Archive for the ‘Carriers’ Category

What is Google Really Doing?

Friday, May 1st, 2015

A month and a half ago, I wrote a series of posts around Google’s announcement that they would become an MVNO and offer wireless service. The final post in that series was titled “What Might Google Really Do?” and it included my predictions on Google’s potential plays, based on what Google had actually said, and what they had historically done. Now that Google has officially “launched” Project Fi, it seems like a good time to check in on those predictions.

It’s important to note that, at this point, Google is launching Fi with an “Early Access Program” that is by invitation only. Some aspects of how the service will be delivered in the future will likely be quite different from how it is delivered today (undoubtedly based on lessons learned during the EAP) and some details aren’t yet announced.

But here’s what we do know. Google announced Fi via their official blog on April 22. They said “today we’re introducing Project Fi, a program to explore this opportunity by introducing new ideas through a fast and easy wireless experience. Similar to our Nexus hardware program, Project Fi enables us to work in close partnership with leading carriers, hardware makers, and all of you to push the boundaries of what’s possible. By designing across hardware, software and connectivity, we can more fully explore new ways for people to connect and communicate. Two of the top mobile networks in the U.S.—Sprint and T-Mobile—are partnering with us to launch Project Fi and now you can be part of the project too.” They then outlined three specific areas of focus and innovation.

High-quality network connections: “We developed new technology that gives you better coverage by intelligently connecting you to the fastest available network at your location whether it’s Wi-Fi or one of our two partner LTE networks.”

Communications across networks and devices: In addition to working across WiFi and LTE, Google says “With Project Fi, your phone number lives in the cloud, so you can talk and text with your number on just about any phone, tablet or laptop.”

A simple service experience: “We offer one simple plan at one price with 24/7 support. Here’s how it works: for $20 a month you get all the basics (talk, text, Wi-Fi tethering, and international coverage in 120+ countries), and then it’s a flat $10 per GB for cellular data while in the U.S. and abroad. … Since it’s hard to predict your data usage, you’ll get credit for the full value of your unused data.”

Here are the predictions I made, and a comparison with what we now know about Fi:

  1. “Google would effectively be proving out new/unconventional approaches to connectivity offers (e.g. unlimited) in a way that proves out to the operators that there’s market demand (enough to be a threat) and that the economics can work (so that it’s attractive)” – This clearly seems to be the case. Instead of unlimited, the real innovation around the plan is refunding customers for unused data. T-Mobile’s CEO has welcomed Google’s “fresh thinking” implying openness to learn from Google’s experiment.
  2. “I also would expect the scale to be limited, meaning it would have relatively limited retail impact on the operators” – this clearly is the case with the EAP and Google seems to continue to signal limited scale and the operators don’t seem threatened.
  3. “I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Google want to move it around, so maybe each new Nexus device launched is a new MVNO on a different operator or set of operators” – Time will tell.
  4. “I doubt they’ll try Google’s original Nexus web-based distribution” – For the Early Access Program (EAP) Google is using web-based distribution.
  5. “They might try using their physical “stores” in Google Fiber cities” – Not yet anyway.
  6. “They might also strike a distribution deal with big box retailers, like Best Buy or WalMart” – Again, not yet.
  7. “I wonder if Google isn’t actually negotiating with the mobile operators to sell the service in their own stores or through their distribution channels” – Again, not yet.
  8. “I doubt that Google has a desire to employ tens of thousands of customer service reps in both owned and outsourced call centers around the world” – Google has said that customers can call 24×7 and speak to a live US-based agent, but hasn’t indicated how they are providing this support.
  9. “They may be able to leverage the care resources they’ve put in place to support Fiber” – We don’t yet know.
  10. “Perhaps, they are going to leverage the mobile operator’s existing customer care infrastructure” – We don’t yet know.
  11. “They will likely pair the service with a new Nexus device” – The service is only available with the Nexus 6 which has specific hardware and software to support the network switching unique to the service.
  12. “Google’s issue will be ensuring that only the right customers for their experiment are the ones that choose their brand for wireless” – The invitation-only EAP will help Google target the right customers.
  13. “Providing openness and choice, managing the network in an open, non-discriminatory, transparent way and giving users a choice of multiple service providers, may be an objective” – This hasn’t been emphasized in Google’s announcements.
  14. “I can’t imagine that Google would see enough potential upside from [a full competitive entry going head-to-head against Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile] to offset the serious downside it would have on their core business.” – There’s no indication that Google is pursuing an aggressive attack against the existing operators.
  15. Maybe “it’s really all about IoT” – so far, it seems to be a smartphone plan, without any IoT elements.

So, out of 15 predictions (most of which were “mights”), I would say that five were aligned with what Google has announced (1,2,11,12,14), three predictions were wrong (4,13,15), and for the other seven, we just don’t know yet. We’ll have to keep watching.

What Might Google Really Do?

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Google’s entry into any market is cause for existing players to pay attention and potentially be alarmed, so it’s no surprise that the news that Google will become an MVNO and provide wireless services has many forecasting doom and gloom for the existing mobile operators. Before we can jump to those conclusions, I think it’s wise to consider the different scenarios that, given what Google has said, and what they’ve historically done in mobile/telecom, have some level of credibility.

