Content Finally is King

One of the more common memes in our industry is the phrase “content is king.” This was first said by Sumner Redstone of Viacom in 1994 but made more famous by Bill Gates in 1996. The phrase has been used since then to describe how the creators of content have the power in our industry – be that programming or web content.

John Stankey, the CEO of AT&T Entertainment, recently emphasized this same concept in talking about the company’s planned merger with Time Warner. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona he said, “We just cannot envision a future where AT&T is relevant if we don’t directly participate in some of the water flowing through our pipes.”

All of the big ISPs have decided that content is key to their survival. Comcast already owns a mountain of programming, and after the merger with Time Warner, AT&T will be a content powerhouse as well. Verizon has climbed into the game with the acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. There are web companies with the same philosophy. Netflix has built a new industry by creating new content. Google is pushing content heavily through YouTube. Amazon has started to create unique content and recently said they are going to make that a priority. Facebook is becoming a content force through Facebook Now.

I remember having this conversation with Derrel Duplechin of CCG back in 2000. We were asked by several clients to speculate about the future of the carrier industry and we foresaw that most carriers were likely on the path to eventually become what we called “dumb pipe” providers. I remember that this was a story that many of our clients did not want to hear.

We lived in a different carrier world in 2000. Most homes still had telephones and voice was the most profitable product for most carriers. The cable TV product that many of our clients sold then also had decent margins. But we predicted that both products would eventually sink in importance and in margins and that eventually most of our clients would earn most of their profits from broadband. We thought this would happen to all carriers, small and large, and we figured that the most profitable future companies would be those that found some other line of business other than just selling data pipes to end users.

We had some clients take this to heart and some of them have made a really good living by providing extra value to customers. For example, we have several clients who thrive by bringing a suite of products to businesses other than just plain connectivity. But for the most part, the majority of the ISP industry sells dumb pipes today. They compete with the speed of those pipes and with price and with good customer service – but the primary products (and the driver of most of the profits) are now data pipes.

The big companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast looked at that future and it scared them. It’s pretty obvious that if your only product is dumb pipes that your earnings are not going to continue to grow fast enough to satisfy Wall Street. This is probably what convinced Verizon to stop expanding their FiOS network. Both AT&T and Verizon got huge earnings boosts from expanding their cellular businesses, but that industry also seems to be heading towards the same plateau as landline ISPs – cell service is becoming a commodity.

So these big companies are now pursuing content because it looks to be the last area in our industry with the potential for significant bottom line growth. It’s going to be an interesting race to watch. Content providers have succeeded or failed over the years according to their ability to find smash hits. A huge hit movie or TV series can mean huge returns to the bottom line. But content providers that don’t create what the public wants to watch suffer badly in terms of stock prices and earnings. Being a content provider is not predictable in the same way as telecom.

Interestingly. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are now direct competitors of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. Content certainly is king, but content also brings the risk from competition. The companies that fall behind in this race are likely to be gobbled up by their more successful competitors. I find it extremely unlikely that all of these big companies will still be in existence in 10 years.

There is no real barrier to entry into the world of content creation other than having a pile of money. It’s likely that other big companies will join the content fray. But all of these companies are entering a world that is in big flux. For example, traditional video and web content might well be replaced by virtual and enhanced reality. The companies that succeed in content will have to spend a lot of money staying one step ahead of the competition, and my money is on the more nimble technology companies. Twenty years ago I would have been shocked to know that someday AT&T would have a CEO of Entertainment – and that may turn out to be the most important job in the corporation.

Amazon as an ISP?

Amazon EchoI mentioned in a blog last week that there is a rumor that Amazon is considering becoming an ISP. This information came from The Information, which says it got this by somebody inside Amazon management.

It’s an intriguing idea. Amazon has shown throughout its history that it loves to own its supply chain. If you recall, Amazon started out as a web reseller of books. But over time the company has built what must certainly be the largest and most efficient bricks and mortar fulfillment infrastructure in the world.

And the company hasn’t stopped there. The company has been building a fleet of semi-trailers used to haul its inventory, thus bypassing UPS and the Post Office. The company uses third-party tractors today but their goal is to build a fleet in anticipation of self-driving trucks within the coming decade. The company is also experimenting with drones, wheeled robots and other ways to bypass local delivery services.

