Google Voice: What Does It Mean for Telecom Expense Management?

Google Voice is one of the most exciting new developments in telecommunications services. Google has had a mixed record when it comes to entering the telecom market, but there’s no debate that it very much wants to be a part of that industry. Unfortunately for the company, it has only enjoyed mixed reception to its initiatives. Google 411 isn’t exactly the go-to for directory assistance. Google Android is an interesting development, but the attached phones haven’t overtaken the popularity juggernauts of the Blackberry and iPhone.Â

Google Voice is different. It doesn’t rely on any particular carrier and its services are free. The base technology seems to be former company Grand Central’s VoIP number forwarding service, which Google acquired in 2007. Users can receive calls at a specified phone whenever they get calls at a number assigned by the service. Google Voice is a significant expansion beyond voice forwarding, however. Features include web-based voicemail access, automatic transcription, conference calls, free VoIP calls, SMS functions and more. How will this affect telecom expense management?

All in all, it’s a formidable set of features that, if integrated into the right cell phone plan, promises to add numerous functions that might incur a significant cost if their equivalents were purchased from a provider. Will this actually translate to savings? It depends on how user friendly Google Voice is, and how well it fits users’ working needs. If you’re looking to save on company mobile expenses with Google Voice, you’ll want to try it out for personal calls first. Ask yourself whether Voice can support any part of your workflow that is currently occupied by pay services. Once you’ve figured that out you’ll know what you need in terms of pay services. After that, lowering your costs is a cellular expense management issue.Â

Unfortunately, as of the time of writing (March 13, 2009) Google Voice is only available to US customers – right now, former Grand Central users, though Google promises to make it generally available in a matter of weeks. If it takes off, it may not only offer a whole range of free “toys” for consumers, but might exert pressure on telecom service providers to change their offerings. If enough people know about it, you can’t charge for something Google’s giving away for free.

Bell Mobility Tries to Turn the Screws on Twitter Users

Canada’s cellular oligopoly strikes again! (For those of you new to the word, an oligopoly is like a monopoly, but split between a few big players.) Twitter is the hottest single social networking application online right now. It lets users post 140 character messages – “tweets” – to the web, and read aggregates of other people’s tweets.

Twitter was designed for mobile users from the start; it accepts SMS content. You can tweet something from your phone and read it from your browser when you get home, or read an SMS version of something somebody else tweets you from the Web. It’s a very handy tool for anyone who wants to send messages across platforms, particularly if they have an unlimited texting plan – but not if they have a Canadian cell phone plan.

Twitter and Canadian providers don’t mix, it seems. First, Twitter cut Canadian SMS users off because receiving their texts was just too expensive. Then Bell and Twitter announced that they’d come to an agreement, where Bell users could once again SMS to and from Twitter.

Ah, but there was a catch.

By February 25th 2009, Bell decided that as a “premium service” Twitter SMS feeds aren’t covered by unlimited texting plans. That means that sending a tweet costs 15 cents. That’s bad. Furthermore, receiving each tweet also costs 15 cents. Considering that popular Twitter users can get dozens of messages in an hour, you’d be looking at huge charges.

Fortunately, there was such a huge outcry at this blatant cash grab (and probably some irritation on Twitter’s part, as they naturally want to reduce barriers to using the service) that two days later, Bell reversed its position.

Between this, charges on receiving text messages and iPhone plan price hikes, we have plenty of answers when people ask us: “Why should I choose telecom expense management instead of dealing with telecom companies myself?” Situations like this and charges for incoming texts show that providers will grab extra revenue any way they can – and you can’t always rely on an angry mob to fix things.

The Recession Slows Competition in the Canadian Wireless Market – Cellular Expense Management is More Important than Ever

Last October, Shaw Communications announced that it wouldn’t be furthering investment in wireless services. Shaw was a major bidder in last year’s AWS Spectrum auction. The CRTC sold off bandwidth across Canada, and every major communications company and several new entrants bought in. Shaw spent just under $190 million in the action: a formidable number, though not as impressive as Rogers bids totaling almost $1 billion. Shaw was poised to make some significant inroads, but that’s come to a halt as the recession has dampened new ventures.