Let’s start by reviewing, briefly, the challenges that MVNO’s have traditionally had to solve. I think they fall into four buckets: distribution, customer service, devices, and brand. I think Google is in a very different place than the vast majority of MVNOs when it comes to these four topics, given their objectives and their starting point.

For distribution, Google’s original Nexus web-based distribution experiment failed, I doubt they’ll try that again. They might try using their physical “stores” in Google Fiber cities, although this isn’t likely to get them enough customers to provide meaningful scale and impact. They might also strike a distribution deal with big box retailers, like Best Buy or WalMart.

However, given Sundar Pichai’s comments, I wonder if Google isn’t actually negotiating with the mobile operators to sell the service in their own stores or through their distribution channels. This would be unusual, but not unprecedented.

When it comes to customer service, mobile operators employ tens of thousands of service reps in both owned and outsourced call centers around the world. I doubt that Google has a desire to establish that kind of customer care infrastructure. Again, it’s possible that they may limit this experiment to Google Fiber markets, in which case, they may be able to leverage the care resources they’ve put in place to support Fiber, or, perhaps, they are going to leverage the mobile operator’s existing customer care infrastructure, as with distribution. Again, this isn’t typical for MVNO’s, but I imagine the operators would seriously consider the potential incremental revenue this would generate.

MVNOs have often struggled to get deals with OEMs for devices because they can’t commit to enough volume to make it work. In recent years, Sprint, for one, has tried to help MVNOs overcome this challenge with their BYOD program and their custom-brand, white label program, but if Google wants to innovate in software, hardware, and connectivity, this won’t be an option. Of course, for Google this also isn’t the same problem as it is for other MVNOs, since they will likely pair the service with a new Nexus device, which gives them a unique position with OEMs. This likely is easily solvable for Google.

Most MVNOs in the market are new brands that must invest significantly to establish a position with a narrowly targeted segment. Google doesn’t have this problem. If anything, Google’s issue will be ensuring that only the right customers for their experiment are the ones that choose their brand for wireless.

Second, I think we need to clarify Google’s objectives with this experiment. Google wouldn’t be investing in this experiment if they didn’t think it would create direct or indirect value for their business. That being said, I doubt that Google believes they can make money competing with Verizon, AT&T, and the others with traditional cellular service.

As with Google Fiber, they may believe that Mobile Operators are constraining use of the Internet and applications and that they can introduce “innovations” that the existing players need to respond to, changing the overall trajectory for the industry.

Net neutrality, or to use the Google Fiber terminology, providing openness and choice, managing the network in an open, non-discriminatory, transparent way and giving users a choice of multiple service providers, may be an objective. Clearly Verizon and AT&T are going to resist the FCC’s new rules and Google may want to have market pressures to combine with regulatory pressures to ensure that the operators adopt “open” policies.

Another target may be the strong trend away from unlimited plans. The FCC’s new rules actually are likely to accelerate the move away from unlimited since it takes away the option for Mobile Operators to throttle unlimited plans. Any customer that doesn’t have unlimited has to stop and think about whether or not to watch that YouTube clip while on the go, or before they do just about anything bandwidth intensive when not on WiFi. This constrains use of the Internet and therefore impacts Google’s core business.

Finally, let’s not ignore what Pitchai presented as Google’s objectives during the interview. Although improving WiFi to cellular interworking and making problems like dropped calls less painful are noble goals, I don’t think that pressuring Operators to implement those types of improvements would truly justify Google’s attention. I think, more likely, as Pichai hinted, maybe this isn’t about traditional cellular service at all. Maybe this really is about the Internet of Things – clearly a space that Google is investing in at the device and software level. Maybe Google wants to make sure that the beyond-WiFi connectivity is being developed in a way that serves Google’s objectives.

So, with that as a framework, let me propose three different potential scenarios for what Google might really do.

First, this really could be like Google Fiber – disguised as an “experiment” but really a new business, competitive entry into the mobile service space. The biggest challenge with this scenario is that Google will be dependent on the mobile operators for at least network capacity, and that’s never the position you want to be in when you’re trying to disrupt the operator’s business (just ask the CLECs of the late 1990s who tried to resell RBOC service under the Telecom Act of 1996). Next, if Google were to pursue this approach, at least all operators not providing Google’s underlying service, would drop or deprioritize Android devices in their portfolios, seriously hurting Google’s momentum and leadership in the smartphone OS space. I can’t imagine that Google would see enough potential upside from this approach to offset the serious downside it would have on their core business.

As a second scenario, let’s take Pichai’s comments at face value and assume that this truly is a smartphone- and/or tablet-centric experiment, working closely with the operators. In that case, it would look a lot like Nexus. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google rely heavily on their operator partner(s) for distribution and customer care. I also would expect the scale to be limited, meaning it would have relatively limited retail impact on the operators. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Google want to move it around, so maybe each new Nexus device launched is a new MVNO on a different operator or set of operators. Google would effectively be proving out new/unconventional approaches to connectivity offers (e.g. unlimited) in a way that proves out to the operators that there’s market demand (enough to be a threat) and that the economics can work (so that it’s attractive).