The company has done the same with its successful data center business. They have built massive data centers and assembled a dark-fiber network to connect them together and to connect to major customers. And it is that fiber network that could create the backbone of an ISP network.

You have to think that Amazon learned a lesson from Google Fiber’s foray into FTTP, and so it seems unlikely that they would leap into a massive infrastructure build in that same mold. The article says Amazon might consider using the open access networks in Europe as a way to avoid building fiber. But they don’t have to go the whole way to Europe to try this. For example, just across the mountains from Seattle are a number of Public Utility Districts (county-wide municipal electric companies) that have built open access fiber networks that pass over 100,000 homes – an easy way for Amazon to test the ISP idea.

And around the country are a number of other open access networks. All of the municipal networks in states like Colorado, Utah and Virginia are required by law to be open access. We have the example of Huntsville, AL that built a FTTP network for Google that will become open access after a few years. There are numerous communities around the country that would gladly build fiber networks if they were guaranteed to get companies like Amazon and Google as major ISP tenants. It’s been my experience that almost no city wants to be an ISP unless it has no other option – but there are many who want fiber badly and would welcome Amazon with open arms.

I would think that Amazon will also keep their eye on the developments with wireless last mile. There might come a time when they might be able to leap into the ISP business with a reasonable cost per customer – at least in selected markets.

Amazon would be an interesting ISP. It was just a few years ago that it was clear that an ISP needed a traditional cable TV product to be successful. Google tried to launch without cable TV in Kansas City and hit a brick wall in selling to residential customers. But the tide is turning and I’m not sure that TV is mandatory any longer.

Amazon already has an impressive content platform with Amazon Prime and they have said that they are going to spend billions to create their own content, following the lead of Netflix. It’s also becoming clear that customers are becoming willing to accept an abbreviated line-up of popular cable channels like what’s being sold by Sling TV and other OTT providers. Amazon could be competitive with an abbreviated cable line-up made up of local programming, popular cable channels and its own content.

But Amazon has some advantages that other ISPs don’t have. For now Amazon is leading the pack in the intelligent personal assistant market with its Amazon Echo. I’ve had an Echo for about six months and I already can tell that it is improving. The company is working towards introducing cloud-based AI to the platform and within a few years the Alexa assistant should become a true computer assistant like has been envisioned for decades in science fiction.

My gut tells me that bundles which focus on smart computer services like Alexa will soon be more popular than the traditional triple-play bundles from Comcast and AT&T. Amazon has one huge advantage as a start-up ISP in that customers like using them – something they have fostered by delivering packages regularly on time to a huge percentage of households in the country. They are at the opposite end of the customer service scale from Comcast and the other big ISPs.

I have no idea if this rumor is true. But the idea is so intriguing that I hope Amazon is considering it. One of the major complaints about broadband in this country is the lack of competition and choice. Companies like Amazon can bring fresh competitive bundles that break away from the traditional triple play and that can redefine the ISP of the future.

Update: This rumor persisted and in February 2017 I posted an update about this rumor.

Who Will Win the Telecom Battle?

facebookNow that Google has pulled back with expansion of Google Fiber it’s easy to see that the cable companies and telcos think they have won the broadband war. But I think if you look a little closer this might not really be the case.

Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are still focused on making sure that people have enough bandwidth to take advantage of the many products these giant companies offer or plan to offer in the future. And all three companies are growing in importance as content providers.

Consider first the strength of these companies as content providers. Google owns YouTube which is becoming the most important video destination for the younger generation – and those kids are growing up. We’ve seen young millennial households largely reject traditional cable TV offerings. While Amazon Prime is not nearly as big as Netflix it is a strong second and is continuing to grow. Amazon is also reported to be pouring big money into producing original content for its platform. Facebook is on a trajectory to become the preferred source of news and information. And their Facebook Live is also quickly becoming a huge content platform.

But content isn’t everything. Consider that these companies have amassed an enormous private fiber network. Google doesn’t talk about it’s network, but way back in 2013 it was reported that Google had assembled a network consisting of 100,000 miles of dark fiber. We also don’t know the size of the networks, but both Amazon and Facebook have also built large private networks. We know that Google and Facebook have partnered to build a massive undersea fiber to China and are looking at other undersea fiber routes. Amazon has built a huge network to support its cloud services business. It would not be surprising if these companies have already together amassed a larger fiber network than the telcos and cable companies. If they are not bigger yet, they are on a trajectory to get there soon. With these networks the tech companies could hurt the big ISPs where it most hurts – by taking a huge bite out of their special access and transport businesses.

