Kari Pulkkinen looks at how online cost control can help operators build a business case for convergent charging
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The uptake of converged communications has brought with it a wide range of new opportunities for service providers. Triple and quadruple-play services, including video services as well as applications, download and other content services, are being increasingly accepted into the mainstream and demanded by business users and consumers alike. However, these news services all need to be accurately charged for and billed to the customer to ensure ongoing usage and maximised revenue. How best to achieve this is currently of major concern to operators and service providers alike.
In addition to the concerns around accurate billing, is the question of how to ensure that all customers receive the same level of experience – whether they are post or prepaid. Currently, prepaid customers tend to receive limited services and charging models from their providers due to concerns amongst those service providers that their billing solutions have limitations that offer a potential window for fraud. Although in the past, operators have been hesitant about allowing full service offerings to prepaid subscribers, they are now looking for solutions that allow them to fully capitalise the potential of prepaid services without having revenue leakage and fraud problems. One such solution, which can enable operators to offer more services to the prepaid user, is online charging. By deploying online charging solutions, operators can offer all services to all users while closing the gap on fraud and revenue leakage. Such a solution allows operators to fully capitalise their prepaid potential and, ultimately, fulfil end-user needs with wider service offering.
One final consideration revolves around the issue of ‘usage control’. Traditionally usage control has been linked to the prepaid payment option. However, there is much wider need for usage control regardless of the payment method. As an example, given the focus on children’s use and exposure to such services, an increasing number of parents require this additional level of control. Cost control is an important element, as parents want to control their children’s spending. Particularly important for younger children, as they get their “first mobile”, this type of cost control can educate younger users about usage of mobile services. Online cost control helps both parents and children in these tasks.
There are a variety of service concepts that could cater to helping parents and children control spending, for example, a fixed monthly fee and, on top if it, controlled usage with a user (parent) defined limit. This type of personalised billing model ensures that parents remain confident about costs, and encourages long term usage. For operators, the fixed monthly fee ensures at least the minimum revenue from customers.
In addition, it is vitally important for operators to recognise the role of online cost control in managing both fraud and credit risk, as this can have the greatest impact on their bottom line. Offering new services, particularly those in emerging markets, is creating new opportunities for revenue, but it also risks exposing operators to increased credit risk. As part of convergent charging, online cost control can help mitigate against risk through a hybrid approach. A customer would have a fixed limit for post-paid usage that, once exceeded, would automatically switch the payment method to a prepaid mode. The use of pre-paid account mode is enabled through top-up.
While it is increasingly clear that the key to successful convergent charging lies in a unified charging infrastructure, achieving this ‘holy grail’ continues to be a major consideration for operators. The more forward thinking operators have already started to develop the business cases and service concepts around convergent charging. A significant building block in this model lies in accurate ‘online cost control’ both for users and operators alike.
As discussed, the number of new services being introduced open up the operator to increased risk. Even though the majority of users do not set out to maliciously defraud the service provider, their unfamiliarity with new services and pricing structures means that it is much more likely that they will exceed anticipated costs, which can result in large costs and a resulting unwillingness to adopt the service long term. This can be exacerbated when the user is trying to utilise such services while travelling, as the roaming fees can dramatically add to the cost.
In each case, the result is that the customer will be surprised and shocked by the service bill. From an operator’s point of view this outcome can be the death knell for new service adoption, as the customer decides never to use them again and the operator loses all potential future revenues associated with those particular services. Online cost control means that the customer is able to track costs and avoid bill ‘shock’, and are, therefore, much more likely to continue using the service.
This approach benefits operators by allowing them to ensure the credit-worthiness of customers while at the same time maximising revenue streams. Operators can also use this model to differentiate their service offering and set out truly unique propositions not easily imitated by competitors, as often happens when introducing new price plans. At the same time, cost conscious subscribers can feel they can be in control of their spending, while benefiting from the availability of a wide range of services.
Many of these concepts are not new, but there have still not been that many online cost control implementations. This is often due to the fact that operators’ existing billing and prepaid systems have limitations when supporting these types of online cost control service concepts. Again, one effective way to implement this capability is to deploy an online cost control solution. This approach is able to provide flexibility for operators to build their own, individualised service concepts for online cost control. This type of solution can also provide an easy extension path for additional convergent charging areas, such as online data charging for post and prepaid, as well as IP prepaid and other charging solutions and related service concepts.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that online cost control is a must if operators wish to ensure the credit-worthiness of their customers, while enabling those same customers to better control their spending. For both operators and customers, this is a key element to the successful introduction and ongoing uptake of news services and applications. Added to the recognised benefits of service innovation, online cost control goes a long way towards building a business case for convergent charging.
Kari Pulkkinen is VP, Business Development, Comptel