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October 1, 2000
Access Cost Management
on Front Burner
By Chris Garifo
As long-distance minutes grow and calling rates fall, long-haul carriers, ILECs and CLECs are paying more and more attention to access charges, often the single biggest item on their ledgers.
However, keeping track of those charges can be a nightmare when you consider the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of calls that have to be accounted for each month. With that sort of volume, mistakes all too often happen, especially using manual auditing methods; if those mistakes aren’t caught, they can continue from month to month. As a result, access charge mistakes easily can run into the millions of dollars per year for even relatively small carriers.
To meet the increasing demand for automated processes to more easily and efficiently keep an account of access charges and thereby reduce errors, a number of software solutions have been introduced by players such as Advanced Technologies and Services Inc.
(ATS, www.atso.com), and InformationView Solutions Corp.
Peter Mueller, ATS vice president of sales and marketing, explains that carriers frequently lack the records or tools to reconcile raw records against usage bills or carrier access bills. However, he adds, the problem goes beyond a matter of just capturing and storing records, but includes the ability to analyze the data.
Thomas Thekkethala, a managing partner for Telecom and Technology LLC and JT Venture Partners LLC, agrees and adds that another critical element is having in place the people who have the skills to deal with the problem. Those skills include an in-depth knowledge of an intercarrier bill, a knowledge of the elements necessary to provision a network and the ability to be persistent in successfully negotiating disputes.
It’s vitally important that those people have the ability to quickly and easily access the data to deal with disputes, Thekkethala adds.
“Instead of having this data in paper or archived by tape or something like that, having online access to it by auditors is very key,” Thekkethala says.
Several very robust tools are available to handle the problem, but the trouble has been the carriers have not paid enough attention to it because telecoms’ profit margins in the past were so large that they didn’t worry that much about the costs, Thekkethala adds. With greater levels of competition, however, those margins have been shrinking dramatically, and access cost management is being seen as a way of reining in the margins nosedive.
“The tools have been there, or they’ve matured to be able to support [access cost management],” Thekkethala says. “It’s now a question of making sure that the telecom service providers, who are increasingly put under earnings pressure and with very, very slim margins on a lot of their products, can actually pay attention or have the resources to focus on this.”
Push for Profits
Yves Robinson, vice president of marketing for InformationView, says the investment community has given a lot of money to CLECs during the last few years and now are pushing them to show some real value and profitability on their investment.
As a result, CLECs are being forced to pay as much attention to the bottom line as they have their network.
Robinson points to problems the CLECs face in trying to address access cost management. Those problems include systems using older technologies that are burdened by manual input of data for service starts and disconnects, and trunk-group information that’s not provisioning through an automated system but has to be provisioned through a network engineering group.
The problems remain the same whether one talks about long-distance access or local interconnections, which frequently are discussed as if they were basically the same thing. The actual bills are often huge, and things tend to get lost.
Robinson admits that, even with InformationView’s Cost of Access, DataCollector and ClearView products, bigger or mature carriers still are going to “see error rates on ongoing bills in the range of 5 [percent] to 8 percent.”
Those errors include usage not being allocated properly to the right trunk group; negotiated rates not being applied at the right times; circuits being disconnected and bills occurring at the disconnect order time but not at the true disconnect time; or installations occurring three to four weeks after they’ve been provisioned and they’ve kept billing them.
“So some of the day-to-day errors that occur in the system just escalate into a fairly large error,” Robinson says.
New carriers during their first year of operation can see error rates as high as 25 percent to 30 percent, Robinson adds. With more established carriers, access or interconnection costs can run in the range of 50 percent to 72 percent.
SS7 Data Mining
One way to reduce the margins of access cost errors that are being talked about is to begin mining SS7 data.
Botting Systems Inc.
(www.bottingsystems.com) is a 4-year-old Canadian company that taps the available data from SS7 records to improve network management.