The third scenario is that this really isn’t about smartphones and tablets at all, but it’s really all about IoT. Google obviously is making big investments in hardware and software for IoT, so it would be natural for them to invest to get the “beyond-WiFi” connectivity to work for them as well. AT&T has had meaningful success with IoT, and I think Verizon still has serious hopes for the space, so they might not be the first to open the door to Google’s entry into being a connectivity service provider here, but I think other operators may be more than happy to have Google’s wholesale business and to help define the de facto standards that others likely need to adopt.

Of course, all of this is pure conjecture. I have not been privy to any discussions between Google and mobile operators. There’s more that we don’t know than we know, at this point. However, I think these three scenarios outline a solid framework for anyone to consider the impact on the industry as a whole, or their particular business.

This should be fun to watch!

What Did Google Really Say?

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Especially over the last week or so, one of the big topics of discussion across the mobile ecosystem has been that Google finally confirmed that they DO plan to launch some kind of wireless MVNO. Over the next few days, I’d like to share my perspectives on this news, starting this morning with a quick review of what was actually said and what I think was noteworthy about those statements.

Last week, Sundar Pichai gave a keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. In his speech, he talked about Google’s core services, then about Android, but he spent most of his time talking about connectivity – Google Fiber, Project Link, Project Loon, and Project Titan. Then he sat down for a 20 minute interview with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone.

For the first 10 minutes, Stone tossed him softball questions, mostly about Android. Then Stone said “There have been reports in the press that Google is talking to wireless carriers about a Google branded network, also called an MVNO, what can you tell us about those talks?” For the next four minutes, they went back and forth on this topic.

Obviously Pichai was ready for the question and started with a well crafted response. Interestingly, he went back to Android, and then he talked about Google’s Nexus devices before he ever got around to talking about their MVNO plans. In fact, at the end of his Android/Nexus discussion he said “That’s the context in which we are thinking about it.”

I’ll talk more about Android and Nexus in a future post, but I think the key points that he made about these as setting the context for Google’s MVNO plans are:

  • That Android has always been an ecosystem play, working with partners.
  • When they introduced Nexus, they did it in partnership with OEM partners.
  • They are very cautious to not compete with their OEM partners, and part of that, he said, was doing Nexus at a scale large enough to have an impact, but small enough to not be threatening to OEMs.
  • Google always tries to push the boundary of what’s next. He said that all innovations in computing happen at the intersection of hardware and software, and that Google felt they needed to do Nexus so that they could work very closely with both the hardware and software in order to push the innovation.
  • He made the case that “we are at a stage where it’s important to think about hardware, software, and connectivity together” – they want to experiment at that intersection, just as they have with the intersection of just hardware and software.

With that as context, Pichai then provided a little more (but not much) information about their plans, mostly within the context that he had already set:

  • They clearly don’t want to mess up their carrier relationships. He wanted to clearly communicate that their intent is NOT to compete with the carriers, but to experiment in order to “help” them.
  • Google is working with carrier partners for this project. The carrier partners will actually provide the service. (BTW – that could mean a few different things, which I’ll get to in a future post.)
  • They will operate this at large enough scale that people will see whether the experiments work (and hopefully carriers will adopt the ideas), but still at small scale so it won’t be a threat to carriers.

Stone specifically asked if this was about “more innovation and lower prices when it comes to mobile networks” and Pichai’s response was that Google is trying to accomplish something a bit different. He then gave a couple of examples:

  • Making the experience seamless for WiFi and cellular network interoperability.
  • Automatically reconnecting a call when it drops.

Both of these examples seem to imply a traditional smartphone use case, but earlier he had specifically pointed to IoT examples such as a connected watch or Android Auto and said that they want to be able to experiment along those lines.

That’s what Google really said. Over the next few posts, I’ll try to translate that into what might be meaningful from that for the industry.

Net Neutrality: The Anguish of Mediocrity

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

It is rare for me to be on the same side of an issue as AT&T and Verizon and on the opposite side of Sprint and T-Mobile, but I think the new Net Neutrality rules that the FCC adopted this week are a mistake that will hurt consumers and the telecom industry.

I won’t take the time to go point-by-point through the various elements of the new rules. Plenty of people smarter than me on regulatory topics have written about that elsewhere. The two aspects that really have me concerned are:

  1. the inability to prioritize paid traffic
  2. the inability to impair or degrade traffic based on content, applications, etc.

I believe that these restrictions will lead to networks that will perform much more poorly than they need to.

The Importance of Prioritization

Thirteen years ago, while I was chief strategist for TeleChoice, I wrote a whitepaper using some tools that we had developed to evaluate the cost to build a network to handle the traffic that would be generated by increasingly fast broadband access networks.

In the paper I say “ATM, Frame Relay, and now MPLS have enabled carriers to have their customers prioritize traffic, which in turn gives the carriers more options in sizing their networks, however, customers have failed to seriously confront properly categorizing their traffic. There has been no need to because there was no penalty for just saying ‘It’s all important.’”

With the new rules, the FCC ensures that this will continue to be the case.

