March 18, 2014
Recently, I was able to catch with B. Sekhar Rao, the CEO of JunoTele - a startup whose platform enables carrier billing for micro-transactions in near real-time in a seamless manner. In what turned out to be a lengthy and very enlightening (for me) discussion, Sekhar was kind enough to answer a few questions about JunoTele and their Core Technology.
Tell us about your previous experience in this segment, before JunoTele?
I used to head this company called 'MACH' – which is a clearing and settlement house, headquartered in Luxemburg. This industry had consolidated over a period of time and there were 2 major players left out. In 2005, this was acquired by Warburg Pincus – a Private Equity firm.
How did Concept of JunoTele come about?
After WP took over, the roaming business was nearing saturation. There were only small increments and no more big growth since roaming had nearly saturated. In many places such as the European Union, the regulators had begun to reduce roaming charges. They wanted to make the whole of Europe roaming free. So what happened now is, Data Clearing Houses (DCH) had to look for something new - some kind of a quantum leap. At that time, I was the only one in the company focusing on emerging markets. The big question was, what is next for DCH?
But again I realized, that was not going to be much of a quantum leap as such, again just an incremental growth on the evolution path. Since I was from emerging markets however, I took a different view on this. This is the point where the seed of this company and concept began.
Why this transition?
The clearing house does the roaming and settlement. Roaming is a transaction. So DCH is basically more of a transaction clearing company that processes a set of transactions, in this case it happens to be roaming. The transaction happens offline, in the sense that - transaction has already happened and then we process the records from the operators and do the settlement. For DCH to become relevant especially in emerging markets, we realized that it had to move from an Offline Transaction Company to an Online Transaction Company. The transactions are then in real-time.
I’ll explain what I mean by this:
Whenever the transaction is happening between the mobile operators and mobile subscribers, or even with the merchants using the mobile account – we should be there at the centre of everything.
Offline to online – this was basically the challenge, if we have to become relevant we had to make this transition. But there was a technical challenge. How do I become a realtime transaction processing company (and DCH had the experience of doing this across networks right between 2 operators, in offline mode) so how do I become this kind of a Hub which Is connected between multiple operators and also be relevant at the same time?
In the financial services industry what VISA does is that it is a realtime online transaction processing company. VISA basically has its linkages with banks, its subscribers and the merchants on board. So whenever a user goes to a merchant and swipes his/her card, the transaction is routed through VISA and this means that VISA is basically inbetween the transactions. It is not a case wherein the transaction is processed between the bank and the merchant, as an offline settlement. VISA has the transaction details captured online and thereafter it does the clearing and settlement across different banks. We wanted to do something like that.
Can you explain to us, your core technology and how it works?
Our breakthrough eventually came in the form of the Juno Hub. We acquired the IP rights for our hardware through a company in Bangalore that is run by ex Intel engineers.
This Juno Hub can get charging request on any protocol, it can come from an IP, traditional SMS, XML database or even as a voice call. When the request comes in, what we do is we identify the operator and we connect to the operator through signaling to a preconfigured premium value, and then we take the response back from there. And we do this on signaling called SS7 signaling. Now the Juno Hub completes the entire transaction within 150 milliseconds. This is the technology that has given us the actual on-line, real-time charging-capability, and respond back to the merchant within a second. This is our core technology. We have applied for a patent for the charging process as well as the design patent for the box. That’s also a reason that we were in stealth mode till now.
Juno Hub intends to connect to as many operators as possible on one end over SS7 signaling infrastructure. At the other end the hub would connect to various entities such as content providers, internet companies, OTT players, Ad Networks etc., on any existing infrastructure, such as Web, HTTP, GPRS, VPN, etc., These external entities are those who would need to charge their users from mobile accounts. Thus a charging request to Juno can be originated from any entity to Juno’s platform, which in turn will identify the mobile number, the operator to which the number belongs, deduct appropriate amount and inform back the originating entity in real time, to process the transaction further.
What differentiates JunoTele from the other players in this segment?
We started getting into the market only over the last year. Once we had this breakthrough and tested it, the next question was - With what service should we approach the operators? Because by this time there were already major players in the carrier billing segment.
What most of them do is (in my opinion) – they provide an API to the outside world that anyone can reach through IP, and then that API will in turn check various nodes and send response back to those requests. This is the traditional method that is followed worldwide. Even GSMI has set ‘OneAPI standards’.
For companies to integrate with one operator it takes 4 to 6 months typically. To short circuit this, many are going back to premium SMS model. The challenges of all these processes is basically that these are all IP based requests following Internet TCP/IP protocols. The reconciliation percentage offered is around 80%.
However, in our case whenever we do the charging – we are inside the TDM network because we are using SS7 signaling. Basically we store CDR records the way operators are keeping records in the TDM networks. On the Voice part – we say that we can give 99.9% reconciliation which is technically accepted by global players. This is our basic difference.
What are the problems that your product solves?
Our solutions solve various problems in the market:
How is the company growing and how are you funding that growth?
Juno’s first priority is Indian market and hence we are focused on domestic growth, where we have signed-up 4 operators. Concurrently, we are working on market entry plans into South East Asian region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines), Middle East and Africa. We will have reasonable presence in the above regions within next 2 or 3 quarters. We are raising funds required for the extent of our growth from global investment community.
Can you tell us more about your team?
We are Headquartered in Singapore mostly because we are a Settlement house and we have a lot of companies that are comfortable working with First World Banking systems. We have our operation and development centers in India. An industry veteran who joined us has spent nearly 11 years in DCH (roaming) and headed the European operations as well as global customer support and implementations. In fact when the first seamless, plastic free roaming happened, he was a witness to it. He is taking care of implementations at JunoTele. Also six Senior people are currently working in the network team that takes care of various sections. The total team consists of 26 people at the moment.
Do you see any competition in this area?
Clearly in terms of technology, we do not see any competition in the market. However, we do see some in-direct competition to serve the same market segment, with not-so relevant technologies. We also foresee that competition would need our technology to complement their own offerings.
What keeps you awake at night?
Right now with all this technology and innovation going on, how do I scale this across the globe? Because that requires a different kind of a thinking, a different kind of a culture and we need to really have that grasping power of the global parameters. Each country is so unique and each operator is so unique…so basically what keeps me awake all night is how do I take JunoTele to every subscriber on this planet.
Specifically for India I feel that over time the regulations will open up quite well. At some point JunoTele can go on to contribute somehow in getting the financial services to the hands of the really poor people who have been out of the financial services domain until today. And hopefully this should help reduce poverty in our country. I don’t mind keeping awake as long as we are contributing towards something good. This is a business but along with business we have a larger vision that we should be able to affect people in a way that impact their lives in a positive manner.