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.

Telecom Expense Management for the Brilliant Phone

I want one box. I want to use it for pictures, phone calls, email, the web and the odd bit of work: writing, spreadsheets – all that stuff. I want to do it anywhere I go, too.

It’s happening in fits and starts, but it looks like I’m going to get what I want. There are still a few barriers. It’ll take a few years for the industry to figure out how to get me fully portable wireless broadband and there will be a painful period where it foolishly tries to charge me a lot of money for it. People still aren’t comfortable with the idea of converging PCs with true mobile devices either, but ultraportables like the Asus Eee are one third of an evolutionary process. The next third is embodied by the iPhone, and represents smartphones with PC-quality apps and an innovative user interfaces. The final third is 4G: packet-based, high speed wireless communications.

Let’s call the result a “brilliant phone,” though in a decade’s time the word “phone” will be an atavism, since voice won’t be anything special, but just one function out of many. It will do all kinds of cool things, but let’s get back down to earth. We’re a telecom expense management company. What will the brilliant phone’s TEM issues be? Here are some educated guesses:

Data Migration: The brilliant phone will be a consumer’s primary data tool. It will have enough flash memory (or a successor format) to take the place of your laptop, leading to the question of how you’ll move this data around when it’s time to backup or upgrade. Carriers currently encourage users to use expensive internet time to send pictures via email and unless you get a smart data plan, charge you by the megabyte for everything else. This method isn’t sustainable. Besides, in a decade’s time you won’t want to run home to a WLAN every time you want to move a substantial amount of data. Ultimately, carriers will provide a solution – and charge for it, too. It will be our job to get you the best deal on their backup and migration services.

Management and Reporting: Telecom management and reporting services will be as relevant as ever in the age of the brilliant phone. In fact, it will be even more important to track usage since everyone will use multiple functions as a matter of course. The era of voice-only usage, already moribund, will be truly dead and buried. While future cell phone plans will be much more generous with data, user management will transform from a straight savings issue to a matter of productivity. You’ll need to know if staff are using the brilliant phone appropriately.

Telecom and Data Billing Errors: Like death and taxes, carrier billing errors are inescapable. They’ll keep overcharging you and we’ll keep correcting them. The brilliant phone will continuously send and receive data from next-generation networks, so outages will be even more of a problem than they are now. You’ll deserve credit for dealing with them; we’ll make sure you get it.

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.

Whither WiMAX?

Two or three years ago we braced for a yet another communications paradigm shift — one that was supposed to take effect now. The mobile WiMAX revolution would have been fascinating for use telecom expense management folks. Maybe it still will be, but despite the tremendous promises of the technology there’s been more fizzle than pop out of it.

WiMAX is designed to provide WiFi data capabilities over large geographical regions. In North America, it’s seen limited market penetration. Here, it mostly replaces the “series of tubes” most of us use, but at the other end a fixed base station relays it all to local devices, making it functionally identical to standard broadband.

This is all well and good if you’re living in the country and need a replacement for the ol’ series of tubes, but for the rest of us, WiMAX’s real potential lies in providing broadband to mobile devices. Mobile WiMAX standards were approved in 2006 and various hardware companies promised to roll out the hardware by this year. So what happened?

In North America, the carriers and manufacturers are stuck in a holding pattern. Even though 3G has started to kick carriers out of being so miserly with data, the fact remains that the economic motives for companies to support WiMAX are murky, because they create consumer expectations of cheap, universal access — something anathema to the old business model for mobile data access. Hardware manufacturers don’t have any desire to churn out devices that won’t get broad support. WiMAX’s spotty commercial record in Canada and Australia definitely hasn’t helped either. Canada’s forerunner Inukshuk network is a traditional last-mile provider and the CEO of Australia’s Buzz Broadband dubbed his own company’s initiative a “miserable failure,” blaming second tier providers and persistent technical issues.

