I've recently become convinced that real time billing is dead. Specifically, prepaid cell phones are dead. In the next 2-5 years, it will be near impossible to find a prepaid cell phone.
It's the carrier's own behaviour that has led me to this belief. Let's review:
- Cingular and Sprint have both increased their per-SMS charges from 10c to 15c
- Hutchison's 3 network in the UK is offering unlimited mobile 3G broadband for UKP5/month.
- Hutchison's 3 network's broadband plan includes a built-in skype client.
- Skype is offering skype-out to North American destinations for US$30/year.
- Cost of VoIP calls are rapidly approaching the price of termination.
- The number of transactions on the network is increasing, with a growth rate of 25%.
- Many vendors in this area charge per transaction (prepaid, SMSC, etc).
- Vodafone NZ and Telecom NZ are playing the "who can offer more SMS's for NZ$10" game.
- Vodafone NZ charges the same price for all long distance calls.
We have a situation where there are large downward pressures on charges (per minute and per SMS), along with a huge increase in the number of transactions. The marginal value of each transaction is dropping. I expect that some carriers may be getting close to crossing the line where it costs more to bill for an SMS than they make in revenue (see Cingular and Sprint).
The response? Don't bill for it. Charge the customer a flat rate for access to the network. Turn off the SCPs, account engines, rating engines and anything else who's only purpose is to rate the transaction.
Save yourself some rather large maintenance bills! Simplify your network! Increase the handling capacity of your network at the same time!
Oh sure, per-unit real time billing will still exist in markets where there are large disparities in wealth, or as carriers as last resort for people with poor credit histories. However, in tier 1/2 carriers? Dead, dead, dead.