The merging of data and voice networks places complex demands upon billing systems. Voice telephony is billed by the duration of the call, data by the volume, and other services by the month and content according to its specific value. As networks converge, several operators and content providers may be involved in a service The activation of all the elements in a customer request and the settlements and billing is quite intricate, but today's billing systems are up to the challenge.
Network convergence is a clear trend within the telecommunication industry. The bringing together of wireline and wireless networks, and the hastening of the merger of separate voice and data networks, have caused a fundamental shift in the sector. In a sense, convergence indicates that IP based networks are reaching maturity. Vendors of Operations Support Systems (OSS) have recognized the substantial impact of network convergence and are scrambling to deliver the systems to support the new requirements it brings. Billing functions, by necessity, are being dragged closer and closer to the core of the network. This is largely driven by the need for real time processing. Pre-paid, always a big user of real-time processing has increasingly complex requirements now. The convergence of balances, and balance management platforms, in response to converging networks is also emerging. More than ever, there is a need to take an end-to-end view of how all types of services should be, or will be, delivered and billed and then implement the solutions that can deal with all the possible scenarios. Converging data with voice means that the complex processes associated with billing for data services will play an increasing role in determining where and how billing functions can be performed for converged networks. Some examples of the billing-related areas that are being impacted are discussed below. Pre-paid In the past, pre-paid for traditional voice networks have been handled by systems closely tied to the network itself. The basic unit for measuring a voice call is time. As time is relatively easy to measure by using a fairly simple clock mechanism, this was a straightforward problem to solve. We are now adding data-oriented services to the mix. All of a sudden, we find ourselves with a far more complex problem to solve, and because it’s pre-paid, it needs to be dealt with in real-time. For data and its associated usage based (per mega byte etc.) billing models we can no longer use a simple clock. What we need for data is a system that is capable of measuring network usage in real time and then acting upon threshold limits being reached. Better still, if this usage measurement could occur as an inherent part of the session management and interaction with the user, it would eliminate the need for costly and often inefficient techniques, such as real-time correlation, used by first generation IP (Internet Protocol) mediation platforms. It is requirements such as these that have spawned the next generation of converged OSS platforms. This is a new area, and it is fast becoming known as Dynamic Charging. It provides a real-time bi-directional “glue” between the network and the OSS/BSS (operating support systems / billing support systems) environments in that it can affect the course of a user-session when certain events, such as pre-paid balance depletion occur. Dynamic charging effectively facilitates all of the key functions that must be performed in order to charge for new services. Functions such as authentication, pricing, authorization, balance reservation and debiting, balance top-up, post-paid credit checks, usage recording amongst others are all facilitated by this layer. Pricing, for example, is achieved using a query/response procedure to interface with an external real-time rating engine. Some of the more sophisticated dynamic charging platforms offer better performance by including an optional complex rating module on board. Balance Management The converging of networks is a key enabler of many services. Convergence supports the objective of many operators to deploy a single, centralized balance management platform that supports pre- and post-paid services; voice, data and premium content services and wireline as well as wireless customers. Having a single centralized platform gives the operator far greater flexibility to offer innovative pricing plans to their customers as well as giving the customer great flexibility to control their, or perhaps more importantly, their family’s spending habits. Similar to the dynamic charging rating module mentioned above, centralized balance management capabilities are starting to be offered as an optional module on the more advanced dynamic charging platforms. Given the real-time, and immediate needs of secure balance management, this appears to make a lot of sense. Wholesale Billing The introduction of premium content services, where the content is provided by a third party content partner, has necessitated a review of the way wholesale billing is performed. With the convergence of the networks, thought has had to be given to how to perform settlements between partners. In traditional voice systems, these partners are other operators with whom interconnect agreements exist. Data services are similar to this in as much as the partners are still other operators. Content partners, however, are quite different entities and the settlement is no longer a “netting” off of equivalent usage metrics - minutes, mega bytes, etc. - but rather a revenue sharing arrangement that is typically based upon the retail price that was negotiated for the particular piece, or type, of content. While one can see that this is similar to traditional settlement, there are also some unique characteristics to be considered. Interconnect or settlements systems have had to adapt to this in order to support all of these scenarios. The best systems are now able to combine usage and content value parameters while processing the revenue sharing. This means that an operator can deduct a network usage fee from the revenue for the content delivery prior to performing a percentage based revenue share on the remainder. Partner Management The introduction of premium content services has also necessitated new OSS capabilities to support them. For example, a whole new area known as partner relationship management or PRM has emerged. With many operators signing up hundreds and in some cases thousands of content partners, a cost-effective and efficient means for managing - or better still, allowing the Partner to “self manage” - the relationship is needed. What operators don’t want to do is add banks and banks of partner service representatives to deal with phone calls from partners. PRM capabilities that permit the partner to access the web to see the accruing sales information for their content products, and allows them to modify and manage their content product offerings, are in strong demand. Building upon this idea, and considering the requirements that has been learned to manage converging networks, PRM systems are now also being used to give traditional network partners access. Dealing with all the new demands of converging networks may at first appear daunting, but fortunately there are already mature systems in place within typical operator OSS/BSS environments that are well positioned to help with the transition to converged networks. This is especially true of systems that were designed as “convergent” platforms. The following is a brief look at two of these systems and how they make the task easier. Post Event Mediation, Post event mediation continues to play an important role. These are the systems that extract the usage data from the networks after the transaction / call / service has been completed and prepares the information for processing by billing and other business systems. Despite the earlier focus on the increasing need for real time support, it should always be kept in mind that real time often means more expense. Therefore, it continues to be prudent to only perform billing-related functions in real time when it is essential to do so, or when this has a direct impact on the customer experience. Post event mediation systems are typically quite capable of supporting the convergence of networks. Most mediation platforms claim to be “convergent” these days, meaning that taking inputs from diverse network element types is no longer a great challenge. Post event mediation platforms become the focal point, the centralized funnel, of usage information from the entire network or set of networks. From this focal point, the data can be distributed to any number of BSS (billing support systems) to bill, plan, analyse and assess usage patterns. With a solid convergent mediation capability in place, converging the networks becomes a less daunting task from a billing perspective. Post event mediation can help with the transition as data flows are migrated to the new converged environments. Service Activation Similar to the situation with post event mediation, “convergent” service activation is another key enabler that facilitates the convergence of networks. A single platform that can activate services on any and all of the network elements, VAS platforms, content management systems etc. enhances a network operator's ability to cope with the task of converging of networks. Sophisticated service activation platforms can simultaneously activate all of the many services that are needed to fulfil a single provisioning request. These services may even transcend networks and traditional service type barriers. Conclusion Although the trend towards converging networks poses some significant new challenges for billing and related functions that should not be underestimated, the vendor community has a good grasp of these challenges now and is well on the way to addressing them with appropriate and complete solutions. Operators’ who have had the forethought and vision to deploy convergent mediation and activation systems are well positioned as the industry moves toward true network convergence and the opportunities this will bring.