If there’s a viable future for WiMAX, it may be in the hands of Clearwire after it finishes merging with Sprint Nextel’s Xohm. Clearwire is the focus of a joint venture between several major carriers and may represent a positive next step for adopting the technology. From a telecom expense management perspective, this could presage several interesting changes. Strictly metered data fees are dying, but unlimited plans are generally synched to a few exclusive deals. If WiMAX succeeds, it opens the way for a competitive environment where consumers don’t have to track typical data usage — unlimited high speed will be something your phone just does. WiMAX might not be the winning backbone, but the idea’s on the table — and wouldn’t it be cool?

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.

More Telecom Expense Management Lingo

Last time around I told you about a bunch of common cell phone plan-related slang and abbreviations. This time around, let’s look at some other terms in general (mobile and landline) telecom expense management. We use some of them as tracking codes for our Management and Reporting Software.

Here goes:

2G: Second generation mobile device that uses digital signals instead of analog signals of earlier, first generation phones.

2.5G: A 2G phone with additional data transfer capabilities like true (instead of mobile format) internet. The first Apple iPhone is an example of a 2.5G phone — the second claims full 3G status.

3G: Third generation mobile devices. These can handle true broadband-rate data transfer, allowing services such as video calling.

ACO: Additional call offering. An ISDN feature that allows calls to one number to be routed to multiple phones. Used to handle incoming calls in an office.

BVM: Basic Voicemail

CDR: Call Detail Recording – an automated database element used to generate billing. CDR errors or CRD interpretation errors will cause billing errors.CID: Caller ID

EVM or AVM: Enhanced Voicemail

EW or E&W: Evenings and Weekends, in the context of long distance or cellular services.

ISDN: Integrated Digital Service Network. A network capable of providing multiple telecom transmission services (including voice, video and internet) simultaneously.

TEXT, TXT: Text messaging.

Mob, Mobi, WWW: Mobile Internet. 2G Internet was limited to specially configured mobile-friendly sites due to screen and bandwidth limitations, but newer phones display Internet content in the same way as standard computers.

DB: Detailed Billing. This is often available on request and is a prerequisite for competent telecom auditing.

EMSG: Email Messaging.

FIM or FIMF: First Incoming Minute Free.

LDS: Long distance savings/saver.

M2M: Free calling between members (of a company/organization) – M2MLD includes free long distance between members.

POTS: Plain Old Telephone Service. Basic phone services.

TV: Television streaming.

VOICENET: Voice to Email.

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.

Telecom Expense Management Begins with You

At GILL Technologies we always emphasize custom solutions for telecom cost audits and expense management. As Ted mentioned earlier this month, we typically submit multiple proposals so that clients can choose the option for their needs.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in this industry is when telecom expense management firms force companies to change their working communications strategies just to save a few bucks. They get businesses to reduce or increase the number of phones in play, encourage everyone to switch to VoIP and so on. While every business should explore alternatives to their current habits, why throw away a working communications style?

I was reminded of how important a customized, working process is just the other day, when I got on the phone with an overseas partner. We have many, many different communications avenues at our disposal, including teleconferencing, web conferencing and all kinds of telephony. Me? I made a standard phone call. I wanted a simple, direct medium where I could issue verbal instructions. Conferencing is great, but I wasn’t calling to brainstorm and collaborate — I was here to lead. VoIP saves money, but I didn’t want technical issues interrupting me.

I’m sure a lot of you can think of similar situations, where the right communications tool makes all the difference. For example, would you set up your “batphone” on a VoIP service? Cellular? Would you use IM instead? In fact, you probably want basic telephony: the most reliable medium. You might set up forwarding to other services, but you want the basic batphone to work every time, without any flashy features.

That’s why we talk about GILL Technologies as a “Total Communications Solution.” Every company has distinct needs. A comprehensive telecom expense management plan takes those into account so that communications cost efficiencies don’t make you change business operations. If saving money is giving you a headache, you’re not saving money. All the extra time and aggravation will eventually hit your bottom line. We want you to save money whenever you need a complex mobile communications plan — and we want you to save when it’s time to make a simple phone call, too. It’s your choice.

About the Author: George Gill is the President of GILL Technologies.