Part 1: Why Billing Systems Matter

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Billing. So vital. So vexing. Vital, because most cable billing systems do so very much more than billing.

A hulking glob of entwined databases, cable's billing systems are
"the back office." Sure, they make bills. But most also serve as the control knob for new service and equipment activation, customer care, collections and even technician dispatching and fleet management.

Calling these database behemoths "billing systems" is like calling the sun a source of light. It's that, sure. But it's also life-sustaining — sometimes in a life-draining way.

It's vexing, because billing systems are always among top three reasons why such-and-such a new service can't be launched more quickly. A million dollars and 18 months, the grumble goes, to eke data-service tiering, multiple-Internet-service provider accommodation, or subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) from an existing billing system.

Paying the $1 million for the go raises the risk of a late arrival to the popularity party for the new service — once it finally launches, 18 months later. And what if it's a dud, and needs to be replaced with the next new thing, as soon as possible?

When your brain says "Ramming speed!" and your body proceeds at a walk, it's hard to be competitive.

THE BACK STORY

Cable providers and billing-system suppliers offer a mix of reasons to explain how the billing situation became so much like bindweed.

In a big generalization, the incumbent billing systems became back-office giants at around the time of analog addressability, they say. Something needed to tell the addressable controller that a new customer was clear for service, or that a disconnect was necessary.

That something was the billing system. Most of the additional automation of cable's day-to-day operations emanated from the billing system, patch by patch.

Some point to Time Warner Cable's Hawaii properties, which always seem to be able to launch new stuff really fast. Why? Because they built their own billing system, and run it themselves.

Fine, then. Switch over to a more flexible system. Decouple the databases.

As tempting as a wreck-out and remodeling job may be, changing billing systems is painful. Cable's billing systems are textbook-intrinsic. The replacement decision is like deciding whether to replace your own veins, or hope they don't collapse: Take the pain now, or take more pain later.

See for yourself. Walk up to the general manager of any cable system and suggest that it's time to change billing systems. You'll probably get an impressively loud non-verbal reaction — somewhere between a pencil in the eye and periodontal surgery on the scale of winces.

That's not to say it can't be done. Billing systems can and do get overhauled. It's just one of those things that makes for some anxiousness and long hours, in a shrunken workplace, where not many (employed) people are wandering around looking for new projects.

Overhauling the billing system usually involves a blackout period, or a few days in which the databases are converted, record by record, to the new system.

What's "blacked out" is any automated thing that happens, or needs to happen: Service-level changes, billing questions, credits, installations, disconnects, work orders. The activities can still happen, of course, but recording is handled manually until the new system is ready.

Somewhere near the blackout period — hopefully before it — everyone who uses the old system needs to learn how the new one works. And if anything goes bump in the night during the actual billing cut-over, the blackout period lengthens.

ALERT ISSUES

Some operators sheepishly acknowledge another reason why billing systems so frequently take the heat for sluggishness: The internal people responsible for the system sometimes aren't alerted to new-service launch plans soon enough.

If you haven't noticed this already, the people we brand "MIS" (management information system) and "IT" (information technology) do a lot more than absorb our teeth-clenched freakishness when the laptop crashes. They make the automated core of the cable business work, and they probably have piles of ideas about the types of advanced planning that would make life — and launches — easier.

Of course, there are other, probably bigger impediments to swifter new service launches, like the maw of software integration, and the thin-ness of the installed base of digital set-tops, to mention just two.

That's what people are talking about when they list the billing system among the things they'd like to shore up for an increasingly transaction-oriented marketplace. Next time, the types of billing challenges ahead.

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