Upsell Your Customers – What to Sell

One of the best strategies you can undertake to improve bottom line performance is to increase your average revenue per existing customer by getting those customers to buy more of the services that you already offer. These are customers who already know you and trust you and send you a monthly check, so there is no target market that has a higher potential for successful marketing.

Many of my clients have been very happy to sell basic packages to customers for years. But as I have discussed in other blog posts, the traditional products that many carriers sell are becoming commodities and now have market alternatives available. Households have been dropping voice lines for a decade and are starting to drop cable connections. Many of my clients are seeing significant customer losses in their traditional products and things like long distance have withered away. These same clients have a number of products and services available to them that they are not selling. If they are going to stay profitable and remain relevant to their customers for the coming decades they are going to have to find new products to replace the ones they are losing.

If you want to undertake an upsell program you need goals. Do the math, but most of my clients would be very happy if they could increase margins per existing customer by a few dollars a year. So set a specific goal each year and then develop a plan to get there. I will have some future blogs discussing the best ways to upsell, and in this first blog on the topic I will look at the products you can sell as part of this process.

So, what are some of the products you can be selling today? The following is just a partial list that is intended to show you some of the possibilities. I have clients successfully selling all of these products:

Voice. Today, anybody with a softswitch has a score of communications tools that hardly anybody is selling. This includes such things as:

  • Unified Messaging. Almost everybody has this available on their switches and yet hardly anybody sells it. This allows customers to seamlessly move communications across all devices and once customers see how this works many want it. We are no longer talking about the ability to toggle between a cell phone and home phone, but also to tablets, laptops and any other device capable of receiving an Ethernet stream.
  • IP Centrex. Again, anybody with a softswitch can probably offer this service, and if not you can partner with somebody who offers it. This is becoming the new standard product for businesses and many home businesses will also be interested because it can allow them to act like a larger company.
  • Cheap Second Lines. Second lines today can be little more than a number of you deliver the service over Ethernet. So sell $5 or $10 second lines for teens or home businesses.
  • Other Advanced Features. Softswitches come with dozens of features that almost nobody sells. These include features like seamlessly integrating emails and voice mail; integrating voice with computers; advanced screening and call control. I have a few customers who have figured out how to sell these features and they are almost 100% margin if you have already bought them with an existing switch.

Wireless. As long as there is good cell phone coverage in your area, you can now be in the cell phone business through an MVNO program where you resell somebody else’s wireless minutes. This is very different from the resale in the past where you resold a large carrier’s products with little margins. With MVNO you can repackage minutes into your own products, and if you match this up with household Wifi you can have very good margins.

Cable TV. And on the cable TV side of the product line

  • OTT Access. Add over-the-top programming to your channel line-up. Rather than risk losing customer to OTT, let them easily get OTT directly on your video line-up without needing to buy a Roku or Apple TV box. There are numerous vendors around who have created channel line-ups for OTT programming.
  • Cable Portability. Enable your customers to watch the TV programming you sell to them on portable devices around their home like computers, cell phones and pads. If you buy programming from the NCTC coop this is now becoming available.
  • DVR Services. Provide whole-house DVRs, or even better offer centralized DVR where you do the recording on servers at your hub. Centralized DVR greatly reduces the bandwidth you have to send to customers while allowing them to easily record multiple shows at the same time. Centralized DVR also means you don’t have to invest in expensive set-top boxes.

Security. Many of my clients are doing well with security products:

  • Cameras. The simplest product is to sell and install security cameras and then set customers up to monitor these themselves from any ethernet device.
  • Safety Monitoring. Sell, set-up and monitor safety monitors for things like fire, radon and CO2.
  • Burglar Alarms. I have many clients selling ‘traditional’ burglar alarms. This is now easier than ever to do since there are a number of vendors who offer the police monitoring and as a carrier you supply the equipment and get a monthly line rental.
  • Advanced Security. Many business customers will be interested in advanced security systems that can monitor all sorts of things in addition to traditional security.

Cloud Service. Everybody is talking about things moving to the cloud but very few smaller carriers are marketing any cloud services yet. This is an area where a small carrier is going to have to break the mindset that you have to own and control the back office system behind the product. Instead, you need to find partners who offer cloud services and then repackage them to your customers. This will not be a static transaction since these products are going to change a lot over the next decade. But you can’t wait for this market to ‘stabilize’ because it may never do that. So you should start looking for cloud partners today.  Some of these services include:

  • Data Backup and Storage. While there is free back-up available on the web, many customers still prefer the safety of backing up for a fee and there are many for-pay back-up services. We are seeing is that many people would prefer to back-up their data with somebody local rather into the ‘cloud’.
  • Centralized Software A lot of software like Windows, Microsoft Office and other popular products are now available at the cloud level, saving customers from having to keep buying these for every machine they want to operate.
  • Medical Monitoring. This will eventually be a huge business and most people will elect to get monitored. It’s just starting, but worth getting into early.
  • PC Replacement. Let customers use your storage in place of their hard drives, meaning they can get to their data from any device capable of using the software.

Home Automation. I have several clients who are successfully selling and installing home automation systems. These systems are commercially available, but only really geeky customers feel comfortable making this work on their own. So the product is selling / leasing the systems, making it work, and continuing to integrate future customer devices into the systems.

Geek Squad. I have a number of customers, particularly in rural markets that are doing well offering the same sorts of services that the Geek Squad sells. They will go into customers’ homes and help customers manage make their computers, TVs, energy management, and anything else that is electronics based. All this is sold on an hourly or an insurance-type basis.

