Wireless carriers are often criticized by subscribers who find themselves surprised by huge bills at the end of the month.
Operators have a number of strategies to combat this. Rogers Communications Inc. says it uses real-time data monitoring technology to cope with the new tidal wave of data usage.
In 2008, says Reade Barber, senior director of mobile data product management at Rogers [TSX: RCI.A and RCI.B], the company was doing about 50 million transactions a day. The figure rose to two billion by 2010. And now, it’s closer to three billion.
The telecom giant credits its DataPass system — a system built with Hewlett-Packard Co.’s help that notifies clients without data plans of their bandwidth usage in real time — with saving the company a lot of time and money.
“It’s very effective first and foremost as a network tool to provide information about how users are using the network in general in terms of volumes, where they’re coming from, times of day, numbers of distinct and unique users — those are very, very difficult things to calculate,” says Ken Marchant, director of real time BSS solutions Americas services at HP [NYSE: HPQ] .
Rogers’ system is basically a modified version of HP’s Internet Usage Monitor (IUM), telecommunications technology first developed in the late 1990s.
“Initially,” explains Marchant, “it was developed to allow internet service providers to gather, monitor and collect usage for either billing purposes or for network service quality, network monitoring purposes, and looking at the early challenges there with correlating radius data with customer usage data, and Internet backbone traffic data.
“Since then, it has really expanded for us into a full suite of online real-time policy and charging solutions built around, in part these days, wireless usage monitoring.”
Telus Corp. has also begun to keeps its customers in the loop about their mobile data usage. “We also send alerts to customers,” says Jim Johansson, director of media relations at Telus, “especially when they’re roaming outside the country. For example, if you’re in the U.S. and you’re using your BlackBerry, we’ll send you a text message on your BlackBerry every time you use $10 worth of network data capacity in the U.S., because we’re just trying to avoid people getting hit with bill shock.”
More than a decade ago, like Rogers and Bell, Telus didn’t have to bother supplying its customers with this kind of information simply because they ran on an analog cellular network, he says. But now, it’s an essential part of the company’s business. “As the networks have evolved and the phones have evolved, and people’s usage of the networks has evolved, we’ve determined that we have to provide that capability,” Johansson says.
Barber says DataPass has solved some major internal problems at Rogers. “Not only is it a very transparent customer experience for those non-data users or people who don’t use data regularly… but we’ve [also] virtually eliminated all the calls into our care centres regarding any kind of credits or adjustments.”
Marchant says that while the system has a host of analytic capabilities, measuring quantity is what matters most in today’s world.
“The most fundamental use of the technology there [at Rogers] is frankly to add up how much technology is being used. But because we’re live in real time… we can introduce billing and business logic into that realtime session,” he says.
At Wind Mobile
, a company that offers its subscribers unlimited data plans, the billing process is a lot simpler. But on the company’s end, things are getting complicated.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Anthony Lacavera, chairman and CEO of Wind. “People are really adopting the unlimited data plan platform, so we have great growth at our subscriber base, but the other side of that sword, obviously, is that it puts tremendous strain on the network very quickly.”
Wind’s challenge today is to keep an eye on how bandwidth is being used, not so much on how much is being used, he explains. “What’s becoming increasingly important is profiling subscribers’ consumption,” says Lacavera, “what we’re starting to call consumption profiles. It’s not just about the total amount. It’s about the types of traffic.”
If Wind subscribers use more than 5 GB of data they could have their bandwidth throttled, or not, depending on when they’re accessing the network. “What we’re trying to do is encourage users to batch content like music content or movies. If they are going to pull music or movies down to their mobile or via Internet using our data stick, what we’re trying to do is encourage that to be done, obviously, in off-peak hours.”
Lacavera says that unlike “the big guys,” Wind hasn’t had to overhaul its backend to perform analytics on customer data usage. “We’re not carrying any legacy infrastructure. Our network is the first full-IP mobile network in Canada. From the core right through to the edge, every system is IP. Voice is actually an application on our network. [It’s] running as Voice-over-IP.
“The network is an Internet-based data network, far more scalable, and obviously we can compress a lot easier, get better hardware utilization.”