Is it just me, or has billing become boring? I never thought I’d say that but, quite frankly, apart from the occasional billing shock headline the whole billing thing has become rather mundane.

Maybe it’s because we have become so good at it that the challenges of billing in years gone by have all been overcome. Maybe it’s because voice calls, the most complex of things to rate and bill for, are diminishing in volume and customer importance. Maybe it’s just because customers are moving to flat-rate and free VoIP calling that cares not for location, time of day, distance of call and time spent talking.

It’s probably all of those things, but more likely it’s that customers have become accustomed to pre-paid mobile accounts, a world of instant pricing and a distinct dislike for paper bills being delivered by snail mail.

Phone bills today simply represent a much lower percentage of one’s disposal income than they did 10 or 20 years ago. Very few are besotted with detailed call records and the need to check if they have been overcharged or not. They have better things to do with their time like Tweeting and Facebooking.

The paper bill that was mailed out became the primary marketing medium for telcos keen to get offers to their customers, but in the digital age it’s all about real-time profiling and targeted pushes via messaging services and apps.

Traditional billing vendors have long since moved their focus to online, real-time charging platforms. Yes, post-paid billing platforms are still used, but less for rating and more and more as convergent systems collating records from a number of other adjunct billing systems an applying discounts, formatting and distributing bills for corporate and consumer customers, most often in electronic format.

If you take away the complex rating part – once the heart of billing systems – you take away the main reason for their existence. The other tasks can probably be handled adequately by conventional accounting systems. When you add the need to manage purchases and payments for the plethora of new digital service providers CSPs are now dealing with, conventional accounting systems start looking very attractive, and probably more economical to run.

This may explain why so many billing vendors have been diversifying over the years, building a broader BSS and OSS portfolio. The largest seem hell-bent on being able to provide everything as a one-stop solution provider, and they are doing this by acquiring smaller specialist players that have found the going tough.

Of course we have seen this all before, and experience tells us that after the mergers come the new “boutique” hopefuls, seeing a niche in the market and having the advantage of a much lower cost base and the latest technology to work with. We have already seen this with the influx of subscription and direct operator billing (DOB) suppliers over the last two or three years.

It’s a cycle that last manifested itself with the introduction of convergent billing systems like Geneva and Kenan in the 90’s – an era that shook legacy systems to the core and eventually replaced many of them – causing the demise of some major corporations. We are not seeing many new network operators emerging these days, but those that have appeared have brought with them telco DNA and the urge to implement systems that are more complex than they probably need to be.

Maybe it’s the regulation, or maybe it’s plain fear that something might go wrong, but their digital competitors providing so-called over-the-top voice and messaging services are certainly not going down the same path, opting for simple pricing models and real-time payments.

One thing is certain – today’s customers prefer simplicity, speed and online services without any fuss. Time is of the essence and nobody wants billing and payment issues to cut into their Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and LinkedIn time.

First published at TelecomAsia.