Billing Services | Voice Communications

A number of innovations in billing have been introduced in recent years to help wireless service providers acquire new customers efficiently, meet customers' billing needs, reduce the chances of fraud, manage inventory, and provide unified invoicing to roaming subscribers.

Convergence billing

Cellular calls often must traverse different systems, especially if the mobile user is roaming between systems that are based on different international standards. With many different technologies involved in supporting mobile communications—including wireline and wireless telephony and cable TV—there has come the need for billing software that is capable of tracking and billing cellular calls globally from a single location so that subscribers can receive a unified invoice. This is accomplished with convergence billing systems that use powerful Unix-based engines that reach across differing networks to grab call detail information to which appropriate rates and surcharges can be applied. These convergence billing systems can be linked to third-party credit qualification and inventory control systems via application programming interfaces (APIs) to provide wireless network operators with a fully integrated management solution that can include:

  • Enhanced collections capability enables service providers to monitor their highest risk customers and assign them to specific collectors. The system provides a complete audit trail of all collector activities to support reporting and analysis of collection activities.
  • Telephone number inventory permits service providers to give a new wireless customer a working phone number in real time. The system can track blocks of phone numbers, assign resellers blocks of phone numbers, and assign a block of numbers to a national account.
  • Integration with credit qualification system enables service providers to access third–party credit decision systems for the purpose of screening potential subscribers or existing customers. Credit decisions are made in real time and the information can limit opportunities for subscription fraud.
  • Interface with customer acquisition/mobile equipment inventory management systems allows a service provider to reduce the time it takes to acquire customers in retail, direct, or telemarketing channels and better manage existing inventory of mobile equipment, including handsets and SIM cards. These features enable service providers to rely on one full-featured system to decrease the cost of acquiring new customers and increase inventory turns.

Prepaid cellular

Prepaid cellular service protects cellular revenues through advance payment for service, while allowing service providers to penetrate new markets. Anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of cellular applicants do not meet credit requirements. Prepaid cellular monitors all incoming and outgoing cellular airtime and debits the usage against the subscriber's balance that has been paid in advance. This service can be offered to customers with little or poor credit history, as well as to short-term subscribers such as vacationers and convention attendees.

Prepaid cellular service allows providers to grow their businesses by expanding their pools of prospective customers, as well as protects carriers against customers who might extend their network usage beyond their ability to pay. Through these applications, those customers who have credit problems and may not otherwise qualify for service can now gain access to cellular airtime.

Other prepaid services allow carriers to offer short-term promotional and convenience products, such as prepaid student services. Additional services include prepaid advertising fulfillment, "circle of friends" calling, and budgeted field service calling.

Subscribers hear the status of their account when they log on and can make multiple calls during a prepaid connection. This service can be accessed from any phone and can have prompts designated in various languages for worldwide markets.

The ability to implement prepaid cellular service has spawned a whole new industry based on the renting of cell phones at trade shows, conventions, sporting events, and hotels. This allows people who otherwise would not become paying subscribers to be activated and buy airtime. Prepaid subscribers represent net new minutes for the carriers.

Prepaid cellular is not only for small retailers and agents looking for a market niche. BellSouth Cellular Corp. is among the major companies offering a prepaid cellular program in select service areas. Establishing a new account is very easy. A customer purchases a phone, or can use an existing phone that is not currently linked to a cellular contract, and pays a $30 activation fee. As part of promotional offering, a free $10 calling card is given so customers immediately can start using the service.

BellSouth's prepaid cellular targets several markets including moderate users of about one hour a month, as well as spouses of current users, college students, and people of all age groups who want the security, reliability, and convenience that cellular offers. Because this market segment is not frequently targeted by cellular carriers due to low usage rates, BellSouth now has a way of bringing wireless services to this new customer in a cost-efficient and convenient way.

Customers have the option of purchasing a $30 card good for 30 days, a $60 card good for 60 days, or a $100 calling card good for 90 days. The rate is $0.99 per minute, reflecting a blended rate of access and airtime which enables customers to only pay for actual time used, giving them control of their spending. Customers will be able to make long distance calls and roam out of their home market at reasonable rates.

Prior to placing a call, the account balance is announced based on the type of call (local, roaming, long distance), and is debited in real time. After each call ends, the customer is notified of the dollar balance that remains; when the account reaches a 5 minute balance, the customer is notified that his or her balance is low and is reminded to refill the account. The customer also hears a tone at 3-, 2-, and 1-minute intervals indicating that the account is reaching zero.

When the account is depleted, the customer simply refills the account by purchasing a new card. The account can be refilled in two ways: purchasing a new card at a local BellSouth Mobility store or at a participating agent or retailer, or by credit card which becomes an automatic way to refill the account and requires a form to be completed prior to activation.

Free calls offered include 911 Emergency Services and *611 for Prepaid cellular customer service. By calling *611, a customer reaches a service professional to handle inquiries or render assistance in establishing or replenishing an account.

Call accounting

The key to a successful prepaid service is a highly fraud-resistant call accounting mechanism to track prepaid time and to debit available time in real time as calls occur. There are two main alternatives to performing call accounting: the use of proprietary debit cell phones and a switch-based approach.

Debit cell phones can be programmed with a certain amount of dollars or airtime units, and they debit any prepaid amounts in real time as the subscriber speaks. However, there are significant negative ramifications associated with this billing method:

  • Debit phones require retailers and dealers to set up and support a separate inventory of special-purpose cellular phones; in many cases, special equipment to program the phones would also be required, along with associated costs, training requirements, and security problems.
  • Debit phones are expensive, since production volumes are low and they require special features. This makes it hard to serve the "credit challenged" segment without repeating the problem of requiring high deposits for the phones, and it makes it expensive to get into the prepaid services business.
  • There may be significant security issues, since debiting occurs within the cell phone, which is in subscribers' hands and therefore vulnerable to breach. Since the dealers or agents own and operate the debit phones, they are ultimately responsible for any airtime charges incurred.

Although these problems are overcome with switch-based prepaid services, debit phones may be the only solution if the switch-based solution is not available in the service area.

As for switch-based prepaid services, there are two principal types of switches which can be used for prepaid service accounting and switching. Some prepaid service providers have chosen a large switch architecture, where switches typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are based on proprietary hardware. In other cases, a high-speed PC-based switch is used, though the software is typically unique to the prepaid service provider. "Class of service" restrictions on the cell phone number ensure that all calls pass through the switch's debit subsystem. The subscriber's account is then debited in real-time during the call.

Besides the call accounting system, prepaid service providers must also provide a means to replenish subscribers' accounts as they use cellular services and run through money in their account. For debit phone systems, various methods can be used to refresh a debit phone, including a credit card swipe, special keyboard codes to unlock additional time in the phone's chip, paying a dealer to use special equipment to update the debit phone's account, etc. For switch-based providers, monthly access and other usage fees can typically be paid by buying special phone cards. Subscribers then call into the prepaid service provider's switch to refresh their account with the authorization number from the prepaid card.

Personal account codes

Cellular and PCS subscribers not only can get detailed billing, which itemizes all calls, but they can have an associated feature called personal account codes, which enables them to assign client or account codes to the calls made while in the home area. This makes it easier to charge these calls back to clients, projects, or departments as appropriate.

With Cellular One service, for example, a personal account code is added to a call as follows:

  1. The subscriber enters the phone number he or she wishes to call.
  2. The subscriber presses * plus a 1-, 2-, or 3-digit account code.
  3. The subscriber presses SEND to initiate the call.

When personal account coding is used, calls will be itemized by the account code the subscriber assigns. All uncoded calls and all received calls are listed on the invoice after the coded calls.

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