My Take on the Internet of Things

I think there might be as many different predictions about the Internet of Things as there are bloggers and pundits. So I thought I would join the fray and give my take as well. The Internet of Things is that it is going to involve a new set of technologies that will enable us to get feedback from our local environment. That is going to allow for the introduction of a new set of tools and toys, some frivolous and some revolutionary.

I have read scores of articles talking about how this is going to change daily life for households. The day may come when our households resemble the Jetsons and where we have robots with more common sense than most of us running our households, but we are many years away from that.

There will be lots of new toys and gadgets that will sometimes make our daily lives easier. For instance food we buy may have little sensors put into packaging that will tell you when your produce is getting ready to go bad so that you won’t forget to eat it. There will be better robots that can vacuum the floors and maybe even do laundry and walk the dog. But I don’t see these as revolutionary and probably not affordable for the general populace for some time. For a long time the Internet of Things is going to create toys that wealthy people or tech geeks will play with, and it will take years to get these technologies to make it into everybody’s homes. Very little of what I have been reading for household use sounds revolutionary.

The biggest revolutionary change that will directly affect the average person is medical monitoring. Within a decade or two it will be routine to have sensors always tracking your vitals so that they will know there is something wrong with you before you do. There will be little sensors in your bloodstream looking for things like cancer cells, which is going to mean that we won’t have to worry about curing cancer, we’ll head it off before it gets started. This will revolutionize healthcare to be proactive and preventative and will eventually be affordable to all.

English: A technology roadmap of the Internet ...

English: A technology roadmap of the Internet of Things. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think the most immediate big benefactor of the Internet of Things is going to be at the industrial level. For instance, it is not hard to envision soil sensors that will tell the farmer the conditions of each part of his fields so that his smart tractor can fertilize or weed each section only as appropriate. There is already work going on to produce mini-sensors that can be sent underground into oil fields to give oil geologists the most accurate picture they have ever had of the underground topology. This will make it possible to extract a lot more oil and to do so more efficiently.

Small sensors will also make it a lot easier to manufacturer complex objects or complicated molecules. This could lead to the production of new polymers and materials that will be cheaper stronger and biodegradable. It will mean that medicines can be modified to interact with your specific DNA to avoid side effects. It means 3D printing that will feel like Star Trek replicators that will be able to combine complex molecules to make food and other objects. NASA has already undertaken a project to be able to print pizza as the first step towards being able to print food in space to enable long flights to Mars.

And a lot of what the Internet of Things might mean is a bit scary. Some high-end department stores already track customers with active cell phones to see exactly how they shop. But this is going to get far more personal and with face recognition software stores are going to know everything about how you shop. They will not just know what you buy, but what you looked at and thought about buying. And they will offer you instant on-site specials to get you to buy – ads that are aimed just at you, right where you are standing.

I remember reading a science fiction book once where the ads on the street changed for each person who walked by, and we are not that far away from that reality. There are already billboards in Japan that look at the demographics in front of them and which change the ads appropriately. Add facial recognition into that equation and they will move beyond showing ads aimed at middle-aged men and instead show an ad aimed directly at you. The Internet of Things is going to create a whole new set of attacks on privacy and as a society we will need to develop strategies and policies to protect ourselves against the onslaught of billions of sensors.

Probably one of the biggest uses of new sensors will be in energy management. And this will be done on the demand end rather than the supply end. Today we all have devices that use electricity continuously even when we aren’t using them. It may not seem like a lot of power to have lights on in an empty room or to have the water warm all of the time in an automatic coffee pot, but multiply these energy uses by millions and billions and it adds up to a lot of wasted power. You read today about the smart grid, which is an effort to be more efficient with electricity mostly on the demand side. But the real efficiencies will be gained when the devices in our life can act independently to minimize power usage.

Sensor technologies will be the heart of the Internet of Things and will be able to work on tasks that nobody wants to do. For instance, small nanobots that can metabolize or bind oil could be dispatched to an oil spill to quickly minimize environmental damage. The thousands of toxic waste dumps we have created on the planet can be restored by nanobots. Harvard has been working on developing a robot bee and it is not hard to envision little flying robots that could be monitoring and protecting endangered species in the wild. We will eventually use these technologies to eat the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and to terraform Mars with an oxygen atmosphere and water.

Many of the technologies involved will be revolutionary and they will spark new debates in areas like privacy and data security. Mistakes will be made and there will be horror stories of little sensors gone awry. Some of the security monitoring will be put to bad uses by repressive regimes. But the positive things that can come out of the Internet of Things make me very excited about the next few decades.

Of course there will be a lot of bandwidth needed. The amount of raw data we will be gathering will be swamp current bandwidth needs. We are going to need bandwidth everywhere from the City to the factory to the farm, and areas without bandwidth are going to be locked out of a lot more than just not being able to stream NetFlix. The kind of bandwidth we are going to need is going to require fiber and we need to keep pushing fiber out to where people play and work.

Managed LAN Service

local area network

local area network (Photo credit: benschke)

If you serve business customers you should consider offering managed LAN service. This is a service where you manage your customer’s LANs for them. The service has been around for years and was often provided by local IT companies. But as LECs, CLECs and cable companies have become more data-centric and are delivering Ethernet to businesses, the line between wireline provider and IT provider has blurred.

