Over the last few years, the mobile ecosystem has become extremely sophisticated. The industry, once limited to voice and messages, is now providing email, entertainment and news content, online shopping, social media and access to enterprise systems.
It has gone from being communication-centric to being service-centric. The emphasis from minutes being consumed has moved to megabytes being consumed. This shift has affected every aspect of the industry, including current charging systems.
This shift is reflected in the recent of service providers, says Krishan Dhall of Wipro Ltd, where they have moved to give consumers more control of their accounts. For example, if you are on a contract – rather than a pay-as-you-go user – your provider sends an alert when you reach 90% of your data allowance, offering an immediate upgrade for a fee. While this is useful, it is still not powerful enough from the customer’s point of view
Instead, the customer should be allowed to decide the alert levels and when these warnings are received, or be allowed to donate unused data to another subscriber? If a customer has opted for a bundled product typical of pre-paid usage, shouldn’t he or she be able to trade unused minutes for extra text messages, video downloads or internet access in real time (or the other way around)?
These new approaches create a win-win for the customer and the provider. But there is a barrier that must be overcome. This barrier is in the form of traditional Intelligent Network (IN) Charging Platforms. The IN platforms were designed for voice services and rely on records after delivery of service. They cannot prevent revenue leakage because of service overdraft (by subscribers) or deliver differentiated pricing and flexible service bundles. To overcome this, providers need an Online Charging System (OCS).
An OCS is compelling as it combines the ability to rate, charge and share usage in real time with downstream applications for multiple services.
A traditional IN is a telephone network architecture in which the service logic is separated from the switching facilities. The IN nodes are on the service layer instead of on core switches or telephone equipment. This separation allows services to be added or changed without having to redesign core networks.
OCS, on the other hand, consists of four functional elements: an Online Charging Function (OCF), an Account Balance Management Function (ABMF), a Rating Function (RF), and a Charging Gateway Function (CGF).
Drivers for OCS
There are a few factors driving the need for new charging systems. Non-PC devices such as web enabled TVs, tablets and smartphones have become major data consumers are driving content service providers to innovate and introduce new services. At the same time, mobile devices are becoming more sophisticated and as a result users want more control over the services they are consuming. This shift means CSPs must change their charging systems with the introduction of flexible tariffs, dynamic pricing and billing options.
At the same time, OTT applications are challenging traditional providers, eroding voice and messaging revenues. They need to regain these subscribers by charging for data based on Quality of Service (QoS) and SLAs (which IN Charging Platforms don’t currently do).Furthermore, pay-as-you-go and contract services are converging. An increasing number of services need real-time authorisation, even if they are on a contract basis to check on the subscriber’s rights and privileges, usage limits and other details. Providers also need a unified view of services consumed by the subscriber to be able to provide a customised experience and upsell.
Challenges before an OCS
Traditional IN and billing systems have not been able to provide CSPs with ways to manage new business needs. IN systems were not designed for sophisticated services that are billed on the QoS. When new packages or services are launched, it becomes necessary to upgrade the traditional IN Service Control Point (SCP) that is integrated with the billing engine. This spells a dependency on the IN vendor to develop and configure new services, slowing down the ability of the CSP to launch new services.
In addition to affecting competitiveness, traditional IN charging systems have a high total cost of ownership (TCO). It costs time and money to define and launch new services, deploy innovative consumption models or device plans and offer pricing options based on QoS.
Finally, the real need of a provider today is to acquire a unified view of the customer across services consumed and payment types. In the absence of a unified view, it becomes difficult for the provider to maximise cross-sell and up sell, improve customer experience or ensure higher customer retention
Opting for OCS
By comparison to IN systems, OCS as the basis of an advanced charging requires little upfront investment. The most immediate impact of an OCS is by way of a reduction in CAPEX and OPEX.
Fundamentally, an OCS begins by determining the balance number of units in a subscriber’s account (say the volume of downloadable data, the number of SMSs or call minutes). This data is then transferred to a Charging Trigger Function (CTF). The CTF is responsible for the supervision of service delivery, limiting it to the available account balance. An Online Charging Function (OCF) translates this into monetary units.
An OCS is meant to handle a variety of emerging customer needs. The system allows CSPs to move from a ‘one size fits all’ plan to personalised pricing and providing their customers with more granular control over accounts, leading to revenue-enhancing self-service.
Suddenly, thanks to OCS, customers can decide when they get alerts on account usage limits, who they can donate unused minutes/ data to, or how much unused talk time they want to convert to data. Customers can also be incentivised with better price points for service usage. Prices can now be based on the real-time context of the customer such as current location, device type, kind of content being consumed, network congestion, etc. Video on Demand can also be priced on hourly usage rather than data volume, allowing more flexible pricing based on time-of-day or limiting it to the available account balance.
With the mobile industry in a state of significant change, it’s necessary to have a charging system that reflects these changes. With consumers moving away from voice and SMS usage, and using increasingly sophisticated mobile devices to consume new forms of content, older so-called Intelligent Network Charging Systems are no longer fit for purpose. OCS systems, which allow CSPs to offer unprecedented choice to user, and enable users to manage their accounts are now the order of the day.