vertical undergoing change, telcos are looking at unified or convergent billing systems, which consolidate the majority of pre-paid customers and post-paid customers. Bahrain’s main operator, Batelco, is set to launch an improved mobile billing system after extending its 2.5G/3G services to its pre-paid subscriber base, having previously limited access to post-paid subscribers. “The majority of our customers are on pre-paid accounts,” says Hamza Ali, the operator’s senior manager of mobile products & services. “Now that we are focusing more on content, our old billing system is difficult to use. [Hence] we have developed a flexible charging system, which is fully convergent and capable of charging for all services,” he adds. The solution’s other capabilities include premium rate SMS and mobile terminated billing. Batelco’s new billing system is currently being tested and will be launched later this year. “Converged pre and post paid billing can be a major feature for regional operators where a great deal of pre-paid cards are sold. Centralised subscriber management and tariff can help minimise revenue leakage and fraud opportunities,” says Ian Jagger, marketing manager for enterprise solutions at HP Middle East. This also means that customers will mix and match their service requirements of fixed lines, internet and mobile services and will expect account or tariff packages tailored for them. If the operators cannot match their wish list and centrally bill them for their bytes and minutes, then the customer will go to a competing operator with flexible tariffs||**||

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