Guest

Guest blogs written by friends of talkRA.

Today’s guest blog is by Justin White, Head of Information Technology at BEE Mobile in South Africa. Justin has extensive experience as a developer, consultant and product manager, particularly with CSG International and Intec. During that time, Justin formed his own opinions on how to improve the reconciliation of interconnect bills. He encourages the industry to rethink how we bill each other, and what we do to ensure the accuracy of those bills.

Any process that is performed regularly with consistent outputs should be automated. In cases where the process is resource intensive, the expected results are in the same format and interim data is similar there is no reason why technology cannot be leveraged to better solve the problem in an automated fashion. Reconciliation, in support of the settlement of interconnect invoices, is one of these processes.

As part of the reconciliation process, operators load, translate, map, aggregate and compare data. The end to end reconciliation process consists of multiple smaller tasks, each needing to be completed prior to the next, and the flow is based on sometimes complex rules decided on by the operator, or the environment in which the franchise is operating (e.g.: Codifi). After reconciliation, decisions can be made on the financial settlement applied between the wholesale interconnect partners.

This piece discusses some of the challenges of reconciliation in the wholesale billing sector and how a small change could improve efficiencies in the settlement of these large interconnect invoices.

Context

Each billing cycle, network operators issue invoices, or declarations in the case of certain agreement types, to partners. This exchange of commercial documents is completed in order to settle the interconnect charges relating to calls terminating in their network, or that have been terminated by the partner network. In the case of bilateral agreements, where the operators both terminate traffic for their partner as well as route their own traffic to the partner network, they may elect to exchange invoices and offset any charges for the traffic that was exchanged by them (a form of netting).

These invoices amount to the largest operating cost of an operator, and for this reason the payment of these invoices needs to be based on an understanding that firstly the partner did in fact terminate, or route the traffic that the invoice relates to, is basing the invoice on valid up to date rating information and is operating out of the correct billing cycle. These are just some of the factors that could lead to a discrepancy between what an operator has calculated for an invoice and what a partner feels is actually owed.

One of the biggest disruptors over the last two decades in this market has been the upward drive of traffic from over the top players such as the App Stores as well as the ubiquity of firstly feature phones and then smart phones. This not only drives up the volume of traffic, but also the number of partnerships that are required to be in place for an operator to be fully vested in the market and to take advantage of this growth in traffic, and therefore potential revenue.

Invoice level reconciliation

Invoice level reconciliation is the comparison of invoice level data exchanged by partners during the regular billing intervals they share. This process involves the parsing of invoices received from partners, mapping the data to a common key of sorts, aggregating the data if necessary to a higher level and then comparing the data in order to achieve a result.

The format of the invoices that are exchanged between operators often differs across partners and the loading, transforming and mapping of this data and then comparing to Franchise data of the same form is time consuming and error prone. This time consuming process of reconciliation can lead to disputes being raised by either parties in the agreement.

Dissimilar file processing

As part of this reconciliation process Network Operators may exchange data in order to justify the invoice they submit to a partner, or perhaps to justify the dispute of an invoice received. The format of this data varies considerably and outside the context of a standard such as Codifi in Spain, PISA in Mexico or DETRAF in Brazil, partners are left with the time, and resource consuming task of processing large volumes of data in different formats, covering multiple periods and often not the exact data set required for the reconciliation purposes. Any system that is required to process this data is required to parse, transform and load the data, and only once that has occurred can it execute the necessary aggregation and comparison processes used to support this vital revenue assurance procedure. These dissimilar file formats are a hindrance to any attempt at automating the full process and inevitably leads to interim stages where data needs to be ‘cleansed’ prior to loading.

While there are many tools available that can support the loading of complex file types, the complexity of the configuration of these tools is an inhibiting factor in the maintenance and support of these systems. While powerful, these tools often require technical expertise to configure and maintain them, not necessarily a skill-set that is found in the team responsible for revenue assurance in a network operator. Reconciliation tools also often require that partner data be provided to it in a specific format, or aggregated to a certain level prior to processing. This places further strain on the revenue assurance team who then need to create the required data set out of whatever is provided by the partner.

While the results of this process are often required soon after the invoices are exchanged, factors not always in the control of the Franchise can obstruct speedy conciliation and this can lead to lengthy delays in settlements.

