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It All Adds Up

By Susie Helme

In an ever-changing market, billing systems constantly have to take on new challenges — more traffic, multiple service offerings and a greater variety of calling plans. CDMA has also instigated a number of new services. CBIS provides billing for the two biggest CDMA providers in the U.S. Bob Hritsko, the company’s wireless market manager, offers some insights into the challenges they face.

CDMAS: How has the advent of mobile telephony affected innovation and adaptation in billing systems?

Bob Hritsko: Initially, some of the experts didn’t think mobile telephony was going to be as big as it is; it continues to surprise us all. Because of this growth and because of the type of sophisticated subscribers using the service, it has forced the pace of innovation in billing. The level of competition is increasing in mobile telecommunications — especially in the U.S. — and this competition is forcing carriers to provide what the customer needs.

Wireless probably has more calling plans than any other segment of the industry — even long-distance in the U.S. It has more options in terms of packaging services and pricing services at different levels of usage. The traditional way of differentiating is to customize packages for certain segments of users.

Multi-service billing is beginning to force the pace. We’re beginning to see some wireless providers offering long-distance services packaged with paging or wireless data.

CDMAS: What sort of expansion has the business seen in the 10 years since digital services were first introduced?

Bob Hritsko: Today you see a lot of new players entering the market. Ten years ago there weren’t a whole lot of billing providers out there. We were one of the first in the industry and now it seems like every month or two we’re hearing about somebody new who is offering billing services. That’s not just the wireless industry; we are seeing it on the wireline side as well.

CDMAS: Can you provide some examples of just how billing systems can meet the operators’ demands for differentiation of services?

Bob Hritsko: Traditionally, a billing system was designed to help you to collect accounts receivable, collect the calls, put a charge on them and send an invoice. Now billing systems are expanding into areas that enable you to understand your customer far better. You can take a look at calling patterns and the demographics of your customer to determine when they might want to use the phone and when they are less likely to use the phone. You can then work out what services to provide these individuals.

The big change, though, is competition. When you have a choice of three, four, maybe five different carriers as you do here in the U.S., you’re going to go to the one who best serves your needs, whether along the lines of coverage, pricing, service, or customer service.

CDMAS: What can billing systems offer today compared to what they could offer before this differentiation process began ?

Bob Hritsko: The ability to carry more information and understand your customer better, beyond how he uses his wireless phone. It’s about knowing his demographics — how old he is, his income level, whether or not he has kids.
Billing systems today are also coping with the integration of other services, such as paging and long distance. And they’re supporting a pre-paid market that we didn’t even have a few years back.

On top of that, billing can assist in things like fraud and churn.
Three years ago fraud wasn’t something people were attacking, but now the money is big enough that you want to attack this problem. Churn obviously comes in to play with increased competition. We’re now trying to use information technology and the information which resides in billing systems to help understand why customers churn, predict when they are going to churn and try to address that before it happens.

CDMAS: Are there technological innovations that specifically enabled this differentiation?

Bob Hritsko: Some of the innovation that has occurred is the move to new data-based technologies such as relational databases and data warehousing. Client/server is another area which enables you to do some of these things.

CDMAS: How do you think systems will have evolved by the end of 1998? How are the demands of customers likely to have developed by then?

Bob Hritsko: Billing providers are going to have to support some of the newer data services around — Internet services and other wireless data applications. We have new services coming on line with two-way paging. In some parts of the world, wireless local loop is being deployed. We are seeing the wireless phone actually replace the wired system or some of the local phone-type services.

CDMAS: Is there some reason why billing isn’t meeting those needs at the moment?

Bob Hritsko: In some parts of the world they are. Some of that stuff just isn’t really here yet; or it’s here, but no one has yet found that killer application or how to package it for the end customer.

One of the issues is that different service providers have different ideas about what they are going to do. A great example of that is location-sensitive billing. It’s been talked about for quite some time and we’re now getting the technology to enable it, but we’re still struggling with some of the logistics and pricing issues around how you offer that to the end customer. Billing will be one of the linchpins to making home zone pricing happen.

Pricing has a real economic effect; it’s just beginning to drop in the industry. Customers are on the phone more often now and are using it more casually, as opposed to just for business calls. So we are seeing pricing drop but we’re seeing usage increase. Handling volumes is going to be a huge issue if this trend continues. Different usage patterns need to be supported as consumers demand different calling plans.

CDMAS: Can you calculate the relative demands for services across the various CDMA markets?

Bob Hritsko: Two years ago CDMA was a big question, but it’s now living up to its claims. I think CDMA is going to evolve into one of the leading standards. CDMA provides the biggest opportunity to leverage your spectrum as a carrier and you can carry more calls through your spectrum than any other technology. Part of its success is also because the technology has been so widely adopted in the U.S.

