Vodafone's blown-out billing project gets late May roll-out

The cost of the project will now likely be between $500 million and $600 million

After years of delay and huge cost over-runs, Vodafone is expected to roll out its new combined billing and CRM system for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific at the end of next month.

Project Sam, as it is known, was originally budgeted at $200 million. Sources within and close to the company say the cost will now likely be between $500 million and $600 million, putting the much-quoted police INCIS project over-runs in the shade.

Project Sam was one of two major projects — the other was the roll-out of 3G — instituted by former New Zealand managing director Tim Miles, who last year left Vodafone in the UK after serving as managing director and then chief technology officer.

The billing component of the project was to be a template for Vodafone to roll out worldwide.

Computerworld has been told Vodafone Australia got cold feet half-way through the project and wanted to pull out. Vodafone New Zealand would have been left in an untenable financial position, and a plea to the UK head office by Miles led to the Australian subsidiary being told it had to stay in the project.

One source says New Zealand had chosen one of two billing system options for the project but Vodafone corporately decided subsequently to run with the other.

“Australia and New Zealand were done over,” the source says.

A product was released more than two years ago, which the source describes as a shambles. There was a period of finger-pointing between Vodafone and its integrator, IBM. Vodafone accepted it was its responsibility and began throwing resources at the problem, the source says.

“It was an anchor around the company’s neck.”

Subsequently, a cut-down retail version of the product was released but that ran into multiple problems, including incorrect billing and, sometimes, an inability to bill at all. A second release of the cut-down version was much more successful.

The core problem seems to have been one of scalability, that as the business grew, the billing system wasn’t able to scale up. New marketing initiatives were unable to be billed in a cost-effective and timely manner. For example, it’s understood the introduction of PXT was offered free for six months, simply because it couldn’t be billed.

This is not an uncommon problem in telco billing systems.

Vodafone had planned to release the final product last November, another source says; then the date slipped to late February. A third source, within the company, says May 28 is now the definitive date. Vodafone’s standard answer to inquiries is that it only comments about technology when it is to the benefit of the customer.

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