Oct 302014

The last thirty years have been good for the telecommunications industry; a wave of privatisations, regulatory reforms and technological change drove the sector and company profits.

As populations around the world adopted mobile phones users started enthusiastically calling and texting, Telco profits exploded.

Twenty years later the massive growth to the industry has peaked as customers have moved to using their cellphones for  less lucrative data services.

So where do the telecommunications companies go next for growth and profit? Today and tomorrow I’m attending the Ovum 2020 Telecoms Summit where they’re looking at the future for the industry.

Salvation from the internet of things

The great white hope for the telco industry is the internet of things and the machine to machine (M2M) technologies; the hope being that putting SIM cards into every car, kettle and shipping container that this will be another lucrative revenue stream.

Martin Creighan, Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand at AT&T, points out that by the end of the decade there will be seven times as many connected devices as live mobile phones. This is where the opportunity lies.

The problem with the M2M vision is annual revenues per user (ARPU) for connected devices are a fraction of those from voice and messaging over the last twenty years and telcos will need more than that to maintain their revenues, let alone grow.

Moving into the cloud

One of the other revenue streams is adding cloud services, again this is a low margin business and involves competing with global giants like Amazon and Google along with the myriad of specialist companies.

Another possibility is in providing professional services as Jennifer Douglas, Director of Fixed voice and platinum for Telstra, described in the company’s home support product.

The problem with both the cloud and professional services model this requires a change in culture for the telcos, the traditional contempt telecommunications executives have for the end user doesn’t cut it in the professional services and cloud computing industries.

For the telcos, this major change is something that’s been experienced by many other industries. That a comparatively protected industry like telecommunications companies are subject to these disruptions illustrates just how no sector is safe from being uprnded.

Aug 202014

“My ambition is to only spend four or five hours in the office,” said Vodafone Australia CEO Iñaki Berroeta when asked at a lunch in Sydney today about how he would like to structure his working day.

For many Australians, this is becoming the reality of work as increasingly their job is following them home and into their social lives according to Microsoft’s Life On Demand white paper released this week.

The blurring of the lines between home and work is no surprise to small business owners, senior executives or those establishing a startup, however according to Microsoft this is becoming normal for the majority of workers.

In their paper, Microsoft found 30% of Australian workers are checking work emails on devices at home before they leave for work and 23% are doing work activities while they are socialising with their friends.

Overall, more than a quarter of Australians work from anywhere which has more than doubled in the last five years.

This is largely due to the rise of tablet computers and accessible wireless broadband. A direct consequence of this is nearly half of commuters work or study while on public transport.

Being able to work on the train, bus or tram is changing the usage of public transport with many commuters preferring to use the usually slower option (at least in Australia) over driving as it’s seen as more productive time. This is a cultural change that governments have been slow to understand.

Equally slow have been many businesses in understanding they have to deploy the tools that allow workers to be efficient while out of the office, this is the whole point of cloud services.

The workplace is changing as mobile internet becomes an expected part of society. How is your businesses catering to both your staff and customers’ needs in the age of the smartphone and tablet computer?

May 202014

Today Telstra’s CEO David Thodey launched the company’s new public Wi-Fi network that the telco hopes to roll out to two million locations across Australia.

In using Telefonica’s Fon service, the idea is to equip customers on landline connections – ADSL, cable TV or Fibre – with a public wireless hotspot. The telco can then offer public Wi-Fi as a service.

With well over half the country’s Internet market, Telstra can deliver reasonably good coverage with such a network in the same way BT does with their Wi-Fi that’s already providing this service in the UK with the same technology.

Today’s announcement isn’t the first time Telstra has launched a municipal Wi-Fi service, five years ago they launched a product that quietly slipped into obscurity.

At today’s launch, David Thodey mentioned that previous service and put it down to the immaturity of the technology.

Several generations of Wi-Fi technology later, it may be the new product is more reliable and stable than the last failed attempt and sees far better take up rates.

Which leads us to a truism in the technology industry – everything old is new again.

In fact, most of the technology we talk about today such as cloud computing, social media and citywide Wi-Fi has been around for years under different names.

What makes say cloud computing today more successful than software as a service a decade a go is that the current technology makes the products more reliable and accessible.

That’s another affect of the Gartner hype cycle, that as one technology recovers from the trough of disillusionment it gets renamed and spawns the adoption of a bunch of other neglected concepts or ideas.

As with much in businesses, the adoption of technology is as much a matter of timing as it is expertise.

Apr 032014

Australia’s government research agency, the CSIRO, released a somewhat alarming media alert this morning warning that our cities are approaching Peak Data.

Peak Data, which borrows from the ‘Peak Oil’ term coined in the 1970s to describe the point where oil production reaches a maximum, is where we run out available bandwidth on our wireless networks.

The release is around the agency’s new report, A World Without Wires, where the agency lays out its view of the future of cellular and radio communications.

“In the future, how spectrum is allocated may change and we can expect innovation to find new ways to make it more efficient but the underlying position is that spectrum is an increasingly rare resource,” says  the CSIRO’s Director of Digital Productivity and Services Flagship Dr Ian Oppermann.

“With more and more essential services, including medical, education and government services, being delivered digitally and on mobile devices, finding a solution to “peak data” will become ever more important into the future.”

The wireless data paradox

It’s a paradox that just as we’re entering a world of unlimited data, we have limitations of what we can broadcast wirelessly as radio spectrum becomes scarce and contested.

With fixed line communications, particularly fibre optics, available spectrum can be relatively simply increased by laying down more cables – wireless only has one environment to broadcast in –  so finding ways of pushing more data through the airways is what much of the CSIRO’s paper addresses.

For telecommunications companies, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity; the challenge being squeezing more data into limited spectrum while the opportunity lies in charging more for guaranteed connectivity.

