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Next-Gen Billing: Selling Others’ Goods?

26 июня 2009

Some envision a future where wireless carriers need to be more like Amazon, selling digital goods of all shapes and sizes. If that happens, billing companies are prepared to lend a hand.

In days of yore, the only thing carriers had to worry about was voice. Aside from brutal competition and the occasional hostile takeover, life was peaceful. And then along came data.

Carriers now support downloads, streaming video, SMS, mobile payments and more. This expanding mobile ecosystem has prompted carriers’ billing service providers to get ready for a future where their carrier clients transform from basic technology service providers into digital retailers.

According to some billing industry professionals, this is what the future looks like: Carriers sell not only their standard phones, service plans and accessories, but more digital retail products. They will house, distribute and merchandize third-party content like never before.

Application store fronts are just the start. “Operators have to [solve] the decoupling between traffic and revenue, and they’re coming out with new business models like application store fronts to generate more revenue,” notes Aditya Kaul, senior analyst covering mobile networks for ABI Research.

It’s a world where scale and variety are much more important, where carriers make money by selling both their own products and other people’s products, collecting money for storing, merchandizing, billing and shipping other companies’ digital goods.

“Essentially, what service providers are going to have to become is more like retail companies,” says Rob Rich, managing director of TM Forum Insights Research, an industry consortium looking at best practices across the telecom industry.

Rich draws an analogy between Amazon in the analog world and carriers in the digital world: They house, deliver and merchandize a variety of products for third-party vendors.

Essentially, service providers will do those retail functions for digital products. “They’ve got servers to store the digital products, networks to deliver them and the knowledge of their customer base with which to merchandize them,” Rich says. “In their customer relationships, they are going to have to become much more like Amazon – they’ll need to understand their customers… behave more like a retailer, not a technology service provider. The shelf is going to be full of products and they need to merchandize those. It’s a whole different mindset.”

Rich points out several basic examples he says indicate that carriers are incorporating digital retailing into their business model: IPTV, ringtones, app stores. However, Rich says that these examples are rudimentary compared to what is coming.

The United States is well behind European and East Asian countries when it comes to selling new kinds of services. Near-field communications (NFC) is spreading through East Asia and gaining a foothold in Europe, and Rich says there’s already a company in China that delivers an avatar-based social networking capability.

Merchandizing their digital goods also will be an important part of the equation. If carriers can overcome privacy concerns and regulatory hurdles, the information they have on their customers could be an essential tool.

Billing companies increasingly are seen as an important tool in making mobile adver-tisements a success by providing carriers with customers’ individual buying preferences and habits so that mobile advertising is targeted and relevant. Without information guiding the right ad to the right person, mobile advertising could turn into nothing more than spam clogging up the text message inbox. Worse case scenario: It could incentivize subscribers to defect to a less annoying carrier.

“You have to do it right. If you don’t, you’re going to upset a lot of subscribers and they’re going to opt out,” says Mark Pendergast, director of product marketing at Comverse. “You have to make sure you’re not upsetting subscribers, and on the back end, do the reconciliation between the subscriber and the third-party advertiser.”

From its humble beginning as ringtone sales, digital retailing has sizable implications for a forward-looking business strategy. For billing companies, it’s a whole new world.

It’s a world where billing companies use advanced real-time billing capabilities, consumer habits and buying preferences, consolidate multitudinous complex systems – all in an effort to monetize emerging applications and differentiate carriers from technologically identical competitors.

Billing companies are investing massive amounts of R&D capital in software that addresses the needs of intelligent retailers.

They are building additional systems to complement their legacy voice billing support, beefing up real-time billing and specialized services for data usage. They are also billing in more creative ways to meet the demands that 4G products and prepaid services are placing on them, as with T-Mobile’s pay-by-the-day prepaid plan.

Amdocs, a dominant player in the U.S. billing services provider market with big-name clients like AT&T and Verizon Communications, is preparing itself for a future in which carriers focus on the retail applications within a device instead of the product itself.

“In the mid-term to long-term, the telecommunications industry will rapidly mature and this specific segment – network operations – will be commoditized… If we look at other maturing industries, they manage to overcome this commoditization by focusing on the package and not the product,” says Rafi Kretchmer, product marketing director of the revenue management division at Amdocs.

Citing initial proprietary services, Kretchmer expects the device to “become more like today’s Internet ecosystem, except that the Internet was like that from the beginning.

There are doubters, however. Despite the buzz of activity on the billing service provider side, carriers have kept mum on the subject of intelligent retailing. Wireless carriers are notorious for keeping quiet on the details of their future competitive strategies so perhaps their refusal to comment is to be expected. Still, some analysts just don’t see retail as the wave of the future.

“It’s not on their radar. [Carriers] said they don’t have any plans, and I don’t see demand,” says Morningstar analyst Swami Shanmugasundaram. He sees no indications that carriers are making large strides into the digital retail space, adding that while carriers will be willing to spend money to discover alternate revenue sources, there is no additional money flowing toward billing companies, and that’s going to be the case for some time to come.

“Carriers are being conservative with the amount of money they want to spend on these projects. That’s going to be the case with almost all of these companies, and will be the driving factor for the next six to eight quarters,” says Shanmugasundaram, adding that carriers are unlikely to make aggressive moves until well after the recession is over and the competitive case becomes more obvious.

It may be awhile before billing companies see a return on their investment into systems designed to handle a sharp uptick in digital retailing. Carriers are holding tight to their capital, and expansion efforts will be cautious until the worst of the recession is over.

But if and when digital retailing does take off, billing companies will be there, ready and waiting.


Источник: Wireless Week

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