Rethinking telecom enterprise billing for ICT services

enterprise ICT services billing
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

The ability to provide connectivity services has been a critical revenue driver for telecom operators that offer enterprise services. But as the world becomes more mobile, with consumers using their own devices and industries embracing new technologies (such as 5G, IoT, and edge computing), operators are looking for ways to offer a variety of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) digital services and business solutions to their B2B customers in the hope of increasing customer retention and profitability.

ICT digital services are suitable for any customer segment of telcos, irrespective of their size and domain. It can include small and medium businesses (SMBs), small offices/home offices (SOHOs), large enterprises, and public sector companies across any domain, such as healthcare, manufacturing, IT, education, banking and financial services, smart solutions providers, etc.

While telcos used to focus on connectivity services, today’s revenue growth from non-connectivity services such as cloud and security are leading the way. Hence, telcos behave more like technology businesses that aim to meet the evolving needs of their customers.

Telecom enterprise businesses are evolving from connectivity providers to ecosystem orchestrators

With advances such as smart cities, renewable sources of energy, and massive upgradation of networks and infrastructure, ICT will be a key feature of this development.

Ericsson’s Market Compass 2030  predicts that the CAGR for industry digitalization revenues of ICT players may increase by 12% by 2030 compared to 0.75% for current existing services. According to Transparency Market Research’s latest research report, the telecom enterprise services market could cross US $583 billion by 2030. Other predictions are:

enterprise ICT services
Figure 1: Growth forecasts of the ICT B2B market

The telecom industry is witnessing a paradigm shift in terms of enterprise products and services offered by various communication service providers (CSPs) and digital service providers (DSPs) in the market.

With this shift, enterprise digital ICT services have become integral to modern-day businesses. They provide customers with a range of services, such as cloud computing, software-as-a-service (SaaS), managed services, security, and more.

Traditional ServicesNon-traditional ServicesNext-gen Services
Internet solutions Private networks MPLS VPNs IPLC links Internet Broadband SD-WAN Fixed lines OTT content and apps Connectivity SatelliteMobility solutions Applications Messaging and APIs Cloud services Colocation Cloud contact centre Security Unified communication Cloud voice Managed services IoT connectivity  5G products Mobile VPN/slicing Real-time partner content Network-as-a-Service Drone-as-a-Service MMC-enabled IoT Smart solutions (smart city, smart grid, etc.)  
Table 1: Bouquet of ICT digital services offered by CSPs/DSPs

Challenges of traditional billing for ICT digital services

Traditional enterprise billing systems were designed to support legacy connectivity services that, over the years, have been modernized incrementally. Currently, product portfolios and rating scenarios are growing increasingly complex due to modern technologies (such as 5G, IoT, and edge computing), new digital offerings, and a thirst for service innovation. Some telcos are unaware of these types of new service offerings, while others grapple with legacy invoicing, reconciliation, and payments processes that cannot keep up with nimble digital services. It throws up several challenges around pricing, rating, suppliers, contract management, data, etc.

These new services often come with large numbers of vendors/suppliers that are tough to handle. As products and services get bundled, it leads to complex pricing structures such as recurring subscriptions or one-off usage charges. These bundles may use products and services from upstream partners that are recombined with others (including those owned by the CSP) to be offered downstream to the final consumer.

The absence of a robust, real-time rating engine with balance management is another challenge. Telcos will need ways to handle the millions of events arising from multiple data sources, as in the case of IoT devices. They also need to rate usage and update customer credit accounts in real time. The lack of such capabilities causes poor visibility into spending and usage, resulting in bill shocks, write-offs, and shrinking margins. Further, inflexible billing systems can delay the rollout of new products, thereby impacting time to market.

It is evident that in this new world of digital ICT services, telcos must generate and manage thousands of financial documents such as invoices, statements, disputes, and payments. Most of the existing contracts governing these documents are restrictive for customers, owing to fixed terms and penalties in case customers do not meet the terms of their agreement. However, new digital offerings mandate flexible contracts such that customers can opt in and out of services on-the-fly without fearing penalties. This eventually helps gain customer loyalty as customers are free to choose products that meet their specific needs. Enabling such personalization will call for a 360-degree customer view to visualize current and historical customer information such as billing data, usage per day, important KPIs, risks, revenues, and costs related to customers.

What can a next-gen enterprise billing platform do differently?

An evolved enterprise billing platform addresses the above challenges by giving telcos an intelligent, intuitive, and automated way of handling usage and billing across their complex vendor, customer, product, and service ecosystem. Such a platform can leverage a mix of automation, self-service, big data analytics, and real-time insights into usage and billing to deliver transformational functionalities, such as:

Partner Management: CSPs can offer various digital services beyond connectivity by adapting, prioritizing, and forging valuable relationships with multiple vendors.

Convergent billing for B2B customers and ecosystem partners: CSPs can rollout different out-of-the-box pricing models such as quality of service (QoS) per session, volume-based pricing, and network slicing based on network conditions. Network analytics can be used for real-time rating and re-rating, enabling flexible DIY pricing models. Convergent billing will also enable innovative subscription models and one-time payments using a range of payment methods.

