How am I going to be Billed?

This article was originally published on October 15, 1998!

The telephone network is being revolutionized as you read this. Sprint wants to push their ATM network all the way out to your home, and Qwest is implementing an all IP network which they claim is leapfrogging Frame Relay and even the ATM technology Sprint wants to use. Who has the crystal ball, which shows us the picture of the future? What will this network really look like? And what will it mean to the average end-user?

All great questions with a different answer, and therefore no absolute answer, from everyone you ask in the industry right now. But I really would like to know one thing: How am I going to be billed for whatever this network looks like? This is the question whose answer hits me where it counts.

Let’s say we follow the general direction of the Sprint’s and Qwest’s without singling either one out. Looking into the crystal ball there is a misty view of a bandwidth “pipe” to the “net” at my house. Yes. Can you see it too? This pipe is much much bigger that what I’m used to (64kbps). Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5Mb/s or is it 2 or 3 or 4 times that? Tough to see. But I can see myself using that bandwidth “on demand”, whenever I need it. I can see multiple phone calls, fax, Internet access, maybe even video, and all combined in what appears to be a “hyper-media” manner. Wow.
Clearly there are some parts of my crystal ball, which are less fuzzy than others are. But let’s get back to the billing question. Will bandwidth be metered just like my gas line, electricity, or my water? Is someone going to put a mega-cell or mega-packet counter on my “net-line”?

This all brings to mind a great story from my past that I often tell at training seminars. I worked for a news and financial service provider back in the age-old eighties. Our network was in the final stages of conversion from multi-drop to point-to-point leased lines. Reliability and speed were our drivers (sound familiar?). We were being guaranteed a certain per-line performance contractually by the Telephone Company – something like 99.995% availability. Heck these were expensive “groomed” lines. The phone company even had fancy names for them: “specials”! 

The modem equipment we were installing allowed us to monitor the availability by circuit. It was really cool thinking on the modem manufacturers part. This capability enabled us to get reports from the modems, take every bill and adjust it by whatever the delta performance was. For instance, a circuit report from the modems would show 87.3625%. OK we would take the difference of that and the 99.995% and deduct the delta percentage (12.632%) from that month’s bill for that line. In some cases this was…well, you get the idea.

Needless to say, the delta billing amounts attracted some senior people from the phone company to pay me a visit. I showed them what we were doing after consulting with our legal people that I had not violated any contract issues. The bottom line was we knew more about the network than they did. The deductions stood, and it enabled me to spend lots of saved money in other places.

Why the story? Well, the phone companies may not want to hang a meter on my “net-line”. I probably will always have the tools to show things like network congestion, re-transmissions, and bandwidth availability. Heck, most of this is already in the protocol suite of TCP/IP as it is. How else did engineers figure out packet throughput when they invented the stuff?

All the service providers are desperately seeking management solutions to provide end-to-end Quality of Service (QOS) so that phone company type guarantees can be made. Everyone, whether in Frame Relay, ATM, or TCP/IP/PPP is hunting for the algorithm, which spells out the models for over-subscription of access and core network facilities, and end-to-end priority levels. Standards committees continue to struggle with the issues of QOS, especially in the IP environment.

The cost saving approach at the news and financial information service was a relative secret (though others shared much the same success, albeit unknowingly). Every “net-line” cost cutting methodology will be broadcast on the Internet and in the hands of every end user within hours of discovery. Service providers ought to be very busy thinking about the issue of billing. While their network is revolutionizing, the customer methods for undermining will revolutionize right alongside.

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