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The $33 Billion Phone Bill

Businesses are spending more on cellular services than ever before. Are they getting slammed?

In one of the more memorable episodes of the “Brady Bunch” — and really, how often do we get to use that opening? — parents Mike and Carol are shocked when they see how big their monthly phone bill is getting. The solution? They install a pay phone in the family room, forcing the kids to deposit a dime when they place a call to classmates, coaches, and Child Services.

Harsh, yes, but a few corporate controllers might vote for a similar approach. The fact is, business spending on telephone services — and specifically, business spending on wireless telephone services — is mounting dramatically. According to industry-analyst firm Yankee Group, U.S. businesses now spend a quarter of their telecommunications budgets on wireless offerings. All told, that works out to about $33 billion.

Granted, this hefty phone bill is due in large measure to the ever-increasing corporate reliance on wireless devices. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find an executive or salesperson who doesn’t carry a company-provided cell phone or BlackBerry. In fact, many CEOs seem to think that sky-high cell phone bills mean sales staff are diligently calling prospective customers.

They could be calling Movie Phone for all anybody knows — few companies analyze the wireless spending habits of their employees. In fact, Yankee Group reckons that barely half the large businesses in the United States manage their cellular accounts centrally. For the rest, bills are usually handled by a welter of departments, functions, and business units. Moreover, employees typically lump in their bills with the rest of their monthly expenses.

That’s a big blind spot, one that has some companies paying way too much for their wireless service. Take Getronics, an information and communication technology specialist with about 22,000 employees worldwide. More than 2,200 of the company’s North American sales personnel have cellular phones.

Until two years ago, the company’s management couldn’t get a handle on what it was paying for those phones. “It was very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain correct management information on our mobile telephony,” recalls Romolo Pallini, Getronics’s director of networks, Internet technologies, and telecom. “Some of the bills were paid centrally. Some employees put in expense reports each month. It was a total mess.”

In the Roaming

Faced with similar problems, some companies have demanded that their wireless vendors provide audits of cell phone usage. That way, controllers can see which workers are running up unusually big tabs. The usual suspects: employees who rack up big roaming charges or exceed their plan minutes.

But experts note that companies often use several cellular carriers, leaving finance managers to deal with a fistful of lengthy audits each month. Desperate for a less-cluttered view of cell phone spending, some business managers are turning to phone-audit software. The programs, which aggregate calling data and analyze cellular trends, are available from a number of vendors, including Traq-wireless, based in Austin, Tex.; Framingham, Mass.-based AnchorPoint; MSS Group, based in Denver; and TelSoft Solutions, in Glendale, Calif.

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