Customers want managed LAN for a number of reasons:

  • Eliminates staff and costs. With managed LAN a business would no longer need a dedicated IT person on staff. Before my own business went virtual we had a staff of about 15 in our office and we needed a full-time IT person to support us. This was an expensive overhead that I finally avoided by going virtual, but that many businesses still incur. Some businesses have solved this by hiring part-time IT help, but that is still more expensive than a managed LAN service.
  • Saves on Investment. The servers and software to support a LAN are costly. In our industry we are already familiar with helping customers made decisions about buying PBXs versus lines and this is the same sort of decision for a business.
  • Takes Away from the Core Focus. Businesses should focus on what they do best and not become IT shops.
  • Trusted Vendor. Many businesses prefer to work with somebody they know and trust. There are numerous online data centers and vendors promoting things like Managed LAN and IP Centrex, but most businesses will not trust their data and communications needs to an anonymous company in the cloud. Many businesses also prefer their data being stored somewhere locally and not in a faraway state.

The decision to offer Managed LAN Service should be driven by your philosophy as a carrier. I have talked in other blogs about the choice that you have to either be a dumb pipe provider or a full service provider. If you want to be a full-service provider, then helping your business customers with their data needs is probably a better long-term strategy than helping them with their voice needs. Many businesses are now totally reliant upon their data and as a full-service provider you can assure them that their data is secure, stored redundantly and accessible where and how they need it.

There are several ways that you can offer the service:

  • Operate the Customer’s LAN Remotely. This is the traditional model that has been used by local IT shops. Normally the customer is still expected to own the equipment and software and the service provider just takes care of the LAN remotely. The problem with this approach is that the customer doesn’t save money on equipment, and you are going to have to visit the customer’s location from time to time, adding to your cost, and the price you must charge. One option is for you to own the LAN, but that still has you buying one device for one customer which is not any more cost efficient than the customer buying it directly.
  • Put the LAN in your Hub. The most competitive scenario is for you to put the needed LAN in your own central office or headend. This allows you to buy servers and storage devices that can serve multiple customers, thus allowing for a savings on hardware and software. It also allows you to run all of your managed LAN customers with the same underlying hardware and software, making it easier to operate and troubleshoot. And if you are also the one supplying the data pipe to the business you control the customer’s data from end to end.
  • Outsource to a Data Center. If you only have a few businesses that want this service, or if you don’t have the expertise to do this, you can buy these services on a wholesale basis. There are numerous data centers around the country that offer these services and you can repackage this and still make a profit.

Selling Managed LAN opens up the door for a host of other services. A very popular service is redundant data back-up, and you will need to establish a second storage hub or else work with a data center to back up data you store at your location. You will also find that businesses that use you for Managed LAN will look to you for all of their IT advice and will ask for your help to buy and repair computers, implement custom solutions like transparent LAN or video conferencing, etc. So this business line will create an opportunity to sell your technician time on an hourly basis.

The main advantage of this business line for both you and your customers is that you can provide them with a unified solution to all of their data needs. If they use you for Ethernet and voice and somebody else to manage their LAN then they are not getting the ideal data network with seamless integration of voice and data. We always talk about customer stickiness in the industry and I think this is the best ‘stickiness’ product you can offer.

A la Carte Programming and Sports

ESPN, Fox Sports, Comcast SportsNet, and regional sports networks like the Big Ten Network must all be lobbying hard against a la carte cable programming ever becoming a reality. Their business model relies on the practice where all cable subscribers must pay for sports even if they never watch it. Sports programming has become a significant chunk of what customers pay each month for cable TV and the rates charged for sports networks are growing at the fastest pace.

It’s not hard to see why sports programming is so expensive because the sports networks pay a lot of money to obtain exclusive sports content. Let’s look at ESPN as an example. It was reported in financial news that ESPN will pay over $3.5 billion in 2013 for sports programming.  That includes $1.1 billion to the NFL, $600 million to the NBA, $610 million for football bowl games, $360 million to major league baseball, $240 million for ACC sports, and many other smaller deals.

And the amounts that are being paid keep rising. It’s been reported that in 2014 the fee for the NFL will jump to $1.9 billion and for baseball to $700 million. The network just announced an eleven year deal for $770 million to broadcast the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. And ESPN will be launching a new network for Southwest Conference Football in 2014 and the details of the amounts to be paid have not been announced, but one has to imagine they are huge.

How much does this all cost consumers? Not all cable companies pay the same amounts for ESPN since there are individual contracts with each cable company that span different periods of times. I’ve seen recent articles that say that the average monthly cost charged today for cable companies for ESPN is $5.13 per household, with additional monthly fees of $0.68 for ESPN2, $0.18 for ESPNNEWS and $0.18 for ESPNU. For 2013 those fees total to over $7.3 billion. A household getting all four of these channels would be paying $74 per year just to ESPN. And if they have a cable provider that carries all four of those channels there is a good chance they are also paying for other sports networks like FoxSports, Comcast SportsNet, the NFL channel, the golf channel, the Tennis channel and a bunch of others. And the fees paid for sports aren’t even always obvious since there is a substantial fee for the Olympics buried in the fees for carrying the NBC channels. It’s probably not a bad guess to think that the average cable household is already paying over $100 per year today for sports coverage.

And the fees are continuing to climb at a rate far faster than inflation. It’s been reported that a recent deal signed by Time Warner Cable has them paying almost $7.50 for ESPN by 2018 with a built-in annual 6.5% rate increase after that. This would put the cost of ESPN over $8 per household per month by the end of the decade, or almost $100 per year.