These companies are also not done with the ISP business. Google Fiber has retracted from expanding FTTH networks for now, but they acquired Webpass and are looking to expand as an ISP using wireless last mile. And we saw in Huntsville that Google is not afraid to use somebody else’s fiber network – something we have never seen any of the telcos or cable companies consider. It would not be surprising to see Google make deals with other private networks to expand its ISP business to avoid spending the upfront capital. But perhaps Google’s biggest foray into providing data services is Google Fi, their service that provides unlimited cellular data using WiFi first rather than cellular. It’s been rumored that Google is looking for partnerships to expand WiFi access in many markets. And it’s been reported that Amazon is strongly considering becoming an ISP. I’ve not heard any details about how they might do this, but the company has shown the ability to succeed in everything it’s tackled – so it’s an intriguing possibility.

It’s a gigantic task to take on companies like AT&T and Comcast head on. I think Google Fiber learned this the hard way. But at the end of the day content is still king. As these companies continue to grow in influence as content providers they present a real challenge to traditional programmers. But they also are a growing threat to the big ISPs. If these tech companies decide that their best strategy is to directly deliver their content to subscribers they have a big enough marketing position to pull along a huge number of customers. It’s clear that consumers like these tech companies far more than they like the big ISPs, and in the end the accumulated animus with customers might be their undoing.

This kind of industry shift won’t happen overnight. But it’s already quietly going on behind the scenes. We may not be as far away as you might imagine when these companies provide more content than the traditional programmers and also carry more bandwidth on their own networks than the big ISPs. From my perspective that looks a lot like winning the battle.

OTT is Not Easy on the Consumer

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVThis article compares the channel line-ups for Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue.  I think it provides the best demonstration I’ve seen yet of how confusing it’s going to be for consumers to choose an OTT option.

The process of choosing an OTT provider is only going to get harder in the future as additional OTT providers enter the market. In the coming year we are going to be seeing Google / YouTube with a similar on-line option. Hulu has announced that they will soon be launching a live-streaming alternative. There is a strong rumor that Amazon is considering an OTT option and has already announced they are pursuing live sports. And various articles I’ve read hint at a few more new OTT providers in 2017.

Comparing OTT channel line-ups is a lot more work than comparing the line-ups of your cable company vs. one of the satellite providers. While satellite providers aren’t required to maintain the same rigidly-defined line-ups as the cable companies, the two sets of line-ups are still reasonably comparable.

Cable company line-ups are defined by the FCC cable rules that require a basic and expanded basic line-up. Contracts between cable companies and programmers has led to uniformity and there are not major difference between cable companies. Cable companies are free to offer additional premium tiers and packages, but even those are largely the same between cable companies. The satellite providers know that their basic package is competing against the expanded basic line-up, so they include roughly the same channels in their 50 – 75 channel packages as the cable companies.

The OTT companies have a different set of challenges. The programmers are not required to sell them any content, and so the OTT companies must negotiate with each programmer individually. These have to be interesting negotiations because the OTT providers want to put together the skinniest bundles they can get while still offering what consumers want. They are then free to bundle channels in any way that the programmer contracts will allow. Since each OTT providers negotiates a unique arrangement with programmers there are going to be major differences between the line-ups from different OTT providers.

The programmers, however, either want to sell multiple channels or else they want a revenue stream that insures them of some decent profits. Programmers understand the math, which is that they are losing money for every customer that moves from traditional TV to a smaller OTT offering. This puts them into an awkward position. It’s obvious that the cord cutting phenomenon is gaining momentum. But if the programmers help to create really attractive OTT packages they are then helping to accelerate cord cutting for consumers.

As I’ve written before, many of the programmers are able to tolerate the growth of OTT since they are selling a lot more new content overseas than they are losing to cord cutting. Many of them acknowledge that there are cable channels that only exist because of the monopoly the handful of programmers have over the industry. They know that the cord cutting phenomenon is going to mean the death of less popular cable networks.

