Billing Key to Wireless Industry

They may not be glamorous, but billing systems are essential to the success of mobile technology.

Face it, if youre trying to create an image of devil-may-care insouciance, you dont keep your test pilot credentials hidden and put a fake accountancy certificate on the wall. At least, you didnt when I was a kid.

And I dont think youd pretend to be a wireless network installer, either.

Time was, though, when you might have posed as a hacker-cracker. Indeed, I have a couple of friends who actually had accounting qualifications, who used to tell young women about the credit card frauds theyd pulled by breaking into the Visa central computer. Heck, maybe they even did ... I didnt want to know.

But the thing is, they used to talk a good scare. They had the words, even if they didnt have the moves. They talked about penetrating, cracking, decrypting, passwords, codes. OK, its not exactly James Bond, but its close to the right jargon.

These days, though, the way IT technicians talk, its more like listening to lawyers or auditors. They talk about port numbers the way the bean-counters used to talk about ledger numbers; they talk about protocols the way actuaries used to talk about reinsurance agreements.

But at least they didnt talk about actual accounting—until now.

This coming week, theres a really big show in London: Billing Systems 2004. The list of exhibitors reads almost exactly like the sort of companies youd pretend not to work for if you were out clubbing. Billing, CRM and customer care, it says. You can already read the expression on the face of that cute item at the bar, and what you read says: "I wonder who else is in here tonight?"

But billing is absolutely key to the future of mobile technology. If you doubt me, talk to the senior managers of any large-scale phone operator and try to get them to talk sense about "cost per bit" and "charge by minute" versus "flat rate." They all know the truth—that they have an absurd set of contradictions in where they are, and its all incompatible with where they want to go.

Theres a rate per bit for SMS (Short Message Service), another rate per bit for MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) and another for IM, and none of those is sustainable compared with what the future will require.

But the billing systems are set up to cope with what we do today, which is huge, huge sums of money, and not the sort of thing that you idly demolish for the sake of what may be a problem in two or five years.

Its a horrible thing to say, but while this is the key to one of the biggest industries on the planet, and while Im going to get to the show and cover it, Im still not going to go into a bar between now and then and boasting about what Ill be doing.

Ill say Im going to be covering "important international protocols" and hope it doesnt sound like the management of a corporate intranet for a global WAN installation.

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