As I have written in the past, the whole cable industry is starting to see subscribership fray around the edges. It was just reported by Variety last week that all cable companies combined lost about 80,000 customers for the 12 months ending March 31, 2013. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but just a few years ago cable subscribers were growing by several million per year. Industry experts predict the number of cable subscribers will begin dropping more each year, much like what happened with landline telephones over the last decade. There are a lot of reasons for this including cord cutters who are dropping cable for programming on the web, and young households who just aren’t signing up for cable. But one contributing reason is rate fatigue, meaning that households are finding the rates for cable to be more than they are willing to pay.

So why would the sports programmers be sweating a change to a la carte programming? It sounds like a really good idea for customers to be able to buy just the programming they want. What sports lover would not love to ditch Lifetime Movies, and what sports hating household would not want to stop paying for ESPN?

The answer is simple math. If a la carte programming is introduced then buying what you want will be too expensive. Let’s just look at ESPN as an example. Let’s say ESPN went to a la carte programming so that only households who wanted it would buy it. The amount that ESPN would charge on a standalone basis would depend upon how many households they think would be willing to write a check for ESPN. Let’s look at the math. This assumes that the cable company would mark-up the channel by 30%. These are the resulting monthly subscription rates:

Willing To Buy              Rate Today            Rate in 2020

50%                                    $15                           $20

30%                                    $26                           $33

15%                                    $51                           $67

This table must scare the hell out of ESPN. We already know what a la carte looks like. HBO is sold a la carte and is in 30 million homes, or 30% of the US market for around $15. I look at this table and find it hard to think that 30% of homes would pay $26 monthly for just the four ESPN channels. There is probably no price point on this table that looks realistic in the market, and so the reality is that if ESPN was to be sold on an a la carte basis that they would have to cut their rates, meaning that they would have to cut the payments they are making to the various sports. And that would have a profound impact on the sports industry. For example, universities in the major conferences now rely on cable revenues to support their teams and one can imagine massive cutbacks in college sports if the TV revenues decline. Television fees are the main factor behind the huge salaries paid by professional sports.

And this same math is going to be the same for every other sports network – and as far as that goes, for every cable network. If a la carte programming comes to pass and people buy only what they want, they are going to end up paying as much as they do today for a smaller number of channels. Today’s regime of averaging the cost of hundreds of networks across 100 million cable subscribers has resulted in the wide variety of programming available to a cable household. It is my prediction that under a la carte programming that many of the networks we watch today would fold because they could not find enough buyers individually to support them. And maybe that is what should happen. Certainly, if the cable industry starts seeing total subscribers dropping by millions per year this will happen eventually anyway. There just won’t be enough money to support all of the networks. I can’t see any future where the amount of monies paid by ESPN and other sports networks to obtain programming rights doesn’t go down. It’s just a matter of math and time.

Voice – Still Relevant

A landline telephone

A landline telephone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the beginning of this year the Center For Disease Control issued a report called Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Survey, January – June 2012. The summary of that report is attached here as Wireless Substitution 2012.

The CDC asks over 20,000 households each year a number of questions associated with health issues, and starting a few years ago they started asking about basic telephone coverage. In 2012 they expanded the telephony questions to include questions about landline and cellphone usage.

The results of the study are statistically reliable. They worked hard to get the sample they use to look like America as a whole and the results are 95% accurate, plus or minus 5%. This means that if they asked everybody in the country these same questions, the results would be within 5% of the results of the survey, which is very accurate for a survey.

Some of what they found was very interesting. The most interesting statistic to me is that 65% of all households still have a landline telephone. As late as 2000 the industry had about a 98% penetration of households. As the chart on the first page of the report shows (showing wireless-only households), landline subscribers dropped slowly until about 2005 and have dropped at a steady pace since then due to migration to cell phone usage.

I have heard for years from experts who have declared the voice business dead. Many new telecom ventures are launching without a voice offering, because they believe it is irrelevant. The most visible of these is Google in Kansas City, who offers only data and cable TV. But I look at a product that is still in 65% of households as something that is still very attractive from the carrier perspective. Cable TV only has a nationwide penetration of just over 75% and even after all of the years of decline, voice is still not that far behind cable.

Voice is a very profitable business. If Google wanted to offer voice in Kansas City they would need to buy a softswitch, which might cost $1 million for a market that large. And they would have to interconnect with the existing PSTN. They would have to cover some one-time costs for each customer like number portability. After covering those costs everything else is profit. Voice can be auto-provisioned so that it doesn’t take any people to activate it. And it can be sold in a very simple package so that there are not a lot of options. Voice doesn’t need to be a complicated product.

From a business plan perspective, not offering voice is leaving a lot of low-hanging fruit on the table. For Google in Kansas City, the breakeven on paying for the voice investment could be measured in terms of a handful of months. After that it would add significantly to the margin per customer and to bottom line.

I have a hard time understanding why Google or anybody would not offer voice. With residential customers it is low-hanging fruit. And voice is still mandatory to get many business customers. Businesses bore the brunt of the competitive CLEC push a decade ago and many of them were burned by having one vendor for voice and another for data. When something went wrong both vendors would point at each other rather than fix the problem. And so a lot of businesses insist on buying all of their telecom products from a single vendor. Further, most businesses care more about reliability for voice than they do price. Voice is the lifeline of many businesses and they want it to be served by a capable vendor on a reliable network.

When Google approaches a business and wants them to buy a 1 Gigabit data pipe they are basically telling that business to keep their voice on copper or relegate it to somebody selling VoIP on the Internet. There are many companies selling VoIP this way and the quality of the connections vary widely. There are good products sold this way, but also some really sketchy stuff, so a business has to be very wary. Most businesses are just not willing to take a chance buying voice from a vendor they don’t know and who doesn’t have people in their market. They have been down that path before.

