Talking Email on the Go: What’s the Best Option for Telecom Expense Management?

Speech recognition and text to speech applications have had a bad rap in the past because the technology was rushed out the door, before it was really ready. If you’ve been disappointed in the past, fear not: New applications work pretty well. The main challenge now lies in choosing the apps and hardware that work best for you. This is just one example of the everyday issues that telecom expense management professionals like us deal with.

Speech apps are a big deal nowadays because of the convergence of two things: email on smartphones and new restrictions against using your cell phone while driving. Getting on the phone while driving was always a bad idea, but in many jurisdictions it’s now illegal – but now, your phone is a business tool that if anything demands more attention, especially when you’re counting on real time email alerts to keep you posted on company events.

Let’s look at two ways Canadian customers can deal with this. The first is a new piece of hardware: the iLane. It’s a dashboard device that not only verbally alerts you when you have email and reads the email to you, but it can also be fully controlled with voice commands. You can even compose replies with your voice and verbally control other smartphone functions. iLane is currently compatible with the Blackberry OS, but the manufacturer promises support for other mobile email formats in the near future.

The iLane has some notable drawbacks – namely, its $599 price tag and $7.99 per month subscription fee. There are alternatives for more modest budgets, however. Rogers Nuance offers an impressive selection of voice command and text to speech features delivered entirely through software and network resources. Nuance allows you to perform 411 searches, send email add appointments and more with voice commands, and your phone will use its speaker to verbally reply. Like iLane, Nuance is compatible with Blackberry devices.

Nuance has limits; your phone’s speaker, microphone and other performance specs are limits to functionality, but the price wins, hands down. It only costs $6per month. Its service suite is probably not as complete as iLane’s, and you’ll want to play with it a bit to determine its range, volume and whether you want to use a headset for comfortable performance.

Ultimately, your choice would depend on what you need personnel to be able to do, how often, and the social role of the device in your office. Nuance may be the solution for most management staff, for example, while iLane might be the tool for executives on the move, all in the same firm. The choice is yours; the essence of telecom expense management is the ability to make that choice with superior information at your fingertips.

Cellular Expense Management for the Best Phone in the Universe

We here at GILL Technologies are excited at performing cellular expense management duties for the new pomegranate phone.* Click through the features (go through all of them!) to see why this phone goes above and beyond any previous high end mobile device on the market.

This is a great challenge for us because of the number of billing items a typical pomegranate phone will use. The average smartphone is all about a mix of minutes, texting, internet access and electronic pay per use features. With the pomegranate phone, we’ll have to be vigilant about additional translation languages, pay per view films and, of course, coffee sachets and shaving gel.

These line items will doubtless generate an epic number of billing errors and a number of extremely complicated plans – opportunities for us to find numerous ways to save our clients money, especially if they really like coffee.

* Yes, we know it’s a viral ad for Nova Scotia. But just imagine if it was real!

Will Windows Azure Fatten Your Telecom Expenses With Thin Client Thinking?

Every few years, software and hardware manufacturers team up to push thin client computing on consumers. Whenever this happens it reminds me of the 90s movie Singles, where one character, pushing his vision for luxury subways for Seattle, ignores the simple truth that keeps getting thrown in his face: “People like their cars.” People like their fat-client, autonomous PCs and devices, too. Now, thanks to the rise of high speed mobile data, Microsoft and others are sounding the call to thin clients again under the guise of “cloud computing.” Windows Azure is one of several such initiatives that promise flexibility and convenience . . . for a price.

The tricky part is the software as a service model built into Azure and other offerings. Do you really want to rent your office productivity software instead of buy it? Do you trust your connection enough to rely on external hosting for any sizable chunk of data? The fact is that you might now, since cell phones and push email have trained us to accept Internet-based services that boost the meager power of mobile devices. On the other hand, it’s yet another item on your bill, and you’ve got to trust that your provider’s giving you a secure, reliable set of services.

From a telecom expense management perspective I think it’ll all come down to a race between hardware and software. If smartphones experience explosive progress in local storage and processing there won’t be much need to rent from the “cloud” (or laptops, for that matter – they’ll probably converge). On the other hand, if software gets big enough or people learn to depend on ubiquitous document sharing they’ll need to plug into the services network. If these start to get hosted over wide-area networks providers will bundle and bill for them. Being telecom companhies, they’ll make billing errors – and we’ll catch them.

Will Android Make Expense Management Easier for Smartphones?

