Single billing for business communications has just gone all-singing, all-dancing, according to Nottinghamshire-based start-up Timico.

The one-year-old company today launched a hosted IP PBX Centrex service, adding VoIP to its combined fixed, mobile and Internet offering. It said this made it the first company in the UK to offer such a comprehensive service under a single bill.

The major telecoms companies offer all of the same voice and data services, BT today even launching a combined fixed-mobile phone for the residential market. But they are seldom able to offer single billing for all these services as their billing systems for their separate voice and Internet business units, for example, are not just disparate but gargantuan.

"With thousands or millions of customers running up billions of minutes, switching from one billing system to a new consolidated one is a major undertaking," said one telco insider.

"Single billing in big telecoms companies is often a manual process. A person has to pull them all together into one document."

Duncan Brown, consulting director at consultancy IDC, agreed that the leading companies were challenged. "They were even challenged on billing per second. They will have to quite radically re-architect their billing systems.

"Converged billing is where the customer demand is," he said.

He said he knew business customers who received 500 to 600 separate mobile phone bills at a time and had to hire temps to process them.

SMEs in particular were suffering and would pay a premium for services that would ease their administrative burden. This would create a window of opportunity for smaller companies like Timico who may or may not be the first, Brown said, but would certainly not be the last.

"I think there is a short-term opportunity for niche providers to get in there with the SMEs. But the large players will catch up."

The big telecoms providers have started building new billing systems to provide customers with what they want. But this is described as being like painting the Forth bridge - once they’ve finished there will be a whole new set of products, services and expectations to deal with.

Old fashioned voice was easy to bill, by time used, Brown said. But data could be charged for in a variety of ways, per packet, per megabyte or, using games as an example for applications, per bullet.

"There’s a whole degree of sophistication growing exponentially. Billing capability is lagging behind that," he said.

Smaller providers are seen as able to change their systems rapidly. Firms like Timico could be seen as biting at the heels of the mid-market players also.

Companies such as Vonage are aiming to provide VoIP to UK businesses but competing converged services could become the norm, offering savings on separate providers.

"Using a Nortel-based solution, our aim is to take VoIP beyond the free Internet telephone call, providing a complete service that allows businesses of all sizes to enjoy the benefits of cutting edge communication without the high capital costs associated with installing your own switch," said Mike Webb, Timico’s managing director.

"We expect this service to halve our customers’ total fixed line costs."