Greg Truesdell, Botting Systems’ chief technology officer, says that capturing call detail records (CDRs) from switches has some problems, especially when the switches are handling high volumes of call traffic.
Truesdell says the least intrusive method for collecting CDRs is through the SS7 network, “since we could inductively couple to [it] without affecting it.”
Truesdell explains the classical approach to data was to collect a lot of it from whatever source, translate it into a format that’s understandable by an RDBMS, import it into the RDBMS and run various queries, usually SQL based.
“But there’s too much data involved there, and there’s too much special processing necessary on a record-by-record basis to properly manage that kind of data system,” Truesdell says.
Instead, what Botting Systems has done is define a proprietary format– “it’s really a binary format that we have optimized,” Truesdell explains–then translate collected data into that format and feed it into their products.
“It is not an
RDBMS, it doesn’t need to be,” Truesdell says. “What it needs to be and to do is to understand what SS7 records are all about and to provide a front-end query
consideration utility and to run queries on large amounts of data.”
Truesdell says the people managing networks rarely focus on the use of SS7 for dealing with network-based correctives such as determining crossovers for common channel signaling.
Compounding the problem is “it’s hard to … find a person or group of people who have the wide range of understanding enough so they can tie the billing and the network activity … together as well as carrier relations and regulatory requirements,” Truesdell says.
SS7 can be the most accurate tool for mediating access charge disputes, he adds.
Long-distance calls frequently are ticketed based on a number of rules depending on the areas the relationship between the companies involved. In some areas there are toll switches, which do all the ticketing for a set of toll calls routed through it. In other cases, individual switches will record the calls, which are then ported to a billing system. The carrier access billing issues and reconciling the costs among the various carriers is handled as well.
By mining the SS7 records, however, carriers determine more than the billing time. The beginning and end of the call, the set-up and tear-down times, the billing duration and the actual connection duration are all available through the SS7 network.
“[The SS7 network] is certainly a very accurate source for this information,” Truesdell says.
The SS7 data can be used to determine what a carrier can charge for providing access, and what a carrier should pay for being given access, which makes it a valuable tool for mediating any access cost disputes.
Adding to its value is the empirical nature of its information, Truesdell says.
Commonly, the method used to determine accuracy has been for third parties to make test phone calls–from hundreds to thousands–and then use the information from those calls to determine the accuracy of the billing, Truesdell explains.
“So it’s done on a statistical basis,” he says, adding that such a method is proving less accurate because of the changing nature of telecommunications.
By using the SS7 network, 99.9 percent or 100 percent of the data associated with the calls can be used for validation and
reconciliation of the costs, Truesdell says.
“It’s very difficult to argue with the numbers because the numbers are considerably more accurate,” he says.
But Thekkethala has reservations about using the SS7 data.
Among his concerns are “SS7 is not ubiquitous across the whole North American network, as far as I know.”
Thekkethala also suggests that the volume of statistics the SS7 network generates would require more processing to reconcile back to the call, rather than simply doing it off the CDRs pulled from the switches.
“Your SS7 network would be triggering events for every trigger that goes on during a call set up and tear down,” Thekkethala says.
Thekkethala points out that there’s already “quite a margin” of discrepancies in billing based on CDRs and, if one carrier uses CDRs while another uses SS7 records, “I believe the discrepancy will widen and the ability to reconcile it and validate those disputes would be more difficult because you’re using two entirely different sources of data.”
Thekkethala says the problem would be less severe if both carriers were doing the reconciliation based on SS7 messages.
Truesdell, however, says it comes down to who has the best tool when it comes to access charge disputes.
“They can certainly look up the numbers and decide [not to] bring up the subject right now because [they’re] actually on the losing end of it,” Truesdell says. “And on the other side of the story, [they] want to bring this up because [they’re] on the winning end of it. As this comes more common, you might say that everyone tends to be a tad more honest.”
Chris Garifo is operations systems
editor for PHONE+ magazine.
Read more about:Agents
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