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Amid shift to tiered plans, questions on usage alerts

Thu, 07/21/2011 - 8:10am
Maisie Ramsay, Wireless Week

When Verizon Wireless rolled out its new tiered data plans two weeks ago, it also began sending customers on the plans text message alerts when they reached 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent and 110 percent of their monthly limit.

The alerts could play a significant role in helping customers avoid unexpected overage charges as they adjust to the new plans, which charge $10 for every gigabyte over their monthly allowance.

However, not all operators offer the alerts and some have warned that the notifications could be significantly delayed by network congestion, sluggish back-end systems and the complexities of determining a customer's data use while roaming.

The ability to get out alerts in real time varies by operator, as each has different capabilities in the back-end systems that track usage and handle billing.

Usage alerts, while important, may not be as easy to deploy as it may seem.

Verizon's alerts are sent in "near real time," going out within minutes after a customer's use triggers a notification, according to company spokesman Tom Pica.

"We work very hard to make sure customers have the information they need to manage and monitor their wireless usage," Pica said. "We take it seriously."

Sprint, which could not provide comment by press time, said in FCC documents that it can monitor and report usage on a "near real time basis" for on-network usage, but that there is "often some delay or latency in receiving information" for off-network use.

But AT&T, which notifies customers when they reach 65 percent, 90 percent and 100 percent of their monthly limit, has a disclaimer on its alerts:

"Data used represents an estimate of usage. Usage reports may take up to five days to post. Additional delays of up to 60 days are possible for reports that include data used while roaming on another carrier's network. During the time your invoice is being processed, you may not be able to view your usage."

An AT&T spokesman declined to provide specific percentages on customers affected by the delays, but said the "vast majority" of the company's customers received alerts within hours of hitting a new level of data usage.

"The vast majority of our data usage alerts are delivered within hours of a customer reaching his or her usage threshold," the company said, adding that it will continue to alert customers after they go over their limit. "The disclaimer we provide is designed to educate our customers on possible delays in receiving alerts due to off net domestic and international roaming usage."

The company also declined to specify reasons for the delays, but comments filed with the FCC about proposed alerts for planned bill shock regulations state that "processing on AT&T's network produces a delay between when usage is incurred and when it is reflected on *Services, the "myWireless" website, and the MyWireless smartphone App. This delay averages only a few hours, but in some cases can be significantly greater. In particular, there can be lengthy delays in processing information concerning voice usage and occasionally data usage when a customer is roaming on another wireless provider's network."

T-Mobile USA was unable to provide comment on possible delays in its SMS alerts by press time, but stated that it stamps its SMS alerts with the data and time so customers know when the usage was incurred. The company's terms and conditions state that most usage and charges incurred during a billing cycle will be included in the customer's bill for that cycle, though some usage and charges may be delayed to a later billing cycle.

However, T-Mobile also reported possible difficulties in providing real-time alerts to customers in its comments on bill shock filed with the FCC.

The company warned that "in most cases, T-Mobile cannot process usage information in real time for transmission to consumers. Such processing can take hours, days or even weeks… each provider's billing and network systems have different technological capabilities and limitations."

The operator said that while its system for prepaid customers could relay usage information "fairly quickly though still not in real time," reconfiguring its postpaid billing systems to include real-time alerts would "require a major overhaul of its systems and networks as well as millions of dollars and countless man hours."

The company cited network congestion as another factor that could possibly delay usage alerts, stating "it will only mislead consumers if the Commission adopts rules promising subscribers that they will receive alerts at specific times when neither the Commission nor providers can guarantee that all alerts will be received promptly."

"On the one hand, operators have some of the most sophisticated billing systems in the world – they can bill down to tiny bits – but they've had to regenerate these things countless times," ABI Research analyst Mark Beccue says, citing new technologies and services that must be incorporated into operators' existing systems. "It's not like you can take your system and chuck it and start all over again, so there are a lot of challenges."

The usefulness of SMS alerts about data use could be limited if the notifications can't be delivered in real time. For instance, an unsuspecting new customer excited about the ability to watch videos on his or her smartphone could rack up a lot of data in the five days listed in AT&T's disclaimer about its usage alerts.

Customers who assume the alerts to be reliable and then fail to receive a notification in time to avoid an overage charge could be left dissatisfied with their service.

Operators have mixed motivations for providing its customers with usage alerts. By providing customers with more tools to handle their data consumption, they stand to gain points in customer satisfaction. However, they also stand to lose money that would otherwise have been gleaned from overage charges.

Wireless subscribers have several ways to check their account balances, including sending an SMS to their operator, checking their account on the company's website, or using a smartphone app. However, usage alerts don't require customers to be proactive, making them particularly effective tools for preventing overages.

It's unclear whether AT&T's customers need to be worried about delays in their SMS usage alerts, since the company would not provide specifics about the scope of the delays. The disclaimer may apply only to a fraction of the operator's customers, or the delays could be more widespread.

Even Verizon, with its claim of "near real time" alerts, warned the FCC that a mandate for real-time alerts "could negatively impact carriers' networks, degrading call quality and the customer experience, as well as require substantial carrier investment."

Judging from some of the warnings operators have filed with the FCC, customers who want to be absolutely certain they don't go over their monthly data limit might want to use multiple tools to keep track of their usage, no matter their service provider.

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