Imagine being able to access your emails and attend an urgent office conference while you are holidaying in a remote hill station of India! It is this kind of possibility that makes WiMAX an irresistible contestant to the title ‘the technology of tomorrow.’ WiMAX has finally made high speed wireless internet access a reality no matter where you are or whether you are on the move. While this is a definite advantage over fixed cable and DSL technologies, the opportunity also brings with it unique billing challenges that have to be tackled to make WiMAX commercially viable.
Research findings from Juniper Research suggest that the number of WiMAX subscribers is going to touch 21.3 million by 2012, whereas the figures are placed at 1.7 million for 2007. ON World predicts that the number of mobile VoIP users will go to 100 million by 2011.
Apart from last mile connectivity WiMAX also enables players from different platforms as telco and ISP offer their services under one umbrella. Further, it also provides for greater flexibility in the choice of services like video conferencing or mobile television. Convergence and seamless connectivity do look the order of the day.
First things first- to make WiMAX a viable option over DSL and fixed cable, the pricing has to be in comparable terms to the end user. To the service provider, there is also the additional task of better streamlining of the back office processes.
Next, these issues have to be examined across two scenarios- the municipal or city wide networks that might adopt WiMAX for broadband internet, and the mobile situation where devices such as PDAs and iPods come in.
In the first instance, the ISP wins the contract from the city administration and sets up the network- and the bill goes to the city. The question is, how does the city pay for it, or how does the administration subsidize the service? How are the citizens, businesses and the administration to be charged?
A simple solution may be to track usage and break up the bill accordingly. As an alternative, the ISP can offer free access to businesses and citizens, subsidized by advertising.
The advertising subsidy model should look more attractive to the average citizen and small businesses as this gives them free access. Users get access to the network by agreeing to accept ads on their iPods, mobile phones and laptops. This way, the only payment they have to make is for the special applications and content they are using through WiMAX. There is also the possibility of the user accepting only the ads of his choice.
All of this makes a complex picture of the billing department. If the user is given choice of ads, the WiMAX provider has to also track the times specific ads are chosen and charge the advertiser accordingly.
The mobile VoIP aspect poses many more questions. Imagine that a user starts a cellular call while on the move and then enters a WiMAX and VoIP enabled office setup. The call should go through a smooth transition from the cellular to the WiMAX network. The call might also move into a conference mode while the user is in the office premises.
If the customer uses one cellphone service and the office has a different WiMAX provider, the billing part becomes unclear. Who bills for which part of the call and who pays? Further, this also calls for exchange of information and billing agreements between the cellular operator and the WiMAX operator.
At the moment, all the Wi-Fi enabled fixed-mobile convergences are happening on one carrier. Larger scale deployments and more players from different platforms can make the scenario much more complex for both consumer billing and service providers’ settlements. Broadband and mobile service providers will have to enter agreements to handle settlements related to roaming.
Every WiMAX player involved-traditional telecom companies, mobile companies, broadband providers as well as local governments- will need to develop highly flexible billing solutions to face these challenges. Consumer charging patterns is just one aspect- there are also issues such as settlements among content and application providers and mobile operators.
IP service charging has been undergoing rapid changes in the recent years. Service providers have to remain flexible to accommodate these emerging patterns. Customized content and one time/on-demand purchases are other factors.
The opportunities are great- the challenges are daunting too. It calls for WiMAX service providers, broadband service providers, cellular companies and local governments to work out extremely lean, efficient and flexible billing and mutual settlement solutions. Let us not forget that whatever convergence has taken place has already made a fine mess of the back office processes. The old ways have to go before WiMAX can bloom to its full potential.