MEDIA COVERAGE
 
 
Networld - April 1, 1998
Telecommunications - May We Have The Bill, Please?
 
Imagine that from now on, every time you went to a restaurant, you had to be like one of those irritating people who insist on adding up every item on the bill for the petty pleasure of discovering that nine times out of 10 the total is "slightly" incorrect.

You also acquire an unfortunate compulsive disorder which demands that you eat out according to which restaurant has, for instance, the best soup du jour, the finest appreciation of aldente and the most delicious profiteroles meaning that a quick bite to eat invariably takes hours. If you are the person responsible for your organisation's telecommunications, this could be you.

Once upon a time, Australian business users knew where they stood regarding their telecommunication needs.

Telstra's fiercely guarded monopoly of the telco industry ensured that organisations were unaware of the sorts of issues and choices facing them today.

And as for price, well naturally, nobody thought to question that much either, except in cases where bills were inaccurate on a scale of magnitude.

But times have changed and deregulation and higher expectations have seen Telstra criticised in many quarters for inaccurate billing.

"I see no evidence of Telstra deliberately overcharging," said Allan Horsley, managing director of Atug, but it has managed to put many off side with its sloppy billing activities.

One of the more notable recent gestures on the part of Telstra was its roll-out in November last year of its Total Call Record Systems (TCRC) which effectively heralded the concept of itemised local calls in Australia. The opportunity to reel in local call costs became a reality almost overnight. "Up until then we were happy to simply pay 25 cents per call," Horsley said.

Equally as sudden, treating the customer right has become paramount. With the addition of competition into the local marketplace, businesses are seeking to exploit new windows of opportunity as they formulate strategies for increased communication efficiencies. However, equally important is to rein in the formidable costs associated with telecommunications usage.

An essential part of achieving this, according to Horsley, is the accessibility of accurate and detailed billing information.

"Customers will begin to see billing as important because they are using it to compare price between providers. At the moment, most organisations just pay the figure appearing at the bottom of the bill.

"This is changing, with the carriers themselves now realising the importance of getting it right."

By law, carriers must provide proper billing information, but there is currently no industry standard governing this. Consequently, many of the major telcos rely on internally developed proprietary software systems, typically large but lacking in scalability and flexibility, according to Rob van der End, managing director of PowerServe.

PowerServe has come to market with what it claims is the first commercially available telecommunications billing software which the company recently sold to Primus Telecommunications, Australia's third largest carrier. The PowerServe product is called Bill Point Analyser (BPA): Primus will market the product to its customers under the banner --
"Primus Alliance".

According to van der End, Primus, like its major rivals, Optus and Telstra, had its own internal system. However, in recognition of user demand for more sophisticated billing, the company has thrown out its old system in favour of the PowerServe solution.

"All the inhouse products are failing to keep up with the speed of change and most of them are slow and hard to use. Billing had a bad name".

The PowerServe system will allow Primus to provide a billing service capable of drilling right down to not only the specific service used by its customers, but also providing itemised usage profiles for an individual telephone, officials said. One of the company's clients, which shall for obvious reasons remain nameless, was able to trace the use of 0055 numbers throughout its organisations and take the appropriate disciplinary action with confidence, thanks to this product. While PowerServe is yet to sell its product to any other local carriers, it claims negotiations are currently under way with several local carriers.

Savings resulting from dramatically reduced costs of telecommunications infrastructure, partly due to fibre-optic links and digital telephone exchanges will serve to bring more businesses into the fold, thereby increasing demands on carrier billing capabilities.

Telstra, while unlikely to suffer the corporate equivalent of the demise of the Roman Empire or the Third Reich, is definitely displaying signs of an empire in decline. And in order to ensure that it survives the current period of market rationalisation, the company has placed heavy emphasis on customer billing.

With 13 telecommunications carriers now operating in Australia, Telstra is being forced into the unfamiliar territory of customer service and proper accountability as the strict parameters of real competition close in.

According to Horsley, organisations are now being forced into a situation whereby creating the most cost effective communications solutions for their organisations involves much more than ringing around for a few quotes, or in the case of large companies, striking an arrangement with one carrier. Gone are the days when an organisation placed all of its eggs in the one basket.

Deregulation and the introduction of greater competition into the market is forcing organisations to negotiate through a proverbial sea of new choices, which provide both new opportunities for better cost management while at the same time threatening the onset of a serious administrative migraine. But regardless of whether an organisation opts for the one provider or several, billing still carries the risk of confusion. Even before deregulation, certain large organisations such as the National Australia Bank invested considerable time and energy keeping track of the rivers of its money flowing into Telstra's coffers.

For starters, if a company decides to put all its eggs in the one basket, there is an onus more on the provider to bring it all together and bill accurately. But how does a company know if the tab really matches the goods?

On the other hand, spreading the risk around among a few providers is asking for trouble as well. What once seemed a clever strategy for squeezing more out of the companies comms dollar can quickly become a logistical mess.

The bottom line is that organisations are being forced to control their telco costs more ruthlessly than ever before, and while it may seem a catch 22 situation for users happy to remain loyal to the one major carrier, the real savings lie in using multiple carriers, Horsley said.

For instance, a company may decide that it wants one provider for its interstate calls and another to carry its calls within state boundaries. In addition, a company may decide to go with any number of international carriers for its global communication needs. Then there is the need to choose a mobile telephony network operator as well as an Internet service provider.

Market forces are expanding the scope for choice as carriers drill down deeper in search of the right consumer decision nerves. Some carriers charge according to peak/off peak times -- which of course vary depending on the destination of the call and indeed the carrier's own definition of "peak" -- while others don't.

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