Overview of Billing Systems for Internet Service Providers

 

Burkhard Stiller, ETH Zürich, TIK, stiller@tik.ee.ethz.ch

 

1. Introduction

 

Data on billing software are enormous and, especially, if not limited to a set of criteria, too broad to be compiled into any sort of document easily. Therefore, the following list extracts a huge number of billing software and system solutions for Internet Service Providers (ISP). However, still a main problem remains. This is the question of terminology used throughout the document. As it is now, the terminology used by the companies is left unchanged and reflects their current view of the world. Nevertheless, a straightforward comparison is impossible in this case, since the meanings are sometimes different.

 

Terminology

 

A proposal for a unified nomenclature will be made at this point to allow for a future comparison between systems, services, and products. This nomenclature is strictly limited to the Internet as a packet-based network and will not necessarily find an always common synonym in traditional telecommunication systems. The following definitions are taken from the to be published paper on "Charging for Packet-switched Network Communication — Motivation and Overview " by M. Karsten, J. Schmitt, B. Stiller, and L. Wolf (1999) and are extended and refined based on some frequently used terms in the investigated billing systems.

On one hand, the price for a service, for a service invocation, a certain quality level of the service, or in general for a unit service depends on costs, demand, and general marketing considerations. On the other hand, prices provide feedback signals to users and, thus, for their part influence demand and usage. An important distinction must be made on whether prices are set ahead of time (fixed price) or determined and potentially changed during service invocation (variable price). For the latter a good example represents an auction with continuous price variability considered as repeated incarnations of the auctioning process.

If prices are set (also termed pricing), taking into account the network’s utilization level, they are termed as congestion-based prices or load-sensitive prices. These types of prices are considered of being responsive to the overall usage of resources, as determined above. Their main advantage lies in the capability to provide feedback signals from the network to the user while offering incentives at the same time to use a service at a certain point in time or to back off during congested and higher utilized network periods. A pricing scheme describes a particular choice from all the possibilities presented above and is applied to unit services offered from a communication service provider.

As mentioned, prices are associated with units of service. Therefore, these units need to be accounted for. Traditionally, accounting is performed on a per-call basis over time. However, in packet-switched networks, the accounted for information may encounter a huge number of different parameters, e.g., number of packets sent, duration of a communication, number of transactions performed, distance of the communication peer, number of hops traversed, or bandwidth used. Depending on the protocol layer applied for this accounting task, only a subset of accounted for parameters are useful. In general the accounting record determines the container for collecting this information. These records and their special appearances depend on the networking technology used, such as N-ISDN, ATM, Frame Relay, or IP. They can also be created for application services, for example, the Call Data Record (CDR) is being used for this purposes in H.323 IP telephony. Furthermore, the Real-time Flow Measurement working group within the IETF investigates appropriate accounting mechanisms. Call Data Records originate from the traditional telephony world. They are collected from a number "centralized" telephone switches within the network. The Internet-based view requires a change of this collection centralization as well as its content, since a variety of networking equipment is located around the globe, defining and implementing "the" Internet. This decentralized collection phase includes routers, firewalls, proxy server, web server, or mail server. The CDR content now includes amongst others application-specific information, Quality-of-Service information, and service-content information. Note the technical term accounting should not be confused with the business term of accounting, where customer data bases and clients’ data and financial accounts are maintained, managed, and handled. In the pure technical sense accounting refers to the collection of appropriate data for transferring Internet Protocol packets, flows, or other interesting means within the Internet.

Once these accounting records are collected and prices are determined in full pricing schemes on unit service (sometimes termed rating), e.g., encompassing different quality levels for services or service bundles, the data for an invoice need to be calculated. The process of this calculation is termed charge calculation, performing the application of prices of unit services onto accounted for records determining the resource consumption. Thus, the charge calculation function transforms mathematically unequivocal technical parameter values into monetary units. These units need to be collected, if they appear at different locations in the given networking environment, and are stored in charging records. Of course, accounting as well as charging records determine a critical set of data which need to be secured to ensure its integrity when applied to calculate monetary values or when used to compute an invoice’s total. In addition, depending on the centralization of a pricing function, accounting and charging records may be implemented in an integrated fashion, purely determining an eXtended Charging Data Record (XDR) or sometimes termed a Service Data Record (SDR).

The process of consolidating charging records on a per customer basis and delivering a certain aggregate of these records to a customer is termed billing, sometimes the pure settling of the overall charges and its delivery to the customer is termed invoicing. The basic task of collecting these charging records requires sufficient protocol support, including authentication, to allow for counterfeit-proof invoice computation. This aggregation of monetary values may be performed on a daily, weekly, monthly, or some other accepted period of time. Flexible billing systems are able to configure these parameters on a user or a customer group basis, furthermore, if they include the pricing and charge calculation component, they may assign different pricing schemes and discount schemes to them. However, the invoice or bill summarizes a number of contracted details on parameters originally collected in the accounting records. Additionally, it determines the amount of money to be paid from a customer to the service provider, which may be delivered traditionally on paper or in an electronic fashion, e.g., via a web-based form. Of course, the integration of electronic communications and its related administrative actions, such as billing, demands for a full integration into similar means. Furthermore, the bill may determine the method of payment as well. Since the payment defines the method of how the exchange of money between buyers and sellers will be performed, traditional methods may be used or advanced electronic payments schemes may be applied.