But back to consumers. You can see in the comparison in the link I posted above that between the first three major OTT providers it’s not easy to even visualize what you get in the various packages. The options between the three providers are significantly different, and all of these options have some glaring holes from programmers that have not yet allowed their content into these OTT bundles. It’s hard to imagine how complex this comparison is going to be with 3 – 6 more options by the end of 2017. I think a lot of consumers are going to come to web sites like this and be intimidated by the choices and will delay cutting the cord.

It’s likely that over time the various OTT providers will find niches in the market. Certainly if they all end up with the identical sets of channels there won’t be a lot of difference between them. But I would expect the ones that will be successful in the long-run will find a demographic niche that will give them an advantage. But for now their line-ups are a messy hodgepodge since they are cobbling together line-ups from the channels that they are able to acquire. This is going to make for a number of confusing products for the first few years of this new industry until they all figure it out.

Amazon as an ISP?

amazon_logo_rgbThere is an article on The Information that says that Amazon is considering becoming an ISP. They cite an unattributed insider at Amazon who says that the company has been discussing this. Officially the company denies the rumor, which is consistent with the way that Amazon has always operated.

It’s an interesting concept, but I honestly have a hard time seeing it. Amazon has been growing in Europe and it could make a little sense there. There are a number of cities on the continent as well as a few national ISP networks that allow open access to any ISP. On those networks Amazon could easily develop an ISP product. They already have massive data centers and it wouldn’t cost all that much to add the ISP functions.

But I just don’t see any big benefits to Amazon for doing this in the open access model. Due to price competition there are not a lot of profit for ISPs on the open access networks. But maybe Amazon can have some edge from somehow bundling ISP access with its Amazon Prime video and music. But every ISP already carries Amazon’s content today and unless bundling somehow sells a lot more Prime subscriptions it’s hard to see this as a big win.

I also can’t see any sense of Amazon being an ISP in the US. There are no open access networks to speak of outside a tiny handful of small municipal networks. One only has to look at Google’s foray into broadband in the US to see that it’s really hard to make money by building broadband infrastructure – at least the kind of money that excites stockholders. There are decent long-term infrastructure returns from building and operating a fiber network well, but those returns are miniscule compared to the returns on tech ventures.

I still don’t fully understand why Google got into the broadband business. In the fiber business they are investing a lot of money that is going to make relatively small returns compared to the rest of their core business. Google’s stock value comes from the company making high technology returns and infrastructure returns can’t do anything better than pull down their overall return. I can’t imagine how it will be any less so for Amazon.

Perhaps Amazon is intrigued by the idea of gigabit wireless connections.  But I think everybody looking at this new technology is going to figure out that millimeter wave spectrum technology is still going to require a lot of fiber in the urban network.

And even if Amazon is comfortable with the lower returns, they still have to deal with network neutrality. It would seem that the best advantage to Amazon from being an ISP would be to somehow bundle their content and broadband connections together – something that is not allowed in the US, and only barely allowed in Europe.

The biggest problem we have with getting real broadband in the country is that big money is chasing big returns. There was a time in our past where there were a lot of conservative investors who were very happy having part of their portfolio invested in safe and steady telephone, electric and water companies because they knew that they would receive secure dividends forever in these safe investments.

But it seems today that investors look at all of the instant tech billionaires and they don’t want to pour money into the basics any more. To compound the problem the big telcos and cable companies invest no more than absolutely necessary in capital to meet basic customer expectations. But big company networks are not nearly as good as they should be. You can’t watch a quarterly presentation of one of these big companies without hearing them talk about how they have plans to curtail capital spending.

So is Amazon really going to become an ISP? They certainly have access to the cash if they really want to. But it’s just hard to believe that they want to shift the company to be more brick and mortar company since they have fought hard to not be that. I just can’t see enough benefits to a publicly traded tech company to be an ISP.

New Video Format

alliance-for-open-mediaSix major tech companies have joined together to create a new video format. Google, Amazon, Cisco, Microsoft, Netflix, and Mozilla have combined to create a new group called the Alliance for Open Media.

The goal of this group is create a video format that is optimized for the web. Current video formats were created before there was wide-spread video using web browsers on a host of different devices.

