Thirty-five years ago, futurist (and communications satellite inventor) Arthur C. Clarke threw out the speculation that all phonecalls around the world would go to a flat rate on January 1, 2001. This offhand prediction surely startled and amused readers (not to mention Bell managers) at the time. Yet, as with so many of Clarkes ideas, this one has become anything but farfetched.
Flat-rate per-minute billing for domestic long distance is already a reality for most businesses (and many individuals). Wireless users buy blocks of flat-rate minutes for a fixed monthly charge. Prices for all forms of voice service keep falling, as
convergence technology lowers the floor. Meanwhile, this same technology is making it easier and easier for businesses to take inter-office voice and fax communications off the grid entirely increasing pressure on carriers to provide these services at negligible cost, or package them free with other connectivity services.
What happens to call accounting when phone calls are free? Or to pose the question in a more wide-open way how will convergent communications
technology (and economics) affect the call accounting industry, and the larger discipline of telemanagement in general? We asked several leading players to share their thoughts, and stared deep into our own crystal ball. The picture that emerged was of an industry in ferment evolving rapidly to take advantage of what may turn out to be a period of enormous opportunity.
At least thats the view from 10,000 feet. Down in the trenches, the coming revolution in call accounting/telemanagement is
about changing technology.
CDR VIA NET
Present-day call accounting is a database application, engineered to capture and process ASCII call detail records (CDR) generated by a PBX in realtime (i.e., as calls occur) and output on a serial port. Where only a single PBX need be monitored, a PC can be attached directly to the switch, and a light-duty process used to capture records and write them to disk. The call accounting application frequently installed on the same PC
can be run at intervals to import records into its native database format, and process them as required.
When multiple sites must be managed (e.g., PBXs at several branch offices), solid-state buffers (instead of more-expensive PCs) may be used for record-capture. These devices can be remotely polled at intervals by data-retrieval software (these days, modem dialup is the method most frequently used) running on a PC at a central site. Most call accounting service bureaus work this way, too in this
case, buffers are installed at client sites; the call accounting application (and polling/ retrieval software) runs on computers at bureau headquarters.
Its an easy-to-understand system. But its relatively expensive. Poll-able buffers may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on features and RAM capacity. For remote access, modems and outside lines (or analog extensions) must also be provided. As call costs drop, its going to get harder to rationalize purchase
and maintenance of this kind of infrastructure.
Over the past two years, two major makers of CDR buffers
(Irvine, CA 949-586-9950) and
(Seattle, WA 206-624-4985) have added Net capability to their high-end products; eliminating the need for modem/dialup polling. The first iterations of these products used Telnet the call accounting application established
a connection to the buffers Telnet port, logged in, and issued command-codes to order download of buffer contents. Current models offer fast FTP as an option, which works more efficiently, exploiting compression and error-correction.
A useful improvement. But you still have to buy a buffer box. A better solution and one we expect to see implemented widely over the next year is for the PBX itself to incorporate disk- or flash-based CDR buffering and periodic output to a centralized,
standard database (e.g., SQL Server) across the LAN or Net. Most of the players to whom we spoke opined that, in fairly short order, the kludgy CDR system will be completely supplanted by such standards-based approaches.
Will CDR data ever become standardized? The outlook is very good for this, as well though its likely to be a gradual process. As call control migrates to open standards (e.g., H.323, SIP, MGCP), a vendor-independent CDR format becomes more possible. Indeed, it becomes a
necessity if carriers want to build efficient networks out of heterogeneous components and attach them to a billing system without too much hair pulling. The intellectual push, here, is likely to come from carrier-class billing and call-clearance heavyweights such as
(Hasbrouck Heights, NJ-201-288-3900) and
(New York, NY - 212-230-1200). Later, the standards evolved at the high end may trickle down to CPE.
An alternative future posits that a single player (such as
) will become sufficiently dominant to dictate a de-facto standard. Call accounting heavyweight
(Nashville, TN 800-48-TELCO) has been working and exchanging technology with Cisco for the past several years, to insure that Ciscos multiservice routers can report meaningfully to their application suite. One result of this collaboration is TRU Network Accountant
a reporting system for multiservice routers that keeps track of web and other IP protocol transactions.
The CDR record of the future, of course, will be considerably more complex (and much larger) than todays, since future networks will manage a much wider variety of call types (data, voice, video, etc.), bandwidth variables, as well as complex quality-of-service contract/policy metrics. There are some interesting scaling challenges in store, as the body of information about a call
begins to consume as much bandwidth as the call itself.
The era of the PC built into a PBX is upon us.
(Monroe, CT 203-268-4484) took a Product of the Year in 99 (see our December 99 issue) for its in-skin voicemail system: A DOS PC with integrated voice processing, engineered to plug into an
(Irving, TX 800-TEAM-NEC) Electra
phone system. An NT version is expected shortly and other OEM manufacturers are working hard to catch up.
At the moment, the in skin revolution is mostly about built-in voicemail and unified messaging. But its inevitable that some PBX maker (wed hazard a guess that NEC will be the first) will shortly propose running CDR record-capture (or cross-the-LAN database updating) on a DOS-based in-skin package. As NT-class machines find their way into PBX card-slots, more horsepower
(and of course, standard multitasking) will be available at this point, complete telemanagement/ call accounting apps (or at least their server parts) may come to reside on the PC-in-the-PBX, alongside messaging.