It’s not as smooth looking as the iPhone. The interface isn’t quite as fancy. Still the first Google Android based phone is here. The T-Mobile G1Â went on sale two days ago to largely positive reviews. Priced to compete with the iPhone, the question is whether its features and flexible pricing can compete with sheer Apple buzz. Naturally, from a telecom expense management perspective we’re interested in the pricing, but let’s get into the phone first.

T-Mobile’s marketing angle is simple. It distills the familiar desktop down to your screen and promises the same web surfing experience you’d get from a PC. In addition, the G1 comes loaded with popular Google applications. Notably, Google Street View aligns with how you’re holding the phone based on its built-in compass and accelerometer. Neat, but then again, Street View is often just used as a toy. The more interesting aspect of it is Android’s open standards commitment (and eventual open source release, say Google execs). This means that if consumers bite, the Android Marketplace for apps could explode with new widgets at a rate Apple could never hope to match with its own carefully managed, closed approach – if people can get past the G1’s brick shape.

For cellular expense management, one thing leaps out: T-Mobile actually lets you choose from a bunch of plans, while an iPhone sticks you with a tightly restricted set. This flexibility will give us a lot more power to keep G1 fees down, but the real breakthrough will come when other 3G handsets offer Android with a slightly downscaled set of features to drop into the lower end of the smartphone niche. These phones could serve as an alternative choice for corporate fleets that rely on Blackberries, assuming that push email client Funambol offers comparable service. Some will insist on Exchange for interoperability with the office, but open source means the price point can drop more rapidly once Android hits budget devices. At that point, some people will take a long, hard look at how they really use mobile mail, and whether the G1’s descendants would be the smarter choice.

Canadian Bandwidth Woes Show Why Telecom Expense Management is Necessary

As far as Canadian ISPs are concerned, the OECD’s bandwidth figures are . . . less than complementary. This CBC story on broadband summarizes the issues. Canadians not only pay too much, but suffer from anti-competitive practices and an unwillingness to finish the job of bandwidth penetration. In short: the ISPs gouge consumers, but they’re too cheap to spend that money on providing better service. Trends like Bell’s “traffic shaping” policies make comparisons even worse. Canadians have to deal with one of the worst per megabit costs in the world – US$28.14, compared to Japan’s US$3.09.

It isn’t quite fair to compare Japan and Canada, however. Japan’s population density’s higher and it’s surface area is lower. That excuses much of the difference – but not all of it. For example, even though the per megabit price is far higher in Canada, there’s much less difference in the range of prices per package. In other words, basic broadband access costs about the same in both countries, but in Japan the money goes a long, long way. Part of the problem is that Canada’s stalled on finishing up its infrastructure.

These kind of comparisons become rather important once we think about business usage. The whole range of standard business Internet services (static IP addresses to reliable, high speed bandwidth requirements, etc.) immediately bump into Canada’s failing broadband development – and it doesn’t help that it’s hard to find out all of your options in an environment where there’s no reliable, central clearinghouse that tells you who the ISPs are and what they offer in a given area.

In our experience, it all boils down to the art of selecting the right service package. In Canada it’s a complex issue that depends on these factors:

  • Location: Service varies widely between regions. Is wireless broadband, DSL or cable right for your small business? Do you need a dedicated line instead? Your ability to get these, and what various ISPs will charge depends on region. For example, some providers may charge five times as much to service a particular area.
  • Base Provider: In Canada this boils down to “Bell or not?” Bell’s admitted to arbitrarily curbing traffic. It’s up to any savings planner to know about reselling details.
  • True Bandwidth: “Unlimited bandwidth” is often a misnomer. It’s our job to find out what this really means. Remember that hidden caps can put you on the hook for additional fees.

There’s more to it, but suffice to say that until Canada gets serious about improving its bandwidth again, our services will be as important as ever.

Is there any reason not to VoIP?

Voice over IP technology is a mature technology that in many cases offers significant savings compared to conventional telephony. If you’re already paying for broadband, chances are switching to VoIP is a good idea. We routinely recommend it to clients.

Naturally, this begs the question: “Why bother with traditional telephony at all?” VoIP is useful, but it’s not a telecom panacea. There are still situations where traditional phone service has the edge. For some people, this may take the shine off of VoIP. Let’s walk through them.

No outage protection: If your power’s out, your VoIP phone doesn’t work. If you routinely use a cell phone as well this is probably not such a big deal, but it could become a problem in major emergencies, where wireless networks will slow and fail in response to increased call volume.