The Alliance has listed several goals for the new format:

Open Source Current video codecs are proprietary, making it impossible to tweak them for a given application.

Optimized for the Web One of the most important features of the web is that there is no guarantee that all of the bits of a given transmission will arrive at the same time. This is the cause of many of the glitches one gets when trying to watch live video on the web. A web-optimized video codec will be allowed to plow forward with less than complete data. In most cases a small amount of missing bits won’t be noticeable to the eye, unlike the fits and starts that often come today when the video playback is delayed waiting for packets.

Scalable to any Device and any Bandwidth One of the problems with existing codecs is that they are not flexible. For example, consider a time when you wanted to watch something in HD but didn’t have enough bandwidth. The only option today is to fall back the whole way to an SD transmission, at a far lower quality. But in between these two standards is a wide range of possible options where a smart codec could analyze the bandwidth available and could then maximize the transmission by choosing different options among the many variables within a codec. This means you could produce ‘almost HD’ rather than defaulting to something of much poorer in quality.

Optimized for Computational Footprint and Hardware. This means that the manufacturers of devices would be able to maximize the codec specifically for their devices. All smartphones or all tablets or all of any device are not the same and manufacturers would be able to choose a video format that maximizes the video display for each of their devices.

Capable of Consistent, High-quality, Real-time Video Real-time video is a far greater challenge than streaming video. Video content is not uniform in quality and characteristics and there is thus a major difference in the quality between watching two different video streams on the same device. A flexible video codec could standardize quality much in the same way that a sound system can level out differences in listener volume between different audio streams.

Flexible for Both Commercial and Non-commercial Content A significant percentage of videos watched today are user-generated and not from commercial sources. It’s just as important to maximize the quality of Vine videos as it is for showing commercial shows from Netflix.

There is no guarantee that this group can achieve all of these goals immediately, because that’s a pretty tall task. But the power of these various firms combined certainly is promising. The potential for a new video codec that meets all of these goals is enormous. It would improve the quality of web videos on all devices. I know that personally, quality matters and this is why I tend to watch videos from sources like Netflix and Amazon Prime. By definition streamed video can be of much higher and more consistent quality than real-time video. But I’ve noticed that my daughter has a far lower standard of quality than I do and watches videos from a wide variety of sources. Improving web video, regardless of the source, will be a major breakthrough and will make watching video on the web enjoyable to a far larger percentage of users.

Should the FCC Regulate OTT Video?

FCC_New_LogoA funny thing happened on the way to make it easier for OTT video providers to get content. Some of the biggest potential providers of online content like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft have told the FCC that they don’t think that online video companies ought to be regulated as cable companies.

Of course, these couple of large companies don’t represent everybody who is interested in providing online video, and so they are just another faction to deal with for the issue. For example, FilmOn X recently got a court order allowing them to buy video as a regulated video provider and in the past Aereo had asked for the same thing.

A lot of the issue boils down to companies that want to put local networks online or else deliver them in some non-traditional way as was being done by FilmOnX or Aereo. These kind of providers are seeking to get the ability to force the local network stations to negotiate local retransmission agreements with them. Under current law the stations are not required to do so and are, in fact, refusing to do so.

The FCC is in a tough spot here because they don’t have a full quiver of tools at their disposal. The FCC’s hands are very much tied by the various sets of cable laws that have been passed by Congress over the years – the rules that define who is and is not a cable company, and more importantly, the rules and obligations of being a cable company. It will be interesting to see how much the FCC thinks it can stretch those rules to fit the situation of online programming, which was never anticipated in the rules.

I can certainly understand why the large companies mentioned above don’t want to be cable companies, because there are pages and pages of rules about what that means; the FCC is unlikely to be able to grant a company just a few of those rules without also requiring ones that these companies don’t want.

For example, the current cable law defines required tiers of service. Cable companies must have at least a basic and an expanded basic tier, and those are very narrowly defined. A basic tier includes all of the ‘must-carry’ local networks and the expanded basic carries all of the things we think of as cable channels.

I think what the FCC has in mind is a set of rules that require programmers to negotiate in good faith with online companies that want to buy their content. Certainly any company that wants to put content online today is completely at the mercy of programmers saying yes or no to giving them the content they want to carry. And there is nothing from stopping the programmers from changing their mind if they see an OTT company being more successful than they like.