Most of my clients still offer voice services and all of them do pretty well doing so. My clients who sell to business customers report that voice is still the way to get into the door. Many of these clients are now selling IP Centrex, but that is still a voice product.

And so I look at Google and other providers who have elected to not sell voice and just scratch my head. Are they afraid of being regulated? In most states regulation of competitive voice providers is very light. Do they think voice is just obsolete and not worth the effort? This survey and all of my clients who sell voice demonstrate that this is just not the case. Voice is still very relevant and still very profitable.

The Future According to Google

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I just read The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt of Google and Jared Cohen. I am always intrigued by books that look at the future. I was most fascinated by the book because Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman at Google and one has to imagine that the things in this book are discussed at Google all of the time. When he talks about a new product or technology that will be around you can bet that Google is working on it in some manner.

The book takes a look at upcoming technology and how it might change everyday life. The book predicts a lot of things that are already today in the early stages of development but that will become routine in the future. He predicts, for example, that 3D printing will have a much bigger impact in the third world than in the first world. Poor villages will pool their resources to get a 3D printer which will allow them to make things they would otherwise not be able to afford or get.

One of the most promising uses of technology will be with medicine and the book predicts that we will carry nanotechnology inside of us that will alert us when there is any kind of imbalance or at the very first sign of cancer. If you need a new body part technicians will be able to grow one for you from stem cells using a technology that is related to the 3D printers. Everybody’s DNA will be sampled and drugs will be modified specifically to match your genetic patterns to eliminate side effects.

The book predicts that we will see a huge leap in productivity tools such as robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Keyboards will be a thing of the past and we will interface with our computers by voice, thoughts or gestures. Translation programs will allow us to carry on a conversation with anybody on the planet.

Of course, there are also the more fun things like cars that drive themselves, and entertainment that starts to look like Star Trek holodecks. Entertainment will be personalized, immersive and ubiquitously available on any device.

A lot of the book is spent looking at technology’s impact on society and how it will affect war, peace, freedom, democracy and terrorism.  Schmidt predicts that virtually everybody on earth will become connected using cell phones and this will be a game changer. Certainly technology is not the panacea and it will not eliminate hunger and lack of resources. But it will give everybody the same basic access to information and will eliminate barriers that stop the third world from any chance of competing. Education may continue to have a classroom component in richer countries, but most of the people in the planet are going to be able to learn the same things if they so choose from on-line resources.

Technology will have a huge impact on the interaction of people and their government. Repressive governments will try to keep information away from their populace. But blocking Internet connectivity is what drove Egyptians to the street last year and caused the overthrow of the government. It is going to be a lot harder for a government to lie to its citizens when everybody is connected and has more powerful tools than today for finding the truth. While the natural tendency for governments is to obscure things, the upcoming digital age will tend to illuminate the facts through the widespread availability of data.

To some degree it will be easier for people on the local level to rebel against bad government. The beginning of this was seen in the various Arab spring uprisings in the last year. But governments will also have new tools also for identifying dissenters and autocratic regimes will have the ability to single out ringleaders of revolts. The book does not predict whether the people or governments will win these battles, but the battle will be different from today when you consider that there will be a more fully informed and totally connected populace armed with facts. Certainly the people will have the power to shine light on corruption and bad government and corrupt politicians.

Some of the technologies that will be coming will make it somewhat easier to be a terrorist. Communications will make it easier of people with like mindsets to find each other, and artificial intelligence will make it easier for bad guys to find or make nefarious tools and identify targets. But on the flip side, it is going to be a lot harder for anybody in the future to remain anonymous. It’s like that if you catch one terrorist you will quickly know their whole circle of associates. We saw the bare inkling of future police capability with the Boston Marathon bombings. Police were able to access data quickly and then used crowdsourcing to quickly identify the suspects. In the future that will be even easier with highly accurate facial recognition software that will be able to identify most people quickly.

This book says that the upcoming decades are going to see change coming faster than at any time in history, and I believe that. There is amazing progress being made in almost every technological field and the number of new technologies and devices that are appearing in our lives is astonishing. As a technology geek I love change and I hope the world is ready for the next couple of very interesting decades.

Supreme Court Backs FCC in Cell Tower Dispute

English: Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of ...

English: Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Monday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC in a dispute about rules concerning permits for new cellular towers. The Supreme Court ruling is here: Arlington vs. the FCC.

The dispute arose over the FCC’s interpretation of their powers. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had granted some local rights for zoning and placement of cellular towers. But the Act also said that local jurisdictions had to act “within a reasonable amount of time” in acting on requests for new tower sites. The FCC got a number of complaints from cellular providers over the years that local jurisdictions were dragging their feet and not responding to requests for new towers. The FCC responded by issuing a ruling that local jurisdictions had to act within 90 days to process a collocation application to add to an existing tower and within 150 days for a request for placing a new cellular tower.

The City of Arlington, TX, joined by San Antonio, San Diego, Los Angeles and other cities then sued to block this regulation, making the argument that the FCC was overstepping its authority in making the ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled 6 – 3 in favor of the FCC with an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia. This leaves in place the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that the FCC was within its jurisdiction to issue these rules. The FCC original ruling had said that a local jurisdiction could not reject a cell tower application due to the presence of another carrier, and that it also had to act within the above-mentioned time frames.

