The End of Special Access?

Image representing EarthLink as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

For those not familiar with the term, special access refers to selling traditional data pipes on the TDM telecom networks. These are circuits like T1s and DS3s. While one might think the world had transitioned to ethernet circuits there are still huge numbers of these traditional circuits being sold in the world.

In many cases the traditional circuits, especially T1s are being sold because of lack of fiber in the distribution plant. TDS data circuits can still be delivered over copper in many cases and often are the only way for a business stuck on copper to get faster data speeds.

AT&T recently announced that they were going to do away with all of their long-term discounts on these traditional TDM circuits. Customers and other carriers have been used to buying these products with a significant discount for signing up for long periods of time. There have been discounts offered for agreements to buy for up to seven years. And these discounts have teeth since there are significant penalties for breaking the contracts. As of November 9 AT&T will not be signing any contracts with terms longer than three years.

AT&T says the reason they are doing away with the discounts is due to the fact that they are going to be discontinuing TDS special access by 2020. However, that rings untrue since somebody can still sign a 5-year or 7-year contract today and still have that contract finished on or before 2020.

Some of the competitors of AT&T filed a letter of complaint with the FCC this month complaining about the cessation of the term discounts. This included Sprint, tw telecom, CBeyond, EarthLink, Level3 and Megapath. These carriers say that eliminating the discounts is anticompetitive since they are the in direct competition with AT&T and they are the primary purchasers of special access circuits.

Sprint says that eliminating the term discounts will increase the prices they pay and ultimately affect what customers pay. They say that in the worst case examples that their costs will rise 24%.

If you have been following this blog I have reported that AT&T has been positioning itself to get out of the TDM business. They want to convert all data circuits to ethernet as part of their ‘Project VIP’ initiative. But they also want to get homes and small business off of copper and in many cases replace them with cell phones. The FCC has not given AT&T the permission to do this anywhere, yet they keep moving towards that goal.

The biggest problem I see with trying to eliminate TDM data circuits, particularly T1s, is that the customers who use them often are in parts of the network that don’t have fiber alternatives. It’s nice for AT&T to be able to talk about offering only ethernet, but in many cases this is going to result in customers losing what little data they are able to buy today.

There are still huge numbers of T1s that are used to support PBXs and small company WANs for functions like data back-up. It’s hard to picture what a customer will do if the copper goes away and they are expected to somehow perform those functions using cellular data – with data plans that are likely to be capped. We tend to think of a T1 these days as a small data pipe. But if you are using it for data backup, a T1 can transmit a lot of data during a month’s time.

The FCC is in the middle right now of looking at special access issues. They have issued a request for data from the industry that will hopefully help them understand the state of the current TDM data market. I think they are going to find that the market is still a lot larger than AT&T wants them to think.

The State of Cloud Services

cloud computing

cloud computing (Photo credit: kei51)

My clients ask me all of the time how they can make money at cloud services. The fact is, for small carriers, there are a few opportunities, but the industry still has a way to go to be ready for prime time for small carriers as a revenue opportunity.

I say this because my average client only has a handful of business customers who can really benefit from using cloud services, and so the small volume they might be able to sell to them does not look like a profitable product line.

What is available today?

First, there is a very robust market in providing data storage and back-up of data. But there is only money to be made in this from business customers because residential customers can get mountains of free web storage if they look around. It’s possible for a residential customer to easily store a terabit or more of data for free.

But businesses don’t want to, and probably should not use cheap or free web storage. There are already horror stories of web storage services that have shut down and that have left people without access to the data they have stored in the cloud. So a business needs to store their data where they know they will always have access to it. This probably means storing it with a vendor that has multiple data centers so that there is a duplicate backup copy of everything to avoid the issue of natural disaster.

And it’s not hard for a small carrier to get into this business themselves and to store some data in their own central office. And if their customers want a second back-up copy there are a number of reputable data centers around the country that are owned by other small carriers and that seem pretty secure and safe. There is even a little money to be made to be the middle man and in sending all of the data to somebody else for your customers.

The other thing that is widely available today as a cloud service is IP Centrex. There are a number of national companies that will sell this service to anybody that has a fast enough data connection.

But one of the catches to this service is that these nationwide sellers do not offer phone numbers everywhere. This means that when they go to sell in rural areas they probably do not have the ability to do number porting to let the customers keep their local numbers. This is a big deal for businesses. We have always assumed that the nationwide sellers work through some other nationwide CLEC to terminate traffic, and those CLECS, like a Level3 have gained the ability to do number portability in RBOC areas, but for the most part they do not have those agreements in place for the rural areas.