911 Problems: IP addresses don’t correspond to fixed gegraphical points in the way traditional phone numbers do. There are a workarounds for this, but they aren’t as reliable as traditional phones. Some regions have dedicated E911 for VoIP customers, but in this case the operator relies on billing information to establish the caller’s location. If your provider has out of date or incorrect information, emergency services may go to the wrong address.

Tied to Internet uptime: When your Internet’s down, your phone stops working. If you suffer frequent downtimes your savings might not justify constant service interruptions.

DoS attack and eavesdropping vulnerabilities: VoIP is vulnerable to packet interception and denial of service attacks in just the same way as standard Internet communications. Mass requests to the phone’s associated IP can shut it down. VoIP is usually not encrypted, so anyone with the requisite expertise can eavesdrop on calls. These vulnerabilities don’t matter to most users, but they’re guaranteed dealbreakers in high-security industries.

Quality issues: VoIP works because it uses the same packet-based protocols as other Internet communications. The drawback is that packet loss will interfere with voice communications. Users may experience a temporary interruption of service whenever the network experiences heavy usage. This parallels the slowdown you might get loading web pages at these times, and it happens for the same reasons. There are also problems sending faxes, but developing protocols may eventually resolve these.

To sum up, if your business has the same needs as a typical household (even if the scale is larger), VoIP might be the cost reduction solution you need. If you have other needs, consider the tradeoffs carefully. You might want to stick with traditional phone service for these reasons:

  • Your company has safety issues to consider. Examples include heavy industry and medicine.
  • Security is important to you. Law, some government contractors and defense industry companies should consider the drawbacks.
  • You send a lot of faxes.
  • Â You need total reliability. Emergency services and other industries that need to be on-call should stick to standard phone service for critical lines.

Note, however, that it’s not always an either/or situation. GILL Technologies can manage multiple services for you to save traditional lines for critical services, and VoIP for everything else. Contact us to find out more.

Uh Oh — Bell and Telus to charge for incoming text messages

Canadians are due for some unhappy developments. Bell and Telus will charge for incoming text messages starting in August (8th for Bell, 24th for Telus). Getting a text message will cost 15 cents a pop unless you have an unlimited texting plan.

How will they keep people from being charged for text spam? Blogger Mark Goldberg also raises the specter of text cyber-bullying — mean kids with plans spamming kids without them. It seems that both companies have placed the burden for recovering charges for unwanted messages on the consumer. The other option: Block messages completely. The move seems designed to discourage occasional texters — and grab wads of cash from less attentive customers. It has aroused such ire that Canada’s Industry Minister has asked Bell and Telus executives to explain themselves.

Things like this underscore the need for cost reduction and cellular expense management services. So far, it looks like if you get unwanted messages, you’ll have to fight the telecom companies to get them taken off your bill. If you need texting for business, it’s time to find a cost-effective plan. Our communications management software can help clients keep their texting under control, and customer service means that you don’t have to fight over unwanted text messages — we’ll do it for you.

The iPhone Lands Like a Canada Goose — In Canada, That Is

So, it’s in Canada now. After much speculation, wailing and gnashing of teeth, Canadians can finally get their own iPhones. How did things work out for folks north of the 49th Parallel? Let’s look at the Good, the Not So Good, and the Telecom Expense Management Angle.

The Good: Canadians got hardware price parity — the Canadian 8 GB iPhone is $199. Fueled by rising fuel prices and a downturn in US currency, the Canadian dollar has floated at near parity with the US dollar for a while now, but prices have been slow to change in response. Canadians are used to paying more, but by now they shouldn’t really have to. When it comes to buying the iPhone, they enjoy the same discount as American customers. Canadians should hope that this new parity eventually extends to other products and services but they might have some additional hurdles to jump because . . .

The Not So Good:Â . . . while the base prices are at parity, Canadians have to pay more — sometimes a lot more — to use the same features. Originally, Rogers’ announced plans were . . . insane. The cheapest package for Rogers was CAN$60 for 400 megs and it went up, up, up from there. After widespread consumer outrage, Rogers offered a 6 GB plan for CAN$30 instead — for now. If you don’t get an iPhone by August 31st, Rogers will revert to its previous, cringe worthy pricing scheme.

Worse, Rogers doesn’t exactly want you to know that there’s a deal afoot. Go to the iPhone plans page. Notice how you have to scroll down to see the new plan? How the price isn’t mentioned, and you need to click on an additional link to find it? How, in fact, you could miss it completely if you followed the site’s guidance?

Nice going. And remember: If you buy one, you’re on the hook for three years: the longest iPhone plan commitment in the world.