Last not least, there remains a single technical prerequisite for identifying and collecting accounting data. This process is called metering. Based on existing technical equipment in operation, the metering tasks identify the technical value of a given resource and determine their current usage. If possible, metering can be tied to signalling events. Otherwise, it may be performed regularly, e.g., every ten seconds or every hour, it may be stimulated on other external events, such as polling requests, or it may be performed according to some statistical sampling scheme. In that case, it is closely related to network monitoring. The IETF’s Management Information Bases (MIB) for switched networks and the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) architectural framework may provide a means of keeping monitored data. In addition, the IETF’s RADIUS service (Remote Authentication Dial In User Service) may be used to track configuration and user data for that specific communication.

Finally, concerning this overall terminology discussion, sometimes the terms pricing, charging, or billing are used to represent the complete process of detecting the specific usage of a service, its pricing, accounting, charge calculation, and billing as defined above. To employ a precise and unambiguous notion, these separate terms are used in their appropriate meaning, while charging is used to determine the complete process, such as charging IP services, which means that all tasks from the accounting, pricing, and charge calculation, to the billing need to be performed.

Please pay attention to the disclaimer at the end of this document.

 

2. Billing Software and System Solutions for ISPs

 

This section provides an annotated overview of currently almost 50 billing systems, which are in fact charging systems. However, some of them may only be able to support IP Telephony flows, others may be capable of dealing with FTP, telnet, or WWW type of application data as well. The range of features is magnificent, but it seems that none of them are at the time of writing able to provide a full packet-based charging solution for the Internet. Note that not very many solutions provided information on any sort of scalability issues for their solution. Certainly, this will be a crucial aspect in the open Internet. In addition, many vendors integrate a "billing solution" into their scope of customer care products. Customer care includes the handling of customer data and a certain type of "responsiveness" to customer requests which encompasses invoicing as well.

The following list is ordered alphabetically based on the URL address, starting with all www addresses first. The feature and detail list is not complete, but tries to cover the main topic addressed by this product or company.

 

(transaction-based call rating system)

(Sentori®: Billing and Customer Care System. It includes Customer Care, Subscriber Maintenance, and Revenue Management, Provisioning and Data Collection, Message Processing - Rating and Billing.)

(Internet Management Solution (IMS) platform for provisioning, managing and accounting of IP services to manage and account for all aspects of IP services - from initial provisioning and deployment through to mediation, rating and billing - within a single platform.)

(Advanced ISP management systems, total account management and billing system designed for Internet Service Providers.)

(BizBill™ is a software package that allows Internet Service Providers (ISP) to offer Internet telephony services to their POP accounts and process billing in a central location, with integrated invoicing, account balance, and accounts receivable information.)

(Billing for VocalTec IP telephony)

(Internet service providers, to tame the task of billing, staff, customer, and invoicing information. A wide variety of billing options are integrated, including fixed rates and usage-based Radius billing.)

(ISPTrak: Automatic Billing Based On Usage, Multiple Billing Cycles, Integrated EMail Invoicing

(BillPlex™: A next-generation Billing and Customer Care software platform integrates multi-service billing and customer care on to a single platform for usage based services including local, long distance, wireless, internet and data.)

(Customer Accounts Receivable System, Multiple Service billing, single invoice)

(Full-featured Remote Access management, accounting and quality of service system. Extent RBS utilizes RADIUS for authentication, authorization, accounting, and billing functions and supports most terminal servers and remote access devices in the market.)

(Internet back office billing: 99.9% web interface, full integration with your radius, mail, ftp, NT or Unix servers, User pages for on-line signup, financial history, call history.)

(Communications Accounting System, C A S: Three-level departmentalization, Volume discounting by time, dollars, product, customer, Multi-customer shared volume discount, Cycle billing, Recurring charge billing, Credit card billing.)

(Advanced generalized billing application: NTPayMaster. An integrated tracking, billing, reporting and email invoicing application for Internet Service Provider's and Corporate dial-up networks.)

(IP Phone Billing)

(Internet billing, JBill is the intelligent solution for customer care, subscriber management, and billing requirements, controlling and managing churn. The full operational spectrum from credit control through equipment sale, query resolution, bill production and escalating dunning routines is covered. Includes a.o. tariffing, price allocation, service level charges)

(Management of client accounts, cash receipts, Third Party Billing,Flexible Billing & Statement Preparation Functions)

(Billing solutions)

(Account management and billing software program that has been designed specifically for the Internet Service Provider)

(PRISM: Internet billing sowftware, customer care)

(NTX Access®  (New Technology Extended Access Control Services) provides automated access, authentication, accounting, and billing management of networks. The NTX Billing Server can also distribute your invoices and related debiting activity for you. Variable billing cycles and variable hourly rates (i.e. Base Rate, Rate1, Rate2), Rates based on time, bandwidth or both.)