But number portability aside, it is possible for anybody to resell the IP Centrex services. If you are competing in a neighboring larger town you could offer these services in the cloud as a reseller of one of the nationwide carriers. The margins are not nearly as good as if you offered this on your own switch, but they are okay.

Finally, the real promise of cloud services is that it could offer the software a business uses everywhere on any device. These are huge advantages to large companies having this ability and many of them have migrated their software to the cloud. But they have done so with a lot of effort. Most companies operate a unique set of programs. While a business may use the standard nationwide software like Microsoft Office or Quickbooks, most companies also run a number of unique and homegrown programs. The real challenge for a company that wants to take its software to the cloud is not getting the big name software to the cloud – because most of that software now has the option of cloud licenses. The issue is in moving all of the home-grown and one-off software that a company uses. As I mentioned yesterday, many companies still operate some PCs with Windows XP. It’s not as automatic to move older legacy systems to the cloud as you would hope and it takes some effort and trial and error to get some things to work in a cloud environment.

And there is no profitable product out there yet for the small carrier who wants to offer cloud software to customers. There are bits and pieces, but no easy platform that just lets you sweep your business customers into the cloud. This is probably coming, but it is not here yet.

So in summary, other than data storage and IP Centrex, there are not a lot of viable, money-making ways for a small provider to make money yet on cloud services. But I think the day when you can is fast approaching. There are bits and pieces already available for offering cloud-based software and the options are growing all of the time.

Data Back-up

There is a tremendous amount of free on-line storage available today. Just last week Flickr began offering their customers a free terabyte of storage. There is also a thriving new industry of data centers that are offering deals for businesses to back up their data on-line for affordable prices. So you might suppose that there is not much of an opportunity to provide off-sight storage for your customers. As attractive as some of the on-line storage prices are they don’t shut you out of this business. I have a number of customers who are making money by providing storage for customers. So let’s look at how they are doing it.

First, you have to recognize that there is an ever-increasing need to back-up data, including from many businesses that would surprise you. There are a number of businesses that are now creating mountains of data. And with the impending creation of the Internet of Things the need for storage is going to continue to grow.

Storage is getting cheap and customers will certainly keep a copy of their data on site. But no storage device is foolproof and there is always the risk of storage device failure, fire, flood or other damage to local storage. So the smart business will also store their data somewhere off-site.

While there are many web-based companies that will store data, you will find that many customers would prefer to store their data with somebody they know and trust. When they send their data out into the cloud they really don’t know where it is going and what is being done with it. And there is always the chance that the company that stores their data will fold and the data will be lost someday.

So the number one sales pitch to make with data back-up is that your customer already knows and trusts you. You can show them your central office or headend if they want to see it. Data centers spend a lot of effort showing customer that their data is very secure, but the chances are that your existing central office is already secure enough for most customers. There is also less of a chance of data being hacked in your central office, simply because hackers aren’t looking at you as a target.

Another advantage of storing data locally is that the data is on-net between you and your customer. This means that you are going to be able to stream their data quickly to them in case of a recovery much faster than is going to happen over the open web. You have a direct connection to your customer, which is something nobody else can claim, and if large amounts of data are going to be exchanged this is a significant advantage. If the worst happens and they lose all of their local data, you can have them up and running again very quickly if you back up both their content and operating software.

There are a number of options on how to store data for your customers. First, you can just host a second version of the same servers they have at their business. This allows them to always have a mirror back-up of everything they are doing. Customers who want to do this are the best candidates for local storage because they are going to want to be able to occasionally visit the servers in your office. In this scenario it is typical for the customer to pay for the server.

But you can also get more efficient and put multiple customers into one large server or series of servers to save money on hardware and software at your end. In this case you can provide a mirror image of their own server, but to do so on a server that you share among multiple customers.

The last option is to store just their data and not their operating systems. Companies that generate a lot of data will often do this and will even store data at more than one location.

And you don’t necessarily have to do all of the sales for this business line, you can partner with local IT firms to jointly offer this product and let them do the sales for you.

One new way to sell local storage is to combine it with a security service. More and more homes and businesses are installing cameras. These cameras now can be reviewed remotely and a customer can check in back home on their cellphone. You can enhance this product by recording and storing the video images from the cameras which lets customers get a physical image of intruders or other anomalies at their home or business.

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.