There have been a number of disputes about the location of cell towers. People all want good cell service, but nobody seems to want a tower in their back yard (or within sight of their back yard). The original cell tower systems were designed for a very different world than what we live in today. The originally sited towers in many places are far apart and were designed to handle a far smaller volume of voice traffic. And the original siting of towers is not at all adequate for data coverage since the strength of the data signal from a tower decreases quickly as you get further from a tower. To make the cellular networks do what customers want today, cell phone companies have to build additional towers within the boundaries of the older towers to create smaller ‘cells’ around each tower site. Each ‘cell’ can serve the same number of voice and data customers, so with more ‘cells’ a cellular company can accommodate more customers and provide better coverage and faster data. This problem is just going to get worse as more and more people rely on data for their mobile devices and we need more and more cell sites.

Eventually in the future the large ‘big stick’ towers will probably go away and be replaced by numerous small cellular transmitters dispersed throughout a neighborhood. But a full transition to that kind of technology is at least several decades away. And even after that is introduced the existing tall towers will probably be kept in service for an additional decade or two simply because they work well.

The ruling will have only a minor impact on the cell phone industry. Cities will no longer be able to use administrative delays as a passive-aggressive tool to say no to a new cell tower. Cities will still have the power to say no to a request for a new tower as long as they do it within the FCC timeline.

The real impact of the ruling is that the Court has backed the FCC and other federal agencies in the way that the agencies make their rulings. Most of the Court’s discussion centered around a doctrine known as the Chevron doctrine. That has meant that whenever a Court has been asked whether a federal agency has interpreted a ruling from a federal agency the Court has first asked if the underlying law was clear, generally being some law passed by Congress. If the law was not clear, under the Chevron doctrine the Courts have then generally deferred to agency’s interpretations of the law and have found in the past that federal agencies had the authority to interpret ambiguity in the law.

The Cities in this case had argued that the deference that Courts had granted to federal agencies could not constitutionally apply if the agency had no authority to act at all. They argued that this interpretation of the law effectively gives federal agencies the ability to define their own powers. This ruling addresses that question and says that Chevron does not apply to jurisdictional questions about the authority of an agency to make rulings. The Court did concede that their ruling does not give an agency the right to regulate as it pleases and that Courts interpreting Chevron in the future must do so by “taking seriously, and applying rigorously, in all cases, statutory limits on agency authority.”

Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Alito and Kennedy, wrote a dissent and he argued that the jurisdictional test that the cities had proposed was correct and that federal agencies are widely overstepping their authority.

While the ruling doesn’t do much for the cell phone companies it is a victory for the FCC and other federal agencies. I don’t follow what goes on at too many other agencies, but it seems like almost every major decision made by the FCC in the last decade has been challenged in terms of the agency even having the authority to issue rules. This Court ruling bolsters the FCC’s ability to interpret their own authority within the bounds of the specific laws they are implementing. But it does not give them unlimited authority and they still must act reasonably. Courts will still be able to review complaints against the FCC and other agencies, but they will have to do so by applying the Chevron test.

Long Distance Fraud Again – Really?

I’ve been helping clients get into and stay in the long distance business since the 80’s when long distance was a new line of business for many telcos. I remember when the industry was new that it was a challenge. If you were a rural LEC you had to convince the RBOC who owned the regional tandem switch to help you set up a trunk group to get to a long distance company. And they were reluctant and slow to respond. So a company had to fight to get into the long distance business.

But over time it got easier and fairly routine and most rural telephone companies added long distance as a product line. It worked pretty well until the time in the early 90’s when calling cards became the rage and customers all wanted them. With a calling card a customer could make a long distance call from any other phone and bill it to their own home phone number.

So companies in the long distance business started giving out calling cards, and eventually they gave a calling card to every customer. This generated a lot of new traffic, and since this was back in the day when it still was not unusual to pay 10¢ to 15¢ per minute for long distance it also drove a lot of new revenue. But within a few years after calling cards were introduced calling card fraud followed. Calling card fraud was pretty straight forward. There were people who would try to find a valid calling card number that they would then send to places like the Middle East where street vendors would hawk cheap minutes. And dozens or even hundreds of people would use the calling card until somebody figured out that fraud was going on and cut off the card.

When the fraud first started the losses got huge because nobody was looking for it. But over time the carriers that sold the long distance began monitoring for unusual usage and policies were established such as making the cards only good for domestic calling, and over time the big calling card fraud got under control, but never quite stopped.

Over the years since then I have run across cases of fraud, but it has been a random thing here and there and not widespread like the calling card fraud had once been. The companies that sold wholesale long distance got more sophisticated and monitored usage closely and for the most part the industry stopped worrying about fraud.

But recently I have seen cases of significant fraud happening again to my clients. Within recent months I have had two clients hit for over $25,000 in fraud in a single month, which in both cases was as much as they had been paying for wholesale long distance for most of a year. So for these companies this was a really big deal and it effectively doubled their cost of buying long distance for the year.

And both of these companies were buying long distance from ‘big name’ carriers and not from some small VoIP provider. I must tell you that I was surprised. Not surprised that fraud could still happen, but surprised that the big company selling the long distance did not have a fraud monitoring process in place to stop it. It’s not that hard to monitor for fraud at the large carrier level. If they process the long distance in real-time it is not hard to set some flags to look for unusual usage. When my clients decided to buy wholesale long distance from these vendors they were assured that those carriers had fraud monitoring. It turns out to not to be true.

The fraud in both of these cases was allowed due to faulty connections between my clients and their customer. In one case if was my client’s own connection that was not secure. They had installed an IAD (Integrated Access Device) at a business customer in order to supply voice and data from their fiber connection. The IAD was not properly configured and had very weak passwords and was not configured to only accept commands from my client.

