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I attended the 2008 Voice Peering Forum last week in San Francisco and found it extremely informative. Hats off to organizer Shrihari Pandit.

You can read good summaries of the show by Rich Tehrani here and by Alan Quayle here.

Analyst Gary Kim kicked things off with a keynote address that focused on a topic that was central to the whole conference: changing business models for carriers. Below are some of the driving forces he listed…

1) Competition
No news here. Traditional phone companies continue to lose customers and revenue to cable companies, wireless companies and PC based alternatives. A key factor here is “Landline Substitution” which refers to consumers (especially younger ones) who are abandoning landlines for a pure-wireless existence.

2) “Over the top” services
This term refers to any service being delivered to the mobile device using an internet connection, as opposed to using a carrier-selected approach. For the carrier this boils down to loss of control. Specifically: difficulty in capacity planning (see the next point) and unwanted competition for their pre-selected alternatives. This issue connects back to the long running smart pipe vs dumb pipe debate that I wrote about here. But it also connects with the central question of what model works best for adding innovative mobile services. (This was a central topic of my panel. More on that in a later post.)

3) Mobile bandwidth demand
The new wireless standards keep pushing up the bandwidth available to the handset. This is exciting for consumers but presents carriers with a tough pricing dilemma. If you price too high, you discourage use and your shiny new services never reach a critical mass. If you price too low, your cell towers get overwhelmed by the throughput during peak times (Imagine downtown at 5:30, with everyone waiting for the bus and watching YouTube clips) which leads to bad user experience and lost revenue down the road. (See here more on the “backhaul bottleneck”.)

For a good example of this pricing problem, look no further than the furor over Roger’s recently announced iPhone pricing plans. (Globe and Mail, Mark Evans, Jim Courtney, Jon Arnold.)

As we work to understand the role of carriers in the new ecosystem, it’s natural to reach for analogies from other businesses. Gary had two analogies: Cable TV (which charges less popular channels a monthly fee for a slot) and retail chains (which charge for “shelf space”). Both are ways to make money from “upstream” partners, while keeping costs to consumer low. This is another way describing the “two-sided” approach that the folks at Telco 2.0 have been promoting. (Great intro post here and slideshow here).