Bohdan Zabawskyj is the CTO of Redknee. He is responsible for formulating the framework of Redknee’s strategic efforts and the evolution of the company’s application development framework for next-generation mobile networks. Prior to Redknee, Mr Zabawskyj worked at Telus Mobility (Clearnet), Bell Mobility and Bell Canada as Director for Research and Development. Bohdan Zabawskyj has a BASc (Honours) degree from the University of Toronto, an MEng degree from McGill University and an MBA (IT option) degree from Athabasca University.
The potential of mobile social networking is already apparent in India and will become ever more important as 3G networks are deployed. But managing and monetising this potential requires operators to go beyond traditional billing approaches and develop merchandising platforms that optimise and improve the overall subscriber service experience. Powerful billing systems that integrate real-time communications and subscriber-specific rating and charging capabilities sit at the heart of monetisation strategy.
While the advent of 3G networks spurred the popularity of mobile social networking in Western markets, India’s mobile social networking story has already begun in its largely 2G world. But with the national 3G licence auction just around the corner, operators need to assess now the implications that 3G applications, such as mobile social networking, will have on the way they provide their services and how they can avoid being forced into the ‘dumb pipe’ corner. The popularity of social networking in India has followed the global trend that the industry is experiencing today. Orkut, the nation’s leading social network, boasts more than 17 million users, accounting for just under 40 per cent of India’s web population. While today Orkut is the most popular website visited by web users, competition is rife and Facebook is snapping at its heels, reporting 228 per cent growth rate in the past year. But web-based social networking is only a small fraction of India’s social networking story. India’s telecoms market is a unique environment. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India claimed 8 million broadband subscribers at the end of January 2010 compared with more than 545 million wireless subscribers. When the continual addition of 20 million new 2G subscribers per month together with the PC-mobile penetration ratio of 1:10 are taken into account, the real opportunity for the growth of social networks is clearly in the hands of mobile network operators. We have already started to see the potential of mobile social networking from the success story of the social messaging service SMS GupShup. This Twitter-like service, which is accessed primarily via SMS, has grown to 26 million users since it was launched in 2007. The mobile social network claims that 480 million SMS are processed per month, accounting for 5 per cent of India’s SMS network traffic. This clearly highlights the popularity of social networking on the move – but it also poses two questions: How can operators succeed when data hungry services enabled by 3G networks are launched; and how can operators reinstate their position with the subscriber and avoid becoming a dumb pipe? These two questions have kept mobile network chiefs awake at night across the globe, except for operators such as Zain. This network service provider has become an amazing force of innovation throughout the Middle East and Africa. Instead of following the trend of providing ‘all-you-can-eat’ data plans, Zain has avoided the ‘dumb pipe’ syndrome by launching a USB plug-and-play mobile broadband service which empowers users to choose their services and bundles. The service enables Zain to design targeted packages that resonate with its various market segments. Zain’s pioneering e-GO2GO mobile broadband service enables subscribers to control, while they consume, the costs of day-to-day data and browsing usage, to build their own bundles, and to select their payment type. It has been particularly successful in targeting new market segments such as home users and mobile broadband users who traditionally use laptops through fixed DSL connections; the youth, student and enterprise markets; and post-paid customers who want to regain control of their growing data costs. As Zain has shown, in order to successfully monetise mobile social networks, carriers’ back-end systems need to go beyond traditional billing and work as merchandising platforms that optimise and improve the overall subscriber service experience. From store-front provisioning, to real-time rating, charging, billing, customer care and invoicing, operator OSS/BSS systems need to address the full spectrum of an operator’s billing requirements. It is also here where operators have the ability to develop rewarding partnerships with Internet companies such as Orkut and Facebook by having the tools to enhance the content offerings and manage revenue share as well as sponsorship programmes. Billing systems are the backbone to operators remaining competitive and ahead of the curve in the next generation world, and key to monetising mobile social networks. However, in order to do this, operators need to provide subscribers with a more advanced and personalised user experience, which relies on two elements from the operator: pricing transparency and real-time communication. Pricing transparency is particularly important with data services, such as streaming video on social networks, where the world of bits and bytes is only understood by a minority of people. In order to encourage adoption and use of data services, operators need to offer an alternative. When building bundles, for example, subscribers could choose ‘time session’ charging, where subscribers are charged according to the duration of time it takes to stream the video rather than being charged on the total volume of data, which can be difficult for them to quantify. In addition, real-time communication between the operator and its subscribers is essential at the time of each initial service transaction in order for the operator to quickly and cost-effectively address the immediate data charging needs. Real-time, per second, billing is only possible by leveraging a next generation rating and charging engine that integrates deep packet inspection, real-time communications and subscriber-specific rating and charging capabilities. Through such a platform, operators can simplify and personalise data usage bundles, as well as launch novel rate plans and self-care options for customers. Operators must be equipped with a framework that uses advanced reporting and subscriber data management to help them reach out to their customers individually, through targeted promotions and real-time initiatives that are relevant to individual subscriber needs. Operators and their subscribers will benefit by being able to quickly solve customer care issues and offer flexible pricing and subscriber-centric services such as cross-service bundles and loyalty ‘points’, as well as identifying up-sell opportunities and delivering real-time promotions. Real-time visibility into social network services is vital for deriving and driving up revenue. Finally, as networks develop and evolve, billing systems must support prepaid, post-paid, and hybrid subscribers, as well as being ready for any type of access technology, including wireless and wireline, broadband, satellite and WiMAX. Solutions need to help reduce operating and capital expenses by enabling operators to consolidate their billing ‘silos’ onto one convergent solution and quickly roll out new services. Monetising mobile social networks will rely on a diverse selection of technologies and business strategies, from chat applications to multimedia environments. The value chain is complex, more complex than in the fixed world, because it must take into account the state and context of the subscriber. As we have seen from across the world, 3G networks will open the floodgates for data hungry applications, such as location, presence, and, in the future, augmented reality, which will continue to enhance the mobile social networking experience and continue to whet the subscriber’s appetite for more. What operators have the opportunity to do now is heed the lessons of the industry and contextualise the service before being pushed down the slippery slope of a dumb pipe provider. Billing might not grab the headlines in the mainstream press, but it is the key to how operators can overcome the challenges of managing the data deluge and succeeding in a next generation world.