Despite Shaw’s rights over 20 MHz from BC to Manitoba (though only 10 in Saskatchewan) the company said that due to uncertain times ahead, it wouldn’t be rolling out what was no doubt planned: an aggressive entry into Western Canada’s wireless market. Like many smaller players, Shaw is probably incapable of carrying debts to cover the initial rollout. According to Wireless Week telecom investment analyst Imari Love tentatively estimates that many smaller enterprises will push their plans back to 2010 or 2011.

Meanwhile, it looks like budget consumer brands like Koodo (Telus) and Fido (Rogers) are set to make major inroads – a situation that makes sense, given that most Canadians will be looking for bargain cell phone plans as their household income feels the recession squeezing their pocketbooks. In general, pay as you go services will probably see a boost from consumers who feel less secure in their ability to make regular payments.

Unfortunately, these growth sectors have little to offer businesses, whose complex service and billing needs can’t be served by budget providers. In these cases it looks like the recession will work against them, as major providers look for more revenue. Now that the expected competition will be delayed by at least a year, telecom expense management solutions should be seen as a practically mandatory step to save money in the face of expected fee increases. Key areas for consideration will be billing errors and contract analysis to fend off unreasonable cost increases.

Manual Auditing or Telecom Expense Management Software: Why Pick One?

Enterprise level clients like ours typically have complex communications needs. They need a 360-degree solution that encompasses hardware, software and service, bound around core telecom cost reduction. People naturally have a drive to simplify the solution as much as possible. Lately, the telecom expense management community has discussed this process by contrasting manual auditing and using a telecom expense management software solution.

In our experience, the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t really take the distinct role of both methods into account. A total communications solution uses manual auditing and software together. We’ve learned that this provides the greatest benefits to our clients.

Manual telecom cost auditing is actually something of a misnomer because all manual analysis uses software. Over the course of years, we’ve developed custom spreadsheet applications to perform the most accurate and efficient manual audits possible. We’ve graduated from the spreadsheet of doom to custom applications, but we still apply the lessons learned to human analysis. This does the math, but we still need people to investigate current and upcoming service offerings. Our integrated approach starts by asking what clients need, and exploring the industry as a whole to find a solution. This can involve hardware as well as software. Is there a more cost effective handset? What kind of conferencing solution is best for the client? The field is always evolving, so it takes educated eyes to find the data. Furthermore, as the landscape changes, you need someone to explore new alternatives and potential migrations to other carriers/providers. The benefit of manual auditing isn’t in crunching the numbers, but finding the numbers to begin with.

Communications management software provides a way to monitor your costs over time. Our custom Tele-Watch web-based software lets clients view their expenses over a web-based interface. This helps us fulfil one of our company’s central values: accountability in telecommunications. That means we ensure that you know where every penny of expenses come from, and how we’ve saved you money through cost reduction. Tele-Watch lets us and the client view emerging expense trends and consider options to keep costs down. This lets us develop the best long term solution for each client.

In conclusion, we think the ideal form of telecom expense management is a comprehensive approach that evolves over time and relies on a partnership between purpose-built software and trained manual auditing – and even goes beyond that, to skilled client care and hardware procurement. That’s what works best for our clients, and what we think will work best for you.

Cost Reduction for the Blackberry: Three Tips

One of the critical issues facing many companies is how to control costs on Blackberries and other smartphones. The basic dilemma arises when you need employees to be able to get business email at unpredictable times and places. Employees in turn want to be able to use it for personal calls and email. This makes sense; after all, why would they want to carry two phones?

Unfortunately, if the device is on your company’s tab you can incur unreasonable costs when an employee overuses the Blackberry for personal email. You may similarly face excessive charges for personal voice and data as employees browse the web and make personal calls. Employees often view personal use as an implicit perk – the upside of being constantly available for work communications.