Increasing data volumes

Most conventional reconciliation tools were originally designed and built against manageable volumes and were able to quickly process low to medium volumes. As call and data volumes have grown over the last decade, at times exponentially, these tools have either not been able to keep up, or have been required to be modified to such an extent that the cost of maintenance of these tools outweighs the benefits gained by them, for vendor and operator alike.

A large operator in South America, or the Middle East can process over a billion transactions per day. These volumes are not easily processed in a revenue assurance system where those billion records need to be compared to a partners record set of the same magnitude. During reconciliation, not only does the franchise need to process their own data in order to transform it into a state that it can be reconciled, but also the partner data. The partner, on the other hand also needs to provide this data to the franchise and therefore also is required to extract and process this volume of data. This is required to be completed for each interconnect agreement where detailed reconciliation is required.

Data solution

The solution to the issue around disparate, constantly changing file formats is to remove the files altogether. Removing the files and providing access to the data directly, or indirectly would not only simplify the extraction of data, but would assist in providing partners with the most up to date data as well as in a format that is defined by the partner, for the partner. It is then very feasible for partners to be provided with secure access to billing data related to agreements with the billing data holder.

There are a host of different options available to operators in order to offer up information to partners including direct database access. A database has an array of options in this regard and it is merely a matter of configuring this for each partner agreement. Direct database access is however but one manner in which data can be exchanged, and other options include the implementation of a type of Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) where a variety of protocols can be implemented to provide an interface into a partners billing area such as RESTful web services. This provides an easily accessible mechanism for partners to exchange data in a manner that is not only based on industry standard principles, but also provides a layer of abstraction that is easily managed and controlled by the franchise owner.

Operations

The billing operations running within a network operator, regardless of the size of the operator, are typically supported by a database of some sort. This database, or database set form the backbone of the storage of rated events, or CDRs as well as the aggregation of these CDRs into summaries of some form or another to be used as part of invoicing. A high performance billing engine, with scalable capabilities should allow for periods of inactivity where data can be fed into a staging area of sorts, making it available for extraction by partners.

The issue around processing windows becomes far more prudent given the fact that partners will now need to spend quite some time to extract the necessary data. Discussions around when this can occur, and on what data will be paramount for the success of the process.

Billing updates, rerating and late traffic

A staging area is necessary in cases where a billing cut-off is decided on and rated data at a particular point in time is to be made available to partners. In cases where more up to date, or near real-time data is required, direct access to the data can be provided through more complex database mechanisms that will then take into account updates to rated traffic based on rate changes, or corrections, the rerating, or re-pricing of traffic due to some other network change or even the inclusion of traffic that has been excluded previously for some reason (late traffic).

Resistance to change

While the concept discussed in this text is simple, the implications are far reaching and the processes currently employed within operators would undoubtedly need to change. From the perspective of the debtor, or the operator owing the money, the onus would be on them to extract the necessary data to validate the invoice that is owed by them. For the creditor, or the operator being owed the money, they would need only to make the information available by way of the relevant interface.

Operators may be wary of this methodology as they may feel partners could hold back, or hide information from them in the interface or only provide limited data for processing. Since partners may already be holding this information back as they decide what is to be included in the support file, this is not really a valid concern.

Security may be of concern to operators as opening up channels for extraction could expose them to online attacks and the like. While this is possible, employing the necessary controls in the interface could minimise this risk.

This change could possibly lead to new business models where vendors in the industry could provide exchange type services, and act as a proxy to not only provide the services around the exchange of this data but also to limit the number of required connections for partners and even perform the data validation required. For large operators this may not be necessary but smaller operators could possibly benefit from outsourcing this function.

Concluding thoughts

As the market for operators continues to change and margins are put under further pressure, the focus will continue to be on reducing turnaround times for settlement of interconnect invoices. Greater number of wholesale partners and agreements will result in more complex processes around settlement and providing better methods of assuring revenue will be required. The current methods will need to evolve, just as the market has evolved and a more pragmatic and progressive approach will need to be considered and the foundations laid for a more streamlined approach.

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Today’s guest blog is by Sha’ad Hossenbaccus, Head of Revenue Assurance at Millicom in Tanzania. Sha’ad is a long-time follower of talkRA who recently decided he must add his voice to our choir of opinions. A few weeks ago we published an anonymous blog from an experienced practitioner, describing how their telco is too driven by short-term revenue assurance targets. Sha’ad responds with a more optimistic vision for how RA managers can compromise with their bosses, without compromising their revenue assurance strategy.

