The Shift To Proprietary Hardware

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There is a trend in the industry that is not good for smaller carriers. More and more I see the big companies designing proprietary hardware just for themselves. While that is undoubtably good for the big companies, and I am sure that it saves them a lot of money, it is not good for anybody else.

I first started noticing this a few years ago with settop boxes. It used to be that Comcast and the other large cable companies used the same settop boxes as everybody else. And their buying power is so huge that it drove down the cost of the settop boxes for everybody in the industry. It was standard for large companies to put their own name tag on the front of the boxes, but for the most part they were the same boxes that everybody else could buy, from the same handful of manufacturers.

But then I started seeing news releases and stories indicating that the largest cable companies had developed proprietary settop boxes of their own. One driver for this change is that the carriers are choosing different ways to bring broadband to the settop box. Another change is that the big companies are adding different features, and are modifying the hardware to go along with custom software. Cable companies are even experimenting with very non-traditional settop box platforms like Roku or the various game consoles.

I see this same thing going on all over the industry. The cable modems and customer gateways that the large cable companies and the large telcos use are proprietary and designed just for them. I recently learned that the WiFi units that Comcast and other large cable companies are deploying outdoors are proprietary to them. Google has designed its own fiber-the-the-premise equipment. And many companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and others are designing their own proprietary routers to use in their cloud data centers.

In all of these cases (and many other that I haven’t listed here), the big companies used to buy off-the-shelf equipment. They might have had a slightly different version of some of the hardware, but not different enough that it made a difference to the manufacturers. Telco has always been an industry where only a handful of companies make any given kind of electronics. Generally, smaller companies bought from whichever vendors the big companies chose, since those vendors had the economy of scale.

But now the big carriers are not only using proprietary hardware, but a lot of them are getting it manufactured for themselves directly, without one of the big vendors in the middle. You can’t blame a large company for this; I am sure they save a lot of money by cutting Alcatel/Lucent, Cisco, and Motorola out of the supply chain. But this tendency is putting a hurt on these traditional vendors and making it harder for vendors to survive.

It’s going to get worse. Currently there is a huge push in many parts of the telecom business to use software-defined networking (SDN) to simplify field hardware and control everything from the cloud. Since the large carriers will shift to SDN networks long before smaller carriers, the big companies will be using very different gear at the edges of the network – and those are the parts of the network that cost the most.

This is a problem for smaller carriers since they often no longer benefit from being able to buy the same devices that the large companies buy to take advantage of their huge economy of scale. Over time this is going to mean the prices for the basic components smaller carriers buy are going to go up. And in the worst case there might not be any vendor that can make a business case for manufacturing a given component for the small carriers. One of the advantages of having healthy large manufacturers in the industry was that they could take a loss on some product lines as long as the whole suite of products they sold made a good profit. That will probably no longer be the case.

I hate to think about where this trend is going to take the industry in five to ten years, and I add it to the list of things that small carriers need to worry about.

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