Think about it. If you live in a city that suffers from heavy highway traffic, if you’re sitting in slow traffic and you see a few cars zipping along in the HOV lane, don’t you wish you were allowed into that lane? Of course you do. Hopefully it even gets you to consider making the change necessary to use that lane. Why do HOV lanes even exist? Because it was deemed a positive outcome for everyone if more people would carpool to reduce the overall traffic. Reducing overall traffic would have many benefits including reducing the amount of money needed to be spent to make the highway big enough to handle the traffic and at the same time improving the highway experience for all travelers.

Continuing the analogy, if you’re sitting in slow traffic and you see an ambulance with its lights flashing driving up the shoulder to get a patient to the hospital, do you consider it an unfair use of highway resources that you aren’t allowed to use yourself? Hopefully not. You recognize that this is a particular use case that requires different handling.

Finally, extending the analogy one more time, as you’re sitting in that traffic (on a free highway) and you look over and see traffic zipping along on the expensive toll road that parallels the free highway, do you consider whether you can afford to switch to the toll road? I bet you at least think about it.

Analogies always break down at some point, so let me transition into explaining the problem that the new rules impose on all of us. Networks, like highways, have to be built with enough capacity to provide an acceptable level of service during peak traffic. Data access networks, unlike highways, have traffic levels that are very dynamic with sudden spikes and troughs that last seconds or less. While all telecommunications networks have predictable busy hour patterns, just like highways, unlike highways, the network user experience can be dramatically impacted by a sudden influx of traffic. This requires network operators to build enough capacity to handle the peak seconds and peak minutes reasonably well rather than just the peak hour.

Different network applications respond differently to network congestion. An e-mail that arrives in 30 seconds instead of 20 seconds will rarely (if ever) be noticed. A web page that loads in 5 seconds instead of 4 seconds will be easily forgiven. Video streaming of recorded content can be buffered to handle reasonable variations in network performance. But if a voice or video packet during a live conversation is delayed a few seconds, it can dramatically impact the user experience.

Thirteen years ago, I argued that failing to provide the right incentives for prioritizing traffic to take into account these differences could require 40% more investment in network capacity than if prioritization were enabled. In an industry that spends tens of billions of dollars each year in capacity, that’s a lot of money.

Why The New Rules Hurt Consumers and the Industry

Is the industry going to continue to invest in capacity? Yes. But the amount of revenue they can get from that capacity will place natural limits on how much investment they will make. And, without prioritization, for any given level of network investment, the experience that the user enjoys will be dramatically less acceptable than it could be.

Let’s just quickly look at the two approaches to prioritization I called out above that the new rules block.

Paid prioritization is a business mechanism for ensuring that end applications have the right performance to create the value implied by the end service provider. This is the toll road analogy, but probably a better analogy is when a supplier chooses to ship via air, train, truck, or ship. If what I’m promising is fresh seafood, I’d better put it on an airplane. If what I’m promising is inexpensive canned goods with a shelf life of years, I will choose the least expensive shipping method. Paid prioritization enables some service providers (e.g. Netflix or Skype) to offer a level of service that customers value and are willing to pay for that requires better than mediocre network performance, and for the service provider to pay for that better network performance to ensure that their customers get what they expect. The service provider (e.g. Netflix or Skype) builds their business model balancing the revenue from their customers with the cost of offering the service. This approach provides additional revenue to the network operators enabling them to invest in more capacity that benefits all customers.

Impairing or degrading traffic based on content or application is a technical mechanism that enables the network to handle traffic differently based on the performance requirements of the content or application. An e-mail can be delayed a few seconds so that a voice or video call can be handled without delay. This allows the capacity in the network to provide an optimized experience for all users.

Obviously, these mechanisms provide opportunities for abuse by the network operators, but to forbid them outright, I believe, is damaging to the industry and to consumers, and a mistake.

Ten Strategic Issues Facing Mobile Operators

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

In a recent consulting engagement, I was asked about the strategic issues facing U.S. mobile operators. I think I answered reasonably well, but it made me realize that the topic deserved a more thoughtful updating based on recent activities. With that in mind, I’d like to provide a high level outline of what I think are the biggest issues. I think each of these could be a future article in and of themselves.

1. Duopoly, The Rule of Three, or the Rule of Four
Perhaps the biggest strategic issue being played out right now is one of industry structure. Each quarter, Verizon and AT&T become stronger. Their strong balance sheets, fueled by rich cash flows, enable them to strengthen their hand. Meanwhile, the other two national operators (Sprint and T-Mobile) fight it out for third place. The Rule of Three claims that any market can only support three large generalists, implying that only one of those two can survive. Boston Consulting Group takes it a step further with their Rule of Four implying that perhaps two is the right number. American regulators would apparently block a combination of Sprint and T-Mobile, believing that a market with four competitors is better for consumers than a market with three competitors. But, in the long run, will that ultimately result in the failure of both #3 and #4, and in the short run, will it cause behaviors that damage the entire industry?

