In September I asked for opinions about changing the content of talkRA. Some of the responses reminded me of things people have been telling me for ages, both offline and online…

  • What happened to the lunchtime teasers?
  • Those quizzes were fun. Do more.
  • I liked doing the LTT, are you going to run more?
  • When will the L.T.T. return?
  • Do more of those puzzles you used to have.

There is no doubt about it: Lee Scargall’s L.T.T. developed a devoted following. Despite being incredibly busy with overseeing risk for the whole of the Ooredoo Group, Lee has bowed to popular demand, and made time to write a new question. Tune in Monday, quiz fans!

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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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Are some mobile operators pushing their luck, when they ask victims to pay huge bills after criminals steal their phone? That is the conclusion of Richard Colbey, a British lawyer who recently took up the case of Osian Rhys Edwards, a schoolteacher who fell victim to the criminal gangs that target tourists in Barcelona. You can read the full story in The Guardian.

Vodafone barred the stolen handset after GBP15k (USD23k) of premium rate calls were racked up, within just hours of the theft. Rhys Edwards claimed he informed Vodafone of the crime but the operator said it had no record of his call. Instead, Vodafone pursued payment in full, and then offered to reduce the bill to GBP10,500 (USD16,440) whilst allowing Rhys Edwards to pay it off over many years. Vodafone also threatened to damage his credit rating. But given that Barcelona is known to be afflicted by this criminal scam, does it seem reasonable to allow such heavy premium rate use, before the telco intervenes?

Vodafone’s behaviour so outraged Colbey that he agreed to represent Rhys Edwards for free. His comments on Vodafone’s legal position are worth reviewing.

Vodafone’s position looked legally flawed for several reasons…

What I thought particularly outrageous was that Vodafone was threatening to report Osian to a credit reference agency without first getting a court judgment. The power large organisations have to do this gives them an unfair advantage in any dispute with consumers…

I set out Osian’s case in a forcefully expressed letter to Vodafone’s “General Counsel” (a US term for chief lawyer), demanding, somewhat unrealistically, a complete capitulation and compensation for the stress within 24 hours… We huffed and puffed in emails as litigation lawyers do, and within a few days had reached agreement that Osian would pay nothing for calls after his phone was stolen, but wouldn’t actually get any compensation. I expect a judge would have reached the same conclusion…

To its credit, and slightly to my surprise, Vodafone did not insist the settlement was subject to a confidentiality agreement. I hope that this will encourage others faced with similar claims by phone companies to stand their ground.

The issue has trundled on for a decade and no company has yet wanted to test its position in court. This is almost certainly because the companies are getting legal advice largely in line with my own view that they could not win, and they would have no choice but to change their policies once a precedent was established.

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Some of you follow @talkRA on Twitter. I recommend you do; it is the smart way to be notified about every new post on talkRA. In many respects, this Twitter account has been our quietest success story. It has been running steadily for four years, and has amassed more followers than GRAPA – although we never resorted to the spammy marketing techniques beloved by Papa Rob. Our tweets stimulate around 5% of visits to the website, demonstrating that some people find this service useful. But lately something odd has been happening. More and more of you have started following a different Twitter account – @ericpriezkalns – even though that idiot tweets about anything and everything except communications risk and assurance.

Do not be alarmed; nobody has been deliberately misled. The idiot @ericpriezkalns is the same idiot who is blogging now. With a name like that, there is little chance of being confused with someone else, and I am not famous enough to be spoofed. But be warned, if you follow that account, it will not tell you anything you might find useful at work… unless your work involves writing stories, reading poems, or forming opinions about anything from American politics to space tourism to what would happen if zombies were real. (Though on that latter point, it should be noted that promoting zombie preparedness is an effective way to encourage serious risk planning.)

But perhaps I do myself a disservice. I always tried to keep my professional telecoms activity separate from my other interests in life. My thinking was that someone who spends their days reconciling CDRs may not want to hear about a science fiction story I just got published. However, more of you are following @ericpriezkalns for whatever reason, so perhaps the boundaries should be blurred from time to time. And when it comes to the fiction I write, a lot of the stories revolve around the themes that will interest this audience: advances in technology, the gathering of huge volumes of data, the increasing reliance on computers to make decisions, unforeseen risks and the implications for ordinary people.

One of my stories was published in the October edition of a British science fiction magazine called Jupiter, and it features a man drifting in deep space, with only his intelligent space suit to keep him company. Using the imagination to contemplate the risks in this scenario is as valid a mental exercise as evaluating how to mitigate a zombie apocalypse. Being marooned in deep space would involve a loss of communication, lack of information, the isolation of a person from social contact, and reliance on technology without any back-up. These issues are not so different from those dealt with by telco assurance and risk professionals. For those who are interested, the magazine is available from the back issues section of the Jupiter website, or the Kindle version can be downloaded from Amazon.