A Jack of all trades but a master of none, this is how Revenue Assurance (RA) is sometimes being described (still!!!). Many of us professionals of RA do not agree to this statement because we are masters of RA. This is our specialty and we strive very hard to achieve this. But above all this is our bread and butter and as anybody we would not want anyone to take it for granted.

When I started in RA coming in with an IT background (like many), I felt ok with this statement because after all I was querying, analyzing, automating, writing scripts amongst others. Basically this was not much different from the IT job that I was doing. One difference: this is telecommunications. There is this feel-good factor because you learn a lot and it is really fun.

I grew in experience and learned the different concepts of RA, and the fine line that separates it from fraud. I learned about the importance of internal controls and why it is important to work hand-in-hand with the security team. This made me see the bigger picture and how RA fits in the overall equation. You start knowing your boundaries. There is a big difference between what you can do, what you should do, and what you are doing in RA.

Believe me, a good RA professional can do anything within this telco world. He can investigate any claim be it in channels or in the technical department. He can put in place any control and, more importantly, automate them. He will require the right resources and support from everywhere in the organization, but when tasked by the CFO/CEO, the support comes in automatically. Whatever CEOs and CFOs ask for, RA will find a way.

As the RA function grows in maturity you start critically asking a lot of questions to yourself. What am I doing? Is it what I should do? Why should I do this? All sorts of crazy questions. If you don’t contain yourself you can get frustrated, and easily become the rebel out there. Don’t be a rebel, please. Remember this is a corporate world and only sharks survive :) If you are in such a situation, you are actually on the right track but you have to deal with it in the right way – and with the right politics.

You have a strategy in place, with different milestones you want to achieve in order to improve on your maturity levels. Based on this you make your plans and as a team you get cracking. As a good leader you also make time for the “time eaters”. Those small requests that will come in from time to time, mainly from senior management. Often these are things that you should not be doing, or when you go to the right source you understand that this is a request they are already working on. You got the task just because someone wants to ensure correctness of what will be reported. Other times you can be asked things you have no idea about, or the responsibility is dumped on RA because no one else wants it.

It is sometimes very difficult to say no to your senior managers, even when they make requests that fall outside the scope of RA. But you cannot keep accepting tasks like this, because it will impact your strategy and have a negative impact on your RA team. It is important from time to time to take a step back and say NO. This takes a lot of courage but it will get your RA team the respect it deserves. Also if you are able to explain in simple terms your reasons and propose a fair solution, this will show your understanding and grasp of the environment. Yes, you have just scored a point here. You will have to score many to be able to win this battle.

To say no is not easy and this is very much cultural and sometimes personal. I had my challenges when saying no in the past, but I had no other choice if I wanted to be efficient. Being strong is helped by preparation and practice. You should be ready to think fast, and to question the rationale behind the requests that come your way. It is about being critical. It is about knowing the environment, assessing the situation and seeing the bigger picture.

The challenge does not end there. There also needs to be a re-alignment (every time) between you and your boss’ understanding of the scope of RA. But, this can sometimes wait to a later date.

Saying no sometimes is the right thing to do. You cannot and should not accept that your RA becomes a dumping ground. At the same time, you need to remember that you represent a support function, and step in when it really matters to the business. That’s politics. And that is what you have to do to keep your RA function moving in the right direction.

The important thing that matters to your team is that you really believe in what you do, so you are able to inspire them. Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist and lyricist, once observed: “when you say yes to others, make sure you do not say no to yourself.”

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talkRA has always accepted anonymous posts and comments, because we appreciate that businesses can be obstructive, or even vindictive, when employees dare to say something negative. Today’s guest post comes from an experienced analyst who wishes to remain anonymous. It tells a story of a telco whose management culture is unwilling to fix fundamentals because they prefer to deal with symptoms instead of causes. The irony of revenue assurance is that it is inherently a ‘bad news’ function, discovering and reporting mistakes and failures, in order to resolve them and improve the business. Such a role can only succeed if management teams are willing to tolerate and respond to bad news. talkRA also understands the need to vent frustration. Hopefully this critique will reassure other readers, facing similar circumstances. Know one thing: you are not alone!