2. Wildcards: Google, Dish, América Móvil
Over the past few years, Google has done an admirable job of shaking up the broadband industry with the introduction of Google Fiber. In markets where the company has announced plans to build out local infrastructure, existing competitors have had to respond with improved offers to customers. Now, Google is rumored to be preparing to offer wireless services. Would they have a similar impact on the wireless competitive space, or are the disruptive moves already being introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint significant enough that Google’s impact would be muted? Meanwhile, Dish Networks has been spending tens of $billions accumulating a rich treasure chest full of spectrum which they are obligated to begin building out for wireless services. What will they do and how will that impact the competitive environment? Finally, América Móvil has spent the past few years preparing for a major global strategic shift. They already have a strong foothold in the U.S. prepaid market as an MVNO (TracFone), but their relationship with AT&T has been significantly altered perhaps positioning them for a more aggressive move into the U.S. Any of these three potential new entrants could have significant impacts on the American mobile market and must factor into the strategic scenarios for the four mobile operators.

3. Licensed versus Unlicensed Spectrum
As we’ll discuss more below, spectrum is the lifeblood of any wireless network. The global mobile industry has been built on licensed spectrum. Licensed spectrum has many advantages over unlicensed spectrum, including the ability to use higher power radios with better signal-to-noise resulting in greater range, throughput, and performance. Lack of unmanaged contention for the airwaves results in predictable and manageable performance, all resulting in higher reliability of each connection. The industry has invested hundreds of $billions to build out networks that provide a wireless signal for the vast majority of the U.S. However, the cost to build out a wireless network with unlicensed spectrum is a small fraction of that to build with licensed. Companies offering services with unlicensed spectrum are also unburdened by the regulatory requirements placed on Commercial Mobile Radio Service operators. The Cable MSOs have been most aggressive in shifting their focus from licensed to unlicensed spectrum. After decades of positioning to participate in the traditional cellular industry (winning spectrum in auctions, investing in Clearwire, partnering with Sprint, etc.), in 2012 Comcast, Time Warner, and others sold their licensed spectrum to Verizon and aggressively started building out a nationwide WiFi footprint using unlicensed spectrum. About a month ago, Cablevision introduced their Freewheel WiFi-based smartphone service to compete with mobile operators. Expect others to follow.

4. Spectrum Portfolio
Although mobile operators are toying with unlicensed spectrum, their strategies remain very centered on licensed spectrum. To effectively meet the growing demand for capacity, all operators will need more spectrum of some kind. However, not all spectrum is equal and operators know they need a balanced portfolio. There are a variety of criteria that factor into the attractiveness and utility of any given spectrum, but the easiest to understand is simply whether the spectrum is low-band, mid-band, or high-band. Low-band spectrum has a frequency less than 1GHz and provides the best geographic coverage (the signal travels farther) and in-building penetration (the signal passes more easily through walls). However, at these lower frequencies, there tends to be less spectrum available, and it has generally been made available in smaller channels, limiting the capacity (the amount of bandwidth that can be delivered to customers). High-band spectrum generally has a frequency above about 2.1GHz and, while it lacks the coverage of low-band spectrum, there’s generally more of it and it generally comes in larger channels providing lots of capacity. Mid-band spectrum (between 1GHz and 2.1GHz) provides a compromise – reasonable (but not outstanding) capacity with reasonable (but not outstanding) coverage. In the early 1980s, as the local telephone monopolies covering most of the country, Verizon and AT&T received free 800MHz low-band spectrum in each market they served. In 2008, the FCC auctioned off 700MHz low-band spectrum. Of the national players, only Verizon and AT&T had deep enough pockets to compete and walked away with strengthened low-band spectrum positions. Today, these two have the vast majority of low-band spectrum and T-Mobile and Sprint are hoping that the 2016 600MHz incentive auction will help them begin to balance their portfolios and are demanding that the FCC enact rules to avoid another Verizon/AT&T dominated auction process. All players have reasonable amounts of mid-band spectrum (with AT&T and Verizon again using their strong balance sheets to further strengthen their positions in the recent AWS auctions). The majority of Sprint’s spectrum is high-band 2.5GHz spectrum.

5. Network Technologies
Mobile operators face a number of strategic decisions over the next few years related to network technologies. There are enough uncertainties around the key decisions that each operator has a slightly different strategy. Two of the biggest decisions relate to small cell deployments and migration to Voice over LTE (VoLTE). AT&T has the most comprehensive strategy which revolves around their broader Velocity IP (VIP) Project, which they hope will free them from much of the regulatory oversight they currently endure in their monopoly wireline footprint and therefore provides tremendous financial incentives. This is driving a relatively aggressive small cell deployment and a moderately aggressive VoLTE plan. Verizon has been the most aggressive of the national players in deploying VoLTE, while (until recently) being the most hesitant to commit to significant small cell deployments.

6. Cash Management

6a. Capital Expenditures
None of this is cheap. It takes deep pockets to acquire spectrum and even deeper pockets to build it out. In a technology-driven industry, new network architectures will always require significant investments. As price wars constrain revenue, while demand for capacity continues its exponential growth, CapEx as a percent of revenue will likely become a significant strategic issue for all operators.