How do you strike a balance between personal use and business expenses? The most practical solution is to keep your Blackberry fleet on a sensible telecom expense management plan, and use communications management software to track individual expenses. The key to a good plan is to understand what your business needs are, what employee usage is, and how the former relates to the latter. It’s good for moral to allow use and in any event, it’s so reflexive to reach for the phone on hand that it will save confusion to allow mixed use (though there are exceptions, such as high-security fields). Here are three basic cost reduction principles that make things easy for both staff and management:

Unlimited Plans for Mixed Use Functions: One of the first things you should do is identify smartphone functions that have both business and personal applications. When you pick a plan, these are the areas where you want to pay for high capacity. For the Blackberry, that means voice and email. Some companies also need employees to browse the web on the job, but this is usually less common.

Block Unnecessary Functions: Many enterprise plans are designed for relatively freewheeling executive use, but it’s more and more common for smartphones to be front line employee tools. This means that usage costs are not only multiplied by a larger number of users, but that usage policy reflects on your company as a whole. You should set down a personal use policy relatively early. Check against actual activity and employee feedback to see if it needs to be changed. If there’s no justification for certain functions, block them. Web browsing is one of the most common things that companies limit, since modern, rich content browsing can be an incredible data hog.

Keep Employees Informed – and Keep Informed: Once you have a plan, develop a policy and block unnecessary functions, keep your employees in the loop! The last thing you want to do is end up having an unpleasant confrontation because you didn’t make company policy clear. You in turn should monitor usage scrupulously. Identify heavy users and keep in touch with them. This serves as a friendly reminder that the Blackberry or other smartphone fleet is for responsible use, and heads off lax behaviour and possible disciplinary action down the road.

More on Voicemail Fraud

Following up on our last article about voicemail fraud, users should be aware that Bell Canada has taken the position that the onus is on the victim to pay fraudulent charges. This comes in the wake of several serious voicemail hacks, including one that cost one Oakville, Ontario-based company over $60,000. In this case, Bell detected the situation and cut off long distance access . . . then sent the company the bill. After some wrangling, Bell agreed to accept a smaller amount.

Believe it or not, this is not the worst instance of fraud. One Burlington, Ontario – based company got stuck with a phone bill of over $200,000 due to the same form of fraud. In this case, Bell agreed to accept about half of that amount as a “goodwill gesture.” However, Bell has made it clear that it considers these charges the responsibility of the account holder.

Bell’s position is that account holders are responsible for using the safeguards on voicemail systems to prevent criminals from illegally accessing them. Last month, the company took out ads in major Canadian newspapers detailing this position, and in situations where it’s compromised on bills the company has said lowered charges are a favour, not an obligation.

One thing that Bell is less than forthcoming about, however is who exactly is administering these apparently vulnerable voicemail systems – namely, Bell itself. Furthermore, which of these victims failed to follow Bell’s recommendations? Which ones didn’t – and if they didn’t, did they even know what they were supposed to do? Did Bell say anything to them about what they expected users to do in the way of security administration, or is this advice post-hoc lecturing?

The fact of the matter is that full security precautions are as onerous as the attached system makes them. While using hard to guess passwords is a no-brainer, why do Bell’s services include easily exploitable default settings? Can you really expect companies that don’t have a telecom or security focus to change their passwords every 90 days? If Bell is serious about fraud prevention, why don’t they make a system that pushes security update requests and adds at least one strong, default security process to go through before users get long distance access?

The idea that the user is responsible by default is convenient for providers, but practically speaking, most businesses aren’t filled with telecom security experts. They just want to use their services in a convenient, cost-effective fashion. We can’t comment on who’s legally bound to pay these fraudulent charges (that’s for the courts) but we can say that if you’re worried about these sorts of situations, the best option is to outsource your telecom customer service to experts who understand the providers’ policies and procedures, and can argue your case from an informed position. We’ve learned from experience in the telecom expense management field that needless charges often result from customers who just can’t afford to wait on the phone for provider support, and don’t have the time, knowledge and inclination to argue for the cost reduction they deserve.