The Telecom Expense Management Angle: You want to save money buying a phone from a monopoly that only offered a decent plan under duress, seems to be hoping you’ll miss the chance, and reserves the right to eliminate it at any time? What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a pity, really. The 3G iPhone is probably the first iteration of the device that has more than hype and sleek design going for it. It has formidable data capabilities and could be a legitimate business tool, but at post-August 31st rates it’ll be more of a status symbol than anything else. Plus, being locked into Rogers means you don’t benefit from carrier competition.

This doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do for an iPhone user. We can still monitor usage and billing errors to save Canadian iPhone users money. Better yet, if you discount the branding angle, the iPhone does help you indirectly, because other manufacturers are stepping up to the plate with exciting mobile devices aimed squarely at iPhone’s niche. Once they mature, you’ll be able to get a cool equivalent without hooking up with a questionable plan.

A Telecom Auditing Eye for the 3G iPhone Guy

Let’s face it: As it currently stands, Apple’s iPhone gets by on being a stylish status symbol as much as it does on actual features. You can’t beat Apple’s aesthetics or interface design. But behind the hype, the iPhone’s appeal has been limited by its high price and the US’ chaotic business models and wireless network standards, which make some features frustratingly slow or expensive. Even though iPhones are a hot consumer product, few businesses opted for fleets of them. One might sneak into a corporate plan as an executive toy, but that’s about it.

At least, that was before the 3G iPhone was announced, promising twice the capacity at half the up-front price.

The 3G has lots of toys too, but where it gets interesting from the telecom expense management perspective is how it affects a mobile data market that was virtually synonymous with the Blackberry. AT&T promises “business-class” email and data capabilities for iPhone customers. This refers to “push” email technology that maintains a constant connection to facilitate faster updates. As the old .Mac service transforms into MobileMe, clients will benefit from cross-platform, synchronized push services that give you access to up to date email and other info from your computer, phone and anything else in your data “cloud.”

This PDF represents AT&T’s hard sell to business clients. Between the new services, subsidized price drop and the unlimited data plan Apple arranges for iPhone subscribers, it might be time to reconsider the iPhone as a cost effective (if easily distracting, thanks to iTunes and true web browsing) business device. There’s one big catch, though: Exclusivity.

Any telecom audit professional will tell you that inflexibility equals higher expenses. It’s always been a big cellular expense management challenge in SIM-locked North America. The 3G iPhone’s exclusive tie to AT&T in the US (and Rogers in Canada) means that beyond Apple’s demands for an unlimited data package, providers can put a little extra fat on their fees, like the $10/month increase that AT&T seems they’ll be adding to data costs. You might want to hold on to your less-glamorous Blackberries after all.

Cellular Expense Management Lingo

Cell phone plans are complicated for a number of reasons. One is the technology, which isn’t just driven my miniaturization and power, but by a shifting set of global standards that let us talk to each other and determine how we do it. Another reason is that standard telecom company practices aren’t always pretty. Most people don’t know, for instance, that phone companies deliberately hamstring flexible standards that are supposed to help users. If you haven’t read telecom expense management literature, you might not even know if it was possible to switch carriers as easily as SIM technology should allow.

What’s SIM? What else should you know? Here are a bunch of terms that people use in the TEM business.

BAN: Business Account Number

CTN: Cellular Telephone Number

GSM: Short for “Global System for Mobile communications.” This is the most popular international mobile standard.

IMEI: International Mobile Equipment Identity. This is international serial number identifies a mobile device, but not necessarily its user.

IMSI: International Mobile Subscriber Identity. This unique number identifies a GSM network mobile subscriber. The IMSI number is stored on his or her SIM.

LD: Long Distance

OOB: “Out of Bucket.” Minutes used over those allotted by your cell phone plan.

Porting: Moving a phone from one carrier to another. The new carrier must agree to a TOR.

Pre-HUP: Upgrading a phone before being eligible to do so under a cell phone plan. Doing so incurs an additional fee.

Roaming: Receiving cellular services outside of the local area where the phone was registered.

SIM (or SIM Card): Subscriber Identity Module. This is a removable card that contains a user’s subscription information (including ISMI) and personal data. It can be swapped from phone to phone so that a user can easily switch phones. SIM Locking restricts swapping.

SIM Lock: A restriction on some GSM phones that only allows them to accept SIM cards from certain countries or networks. In North America, most new phones on extended plans are SIM Locked.

System Access Fee: A basic administrative cost that all carriers charge, regardless of the phone or service offered.

TOR: Transit of Responsibility, where one carrier agrees to take over another’s service agreement.