The second case was similar in that another client had a connection to a customer PBX. And of course, being a full service provider, they made the connection for the customer to his PBX. As it turns out there was a backdoor connection available into the PBX into the internet, which means that the PBX could have a connection from somewhere other than my client.

Neither of those problems automatically leads to fraud, but there is a new set of bad guys in the world. They use computer worms to test against millions of phone numbers looking for phone numbers connected to PBXs or IADs. Once they find such a device they use normal hacking techniques like cracking easy passwords to gain access to the device. They then sell calling in the same way as was done in the old days of calling card fraud. In one of these cases the calling went to the Middle East and in the other went to INTELSAT calling to satellite phones – both very expensive calling. My suspicion is that these bad guys are not selling these minutes on the street like in the past, but instead hawking cheap minutes to International VoIP minute sellers who have no idea where these minutes come from.

Certainly my clients had some liability in their loss since they contributed to the customer connection being made in an insecure manner. But they also ought to be able to rely on their underlying long distance provider to protect them against a flurry of suspicious calls. The biggest worry about this new kind of fraud is that it pumps a large volume of calling to expensive places in a short period of time. So it can cost a telco a large amount of money in a hurry.

So my caution to companies that sell long distance is to beware. It has been a while since fraud was of this level of concern, but it’s back again. There are two steps you can take to protect yourself. First, make absolutely certain that the company you are buying long distance from has good fraud detection and policies. You want a carrier who will not only find the fraud but who will cut off the calling before they even contact you. But second, the responsibility rests with you to use good network practices to make sure it is hard for somebody to hack the connections to your customers. If you want to know more about how to protect yourself contact Derrel Duplechin of CCG at (337) 654-7490.

Will There Be a Tipping Point in the Cable Industry?

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make ...

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a book review, but a few years ago I read a book called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcom Gladwell. This booked looked at examples of tipping points – when minor events reach a level which triggers a more significant change. In the book he looked at a number of popular culture events such as how Hush Puppy shoes went from being something worn by New York hipsters to being in every mall in America in a short period of time. It was a thought-provoking book that looked in particular at how certain types of people are able to effect much bigger changes in the world than ought to be expected.

What made me think back on this book is that I have been thinking a lot lately about the cable TV industry. There are a ton of those ‘minor’ events happening in the industry and I have talked about some of them in my blog before. And I have been thinking about whether these small trends can accumulate together to fundamentally change the industry or if it will just change more slowly over time. I’ve been trying to think about what it might take for the whole industry to reach a tipping point.

We have a parallel to what might happen with cable TV service by looking back at what happened to home telephone service. Fifteen years ago about 98% of households had a traditional home telephone. But then Vonage and other VoIP carriers came along a little over a decade ago and whittled into the home phone market. But the VoIP carriers collectively did not do that great and after a couple of years in the business had captured only about 3% of the total market. But then other factors began hitting the industry. For instance, companies like Skype arose allowing people to make calls over the Internet without even using a phone. But the number one factor that has killed many home telephones has been the meteoric rise of cell phones. In looking back I think the landline phone industry really started losing lines when the cellular industry introduced family plans and all of the members of a family could have a cell phone.

In a study done in the first half of 2012, the Center for Disease Control asked many questions including ones about telephone usage. They found that the number of households with landline phones has dropped below 65%. In looking at the statistics in that study I conclude that the landline telephone industry never reached a tipping point. The industry certainly declined over a fairly long period of time and will almost certainly continue to do so. But there has been no tipping point such as was seen in the music store business which went mostly bust within just a few years after iTunes got popular. And so I ask myself if there will be a tipping point with the cable TV industry or if it will instead go into a long steady decline like the landline telephone business?

There are a number of factors that are affecting the cable TV industry, and most of them are relatively new. Some of these include:

  • Over-the-top video where programming is available on the web instead of by a traditional cable TV subscription.
  • Cord-cutting. Neilson has estimated that there are now 5 million homes in the US that don’t watch any form of TV and that this number grew by 1 million last year.
  • Cord-nevers. These are young households who get their entertainment from cell phones, pads and other methods and who do not sign-up for traditional cable TV packages when they start a new household.
  • Rate fatigue. The ever climbing cable bills that are pricing cable service out of the range of many households. This leads some customers to leave cable but others to downgrade to smaller packages.
  • Ever increasing programming costs. To a significant degree the cable TV rate increases are being driving by the programmers who charge more each year to cable operators for carrying their content.
  • Tons of companies competing for cable’s customers like NetFlix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and many others. And to some degrees the broadcast networks are helping them by making programming available on the web soon after it is aired live.
  • Companies like Aereo making it easier for customers to watch TV on any device.
  • Really simple devices like Roku, Apple TV, Playstation and many others making it easier for the non-technical household to get alternate programming onto the TV.
  • Unique programming being created just for the web. NetFlix and others are now developing programming directly for the web. There is also a movement to pick up popular shows that get cancelled and to continue them on the web.

There are a few experts that believe that the cable industry will be able to hold its own, even with all of these trends going on. But there are a lot more experts who are positive that the industry will decline, but the predictions of how fast vary from a slow decline like telephone service up to predictions of a fiery crash like what happened to CD stores due to iTunes. And there is ample evidence that the decline has begun. I saw a statistic that said that in 2012 the cable industry as a whole added a net of 50,000 new customers, wherein past years that would have been millions. And there is evidence that every one of the above trends is hurting the industry.

