In the Middle East and Africa region, where some 90% of mobile subscribers are pre-paid, operators can find themselves hampered by a lack of flexibility to offer real-time charging and billing services.
Traditionally, operators have handled their pre-paid customers’ billing requirements using the IN system, which gives limited scope for telcos to offer any kind of ‘real time’ services other than top-up warnings and balance checks.
Meanwhile, operators usually cater to the remaining 10% of post-paid customers using a more complex billing system, or a modified version of the IN system.
But now a new breed of billing and real-time charging systems is giving operators the opportunity to offer more complex billing services to pre-paid customers and to converge pre-paid billing systems and post-paid systems.
Krishna Gopal, VP MEA at Tech Mahindra, an India-based systems integrator, says that operators are increasingly looking to merge the two systems in order to offer new types of billing services to their customers, including packages that consist of pre-paid and post-paid services.
“The billing system is only for 10% of users, while IN (Intelligent Networks) is used for about 90%. What operators are trying to do is merge these two together, and that is called convergent billing,” he says.
Gopal says that the systems can be merged by the IN provider, or the post-paid billing provider. The IN provider can add extra functions to the IN system that make it capable of handling post-paid subscribers, or the post-paid billing provider can expand its offering to encompass pre-paid subscribers.
“This battle is still out in the air – the jury is still out whether it is an IT solution or IN solution that is better for convergence,” Gopal says.
He adds that key players in the converged billing space include Ericsson, which acquired billing specialist LHS in 2010. Other billing companies such as Oracle and Convergys have done pilot tests for converged billing successfully.
Meanwhile, Tech Mahindra has implemented a converged billing system in Indonesia for Hutch using an Intech billing system, and an e-serve IN platform, according to Gopal.
Converged billing systems can bring in numerous advantages to operators, which can offer more flexible packages, such as family plans that combine post-paid and pre-paid mobile services with a fixed-line service.
“I have a postpaid connection, and my son has a pre-paid connection, and it is possible to merge these two. I can give an instruction in the mid-course that if he runs out, up to another 50% he can top up,” Gopal says.
“I could also have that linked to fixed-line and everything else – internet and IPTV. You can do cross-schemes and swap things around.”
The effects of converged billing systems on the operator’s bottom-line can be significant. “We have seen that the revenue streams can increase by, in the first year, more than 4-5% because of the ability to launch different products, monitor them, and fine-tune them,” Gopal says.
Sherif Hamoudah, managing director for the Middle East at Acision, a real-time charging vendor, stresses the importance for operators to incorporate a flexible real-time capability into their billing systems, particularly for fast growing areas including mobile data.
Hamoudah says that Acision’s real-time charging platform, which it developed with HP, allows operators to increase the flexibility of their charging systems for data and voice users.
“Our systems are flexible and are predominantly for data, and can handle voice. At the same time it gives you the richness of bundling,” Hamoudah says.
“The charging platform that Acision has developed starts from the basic tariff and products and services such as peak charging, but we are specialised in enhancing the customer experience.
“We have a product called Build Your Own Tariff. This can be expanded to build your own package or products.
“The customer, through any channel, can set up his own way of dealing with the operator. For example, I can build a package including games and international traffic.”
He adds that Acision also added bundling capability and the policy enforcement on top of the charging component, which gives operators the ability to offer their customers further flexibility to build their own bundles. For example, Hamoudah says that the platform allows the customer to limit their roaming spend, be notified when they reach their limits, and can be given the option to buy more.
Meanwhile the policy enforcement component allows users to optimise certain traffic. “For example, we will optimise video traffic itself, so that when a consumer downloads a video, it is highly compressed and condensed,” Hamoudah says.
“We can add optimisation and policy enforcement through the real-time charging, and that is very unique to us.”
With demand for broadband, and particularly mobile broadband, surging, Sherif Hamoudah of Acision, says that operators are increasingly in need of services that help them to differentiate their offerings, and one of the key ways that they can achieve this is by adopting a more flexible approach to charging.
“If you look at the operators now they are competing from the depths and breadths of the data offering. Whoever has more depth and breadth and better systems, and more bandwidth that can give the consumer a better experience on data will win the game in the future,” he says.
Acision has more than 40 real-time charging system implementations worldwide, including Turkcell, Globalcom and MTN in Nigeria, and Ufone and Mobilink in Pakistan, and T-Mobile in the US.