Policy + charging

U.S. Cellular Believes in SPIT

U.S. Cellular Corp. 's Belief Project, a "customer experience" overhaul, is easily the biggest transformation the sixth-largest US carrier has undertaken in its 27-year history. It was launched in late September, but changes had been going on behind the scenes long before. (See US Cellular Believes in Customer Service.)

To U.S. Cellular's 6.1 million customers, The Belief Project is all about customer service -- rewards programs, the promise of only signing one contract, all-inclusive rate plans, overage protection, and discounted phone replacement programs. Light Reading Mobile caught up with recently appointed CEO Mary Dillon at CTIA to learn more about the consumer-facing aspects of the Project. Check out the video below for the interview.

But, there's more to The Project than marketing. Besides beefing up its network to accommodate the influx of new traffic, U.S. Cellular invested in Service Provider Information Technology (SPIT) tools to support it, as well as prep for its move to Long Term Evolution (LTE). (See US Cellular Plots LTE Launch, The SPIT Manifesto, Putting SPIT in Focus, Analysts: SPIT Is Hot Stuff, and Heavy Reading: Putting SPIT Into Perspective.)

Specifically, Michael Irizarry, executive vice president and chief technology officer, said the carrier is using real-time service assurance probes, IP-based fault management, customer data inspection tools, and deep-packet inspection (DPI) to proactively identify and deal with network issues such as cell site outage and data overload.

It's also experimenting with a policy server, or Policy Charging and Rules Function (PCRF), a framework he says is still in its infancy.

U.S. Cellular puts SPIT into action
The first major IT change U.S. Cellular made was to its billing systems, powered by Amdocs Ltd. (NYSE: DOX), to account for the new service plans and contracts policy. Since Amdocs's Ensemble billing system was an older system, Irizarry says, they had to update some of the software platform's code, and deploy additional tools from some new vendors, including reward program functionality from Loyalty Lab Inc. , and phone replacement management software from Assurant Inc.

This entailed opening up access to its back-office systems for third-party vendors and revamping the internal communications process. For example, Irizarry says U.S. Cellular began generating more than 20 new business intelligence reports for the sales and marketing staff to track the progress of the program. In addition, the carrier also increased capacity on its Enterprise Service Bus servers, firewalls, and identity management systems.

"Once we decided what we'd do, we went through the typical product life cycle of scoping detailed requirements and architecture, then actually doing coding and development, testing, then user acceptance testing," Irizarry says, adding that redundancy was a top criterion.

The carrier has also had deep packet inspection (DPI) capabilities in its network for a number of years to facilitate data billing, understand traffic patterns, and ensure customers are not charged for "services that aren't adding value," Irizarry says, such as the signaling overhead required for backing up contacts.

But now, as part of the Belief Project overhaul, U.S. Cellular is trialing an integrated DPI/PCRF architecture, with links to subscriber databases, in an effort to be more sophisticated in handling billing and troubleshooting issues on the network. By doing so, Irizarry believes customer service reps will be better able to distill information and isolate any problem about which a user is calling.

Irizarry says it could take months to finish testing interoperability between its existing platforms and possible PCRF vendors, since the tech is not mature yet. (See Five Things You Need to Know About Policy & DPI.)

SPIT on the road ahead
Although U.S. Cellular started its SPIT overhaul before Project Belief was unveiled, its work is far from done. Going forward, from a consumer-facing, network, and IT perspective, Irizarry says the Belief Project will continue to adapt to address customer pain points, as well as enhance its data warehouse to get more detail on customer information to ensure consumers get the most value from the program.

"Our philosophy is ensuring we deliver that first-class experience," Irizarry says. "We're in the midst of the transformation of our next-generation billing system, and it's already starting to dovetail to the requirements of that."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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