With all the buzz about cable’s pursuit of the “triple play” of voice, video and data services, it’s easy to neglect the one key element that in many ways drives home the strategy — agile billing systems.
“The big task is to support all of these services on one platform,” said Jason Briggs, a manager at the Yankee Group who covers the cable billing sector.
Yet calling these platforms “billing systems” is like calling the Hummer an automobile — almost an understatement.
What gives these platforms added traction is their ability to provide key customer-care tools in addition to cranking out bills each month. All of the major platforms are keen on placing the customer-service representative (CSR) in the driver’s seat, with detailed customer information culled from back-office databases to push new and bundled services when they take calls.
And in a very competitive sector, featuring at least three strong players — CSG Systems Inc., Convergys Corp. and DST Innovis Inc. — platforms are quickly evolving to keep pace with the triple-play aspirations of operators.
Last month, CSG unveiled its Communication Control System (CCS), a revised cable-billing platform which, according to executive director of broadband services Dwayne Ruffin, reflects the company’s focus on a “customer-centric” flow of data.
Cable telephony billing leader Convergys last year released its next-generation Infinys platform, designed to support any combination of communications services, from wireline to wireless, said senior director for cable and broadband Curt Champion.
Embarking on perhaps the most ambitious iteration of its billing platform is DST Innovis, which is building a new system merging customer-relationship management (CRM) features with business-process management (BPM) functionalities, from the ground up. The unnamed platform is first scheduled to appear in May, for early adopters.
“This is brand new, not an extension of our legacy product,” said DST Innovis vice president of product management Michelle Nowak.
Each of these platforms share some common features, including support for Web self-care applications, letting subs access account information online to pay bills and sign up for new services.
CSG — which, according to Briggs, controls about 45% of the cable and direct-broadcast satellite billing market — has developed a new functionality (technically a database “object”) for its platform called “The Customer.” This object allows customer data to be captured even if that customer has separate accounts for separate services.
The retrieved data can then be presented through a user interface, dubbed “Advanced CSR.”
Additionally, an enhanced order-entry system for CSRs includes a feature called “Enhanced Campaign,” which provides a way for CSRs to click on a promotional button while accessing a customer record that calls up a specific promotion — for example, an offer of high-speed Internet service at a reduced rate in the customer’s area.
Enhanced Campaign is intended to reduce CSR call times and “reduce the likelihood an order will roll into the field incorrectly,” said Ruffin.
Responding to the industry’s move to Internet-protocol voice services, CCS adds elements to order entry and provisioning that weren’t necessary for circuit-switched telephony, such as assigning multiple Media Access Control (MAC) addresses to customer-premises Multimedia Terminal Adapters (MTAs) and matching telephone numbers with IP addresses to create “fully qualified domain names.”
One unnamed customer has installed CCS, said Ruffin, adding that a number of other operators plan to migrate to the new platform this year.
Publicly, CSG this month inked a new deal with Comcast Corp., with new clauses modifying its original deal with predecessor AT&T Broadband.
CSG also forged a deal with Mediacom Communications Corp. last month for its self-care and electronic bill presentment and payment modules.
Traversing into the world of interactive TV, CSG Systems last year demonstrated an ITV application that lets users pay and subscribe to services via their remote control.
Ruffin said the vendor has a “handshake agreement” with a major unnamed MSO to use the application, developed in conjunction with Navic Networks Inc.
With a contract renewal from Insight Communications Co. Inc. announced last month — and a five-year renewal forged last October with cable triple-play king Cox Communications Inc. — Convergys has the distinction of supporting approximately 95% of cable telephony billing, according to Yankee Group.
The company commands a market share of about 18% of cable and DBS, said Briggs.
Convergys’s “next-generation” business support system, Infinys, was introduced last year. Among other things, it’s designed to handle multiple telephony rating plans, plus nontraditional wireless voice and data services that operators may bundle with their service offerings.
Cox intends to migrate to the new platform, Champion said.
Infinys is based upon IBM Corp.’s WebSphere Web-services platform and is written in Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and C++. Users of Convergys’ standard ICOMS platform will be able to migrate to Infinys via upgrade.
While legacy billing platforms might require new programming to accommodate new product and service types, Champion said, Infinys was designed to provide native support to new service combinations.
The key component of a billing system that supports voice is a rater. In a nutshell, a rater calculates the various calling plans and rates associated with telephony service.
The Infinys rater, said Champion, can support any mix of switched and VoIP services, plus interactive services transactions.
DST Innovis (formerly CableData Inc.), with about 33% cable/DBS billing market share according to estimates from The Yankee Group, is busily engaged in the development of its new platform working with customer focus groups to fine-tune the final release, according to Nowak.
The company counts Comcast, Cablevision Systems Corp., Adelphia Communications Corp. and DirecTV Inc. as customers.
Also focusing on a customer-centric environment, the platform includes an “extremely agile and seamlessly integrated front end,” said Susan Wing, director of strategic product marketing. It can help an operator determine which pieces of data CSRs view on-screen and in what order.
The secret sauce atop the new platform is a “business-rules engine” that will let operators decide which products should be offered to which customers by extracting address information from billing databases to match geographic service availability, Wing said.
The platform uses a rules engine from ILOG Inc. and is based on a J2EE architecture for converged-services delivery.
RULES CAN CHANGE
The platform was designed so nonprogrammers can set and change the business rules that apply to service offerings and promotions and improve time-to-market for new services.
Through business-process management technology borrowed from the company’s Automated Workflow Distributor (AWD) product, the platform interfaces with other back-office systems to link billing databases with order entry, service activation and other systems.
As the major billing vendors retool their platforms, “the differentiation will come into play with the support of voice [services],” said Briggs.