The Road to Single Billing

At wireless aggregator GRIC, Director of Product Management Lumin Yen faces
an ongoing problem, one that has dogged the steps of aggregators and carriers
alike as they seek to expand their positions in the Wi-Fi market.

"There are a lot of technology differences, there are a lot of billing-model
differences," Yen says.

It’s like this. Everybody wants "single billing," meaning that a
user can go to a hotspot and have Wi-Fi usage billed to his or her primary wireless
account. Among the myriad hurdles to single billing is the technological stumbling
block of incompatibility. Hotspot operators and aggregators such as GRIC may
prefer one billing mechanism, while each of the main wireless carriers will
employ its own dissimilar billing infrastructure.

Overcome these compatibility issues, some would say, and the whole industry
moves a big step closer to the dream of single billing.

That is just what public-access networking provider Nomadix is trying to do,
through its involvement in the WLAN Accounting and Settlement (WLANAS) Working
Group. The group, created by the Internet Protocol Detail Record Organization (IPDR.org),
has been working to create a seamless interface between the hotspot market and
the carrier billing systems. Nomadix’s Chief Technical Officer Joel Short says
the technology soon will be within reach.

As it stands now, a custom connection is needed each time a hotspot wants to
make a link to a carrier’s billing apparatus. By the end of the year, Short
said, a standard will be in place that all parties can adhere to, thus making
it possible to creating billing connections quickly and easily.

Analysts say that such streamlined back-office connections could give the hotspot
market a significant boost.

"Anything that simplifies billing is definitely a good thing," said
Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current
Analysis
in Sterling, Va.

More than just a boon to consumers, the possibility of single billing opens
up a new range of options for wireless providers, who have said they are eager
to tap into the growing Wi-Fi market. If hotspot use can be easily billed to
a consumer’s primary wireless account, "it means that the carriers can
start to offer Wi-Fi bundled in with their other services. They can then start
to sell it as a small incremental amount" on top of one’s ongoing wireless
payments, rather than as an entirely distinct charge, said Hold.

In such a scenario, hotspot usage could potentially increase not just because
of the convenience factor, but because of the transparency factor. Wrap everything
into one bill, some say, and consumers will be less likely to be discouraged
by what they perceive to be an additional charge.

"The user does not have to make purchasing decisions at the point of access:
‘Do I buy for the day or do I pay for just a half hour?’ " said Yen. This
is decision making is a major psychological barrier to hotspot usage. Avoiding
that is exactly the kind of thing those involved in the work of developing a
seamless-billing protocol want to avoid.

"One of the major problems in the market today is the business model for
users to get connected, both in terms of users finding the hotspot but also
in terms of users having to take out their credit cards and get that access,"
said Short. "Once you have a single bill, you don’t have to continue to
resell the service on an ad hoc basis. It becomes a transparent subscription
service, where the user doesn’t have to think about taking out a credit card,
and about all the security risks associated with that."

Still, there remains a good deal of work to be done. The development of a standard
— even if it should come about on the expected timetable — would be only a
first step toward establishing single-billing arrangements.

"There are still the business relationships that have to take place, along
with the technical interfaces," Short cautioned. Hotspot operators and
aggregators would still need to negotiate relationships with some or all of
the wireless carriers. Who would take what share of the income? How would the
client relationship be managed? All the usual nuts and bolts of partnership
still would need to be ironed out.

Of course, a simplified billing protocol would nonetheless be a very good start
indeed, said Short. "As this technology progresses, that does pave the
way for more of these roaming relationships to be set up, which in turn will
enable a much more effective business model."

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