The latter raises questions about network neutrality and the question of whether different types of traffic across wireless networks can be charged differently or given differing levels of priority.

Distributing the load

This also gives credence to the distributed processing strategies like Cisco’s Fog Computing idea that takes the load off public networks and can potentially hand traffic over to fixed networks or point to point microwave services.

While M2M data is tiny compared to voice and domestic user needs, it does mean business critical services will have to compete with other users, both in the private Wi-Fi frequencies or the public mobile networks spectrum.

Overall though, the situation isn’t quite as dire as it seems; technological advances are going to figure out new ways of stuffing data into the available spectrum and aggressively priced data plans are going to discourage customers from using data intensive applications.

A key lesson from this though is those designing, M2M, Internet of Things or smart city applications can’t assume that bandwidth will always be available to communicate to their devices.

For the Internet of Things, robust design will require considering security, latency and quality of service.

Feb 252014
the global traffic map of social media service Facebook

One of the fascinations of this blog is how telecommunications executives desperately fight against the idea of their service being a basic utility.

Should you scratch a tough, hardbitten telco executive; you’ll find a sensitive soul who desperately wants to be seen as a swashbuckling media tycoon or cool startup wunderkind rather than the manager of a staid old telephone company.

Once you understand the buried desired of telco executives, it’s not surprising that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was invited to give the opening keynote of the 2014 Mobile World Congress.

Sadly for the Telcos it wasn’t good news as the real life tycoon and wunderkind described how Whatsapp, the startup he acquired for $16 billion last week, is going to introduce voice services in the near future.

Having seen messaging services like Whatsapp slowly strangle the telecommunications industry golden goose that was SMS, the telcos now face lucrative voice services being further eroded by these Over The Top smartphone apps.

Which leaves them with data, the lowest margin service in the telco stable.

Far from being the bravest man in Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg is the telco industry’s future. Which is why the industry’s executives want to find ways to profit from developments like machine to machine (M2M) communications and media ventures.

The worry though is most of the new telco opportunities don’t appear to anywhere near as profitable as now declining or stagnant services that have been so lucrative in the past.

Which makes Ericsson’s partnership with Facebook in developing an Innovation Lab for the internet.com initiative intruiging.

The objective of Internet.com is to make the internet more accessible to more of the world, which again threatens incumbent telco models.

Transmitting data—even a text message or a simple web page—requires bandwidth, something that’s scarce in many parts of the world. Partners will invest in tools and software to improve data compression capabilities and make data networks and services run more efficiently.

Efficient, compressed data means even less revenue for the operators so it’s no wonder they’re looking at those alternate revenue streams.

No telco executive is likely to starve in the near future, but as revenues stagnate in their established markets it’s no wonder the industry’s leaders are wondering whether it’s worthwhile hitching their fortunes to Facebook’s success.

Feb 242014

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a three or four way war in the technology industry, with most sectors settling down into a two way fight between alternatives.

Mozilla’s promised $25 smartphone project threatens to open the mobile industry into a three way battle just as it appeared the market had comfortably settled down into an Android and iOS duopoly.

Now we see a three way race and possibly four if Samsung can get traction with its Tizen operating system that it’s bundling into the latest version of the Gear smartwatch.

One positive aspect of the four way battle is that three of the participants – Firefox, Tizen and Android are relatively open so compatibility between them isn’t impossible.

For Google and Apple though, this four way tussle presents a problem to their business plans.

Apple’s iOS ambitions of putting the software in smarthomes, connected cars and, possibly most lucratively of all, into retailing with iBeacon are threatened by a fragmented market and a rapidly eroding market share.

For Google, both Firefox and Tizen threaten the dominant position of their Android operating system that forms a plank in the company’s ambition to control the planet’s data and become an ‘identity service’.

Worse still for Google’s information ambitions, Firefox is working with Deutsche Telekom on a security initiative that will lock away users’ data.

So the stakes are high in the smartphone operating systems wars.

It’s early days to forecast the demise of either Android or Apple iOS, which is unlikely in the short term, but if Firefox’s operating system does take hold it will mean the smartphone industry is about to become a lot more complex.

Jan 162014

Yesterday’s US Supreme Court decision ruling against the Federal Communication Commission’s regulations on network neutrality is a mixed bag for the Internet of Things industry.

Network neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic is treated the same, regardless of its nature or destination.

The FCC rules meant US based Internet Service Providers weren’t allowed to discriminate between different types of services, for instance blocking Netflicks or allowing faster downloads from Amazon.

In the United States network neutrality has been a bone of contention between consumer groups, government regulators and ISPs for over a decade, although it hasn’t been much of an issue outside North America.

For Machine to Machine (M2M) or Internet of Things (IoT) vendors and services there is some attraction in Telcos being able to offer prioritised traffic for mission critical systems.

In applications like supply chain management and public safety, reliability of the connection is essential and something the ‘best effort’ services offered by ISPs are not well suited to.

When networks are overcapacity, say at sporting events or during disasters, being able to shed non critical traffic may be important for emergency services and the devices they may depend upon.

So for IoT and M2M services, network neutrality is not necessarily a good thing.

However there is a downside should network neutrality be overturned, the risk of vendor lock in is high and it’s quite possible to see as situation where, for instance, AT&T enter into an agreement with Google to provide the public network capabilities for Nest home automation devices.

This could see Nest customers suffering a substandard service if they choose another provider.

Internationally the attitude towards network neutrality has been that competition will sort things out, however the IT and telco industries do have a habit of trying to enforce their own monopolies on customers – something we’re currently seeing in the Apple-Google battles over smartphones and connected vehicles.

So it isn’t clear whether network neutrality isn’t a good thing for the M2M sector, however it’s something that’s going to play out as these technologies become more ubiquitous across the economy.