So I would think that even Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft would like the ability to force the programmers to negotiate with them, but they obviously don’t want other FCC rules that they think will come along with that ability. Of course, these are very large companies with deep pockets and one has to imagine that they get a fairly decent hearing when they talk to programmers. The FCC’s real concern is not these giant companies, but companies smaller than them who don’t have any ability to force the programmers to even talk to them. I think the FCC believes that if online content is to be successful that there ought to be widespread competition and innovation online, not just content provided by a few giant tech companies along with other huge companies like Verizon.

Today the programmers have most of the power in the industry. They are making a huge amount of money from the mega-subscription models where all of their content is forced upon US cable companies. And they have no reason to become more reasonable because most of them are seeing gigantic growth in selling content overseas, so they have no real reason to upset the cart in the US market.

If online content is to become a vibrant alternative and not just be expensive packages foisted on the public by a small group of huge corporations, then something has to change. I just don’t know how much the FCC can do realistically considering how they are hamstrung by the current cable laws.

A Few Lessons from Big Companies

Text-messageI spend a lot of time reading about corporations and I think there are some lessons to learn from them that are relevant to small companies.

Selling Product versus Building Relationships. There are many  large companies that sell products without developing relationships with their customers. In our industry the large cable and telcos come to mind. They are all rated among the worst of all corporations in delivering customer service and they even antagonize many of their customers. This works fine for them until they get competition, and then the customers who don’t like them quickly jump ship to the new competitor.

But there are large businesses that go out of their way to build customer relationships because they believe that loyal customers are their most important asset. Consider car manufacturers. They realized a long time ago that they were not going to be good at customer service, so they created a network of dealers who are local businesses with ties in each community and these dealers have built trust over generations. And there are many other companies that deliver great customer service. Tech firms like Amazon, Apple, and Google have been consistently rated among the top ten in customer satisfaction for the last few years – showing that tech firms can put an emphasis on customers and still thrive.

My most successful clients build relationships with their customers and as a result have built a loyal customer base. Many of them are or were monopolies, and there was a time when most of my clients could not tell me who their ten largest customers were. But I rarely see that today and small telcos and cable companies have learned to build loyalty through building relationships.

Growing Fast versus Growing Deliberately. Many large companies need to grow fast to be successful. Once you have taken venture capital money or gone public then the pressure is on to grow profits quickly. But growing too fast almost always changes a company in negative ways. It’s really common to see companies go into the growth mode and then forget who they are. Most tech companies, for example, started with a small core of people who worked hard as a team to develop the core company. But when it’s time to grow, and companies hire mountains of new people it’s nearly impossible to maintain the original culture that made the company a great place to work.

Growth can be just as hard for small companies. It can be as hard economically and culturally for a small company to grow from 5,000 to 10,000 customers as it is for a large company to add millions. Small companies are often unprepared for the extra work involved with growth and find that they overwork and overstress their staff during a growth cycle. Growth creates a dilemma for small companies. If you hire the people needed to staff the growth period your company will be overstaffed when growth stops.

And so a lesson about growth can be learned from large companies. They will often staff growth through temporary employees, contractors, and consultants rather than take on people that they may not need later. Companies of any size are hesitant about hiring employees that they might not need a year from now.

High-Tech versus High-Touch. A lot of large businesses are trying to feign a good customer service experience by electronically ‘touching’ their customers often. I recall last year when Comcast introduced a texting system to communicate with customers. After they sent me half a dozen text messages in the same week, I disconnected the texting function because I really didn’t want to hear from them that often. But there are large companies who are convinced that if they electronically reach out to customers often that they are engaging in relationship building and proactive customer service.

And perhaps they are with some customers. But I am more appreciative of a business where I can talk to a person when it’s needed. Not that I mind electronic communications. I like to know that AT&T has auto-billed me and I like knowing when charges hit my credit cards. But I don’t want to be bothered by a business when they aren’t passing on information I want or need.

The important point here is that you have to touch your customers sometime and whether you reach out electronically or in person it’s better than no-touch and not talking to your customers. I know telecom companies that call every customer at least once a year to ask them if they like the service and if everything is okay. Such calls are welcomed by most customers and this is a great tool for businesses to build relationships. But just be prepared that if you ask your customers how you are doing that you need to be ready to deal with negative feedback. That is how to build happy customers.

