See You in Austin

BBC%20Summit%202014pink_woDATE%20-%20regonline-HDerrel Duplechin of CCG and I will be in Austin this week at the Broadband Communities Summit. We will be putting on a seminar on Wednesday afternoon on the topic of Revenues Beyond the Triple Play. If you happen to be coming to the convention we’d love to see you at the session, or look us up.

I feel lucky to have gotten this topic to discuss. If you have been reading this blog you know that we at CCG feel strongly that every triple play provider should be putting energy into developing new products. The revenues we derive from voice are continuing to decline and cable TV is headed down the same path. The time to react to this eventual train wreck is now, while you still have the margins from those products, and not wait until your cash is squeezed.

Every triple play carrier is going to face a pretty simple choice at some time in the near future – either retract your company and become an ISP and sell nothing more than fast data pipes to your customers, or else start implementing new products to replace the sinking triple play products. If you choose to become a dumb pipe provider your future is really simple. You’ll need to strip out employees and systems and become a pure ISP and do nothing but provide the fastest pipe you can create.

If you elect to remain as a full-service provider you have a much more challenging task. No one or two or even three products is going to replace the revenues and margins you have been getting from voice and cable. Rather than have a few products that most of your customers buy, you are going to need a lot of products that only have a 5% to 10% penetration. There are no more big magic bullets. I offered to help one company look at their future was told that they would pay to have me come see them if I could tell them what the next big product is. That is exactly the wrong question to ask because there isn’t going to be one. The small carrier industry has frankly gotten a bit spoiled in that we had products that were relatively easy to sell. But those days are over and we are going to have to do what many other businesses do and scramble for every customer and every dime we can make

Both choices I have laid out are probably valid ones, and both are very different than what we do today. For instance, if you choose to be nothing more than an ISP you are going to have to dismantle most of your company and staff to stay profitable.  It can be done. and if you want a model of what that looks like look at the many WISPs in the marketplace today.

But if you choose the full service provider route what will you sell? There are a number of potential products you can sell today and many more coming in the future. Today you can consider products like security, energy management, home automation, wireless MVNO, IP Centrex and OTT Video. You can also do what we call crossing the threshold, meaning that you make a product out of having your technicians do whatever businesses need in the telecom and computer space. We know companies doing each of these products and they can all be moderately successful.

There are also a lot of interesting things coming. Home automation is the very first step of getting into the Internet of Things. This is going to quickly grow into areas like medical monitoring, crop monitoring, flock and herd monitoring. And mostly the things that are coming we haven’t thought of yet as carrier products.

The biggest challenge of transitioning to many new products is to figure out a way to be efficient with new product development. You can no longer take a year or two to put together a new product. You have to roll them out quickly and learn how to sell them efficiently. You will have to do this in-house or collaborate with other carriers. If you can figure this out you will probably thrive and survive. But if you don’t do anything and stay blindly on today’s path, at some point you will no longer be viable and will fail. Our industry has never faced such a divergent set of options and this is both a scary time and an exciting time to be in the business.

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.

How Much Bandwidth Can a Cable TV System Deliver?

Cut showing the composition of a coaxial cable.

Cut showing the composition of a coaxial cable. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a number of techniques that are available for a traditional cable TV network to upgrade the bandwidth on the network available for customer data. If you are operating or competing against a cable TV system you should recognize that there are a number of upgrades that can when combined can drastically improve data speeds. Each of these upgrades comes at a cost, but you can’t discount the technical capabilities of an HFC network if data delivery becomes the primary goal of the network.