6b. Expense Management
Operating expenses and overall cash flow also can’t be overlooked. Growing demand for capacity and small cell deployments require increasing backhaul spend (although the shift to fiber for macro sites has helped bring that under control for most operators). But the biggest issue will likely continue to be the cost of providing smartphones and tablets to customers. As an illustration of how significant this cost is for a mobile operator, in Sprint’s 2013 Annual Report, the company reported equipment net subsidies of nearly $6B on service revenues of just over $29B (over 20%). In 2012, T-Mobile introduced equipment installment plan (EIP) financing as an alternative to subsidies and early in 2013 announced that it was eliminating all subsidies. Since then, the other three national operators have similarly introduced device financing. From an income statement perspective, this helps T-Mobile’s earnings since the device is accounted as an upfront sale, typically near full price. However, T-Mobile and their competitors have introduced zero-down zero interest (or close to it) terms, and they are discounting the monthly bill for the customer by roughly the same amount as their monthly equipment financing payment to keep the total monthly cost to the customer competitive with the traditional subsidized plans. The net result is that T-Mobile (and their competitors who have all followed suit) are taking on the financing risk without significantly improving their cash flow. For 2014, T-Mobile reported just over $22B in service revenues (a 17% increase over 2013). They also reported equipment sales of $6.8B (a 35% increase and 30% of service revenues). But, they also reported the cost of equipment sales at $9.6B (an increase of 38%) and they reported that they financed $5.8B in equipment sales (an increase of 75% over 2013 and 26% of service revenues). As of the end of 2014, T-Mobile had $5.1B in EIP receivables (an increase of 78%). That’s a lot of cash tied up in customer handsets. The strategy has worked in terms of attracting customers to switch to T-Mobile (which is why their competitors have had to respond), but it’s less clear that it’s been financially beneficial for the company in the long run. Verizon, for one, seems unconvinced and has been unenthusiastic about device financing. I believe this will continue to be an area of strategic deliberations at all mobile operators.

7. Plan Types
This shift from subsidized devices is also part of a disruption in how the industry views plan types. For decades, the industry focused on postpaid phone plans. These plans were subsidized, but the customer was locked in for two years, “ensuring” that the operator earned back their up-front investment in the device. Because operators, for the most part, managed this business with appropriate discipline, only prime credit customers could get a subsidized device and these tended to be fairly profitable customers. Those that didn’t qualify settled for a prepaid plan where they purchased the phone upfront at or near full price, which provided better cash flow early in the customer life, but less profitability over time. Eliminating subsides also eliminates the 2 year service plan (although the long term device financing still provides customer lock in) blurring much of the distinction between postpaid and prepaid. The number of people with multiple wireless devices is also increasing as we are carrying iPads and other tablets, as automakers are integrating wireless connectivity into the cars we drive, and as we move towards a day when virtually any product with a power supply will be wirelessly connected to the Internet. Different operators are taking different approaches to how to structure their plans to accommodate these changing customer behaviors within their business models, and I’m sure it will continue to be a topic for internal debate and discussion as the industry models evolve.

8. Commoditization
In many respects, wireless service is increasingly viewed as a commodity by customers. Operators continue to trumpet their network differentiation, but to the consumer there is generally the perception that all operators offer the same devices, in the same ways, and support those devices with networks that work reasonably well just about everywhere we go. Over the past 6 to 12 months, T-Mobile and Sprint have been very aggressive about reducing pricing or offering more for the same price, in a successful effort to take customers away from Verizon and AT&T. Those two larger operators have had to respond with lower prices or increased buckets of data. The operators may be denying it, but it sure looks like a commodity market to me, and I imagine that’s a discussion that’s happening in each operator’s strategic planning meetings.

9. Quad Play or Cord Cutting
For well over a decade, there’s been an ongoing strategic debate within the industry about whether a combined wireless and wireline bundle is critical to market success. At times, some players have decided that it will be and have taken actions, such as the strategic alliances between cable MSOs and wireless operators (Sprint, Clearwire, and Verizon), or advertising campaigns focused on integration across multiple screens (TV, computer, phone). So far, there’s little evidence that it really matters. Consumers take what landline voice, broadband, and video services they can get from the duopoly of cable provider or “telephone” provider and then they can choose from a competitive landscape for their mobile needs. For the last few years, it appears that none in the U.S. industry have seen any need to focus on a quad play future. In fact, the focus has been more on cord cutting and over-the-top players. However, in Europe, there’s a very different story playing out and it is driving massive industry consolidation. Especially while wrestling with the questions about commoditization, operators will once again question the benefits of a differentiating bundle.