(Arbor/Internet billing platform for access, IP, fax, phone, streaming audio and video, content, messaging.)

(The software is an integrated billing, invoicing and accounts receivable system for Internet service providers)

(Accounting system which would meet the complete accounting needs of any retail or wholesale business, regardless of size or location. ISP Billing: Credit card billing in association with your banking institution. Radius authentication interface provides time usage information.)

(Internet Accounting, Billing)

(iPhonEX: billing and customer care system. Internet Telephony Billing system features real-time cut-off of calls when call limit is reached, creation and management of pre-paid calling cards, individualized customer rate tables and flexible fax charge options by page, duration or priority (real time or store & forward)

(third party credit card service service, online processing)

(Accounting and Billing Solution for Ip Services)

(Infranet® software is a real-time, flexible solution for the management of Internet and emerging next-generation communication services. Infranet supports the creation and management of customer accounts; development, pricing and provisioning of service offerings; and activity tracking, rating and billing. IP Phone billing)

An office management system that handles billing, Customer services and technical support, and an automatic registration system that allows customers to sign up for service with an ISP without the need for interaction with its staff.

(Versatile accounting package capable of monitoring current connections and react in real time to any discrepancies that may occur, like when a customer is trying to use more time then he has paid for. Terminal server monitoring, user contract limitation enforcing, contract renewing, automatic invoice issuing, payment collecting.)

(ISP billing: Supports unlimited number of billing plans including flat rate, hourly, pay per use and any combination of the above. Supports unlimited number of promotion codes and pricing adjustments including one time and per period. Supports variety of billing periods weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually and custom.)

(U.T.A. is a customized billing package for Internet Service Providers incl. invoicing, reportung, customizing)

(Saville CBP™ (Convergent Billing Platform) provides convergent billing, marketing, service delivery and a one-stop shop for billing-related customer care. Saville IBP™ (Interconnect Billing Platform) provides advanced interconnect billing and financial verification.)

(SecurityNet ISP Billing module)

(SkyWave's NetManager is a real-time billing and management system that allows on-line, real-time services such as registration, authentication & authorization, activity tracking, pricing & rating, billing, credit card processing, and customer service.)

(IP billing, customer care, service management)

(Eclipse is a full-featured billing package comprising multiple functions essential to the ISP industry. ISPs have an efficient means of optimizing billing and subscriber management.)

(cf. interbiller, looks identical)

(Billing software for reseller, telephone provider, city carrier and private telephone companies with a prospective buyer management. Included features: Free management of the tarifs, fees/charges, zones, times, special numbers, frequency, connection-numbers, daily projections of the returns, margines and connection-costs, alarm-function if limits are reached.)

(Billing IP Traffic: XACCTready Alliance members can assure their service-provider customers that with XACCTusage as a single point of interface between the CCB and the network infrastructure, they can deploy multi-vendor equipment in their networks as well as change their service offerings, without having to re-construct their billing systems. In addition, they can create and deploy differentiated services with innovative and flexible pricing plans in real time.)

(Advanced ISP Billing is a comprehensive billing package for Internet Service Providers. It offers ease of day to day operations, superb client management, a whole suite of useful managerial reports, seamless system administration.)

(TotalBill® and InstantReg®: Billing and registration systems to Internet Service Providers)

(Call Center incl. Billing)

(HAWK-i is a full featured Internet Invoicing and Customer Management system offering the power and flexibility to accurately manage your Internet Service customers. HAWK-i effectively handles all of the invoicing procedures and customer maintenance functions necessary to run an ISP successfully. It keeps track of your customers, services, prices, billing, and provides you with reliable data in a wide range of customizable reports.)

(URIBS: User Registration, Information, and Billing System for Internet Access Providers to work with RADIUS user accounts.)

(Net-Bill: database driven ISP and Pay to View site billing management system. Billing System for ISP's.)

 

 

  1. Pure Accounting Systems and Solutions

 

These information are not complete yet.

 

4. Miscellaneous

 

(ISP Billing System Project, unfortunately in Taiwanese)

(Linked list of billing software)

(This guide contains 20 suggestions to help Internet Service Providers achieve maximum profitability, by reducing expenses and increasing revenues.)

(Custom payment processing solutions in PC-based transactions processing. Credit card accounts, debit card accounts, ACH check processing, transaction processing software and web-based services.)

 

 

5. Disclaimer

 

Even though this list is quite long, it is not exhaustive — and probably it will never be. Therefore, no liability in whatsoever fashion can be taken for information included in this document, although compiled and collected with caution, since data may change without notice, data may be limited to basic features only, or data will not provide the full and fine-grained details of the product. Please check with the company’s home pages for further information, if you need to make a commercial decision or contact your consultant company J .