Voicemail Security

For GILL Technologies, telecom expense management is a comprehensive service that includes telecom customer service. We pride ourselves on handling technical issues for you. That means we keep abreast of many different trends and issues, including security.

One issue that’s making the rounds right now concerns voicemail security. We’ve received several advisories about professional criminals hacking voicemail systems. Voicemail fraud is typically used to place long distance calls through a system, leaving the billing with you. In an email alert, Bell Canada characterizes this crime as a “global trend.” This is an accurate observation. Telecom-related crime often crosses international borders, making offenders difficult to catch, prosecute or recover damages from.

A voicemail fraudster usually calls a business after hours to get uninterrupted time on the line. The criminal then uses ether automated or manual techniques to steal your password. After getting access to the system, the fraudster uses it to place long distance calls on your bill. If the voicemail configuration allows it, the criminal will make several repeat visits, or even set things up to make it easier to get back in. In fact, your account information may make the rounds with the fraudster’s associates. Eventually, this activity will show up on your phone bill, but that still gives the crook up to a month to exploit your system. This can result in huge bills – and one thing Bell won’t tell you is that they’re not always willing to refund charges that are obviously fraudulent.

Fortunately, voicemail systems have several protections in place – but you have to know what they are, and use them properly. Here’s what security experts advise:

  • Don’t use the system’s default password or passwords that are easy to guess. Criminals have lists of these.
  • Demand passwords with a minimum of six (and preferably eight) digits.
  • Don’t base the password off of publicly accessible information, such as the phone number or extensions.
  • Change passwords every 90 days.
  • The prime target of fraudsters is the system’s through-dialing system, which allows remote long distance calls through the voicemail account. If you won’t use it, disable it. Otherwise, require password authentication for each and every session. Customer support should be able to guide you through the setup.
  • Use management and reporting tools to track the origins and details of every call. Voicemail systems will have these systems in place.
  • Remove unassigned mailboxes.
  • If you’re not sure how a feature works, consult customer service. Lack of knowledge is one of the most common causes of security programs.

The drawback to best practices in security is that they can be labor intensive. That’s why even though most of these tips are common sense, voicemail fraud will probably be around for a while. One advantage of our services is that we can manage this for you. Instead of wasting time on the phone with a provider you can make a quick call to one of our client care representatives. Our cost audits can also uncover suspicious activity and most importantly, serve as evidence when fraud sparks a billing dispute between your company and the carrier. Contact us to find out more.

GILL Technologies Expands to Toronto

Toronto, ON, Canada: GILL Technologies (http://www.gill-technologies.com) announced today that it added an additional Telecommunications Partner office in Toronto, ON. The office will provide telecom expense management services, cellular cost auditing, client care, consulting and support to clients in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.

The office joins other certified Telecommunications Partner offices in Central Ontario and the US. Each office offers a consistent standard in telecommunications auditing, cost reduction, customer support and procurement. The core GILL Technologies service reduces client telecommunications bills as a self-funded service. Fees come from a portion of the savings so that clients’ total expenses are always lower. In addition, GILL Technologies manages migrations to new carriers, service plans and hardware, and serves as a single point of contact for technical support. Client profiles range from small businesses to enterprise-level clients with complex telecommunications needs.

GILL Technologies Partners are independent business owners that are trained and certified to a common standard. This authorizes them to provide GILL Technologies’ expertise in internet, landline and mobile communications. Partners Marcus Vandenbrink and Richard Carroll manage their Toronto office under the GILL Technologies brand.

“GILL Technologies is very familiar with the Canadian telecommunications industry,” said GILL Technologies president George Gill. “We’ve always wanted more feet on the ground in one of our core markets. There’s a strong demand for our services in the GTA, where many companies need 24/7 mobile communications at competitive prices. Growing our business is all about saving them money, and with a Partner office close at hand we’ll be able to do just that.”

