Against progress in the billing sector stands the obstacle of legacy technology to which an intransigent and substantial section of the industry is wedded, claims Strategic Imperatives Head of Business Development Tim Sayer.
Strategic Imperatives has shown itself adept at mapping the only sane path in a billing landscape defined by two starkly different trajectories, according to Sayer, who says arguments in favour of modern systems over legacy technology are tantamount to one-way traffic. "Legacy billing platforms are designed to bill for lines and calls," he stated. "This has no relevance in today's fast changing comms environment and keeps the channel in virtual shackles. There is only so much you can do to crowbar today's modern services into a traditional billing platform before it becomes a barrier to growth and ultimately a terminal risk."
You only have to consider Openreach's new consultation to withdraw WLR to understand the limitations of legacy technology and the dangers of being wedded to it, believes Sayer. "This is critical," he emphasised. "It is also important for providers to look beyond billing as a mechanism to calculate and produce invoices. A billing platform should be the cornerstone of revenue assurance, ensuring profitability and automated due diligence with the multitude of suppliers a typical CP deals with."
It is impossible to argue against the rationale put forward by Sayer, who says billing vendors owe it to their customers to be more flexible and better able to accommodate the different ways that CSPs want to service and bill end users. "In some cases that may require an element of re-engineering, but there is a limit to what a software company can shoehorn into legacy architecture," commented Sayer. "I'm not talking big picture stuff here. It's often the simple things that make the most difference. Recent examples include the fact that calls don't always originate from a telephone number, so why try and enforce that? Cloud usage data doesn't look like a traditional CDR so why should users be manipulating data in Excel before it can be billed?"
The concept of a bill run, a phrase that is synonymous with billing, is a historical legacy that is well past its sell by date
Strategic Imperatives built its system from the ground up. The design was greatly influenced by observations of what was good and bad about legacy implementations, with adaptability being prioritised as a core strength, not only to ensure the platform evolved with the industry but also to manage the stick-in-the-mud nature of traditional operations. "We invested heavily in creating generic usage rating and subscription rating engines that allow CSPs to monetise any product, service or event," explained Sayer. "But we are surprised by the longevity of traditional PSTN-based services and the time it's taking for the move into IP-based hosted models."
Unlike traditional systems, Strategic Imperatives' multi-tenanted real-time Elevate billing platform is based on AWS and offers multitasking, hyper scalability and disaster recovery along with financial grade security and encryption. Open APIs mean customers can build OSS/BSS implementations including CRM, provisioning, ticket management and revenue assurance systems which communicate with the billing platform. The company operates a PAYG licensing model which, says Sayer, levels the playing field by supporting businesses of all kinds with equal scale and automation.
Strategic Imperatives has also modified its approach to bring its billing system to CSPs of all sizes, enabling them to leverage the capabilities of open APIs and achieve implementations that punch above their weight alongside the bigger players and those with an in-house development team. "We want to level the playing field and will play a more active role in bringing the benefits of automation to CSPs," stated Sayer.
"We are in the process of creating a number of out-of-the-box integrations with third party systems such as Salesforce, and working with integration partners to design, manage and deliver projects on behalf of businesses that may not have the capability to do so themselves. CSPs should keep an open mind and not accept bad or outdated practices as the norm. Billing doesn't have to be time-consuming or complicated."
Strategic Imperatives sees itself as a technology company and invests heavily in its own R&D and skills to stay ahead of hi-tech advances in areas such as AWS which is in a state of near permanent innovation, creating new ways for companies to leverage more powerful services. "A big focus area is data and analytics, and AWS services such as Redshift allow us to bring enterprise grade solutions to the masses," stated Sayer. "The channel is rapidly evolving to be a much more technology centric marketplace with requirements to bill for hybrid cloud services, IoT and M2M as well as the need to offer complex support and licensing capabilities."
Elevate's functionality and hyper-scale technology means core usage, subscription rating and invoice production engines can be measured in minutes rather than hours and days. "The majority of our roadmap sits around the fringes of that core functionality and we are working with customers in areas such as supplier reconciliation, usage monitoring and data analytics," added Sayer.
"Once a business has freed up resources by accelerating the bill run and streamlining processes though integration and automation, it's the areas of revenue assurance, acquisition and churn, ARPU and margin that are the most important. There are some great data analysis tools out there but the challenge for billing vendors is to take that data and present it to users as information that can be easily understood and actioned."
This capability is crucial in combating the emergence of ‘unicorn' companies making a success of the recurring billing model as they exploit the new subscription economy. "Right now these unicorns don't have the core usage rating capability that's still an essential part of the portfolio for most CSPs, so they would struggle to make inroads into the channel," noted Sayer. "However, we are keeping a close watch and continue to invest in our own subscription and usage rating capability to ensure that we provide a tailor-made solution to the changing requirements of CSPs."
The billing sector faces its greatest challenge in a generation and its future success hinges on an industry-wide consensus being reached to break the chains of legacy modes of operation and deliver what the modern market ordains. And according to Sayer, the legacy versus modern billing hold-up is as much about perception and semantics as it is the long stretch of obsoleteness. "The concept of a bill run, a phrase that is synonymous with billing, is a historical legacy that is well past its sell by date," stated Sayer.
"Its origins lie in technology limitations at both the network operator and billing software levels. The concept is fundamentally flawed and is not compatible with a culture focused on flexibility, real-time and an emphasis on the ‘power of now'. Billing systems should focus on the customer. If they want to be billed weekly, daily or monthly then that should be possible. If they prefer regular micro payments - why not? Networks are almost there, but billing systems are still some way behind."