The Shift To Proprietary Hardware


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.

The Battle of the Routers

Cisco routerThere are several simultaneous forces tugging at companies like Cisco which make network routers. Cloud providers like Amazon and CloudFlare are successfully luring large businesses to move their IT functions from local routers to large data centers. Meanwhile, other companies like Facebook are pushing small cheap routers using open source software. But Cisco is fighting back with their push for fog computing which will place smaller function-specific routers near to the source of data at the edge.

Cloud Computing.

Companies like Amazon and CloudFlare have been very successful at luring companies to move their IT functions into the cloud. It’s incredibly expensive for small and medium companies to afford an IT staff or outsourced IT consultants, and the cloud is reducing both hardware and people costs for companies. CloudFlare alone last year announced that it was adding 5,000 new business customers per day to its cloud services.

There are several trends that are driving this shift to data centers. First, the cloud companies have been able to emulate with software what formerly took expensive routers at a customer’s location. This means that companies can get the same functions done for a fraction of the cost of doing IT functions in-house. The cloud companies are using simpler, cheaper routers that offer brute computing power which also are becoming more energy efficiency. For example, Amazon has designed all of the routers used in its data centers and doesn’t buy boxes from the traditional router manufacturers.

Businesses are also using this shift as an opportunity to unbundle from the traditional large software packages. Businesses historically have signed up for a suite of software from somebody like Microsoft or Oracle and would live with whatever those companies offered. But today there is a mountain of specialty software that outperforms the big software packages for specific functions like sales or accounting. Both the hardware and the new software are easier to use at the big data centers and companies no longer need to have staff or consultants who are Cisco certified to sit between users and the network.

Cheap Servers with Open Source Software.

Not every company wants to use the cloud and Cisco has new competition for businesses that want to keep local servers. Just during this last week both Facebook and HP announced that they are going to start marketing their cheaper routers to enterprise customers. Like most of the companies today with huge data centers, Facebook has developed its own hardware that is far cheaper than traditional routers. These cheaper routers are brute-force computers stripped of everything extraneous and that have all of their functionality defined by free open source software; customers are able to run any software they want. HP’s new router is an open source Linux-based router from their long-time partner Accton.

Cisco and the other router manufacturers today sell a bundled package of hardware and software and Facebook’s goal is to break the bundle. Traditional routers are not only more expensive than the new generation of equipment, but because of the bundle there is an ongoing ‘maintenance fee’ for keeping the router software current. This fee runs as much as 20% of the cost of the original hardware annually. Companies feel like they are paying for traditional routers over and over again, and to some extent they are.

These are the same kinds of fees that were common in the telecom industry historically with companies like Nortel and AT&T / Lucent. Those companies made far more money off of maintenance after the sale than they did from the original sales. But when hungry new competitors came along with a cheaper pricing model, the profits of those two companies collapsed over a few years and brought down the two largest companies in the telecom space.

Fog Computing.

Cisco is fighting back by pushing an idea called fog computing. This means having limited-function routers on the edge of the network to avoid having to ship all data to some remote cloud. The fog computing concept is that most of the data that will be collected by the Internet of Things will not necessarily need to be sent to a central depository for processing.

As an example, a factory might have dozens of industrial robots, and there will be monitors that constantly monitor them to spot troubles before they happen. The local fog computing routers would process a mountain of data over time, but would only communicate with a central hub when they sense some change in operations. With fog computing the local routers would process data for the one very specific purpose of spotting problems, which would save the factory-owner from paying for terabits of data transmission, while still getting the advantage of being connected to a cloud.

Fog computing also makes sense for applications that need instantaneous feedback, such as with an electric smart grid. When something starts going wrong in an electric grid, taking action immediately can save cascading failures, and microseconds can make a difference. Fog computing also makes sense for applications where the local device isn’t connected to the cloud 100% of the time, such as with a smart car or a monitor on a locomotive.

Leave it Cisco to find a whole new application for boxes in a market that is otherwise attacking the boxes they have historically built. Fog computing routers are mostly going to be smaller and cheaper than the historical Cisco products, but there is going to be a need for a whole lot of them when the IoT becomes pervasive.