10. Re-intermediation
Another common tactic to combat commoditization is to “move up the stack.” In the mobile industry, that would be “move back up the stack.” The introduction of the iPhone, followed by Android devices, led to the disintermediation of the mobile operator from much of the value chain. Prior to the iPhone, operators carefully managed their portfolio of phones, telling OEMs what features to build and it was the operators who largely drove demand for different devices. Operators collected the vast majority of revenues in the industry, directly charging the customer for the phone, the network service, any applications, any content, and any value added services (such as navigation or entertainment). The iPhone (and then Android) enabled better apps and content, provided a better marketplace for buying them, and provided an open connection to the Internet for a wide variety of over-the-top services. Although the operators had poorly managed the apps/content/services opportunity and therefore they didn’t have much “value add” revenue to lose, they clearly lost the opportunity to be more than just the underlying network. Over the past several years, the industry has tried to claw its way back up the stack. Operators pursued “open” strategies, introducing APIs for app developers and other tactics to try to be a “smart pipe” rather than just a “dumb pipe.” They have also tried to encroach on other industries by offering new mobile-enabled services, such as mobile payments and home security/automation. These efforts have not yet had meaningful success, although AT&T’s progress with Digital Life is promising. If operators want to escape the commodity “dumb pipe” trap, at some point they will need to figure out how to reclaim more of the stack.

Obviously, the mobile industry is dynamic and I expect these 10 topics to drive significant strategic decisions across all operators in the coming months and years. If you’d like to discuss any of these topics, drop me a note.

CCA 2014: Is Wireless a Commodity?

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

This week I participated in a panel at CCA on “The Evolving Operator: 2014 & Beyond” that was moderated by Sue Marek, Editor in Chief of Fierce Wireless. My co-panelists were Rob Riordan, EVP of Corporate Development for Cellcom, and Mauricio Sastre, Vice President of Product for FreedomPop.

For those that aren’t familiar, CCA is the Competitive Carriers Association and basically includes all of the wireless carriers smaller than Verizon and AT&T. Until Sprint and T-Mobile joined, it had been the Rural Carriers Association. So everyone at the show really cares about the success of small operators.

Early in the discussion, I answered a question by saying that I believed that we need to make three critical strategic shifts:

  1. We must recognize that we’re operating in a commodity market. Today, we don’t operate our businesses in a way that supports a commodity market.
  2. But, we can’t be satisfied with being a commodity, we need to find ways to differentiate.
  3. Finally, we need to act like an Internet company. (Move faster, focus on the customer experience, eliminate bureaucracy, do less and partner more, etc.)

That sparked a follow-on question from Sue for all three panelists. I was sitting in the middle at the table, and I’d say I was also sitting in the middle relative to this question. She asked “is wireless really a commodity?”

Rob is convinced it’s not. He passionately described how many competitors Cellcom faces in Wisconsin, and yet they take the largest share of subscribers. They do it by being part of the community and caring about the people they serve. They don’t operate an IVR – when you call them a live person answers. I don’t disagree with him. For operators like Cellcom, there is an opportunity to be seen as special by those in your community. You aren’t just another provider in a competitive matrix, you’re a neighbor who cares.

My position was that wireless is becoming a commodity. Especially if we look beyond the traditional mobile operators and recognize that we’re really competing against the Facebook and Google’s of the world, who provide over the top services using our own bandwidth against us, we have to realize that our traditional operating model must be challenged.

Mauricio kind of shrugged and said, yeah, of course it’s a commodity. FreedomPop wouldn’t be here and growing as fast as we are if it weren’t already a commodity.

What do you think?

Is the Mobility Revolution Deadly for Big Bells?

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Please see my follow-up note on this post here.

Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research recently published a very informative report titled

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“The Long View: U.S. Telecom – The End of the Line(s).” In it, he shares his learnings from very detailed analysis of the cost and revenue models of wireline businesses.

Mr. Moffett is a very smart guy. I can’t possibly fairly represent the depth of analysis he has provided in this 40+ page report. I recommend you consider becoming a Bernstein client so that you can read this full report and to follow what he has to say about the industry. He won’t always be right, but his analysis is always worth considering.

And after considering this report, I think it’s clear that the Mobility Revolution, and the resulting displacement of wireline services by wireless services, may prove deadly for the Big Bells.

To give you a sense for the challenges they face, here are some quotes from the report:

