Back-Office for Business Services Could Expand Cable Opportunities

Jim Dunlap, president, Cycle30

Jim Dunlap, president, Cycle30

December 26, 2012 – A big barrier to cable operators’ increasingly ambitious business service agendas may soon be breached judging by initial responses to a new billing platform designed specifically to enable small and big MSOs alike to go after new accounts wherever opportunities arise.
Cycle30, an independently operated subsidiary of Alaska MSO General Communications, Inc., has struck a receptive chord across the spectrum of Tier 1, 2 and 3 cable companies with introduction of its hosted Commercial Business Billing, says Jim Dunlap, the firm’s president. “Even some of the larger operators have been relying on legacy billing systems to support their commercial service operations, and they know this isn’t going to work if they want to really take advantage of the opportunity that’s out there,” Dunlap says.

That opportunity is expanding but growing ever more complex as businesses of all sizes increase their reliance on high-speed networks to integrate dispersed operations, expand collaborative capabilities, leverage the benefits of “Big Data,” exploit the power of video in marketing and training, cut costs through reliance on cloud-based storage and computer processing and introduce new products and services that rely on network connectivity. All of this has sparked the emergence of new service categories such as Carrier Ethernet, digital signage, machine-to-machine, telepresence and telemedicine which cable and other network operators with strong local ties are well positioned to respond to.

But amid an outpouring of research and statements by major MSOs attesting to the immensity of this opportunity, many companies have yet to go beyond offering what amounts to business-class voice and data versions of their broadband services. While year-to-year commercial service revenue growth has been rapid for cable operators, averaging 23 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to research firm Heavy Reading, the $6 billion in revenue generated by U.S. MSOs in 2011 represents just 9 to 12 percent of the small-to-medium business (SMB) market and four to five percent of the entire commercial services market, as estimated by Heavy Reading. Now, as reflected in Comcast’s recent expansion into the mid-sized market, loosely defined as companies with 50 to 500 employees, cable operators would like to take a bigger share of this lucrative pie.

“Cable operators are all heavily incented to take advantage of the commercial services revenue potential within their service areas, but many are being hamstrung by back-office limitations,” Dunlap says. A big reason for this, he notes, is the fact that many operators are relying on back-office that were designed to support consumer pay TV services with later enhancements for voice and data but without the flexibility to provide the level of billing and customer care support operators need in the commercial services market.

Commercial accounts are much more complex than consumer accounts with respect to setup, configuration, provisioning, CPE, taxation, service options, pricing, performance requirements and terms of service agreement, Dunlap notes. The requirements he lists for commercial service back-office systems include:

  • The flexibility to respond to specific fixed and mobile service needs and features with new products and smart, easy-to-manage pricing plans;
  • Customizable workflows that make the entire billing and services management platform accessible to personnel on a hierarchical basis;
  • The ability to segment invoicing across multiple end-user locations and usage models;
  • A comprehensive set of CSR and end-user self-care management functions that deliver all the information required to access and manage individual accounts across all services;
  • Business intelligence capabilities essential to tracking billing and product performance;
  • And the wherewithal to continually enhance all these capabilities in response to new market developments.

Even for the largest MSOs, the investments in IT expertise and other requirements can be a challenge once they recognize they can no longer rely on extensions to their consumer back-office systems to support business customers, Dunlap says. “We have spent the past ten years in refining our business commercial billing solutions by developing applications specifically designed for commercial services billing – including orders, provisioning, workflow, billing, product catalog, customer hierarchies, taxation and the like,” he says.

Just as it has with its consumer services back-office system, Cycle30 operates the commercial services platform on a hosted basis, thereby reducing the costs operators would otherwise incur if they had to do the licensing, integration and regular software updates required to build and sustain an internally run system. “Cycle30 has taken the complex and made it very simple for the operator to understand and execute,” Dunlap says.

Cycle30 has benefited from direct engagement with parent company GCI in developing what’s required to support a growing commercial services business, he notes. The company got its start as an in-house initiative when GCI, with a quad-play service portfolio in the consumer and business markets, couldn’t find an existing OSS solution suited to keeping pace with changing conditions in the consumer and business markets, he explains. On the commercial services side GCI needed a platform that could support the full-service billing, service fulfillment and customer management requirements for delivering Ethernet, PRI (private rate interface) and a host of specialized services to businesses across Alaska, including major enterprise clients like British Petroleum and Wells Fargo.

The solution wasn’t to build everything from scratch, Dunlap says. Instead, he explains, the company leveraged its IT knowhow and cable operations experience to integrate a wide range of best-of-breed solutions into a platform that operates across a network of data centers here and abroad to support whatever functionalities any given cable operator needs to maximize its commercial service opportunities.

As described by company officials these capabilities include:

  • Billing and revenue management encompassing all the features essential to supporting scalable and reliable converged billing, including support for customer-specific product catalogs, transaction rating, highly detailed revenue accounting, reconciliation, collections and enterprise mediation;
  • Customer management with a complete set of easy-to-access account management functions, from order entry and credit checking to contact management and serviceability, as well as a full suite of self-help applications;
  • Service fulfillment with pre-built and customizable workflows supporting order, activation and inventory management;
  • Business intelligence with comprehensive analytics and a real-time data warehouse to tap in assessing customer needs, purchasing behavior, billing performance and trends in customer care;
  • Integration support through established workflows and custom development relating to business-to-business, point-of-sale, financial reporting and other third-party applications;
  • Ongoing platform enhancements as well as customer-specific consulting services ensuring customers are always equipped to exploit new revenue-generating opportunities as well as advances in customer care and marketing.

Operators that choose the Cycle30 solution can more easily enforce business rules, cross-sell and bundle services, and anticipate customer needs across all product offerings, Dunlap says. Moreover, he adds, as they discover the breadth of capabilities and flexibility of Cycle30’s hosted-service approach some of the initial customers for the commercial services platform are signaling they want to implement the firm’s platform on the consumer services side as well.

“Once we’ve built all the integrations into their operations to support the commercial services implementation it’s not a big hassle to implement our platform on the consumer side,” he says.