In the Asia-Pacific market, there are a number of countries that really don’t have a strong wireline infrastructure in place — China, for instance. There are more and more wireline replacement systems being installed, however. As that occurs, the amount of spectrum you can utilize or use more efficiently becomes very important. CDMA has a good fit down there and Asia-Pacific is adopting CDMA for a lot of these new networks.

In Japan and the United States, CDMA has been used as a differentiator. What’s attractive about it from an economic perspective is that it’s the most efficient of all the digital standards.

CDMAS: What is the U.S. market looking like in terms of demands for services?

Bob Hritsko: The demand for wireless in the United States continues to be very strong. CBIS does the billing for the two largest CDMA providers here in the States — those companies are managing to get their services off the ground and are doing really well.

CDMAS: What sort of services do the present CDMA operators offer? Have billing systems for CDMA services developed as these services have changed?

Bob Hritsko: Billing is indirectly impacted by the air interface standard. It is the digital capability of these standards that enables carriers to do more things. Obviously, billing systems will have to be developed to support these. A lot of it isn’t related to CDMA; it’s related to the carrier, what their strategy is and how they want to differentiate themselves.

We support all the vendors out there, the switch vendors, both in CDMA and TDMA — so as far as interfacing to their switches we are able to do that. It’s all a function of how the service providers want to differentiate.

CDMAS: Can you give me some examples of CDMA services and how the billing systems have had to develop in order to cope with that?

Bob Hritsko: Well, PrimeCo has a CDMA system. I don’t know if it’s directly related to CDMA, but one of the services they provide is the ability to get an incident or billing level through your telephone handset. The customer just has to press a button on his handset and the billing system sends the information back through the networks.

CDMAS: Do CDMA systems make specific demands on billing solutions from a technical point of view? If so, what sort?

Bob Hritsko: Nothing that can be directly tied to CDMA, although CDMA is an enabler for a number of new services. Obviously, we have to handle the new switch records and things like that, but that’s trivial compared to how service providers want to leverage their new digital networks.

There are indirect demands on billing in greater capacity and in the digital technology in the handset. For instance, some handsets are integrated with two-way paging — so, obviously, the billing system has to support two-way paging now. That’s not because of CDMA, though. You could have had that feature in the past with analog, but the economics weren’t there at the time.

CDMAS: Has the roll-out of CDMA been challenging in terms of the number of new operators?

Bob Hritsko: Yes. CDMA has been adopted rather quickly and is proving to be a viable technology. It is challenging because you are starting from square one. PrimeCo and Sprint PCS are two new nationwide networks in the U.S. that we are supporting. They were very keen to get up and running quickly. Of course, as they enter those markets, cellular competitors make moves that then require some of the PCS carriers to make changes. As a provider of those services, we have to be on our toes and make sure that we are supporting our customers.

CDMAS: Are there likely to be any problems billing customers on dual mode analog/cdmaOne handsets?

Bob Hritsko: We have billed analog for many years, we’re doing a good job of billing CDMA today and as they bring the two together I don’t foresee any billing problems. As a matter of fact we support AT&T Wireless, which has married its TDMA with its analog system and is using dual-mode in many areas. We are handling that fine.

The challenge is in the customer’s perception. If they are in a digital market and they have a lot of new services on their telephones, they expect them to work all the time. If they go roaming into analog areas and those services aren’t supported, they might not understand. The next thing, they’re calling their customer service center, wanting to know why their phone isn’t working.

CDMAS: From the billing perspective, has CBIS encountered any technical problems in the development of new technology?

Bob Hritsko: With dual-mode, analog and CDMA, roaming agreements are getting more complex and present a logistical challenge, but we have been doing it for many years, so it shouldn’t be a real problem.

CDMAS: CDMA is still looking into data services, the Internet and other value-added offerings that it needs to bring to market to compete with GSM. There may also be the possibility of convergence services — say, electricity and telephony, where one supplier offers both. Will your previous experience with GSM enable you to offer billing systems for these services instantly, or will some measure of adaptation be needed? What are the technical reasons for this?

Bob Hritsko: This is definitely what differentiates CBIS from other providers out there in the world. We have systems that support CDMA, TDMA, analog and GSM. We support the two largest CDMA carriers in the United States. On the GSM front we obviously have capability and that experience will probably help us more than anything.

For the last five years, everybody in the market has been predicting that next year would be the year when wireless data explodes. But it hasn’t yet. A lot of the blame is put on the fact that we don’t have the killer application yet for data services.

We’re supporting the limited data services that our clients currently offer and we are prepared. We’re watching that market as it evolves and we will be supporting the killer applications of the future as they occur.

With respect to converging services, another key differentiator for CBIS is that we have an established business in wireline telephony with long distance and local service. We have a whole division dedicated to the cable industry, we are one of the leading providers of cable systems and we are the leading provider of wireless systems. So who better to take you into convergence than CBIS?