Interested parties can find out more about GILL Technologies’ services by visiting http://www.gill-technologies.com, emailing info@gill-technologies.com or calling 877-507-6988 toll-free. GILL Technologies accepts clients from across Canada and the United States.

About GILL Technologies

Established in 2000, GILL Technologies provides a “Total Communication Solution” for businesses of all sizes. Clients range from small businesses simply looking to save on their communications costs to large enterprises that want comprehensive solutions. Over 3000 clients across North America bear witness to the effectiveness of GILL Technologies’ products and services.

Find out more about GILL Technologies’ communications services through its no-risk, money saving Cost Auditing service at http://www.gill-technologies.com/CostAudit.php

The Mike Blackberry: Is It For You?

Telus’ Mike brand announced its adoption of the Blackberry Curve 8350i – one of the first new Mike phones in a long time. Telus uses the Mike line to sell phones with two characteristics. First, Mike phones are often more rugged than a standard mobile. Mike’s marketing emphasizes this with a “tough guy” ad campaign. The Curve 8350i isn’t really representative of this aspect. It’s a high end Blackberry, so even though it’s quality hardware we wouldn’t advise you to shove one in your back pocket while you do some heavy construction work.

The Curve does harness the other Mike draw, however, which is Motorola’s iDEN technology. iDEN allows the Curve to function much like a two-way radio over cellular lines. This means that users in the network can talk to each other instantly by pushing a single button – a feature called, appropriately enough, “push to talk.” Does this work with a Blackberry’s role as more of a sit-down tool? That depends on what you use it for. If you need total access to office resources, the Curve is about as good as it gets. It’s a premium item, but if you perform proper telecom cost audit procedures you may find yourself reaping the benefits of a better connected mobile workforce.

If you need to rapidly communicate on the move iDEN is for you. This makes it a great solution if you have a traveling sales force. One thing to watch out for, however, is how support for iDEN may change in the wake of Sprint’s 2004 merger with Nextel. Sprint/Nextel is currently the US’ biggest iDEN provider, but it plans to switch to competing CDMA technology by 2010. This doesn’t affect Canadian Mike customers directly but it might influence future commitment to the technology. In the case of the 8350i loss of iDEN doesn’t completely blunt the advantages, as the phone also features off-network walkie-talkie style communications. Americans interested in iDEN may want to give it a second thought, or ensure that they have a way to easily migrate their plans in a year’s time.

So these are the pros and cons. If you want a more in depth view, contact us and we can discuss it in terms of your own cellular expense management needs.

Data Caps and Cellular Expense Management

Data caps became a hot topic for Canadian iPhone users last year when Rogers announced their plans wouldn’t have the unlimited data privileges US iPhone owners enjoy. This was widely viewed as an abuse of Rogers’ effective monopoly. In response, Rogers rushed out a special, cheap plan for early adopters, but if you want an iPhone now, too bad: You can’t get that plan any more. Currently, the plans advertised on Rogers’ site have a 500 MB cap: paltry for a noted data hog like the iPhone.

Rogers seems to be gradually getting the idea that high end cellular customers know they’re paying more for no good reason, however; non-iPhone data plans have gradually improved, probably because unlike the iPhone, customers can take their business elsewhere. In the end, however, the key to managing cellular data expenses is the user. You need to track your data usage and select a plan accordingly. This is especially important if you go with something like Rogers’ Flex plan, where bumping even a bit over the threshold of one tier leaves you on the hook for a significant chunk of money.

Cellular expense management matters in these cases because an analyst is not only capable of looking at your usage trends, but comparing them to break points in pricing across multiple carriers. A Rogers plan might work for you if you’re regularly getting near, but not exceeding, the cap for a given plan. If you’re constantly bumping just over the threshold, however, it’s time to look elsewhere.When GILL Technologies gets involved, this is where we would manage a service migration in the background, ensuring continuity of service while we move you to a better plan (though sadly, we can’t migrate the iPhone to another carrier).

Remember: The best deal is no deal at all if you’re mostly paying for things you never use.