I have been in the Revenue Assurance and Billing world for over a decade, and worked across multiple operators, both fixed and wireless. The first company I worked at is still the most mature example of RA I have seen to date. This really hit home when I looked at how my current employer does RA. They are a large operator, but they are missing many of the key attributes I would associate with a mature RA function. Starting with the basics:

Usage/Traffic Assurance: They have CDR counts and file matching for most switch types, but all are reconciled manually on spreadsheets with no alarms! Their methods are stuck at eyeball 1.0, and they wondered why we didn’t notice a switch losing 40% of its call records one day!

Suspense: Suspense is semi-monitored or maintained by multiple parts of the organization such as RA, Billing, Ops or 3rd party contractors. There is no real logic to where everything is. The split of responsibilities reflects the history of organizational change, like a river erodes the valley, meandering through the path of least resistance, but with no overall plan.

Rating Assurance/Test Call Generators: There is very poor coverage, with only basic call types being tested. You have to question a control that hasn’t found any errors in three years!

Non-Usage Assurance: This was probably their strongest area, for the products they assured. The biggest weakness? The products they didn’t cover! The relative strength of this assurance is no surprise, as it is easy to implement controls that compare how many assets you have in the inventory, with how many you bill for.

Coverage Model/Controls Matrix: Errrrr, nope. If completed this would look like a scene out of a horror movie, with a sea of red across the graphs.

New Product Development: It would be nice to be proactive rather than reactive, and have reporting requirements submitted before the launch of a product/service. Somebody tried to do this, but it doesn’t contribute towards a target, so it became one of those jobs that people did when they had spare time. And guess what? There is never spare time.

This isn’t the first operator I’ve worked for, but I’m thinking what the hell have I got myself into. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the challenge, because I’ve always thrived on the challenges, at every operator I’ve worked for. It’s not that we don’t have the resources, because we employ an army of people. It’s not that we don’t have the talent, because we have some of the best minds in the industry.

The real issue is that – and you probably picked this up already – the RA function is like a scene out of Jerry Maguire

showmethemoney

This RA function is being used as a cash cow to make up for financial shortfalls within the business, and to accelerate people’s careers. The targets are difficult, with strict rules on the benefits that can be claimed. As an example, any control which has been run for more than a year is classified as protective, and doesn’t contribute.

The team always seem to pull it out of the bag and hit the numbers, but this behavior reminds me of the theme to an old TV series, The Littlest Hobo.

Maybe tomorrow we’ll wanna settle down, until tomorrow we’ll just keep movin’ on… to the next leakage! This operator never settles down and builds a foundation for its RA. It just digs for goodies, then moves on. There is no interest in fixing root causes, establishing permanent controls or proactive measures. The operator treats leaks like plants that grow wild: take as much as you can from each field, then come back a few years later and re-harvest the same issues once they have grown back.

There you have it… a long time has passed since the birth of RA, and still a large operator can’t get the basics right. Why? Because senior management love the money!

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In this guest blog, Dan Baker of the Technology Research Institute and the Black Swan Telecom Journal addresses a question raised two weeks ago: should talkRA continue in its current format, change with the times, or step aside to make room for others? Dan’s analysis is as thought-provoking as always…

Eric’s recent post “The End of talkRA” provoked a good discussion. And those who commented are eager to keep talkRA — or its successor — alive and well. I think this is mostly a tribute to Eric’s industry expertise and skills as a writer and moderator.

And yet, as Eric admits, “things have changed”. The business assurance software vendors serving the market are expanding in many directions. But that doesn’t mean RA and related issues are solved. New issues are entering the scene all the time.

The telecom market is evolving at a rapid pace today. Huge issues are there to be discussed, i.e. how to operate and position the business in the new IP-centric, 4G/LTE, big data, and enterprise-serving business where the boundary line between service providers, OTTs, and vendors is rapidly blurring.

So I’d like to see talkRA’s focus shift to cover these broader strategic issues. It will give Eric and everyone else plenty to talk about.

And this migration should be fine because I believe the core talkRA readership is not wedded to RA alone. Here’s my take:

  1. Readers are focused on operations and have a wide-ranging view of the telecom business. And they work in the carrier, consultant, and software camps.
  2. They are analysts or managers of analysts who seek to help the business in whatever areas deliver the biggest payoff for their companies and their own careers.
  3. The watchwords are “business rules” and “alignment of operations with the business”. To me, the simplest explanation of this philosophy was given by Ed Shanahan, the former manager of RA at TMNG.
  4. They are eager to work with software tools, but they know there’s no such thing as putting the business on auto-pilot. Telecom evolves too quickly and every major software advance requires analysts, consultants, and experts to step up and intelligently direct the analysis and interpret the results.