Jupiter 46:Carpo

If you are wondering why that idiot @ericpriezkalns is not listed amongst the authors, that would be because I use a pen name – Ray Blank – for my fiction. My Ray Blank alter ego also relies on the @ericpriezkalns Twitter name, which is why that account is more likely to tweet about story writing than business assurance. And please do not jump to conclusions on Twitter, or you may end up following the real Raymond Blank instead!

I know it can be an unpopular opinion, but I have always argued that good assurance and risk management requires imagination. You will not prevent something going wrong, if you do not imagine it going wrong, and you will not know where to look for real problems, if do not theorize about where to find the evidence. When I managed teams, I was always keen on activities that stimulated people to think laterally, and creatively. If those activities were fun, that was better still. I know that many of you work very hard, and it may not feel like there are enough hours in the day to make time for games. Furthermore, your boss may not appreciate you doing anything which does not look like serious and productive work. But allowing your mind to wander, and getting team members to bounce ideas around, are crucial to enhancing your productivity.

A word game, a conversation about current affairs, creating a hypothetical scenario and then analysing it – these can be great ways to boost your team’s morale and find innovative new ways to help your telco. I know many of you have enjoyed the puzzles that talkRA has published from time to time. Exercising the mind purely for the sake of exercise is not a waste of your time. Whether the exercise is mental or physical, it can increase strength, suppleness and energy.

In The Structure of Scientific Revoutions, physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn showed how great advances often occurred when scientists moved into unfamiliar fields, and so introduced fresh thinking that was not hamstrung by old preconceptions. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman embodied those principles; he would take time away from his study of subatomic physics in order to paint portraits, or to calculate the oscillations of a plate spinning atop a pole. Feynman’s agile mind gave him the confidence to point out when NASA’s bosses said silly things about risk management. Our work may be more humble, but we can still learn from the example of these great men. For these reasons, I recommend that you occasionally step back, and look at the world from a different angle. You can do that during office hours, and whilst at home too. I have often commented that our employers pay us to think, and there is no way to control when good ideas should come to us. This means work problems will sometimes be solved during our personal time, and vice versa.

Though I usually keep my work and my personal life separate, I only have one mind to think about both. I know my mind will accomplish more if I grant it the freedom to think what it wants to think when it wants to think it. This is a better approach than placing limits around the mind. This fact will be appreciated by a thoughtful manager, who wants a thoughtful team. And if we are not going to do our work in a thoughtful manner, then we are unlikely to do it well.

The connections between the spheres of work and personal life have been made more apparent to me recently, and not just because telco professionals started following my personal Twitter account. I got my story published after practicing the art of writing for years. When I began writing fiction, I had no objective other than writing for my own amusement, and for those few friends who took an interest. And I would never have tried to write stories without first taking a lateral step in my career, by starting a blog about revenue assurance. That blog led to this blog, but it also led me to write about other topics, and progressively I spent more time writing fiction than fact.

When I first experimented with a revenue assurance blog, I could not tell what it would lead to. For example, it has resulted in the confusion of managing two Twitter accounts! More seriously, I benefitted from a range of unanticipated experiences. Some experiments end quickly, whilst others are more successful, and spawn further experiments like a chain reaction. If you allow your mind to wander between professional and personal interests, you may be surprised by the cross-fertilization that can occur, and the results in your own life. I am happy to say that experimenting with allowing my mind to wander has worked wonderfully well for me. I encourage you to give it a try, because you have nothing to lose, and whilst the benefits are impossible to predict, they may be great.

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The UK Revenue Assurance Group is holding their Winter meeting tomorrow, and the theme will be Big Data, with a packed schedule featuring speakers from the UK, USA, and even Australia! Everyone who has an interest in revenue assurance is welcome to join us in London – if you have not received an invite, then there is still time to contact the organizers and get yourself added to the guest list.

Tomorrow’s keynote speaker is Julian Hebden, Head of Big Data at Telstra. He will be joining us by videoconference to answer this question: is assurance the killer app for Big Data? There will also be talks by British Gas about the implications of smart metering, from Cartesian about new opportunities for data analytics, and from Elutions about asset and power management. The day closes with two speakers from the USA. Peter Mueller, CTO of ATS, will give his views on what Big Data will teach telcos, and how telcos might be surprised by what they learn about their customers, and about themselves. Finally, Dan Baker of TRI and Black Swan will give his overview of the range of Big Data solutions now being marketed. Phew! For a ‘small’ meeting of revenue assurance practitioners who do not like to publicize themselves, the RAG always delivers a great agenda! Factor in the splendid lunch, lively debate, networking, coffee and doughnuts, ultra-modern real-time surveys, old school gossiping, and an after-hours trip to the pub, and it is no wonder that RAG is the must-attend event for every RA pro within range of London :)

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