Real-time billing: CSPs will be able to apply B2B prices on events from core networks and applications as they occur and update balances accordingly. This feature is essential to handle 5G use cases and for bundles where the information comes from other systems. Further, this will occur in real-time – as the transactions occur and the balances are adjusted – without waiting for high-load processes at the end of the cycle. For enterprise customers and partners, it will provide advanced payment flexibility and accurate real-time visibility of the services ordered, used, and eventually paid for. Service providers gain significant operational benefits such as faster time to cash, an accurate organizational financial outlook, the ability to perform ongoing quality assurance, and the prevention of revenue leakage or fraud.

Automated Reconciliation and Dispute Management: CSPs can use a workflow-driven approach to handle reconciliation, thereby reducing customer disputes proactively.

Diverse Credit Management: The system can support various payment models, such as pay-as-you-go and postpaid, with several flavours of credit limits. It can also support expenditure management when integrated with several ERP systems.

Real-time Visibility and Transparency: It will give customers a real-time dashboard view of their spending so they can pre-emptively manage costs, optimize reconciliation time, and reduce account management overheads.

Self-Serve Capabilities: Web-based or mobile applications enabling self-serve capabilities such as viewing usage on demand, monitoring real-time trends, 360-degree views of the customer accounts, online access to bills, payments, disputes, etc., will reduce the operational overheads for CSPs.

AI/ML Support: Extensive use of AI/ML models and algorithms for automation and decision-making will help create custom models of advanced business assurance use cases for different digital offerings.

Integration via TM Forum Open APIs: Such a platform paves the way for telcos to adopt a new integration framework based on Open APIs for communication with the core network and BSS and to expose, provision, and monetize innovative digital services with flexibility and lower time to market.

Cloud-native Billing System: A cloud-native, microservices-based architecture with CI/CD is essential to handle new enterprise ICT services with scalability and flexibility. Being highly configurable, it can support many enterprise and partner needs and ensure reduced time-to-market when launching new services or handling massive numbers of new devices, including unattended IoT. It also allows smooth rollout of upgrades without lengthy downtime.

Wide Range of Delivery Models: The solution can be implemented based on the needs of the telco, i.e., on-premises, on public/private/hybrid cloud, SaaS-based on-demand, etc.

Features of a future-ready enterprise ICT billing platform

Modern businesses will increasingly rely on enterprise ICT digital services to enable new and smart business use cases. Hence, a robust B2B billing solution that understands and supports the existing landscape and adapts to new and emerging enterprise ICT services across various domains becomes critical. Such a solution should be flexible enough to support changes in the ecosystem and the evolution of business models while reducing the dependency on vendors.

What CSPs need is a cloud-native ecosystem platform that handles all aspects of B2B business across different verticals. Some of the key features to look for are:

  • 360-degree customer and partner management that handles onboarding, scoring, and performance monitoring by leveraging user-definable attributes and KPIs based on the segment and business case.
  • An enterprise self-care portal and mobile app to drive collaboration, communication, self-care, data exchange, documentation, and real-time visibility of usage and other commercial activities.
  • Automated catalogue-driven billing and settlement that handles the traditional as well as future needs of enterprise customer and partner billing. The solution should, at minimum, offer flexible rating and discounting (build-it-yourself economic models) apart from non-usage and usage rating and billing support of product bundles in the same core, re-rating of aggregated and record-level data with changes, and error detection. It should also support workflow-driven automation of core billing tasks such as user-definable invoicing, reconciliation, and dispute management. These processes should be intelligent enough to consider volume agreements and several tax models based on the type of customer and their region. It also should comply with the financial particularities of each telco by offering integration with the general ledger (GL) and multiple ERP systems.
  • Powerful analytics and AI/ML for personalization, prediction, targeted automation, and open APIs to expose services and integration with multiple upstream and downstream systems.
  • Advanced intuitive reporting and dashboard views that unwrap and present all important billing, loyalty, and performance-related insights to help make strategic decisions. It should also provide real-time visibility and transparency into how partners and enterprise customers use all the features.
  • An intelligent and smart alerting system with the flexibility of a user-definable alerting framework.

Conclusion

The role of a telecom operator is shifting from providing connectivity services to being an ecosystem orchestrator. As new and advanced enterprise ICT digital services penetrate telecom product portfolios, CSPs must juggle the ensuing complexities for their customers and partners. Traditional billing systems cannot keep pace with these changes and complexities. Hence, the need of the hour is a robust Enterprise ICT Billing system that uses AI/ML, cloud, automation, and big data analytics to offer end-to-end billing and rating of a complete bouquet of digital services. Such a solution can provide customer management, partner management, a self-care and mobile app, intuitive dashboards, and smart alerts, allowing telcos to confidently take advantage of and monetize enterprise ICT digital services.

Related article: If enterprises trust CSPs, why are we not seeing more innovation?

Article written by Paulo Zanotto, Head – Partner Ecosystem Management at Subex Limited.

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