  1. Increase System Bandwidth. An example of this kind of upgrade is when a system is upgraded from 750 MHz to 1,000 MHz (or 1 GHz). This upgrade provides more bandwidth by widening the frequencies that are available on the coax. A system bandwidth can be a major upgrade and can involve replacing all of the power taps in the system, and in some systems even requires replacing the coaxial cable.
  1. Reducing Node Size. A node in an HFC system is a neighborhood of homes and/or businesses that share the same bandwidth. Typically there is fiber built to a node and then coax cable from the node to each customer. Historically, before cable modems, nodes were large, often at 1,000 homes or more. But many cable companies have deployed more fiber and reduced node sizes and some cable companies now have nodes in the 200 customer range. Making smaller nodes creates smaller pools of shared bandwidth, meaning there is more bandwidth available to customers at peak times.
  1. MPEG4 Compression. A lot of cable systems still use a compression technique known as MPEG2. This technology is used to compress the digital channels on a network today so that up to ten digital channels will fit into one 6 MHz analog slot. But with MPEG4 as many as 20 digital channels can fit into the same 6 MHz slot. The biggest issue with this conversion is that older set-top boxes won’t recognize MPEG4.
  1. Deploy DOCSIS 3.0. DOCSIS 3.0 is a bandwidth management technology that allows a cable modem to use a larger window of RF frequency for data. The way this works is that a cable system can ‘bond’ multiple channel slots together to that the cable modems can use more than one 6 MHz channel slow for data.
  1. Migrate Analog Channels to Digital. A cable provider can gain some bandwidth space by migrating analog channels to an existing digital line-up. There are often contractual requirements with programmers that make this difficult to achieve. However, as mentioned above, as many as 20 digital channels can fit in the same sized slot as an analog channel. There are always customer issues to also consider since this kind of conversion will shrink the analog offering and expand the digital tiers.
  1. Full Digital Conversion. In a full digital conversion all channels are converted to digital. Once completed, every customer needs a set-top box or other device in order to decode and view channels. There is now a device called a Digital Television Adapter (DTA) that is less costly than a set-top box that can support a customer remote. It is possible to send the ‘basic’ channels through the network un-encoded so that customers with a digital QAM tuner in their TV will be able to see these channels without a DTA.
  1. Deploy Data QOS. This technique does not increase system bandwidth, but rather allows the cable provider to sell faster data to some customers by allowing those customers to use a frequency allocation that is only used by these faster data customers. For example, Comcast advertises 100 Mbps service in most large cities, and they would deliver that kind of speed by giving the 100 Mbps customer priority over other customers in the node by having those customers send their data over a lesser-used frequency on the COAX. Of course, as the priority customer gets more bandwidth, everybody else in the node gets degraded service, and if too many premium services are sold then even the priority customer can’t get the promised bandwidth. But this technique does allow the cable company to selectively compete against fiber for selected customers willing to pay for the extra speed.
  1. Convert to IPTV. This conversion would allow a cable system to use more of the RF frequency on the network for bandwidth. On an IPTV system the programming, voice and cable modem service are all sent over shared bandwidth. An IPTV conversion does not automatically gain a lot of extra bandwidth and any savings come from the fact that the company does not have to broadcast all channels to all nodes all of the time, but rather can just those channels that somebody in the node is watching. There is a benefit, but it is not as large as the extra bandwidth gained by other strategies.
  1. Higher Spectral Efficiency. This technique involves converting to DOCSIS 3.1 and also changing the system modulation techniques. The traditional modulation technique is called QAM (Quadature Amplitude Modulation) and uses a 6 MHz frequency allocation.  The new technique is ODFM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) which uses a higher QAM modulation.  Where Current DOCSIS capabilities achieve approximately 6.3 bits per Hertz, DOCSIS 3.1 can achieve 10 bits per Hertz. New modulation techniques can create much larger bandwidth slots and can at the same time increase the bits to Hz efficiency of the frequency being used. In effect, this technology turns the cable system into a DSL system, with the difference being that there is more frequency available on a coaxial cable than is available on a telephone copper cable, but that a CATV node is then shared by multiple subscribers.

As can be seen, a cable company has a lot of options to increase bandwidth. So, how much bandwidth can be delivered? There are a lot of cable networks that have been upgraded through step 7 above. These systems can support some selected customers up to 100 Mbps download. But these systems probably only support 30 Mbps for all subscribers if the nodes are small enough. A system that is upgraded through step 8 can probably deliver 50 – 60 Mbps to most customers with selected customers being able to get much faster speeds. But a full upgrade to through step nine would allow a cable system to match the overall bandwidth delivered by a fiber PON system, although it is then shared with a lot more customers.

These upgrades are expensive. But if you are competing against a cable company, don’t assume that they are incapable of delivering very decent internet speeds if they are willing to make enough investment in their network.

If you have questions or want to discuss this further call Derrel Duplechin at CCG at (337) 654-7490.