There's an old saying amongst telecoms operators that if you can't bill for a service, then you shouldn't offer it. For network managers, now being given responsibility for their company's mobile data environment, the equivalent warning might read 'don't take a service unless you know that you're going to be billed efficiently and accurately for it...'
Billing's always been a fairly problematic area for telecoms service providers. In the old monopoly days there was only one game in town and, if you disagreed with BT's bills, there wasn't much in the way of redress unless you had a fair bit of commercial clout. While competition has brought prices tumbling, especially for larger companies, the sheer complexity of the billing environment - particularly when it comes to assigning costs and managing different devices and levels of access - still causes headaches for many businesses.
Ironically enough, the telecoms industry itself has major issues when it comes to sorting out the bills for interconnection between different service providers. Many tens of millions of dollars are lost and gained each year thanks to inaccurate billing between different operators. When it comes to the industry getting itself sorted to face the incoming flood of issues arising through the new content, application and data services now appearing, those problems are set to increase exponentially.
So, if you've suddenly been tasked with taking charge of mobile communications - as well as all the data infrastructure stuff that you do in your day job - what should you be looking out for ?
Well, as ever, size matters. If you're a 'proper' enterprise - generally classed as above 200 mobile users, according to most of the mobile service providers out there - then those service providers will provide a range of web-based tools that allow an authorised customer to set up and analyse their usage. These also usually include enough flexibility to set up billing structures and cost codes that reflect internal organisation, analyse usage by a variety of parameters such as cost, frequently called numbers and geography, and in some cases, actively provision new phones or switch off unused ones.
So, unless you want to enter spreadsheet hell, tools like this are a godsend. It's also important to remember that billing information is going to be used by your own company in its dealings with the taxmen, so you will also need this data to be available in a form approved by Customs and Excise, such as on a CD ROM.
This information is also invaluable for beating your mobile service provider around the head with when it comes to getting the best deal. The mobile market is already intensely competitive anyway and the business market is seen as especially crucial for operators looking to position themselves to take advantage of new revenue streams from data services - and pay off the crazy sums they paid for 3G licences. The last thing any service provider wants is to see their golden geese churn away to another vendor before they've invested in data.
For smaller companies - or those that are only now seriously addressing mobile issues - there may also be a bit of historical baggage to deal with, as well as a chance to influence corporate technology strategy for the better. Carl Boraman, director at Axxent, one company that specialises in helping businesses manage their relationships with fixed and mobile providers through billing tools and other services, explains, "In the early days, mobile phones had pretty much the same status as paperclips - ordered through a catalogue or bought individually by people often fairly low down in the company hierarchy. While there's still a huge amount of inevitable inertia when it comes to changing mobile service providers, decision making is moving up the executive tree - especially if it involves senior managers wanting the latest handsets and devices or IT applications being expanded into the mobile area.
"The last area can be particularly sensitive as it may involve strategic changes in the way a business operates and executives may not want this to become common company knowledge, in its early stages at least. Decision making about mobile communications within a company often becomes a sort of no-man's land. Laptops are respected but mobile phones are still largely seen as a low-value, low-impact commodity. That is, until the bills come in or someone's found accessing 'inappropriate' content over their new smartphone..."
As well as consultancy and service companies that can help get the best value from telecoms service providers - like Axxent mentioned above and Mala Communications - there are also a number of industry initiatives underway to help develop and apply best practice amongst both service providers and their enterprise customers. Probably the highest profile at the moment is Billing for Business, run by the Communications Managers Association, which has a wealth of information on its website - as well as details of an upcoming conference on the subject in March 2004 at which businesses and service providers get together to discuss billing.
With an estimated £1billion going astray in both cash and overheads as a result of poor billing relationships between service providers and their customers, we really are talking telephone numbers here.