  • “The Wireline business – encompassing both the TelCo and Enterprise segments – still accounts for more than half of Verizon’s revenues (after adjusting for Vodafone’s 45% ownership of Verizon Wireless), and a similar amount of AT&T’s. Similarly, Wireline accounts for a majority of assets – at Verizon, about 69%. And Wireline accounts for an even larger portion of costs – the best measure of activity, or what these companies actually do – at about 65%. Indeed, if one were to also include the in-region wired portion of the wireless network as part of the broader wired picture then these companies’ still-overwhelming dependence on their wired franchises becomes even more striking, with what is almost certainly three quarters or more of the revenues and assets depending on the wired infrastructure.”
  • “The TelCo (or regional Wireline segment) represents a larger share of profitability than it does of revenue within the Wireline business. Although not disclosed in Verizon’s and AT&T’s published financial reports, both companies are quick to concede that the TelCo segment is significantly more profitable than Enterprise, even if the TelCos’ trends are deteriorating. At both AT&T and Verizon, we estimate that TelCo accounts for approximately 40% of total EBITDA.”
  • “The combination of competitition, technology, and regulation is a potent brew, and fifteen years after “Being Digital,” the world of the TelCos is a far different place. Consider that, at the time of the ’96 Act, local residential phone service was essentially ubiquitous, with 97% of households connected to the wired ‘grid.’ Nearly 30% of those homes had a second line, either for their AOL dial-up connection, their fax machine, or perhaps for their chatty teenage daughter. That’s an ‘effective’ penetration rate of ~125%. Fifteen years later, more than a quarter of all homes have ‘cut the cord,’ and a quarter of those remaining have left for cable voice. Second lines have dropped to 11%. That’s an effective penetration rate of ~60%; effective residential penetration has been cut in half. And if we look forward just five years from now, we are on a trajectory for more than 40% of homes to have gone wireless-only, for cable to have 40% of what’s left, and for second lines to be a thing of the past. Do the math. Five years from now, in the residential market the TelCos will preside over 60% share of just 60% of homes… an effective penetration rate of just 36%. That’s close to another halving, but this time in five years. That decline rivals that of the film business at Kodak.”
  • “The rate of margin compression appears to be accelerating. Two things have happened in the two years since the end of our ARMIS data set (ARMIS reporting was discontinued afer 2007). First, the rate of access line losses has dramatically accelerated; the country is no longer averaging -4.8% total access line losses as it was from 2000 to 2007. This year, the average has been north (or south?) of a -10% annual decline. Second, broadband growth has slowed dramatically. Indeed, DSL growth tipped slightly negative for the first time ever in Q3. As a result, operators can no longer count on offsetting gains in ARPU to lessen the impact of a declining access line base.”
  • “There is a troubling tendency to dismiss this progression as ‘yesterday’s news,’ to view the big TelCos as wireless operators, or to assume that the wired phone business will decline gracefully. It won’t. The Wireline phone business is a quintessentially fixed cost business. When fixed cost businesses decline – and especially when they decline rapidly – they leave huge and intractable costs in their wake.”
  • “…Intuition suggest, however, that Wireline costs are primarily fixed, and this intuition can be empirically confirmed by the steep slope of correlations between access line losses and cost per access line – drawn from our extensive analysis of state-level FCC ARMIS data through 2007. The correlation suggest an overwhelmingly fixed cost structure for the Wireline business (in a ratio of roughly 50 to 75% fixed and 25 to 50% variable).”
  • “Importantly, it is the nature of fixed cost businesses like telecommunications that ‘threshold effects’ become increasingly pronounced over time. As volumes decline, variable costs are shed. The remaining cost structure is therefore, by definition, more fixed and less variable than it was before. In any high-fixed-cost business, it is always the case that initial unit cost escalation yields even greater sensitivity to further unit cost escalation; as the margin ‘cushion’ gets smaller and smaller, it requires a smaller and smaller subsequent change to volumes to trigger a larger and larger subsequent change in profitability. If this ‘negative operating leverage’ dynamic is at work – as it appear to be – then it is plausible to expect that Wireline margin compression will not lessen; it will accelerate.”
  • “The combination of falling revenues and falling margins is a noxious combination; the dollar amount of EBITDA generated by the U.S. Wireline industry has dropped from an annualized run rate of $52B seven years ago to an annualized run rate of just $38B in the just reported Q3.”
  • “The implications of our analysis of the Wireline segment are troubling for the industry going forward. That access lines will continue to decline from here is a foregone conclusion. That Wireline margins will decline with access lines is more controversial, at least to judge by consensus estimates.”
  • “Our AT&T model projects a decline from 31.8% in 2009 to 26.3% in 2013 in overall Wireline margins. … As a context, each 100 basis
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    point decline amounts to about $650M in reduced Wireline EBITDA or operating income. Our 550 basis point variance from today’s margins amounts to a $3.6B gap by 2013, equal to 17% of ‘consensus’ EBITDA and 54% of ‘consensus’ operating income.”

  • “Our Verizon model projects an even steeper decline, as Verizon’s costs appear somewhat more fixed and less variable than AT&T’s. We project a decline in Wireline margins from 24.2% 2009 to 17.0% in 2013. … Every 100 basis points of margin contraction at Verizon translates to about $460M in EBITDA or operating income. Our 720 basis point variance from implied consensus amounts to a $3.1B gap by 2013, equal to 30% of ‘consensus’ EBITDA and 153% of ‘consensus’ operating income, putting income firmly in negative territory.”

Mr. Moffett is a very smart guy. I can’t possibly fairly represent with this tiny sample from his report the depth of analysis he has provided. I recommend you find a way to read this full report and to follow what he has to say about the industry. He won’t always be right, but his analysis is always worth considering.

Although Verizon and AT&T are clearly being very successful in benefitting from the growth in mobility, they are undoubtedly also carefully weighing how to slow the impact of mobility on their core wireline economic engine.

Some of us, however, would rather mash the accelerator to the floor and say – bring on that Mobility Revolution – full steam ahead!

Observations: Carriers – February 27, 2011

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)

Observations: Carriers – December 30, 2010

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)

Russ’ observation: The world is changing for carriers with M2M, multi-device plans, and 2-sided business models making 4G seem like a minor tweak to the business model.

Observations: Carriers – November 28, 2010

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Standard disclaimer: don’t take from my selections, ordering, headlines, etc. any indications of the interests or plans of my employer (if you do, you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed when they don’t play out.)