OK, so here are my suggestions for talkRA’s future:

  1. Participation, and more participation. If 50 expert readers of talkRA contributed a short guest column every year, you’d increase the value of visiting talkRA quite a bit and it would provoke some very nice discussions. How can we promote more participation?
  2. Surveys. Daniel Peter mentioned this and it’s a great idea. And my inclination is to support quick in-line surveys. I also think an annual “State of the Practice” survey is worth having and sharing. Here’s a good example from the publication, A List Apart.
  3. On Black Swan Journal, we do not have comments or commentary, so I’m looking for ways of doing that, and perhaps integrating with talkRA in some way would achieve that.

So these are my thoughts. Eager to hear reader and Eric’s comments.

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Today’s guest post is by Ahmad Nadeem Syed, Director of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Mobilink. When long-standing talkRA contributor David Leshem argued why people are more valuable than tools, he prompted a flurry of replies, both agreeing and disagreeing with David’s opinions. Ahmad was amongst the respondents, leaving a thoughtful comment that said neither is more valuable than the other, because value is generated when tools complement people. He finished his comment by asking that the next talkRA blog on the topic should discuss that theme of the complementary combination of people and tools – so I invited him to write it! Ahmad graciously agreed, and here is his article on why we should focus on the combination of people and tools, rather than dwelling on each element separately.

In the Stone Age, human needs were limited to eating and sleeping. Their food comprised of available wild animal meat, fruits and vegetables. They used stones or wooden arrows for hunting and long sticks for plucking fruit that was out of reach. We can see the apes doing the similar thing even today, while breaking a coconut.

The activity incorporates three things: (1) the goal – the instinct to survive; (2) the people – the Stone Age human; and (3) the tools – stones and wooden arrows. Imagine various situations; there are hungry people with available tools but not knowing (the skill) how to aim and throw the stone or arrow at the prey. In another situation: there are hungry people with skill, but no tools available with lot of food available. In both the situations the ultimate goal of survival is not met if the variables become constant.

With the passage of time, the goals kept moving and growing from survival to comfort to luxuries, both vertically and horizontally. This necessitated having more and better tools coupled with people having advanced skills who are able to use these tools for the purpose of achieving the desired goals.

Come to today’s modern age; if it can be called modern in the eyes of the generation coming after say 50 years, in the wake of rapidly changing human needs and the technology. Humans have always been more and more dependent upon technology with the passage of every moment, may it be personal, social or business life. The mobile phone, for example, has become an essential part of our lives. Some are using the latest smart phones, and some are still content with only voice and SMS. Both classes have developed the skills to use these tools to meet their varying needs. Can anybody today imagine toady’s life without mobile phones, and in reverse, lot of mobile phones but no people?

The computers are integral part of any business, but then we need people with varying skills to develop the applications and run the computers. Can anybody imagine any business today with lots of people but no computers or vice versa? Some may argue some small businesses still rely on pen and paper, but then these are also tools.

PNTdiagramI call this the PNT (People-Need-Tool) phenomena. People are meant to live, and so they have needs, and tools allow them to meet their needs. Once the first set of needs is met, another set of needs become a necessity and therefore another set of tools is required.

Let me mention a busted myth here. It was commonly said that automation will cause widespread unemployment as computers will replace the human. But the reality is different. As the business and social needs increased, the way of managing these sectors changed, generating and using high volumes of data. Handling of these data volumes require better, high performance and sometimes specially designed computers/tools. The operation of these tools needed skilled people, therefore the automation instead of creating unemployment, paved the way for IT education and thus generating new opportunities.

Let us take the examples of telecommunication. I work for a GSM operator, where network elements are producing over a billion CDRs on a daily basis. These CDRs are processed by mediation, IN and billing systems. As the head of the Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management team, where I have a highly skilled team of analysts and IT professionals, I use very high performance RA and FM systems to ensure that no revenue leakage occurs. I will be completely stuck, the day either my key people are absent, or any of my key systems goes offline.

I therefore believe in people and tools being a complementary combination, without any preference.

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