And there is more disruption to come. Wireless connections have gotten faster making it easier to watch TV while on the go. John McCain just introduced a bill that would promote (but not guarantee) a la carte programming. Comcast just increased their cable modem speeds nationwide. It just becomes easier and easier for a household to elect something other than the traditional cable TV packages.

Like many I certainly foresee an industry that is going to lose customers at a faster and faster pace over time. But I just don’t know if all of these little factors can somehow produce a tipping point for the whole industry. With that said, I believe that the effect of these changes will differ by market and I expect that there will be companies and markets that reach a tipping point long before the whole industry does.

Is Wireless a Substitute for Wireline?

English: A cell phone tower in Palatine, Illin...

Last week in GN Docket 13-5 the FCC issued an update that asked additional questions about its planned transition of the historic TDM telephone network to all-IP network. This docket asked for comments on several topics like having a trial for transitioning the TDM telephone network to all-IP, for having a trial to go to enhanced 911 and for making sure that a switch to IP would not adversely affect the nationwide telephone databases.

But the docket also asks for comments on whether the FCC should grant telephone companies the right to substitute wireless phones for wireline phones and abandon their copper network. The docket mentioned two companies that wanted to do this. For example, Verizon said they intend to put wireless on Fire Island off New York City as they rebuild it from the devastation of hurricane Sandy. But AT&T has told the FCC that they are going to request permission to replace “millions of current wireline customers, mostly in rural areas, with a wireless-only product”.

Let me explain what this means. There are now traditional-looking telephone sets that include a cellular receiver. To replace a wireline phone, the telephone company would cut the copper wires, and in place of your existing phones they would put one of these cellular handsets. They would not be making every family member get a cell phone and there would still be a telephone in the house that works on the cellular network.

This make good sense to me for Fire Island. It is mostly a summer resort and there are not many residents there in the winter. It’s a relatively small place and with one or two cell phone towers the whole island could have very good coverage. And if the cell phone tower is upgraded to 4G there would be pretty decent Internet speeds available, certainly much faster than DSL. One would have to also believe that the vast majority of visitors to the island bring along a cell phone when they visit and that there is not a giant demand for fixed phones any longer.

It is AT&T’s intentions, though, that bother me a lot. AT&T wants to go into the rural areas it serves and cut the copper and instead put in these same cellular-based phones. This is an entirely different situation than Fire Island.

Anybody who has spent time in rural areas like I do knows the frustration of walking around trying to find one bar of cellular service to make or receive a call. Cell phone coverage is so good today in urban areas that one forgets that this is not true in many places. I have a client, a consortium of towns and the rural areas of Sibley and Renville Counties in Minnesota. Let me talk about my experience in working with them as an example of why this is a bad idea.

My primary contact works in the small town of Winthrop. I have AT&T cellular service and when I visit him my cellphone basically will not work. I sometimes can move around and find one bar and get a call through, but I can’t coax the phone to get a data connection so that I can check email. And if you go west from Winthrop the coverage gets even worse. AT&T’s coverage maps show that they serve this area, but they really don’t. There are places in the east end of Sibley County that have decent coverage. But there are also plenty of farms where you can get coverage outdoors, but you can’t get coverage in the house.

The traditional cellular network was not built to serve people, but rather cars. Cell phone coverage is so ubiquitous now that we already forget that cellular minutes used to be very expensive, particularly when you roamed away from your home area. The cell phone network was mostly built along roads to take advantage of that roaming revenue stream. If you happen to live near to a tower you have pretty decent coverage. But you only need to go a few miles off the main highway to find zero bars.

And I use the Renville / Sibley County client as an example for a second reason. The people there want fiber – badly. They have been working on a plan for several years to get fiber to everybody in the area. The area is a typical farming community with small hub towns surrounded by farms. The towns have older cable systems and DSL and get broadband, although much slower than is available in the Twin Cities an hour to the east. But you don’t have to go very far outside of a town to get to where there is no broadband. Many people have tried satellite and found it too expensive and too slow. There are any homes still using dial-up, and this is not nearly as good as the dial-up most of you probably remember. This is dial-up delivered to farms on old long copper pairs. And it is to get access to an Internet that has migrated to video and heavy graphics. Dial-up is practically useless for anything other than reading email, as long as you don’t send or receive attachments.

Over 60% of the people in the rural areas in Renville and Sibley Counties have signed pledge cards to say that they would take service if fiber can be built to them. One would expect this would translate to at least a 70% penetration if fiber is built. They refer to the project locally as fiber-to-the farm. There has been a cooperative formed to look at ways to get fiber financed. And any financing is going to require local equity, meaning the people in the County are going to have to invest millions of their own dollars in the project – and they are certain they can raise that money. That is how much they want the fiber. And this same thing is true in rural areas all over the country. Most of rural America has been left behind and does not have the same access to the Internet that the rest of us take for granted.

AT&T’s idea is only going to work if they make a big investment in new rural cell towers. The current cell phone network in rural areas is not designed to do what they are proposing, even for delivering voice. And even if the existing rural cell phone towers are upgraded to 3G or 4G data (which almost none have been), most people live too far from the existing towers to get any practical use from cellular data. Cellular data speeds are a function of how close one is to the tower and, just like with DSL, the speeds drop off quickly as you get away from the hub.

I hope rural America notices this action at the FCC and files comments. Because as crappy as the rural copper wires are today, when the wireline network disappears many rural households are going to find themselves without telephone service. And forget about fast rural data. The AT&T plan is really just a plan for them to abandon and stop investing in rural communities.