The Future of Triple Play Providers

HK_KEN~1I am asked often about what I see coming in the future and anyone who reads this blog knows that I look into the future a lot, be that two years, five years or 100 years. One thing that I have thought about a lot is the future of the small triple-play carriers that make up the majority of my client base. What is there business going to look like ten or fifteen years from now?

I see two very contrasting choices and I think every small carrier that survives into that time is going to have to choose one of these two paths. I think the choices are between being a dumb-pipe provider or a full service provider, and I don’t think there is much room for success to stay at status quo and be somewhere in the middle.

I think by now that everybody understands that cable TV penetration rates are going to erode over time as more and more people eschew the high price of cable TV and opt out for programming on the web. And there is always the chance at some point where the migration away from traditional cable could become a flood if somebody can find a way to get enough programming to the web to make that an attractive alternative.

A lot of small carriers today offer the triple play in a fairly passive way. They market and try to sell their products somewhat, but in their footprint they have most of the customers and they don’t do a lot of hard selling. For instance, they don’t push upselling of existing products very hard. But as they lose cable customers and even more voice customers the way they have been doing business is not going to work any longer.

If a carrier elects to become a dumb-pipe provider (or maybe calling them a distribution provider sounds a little better), then they are going to make a living by bringing fast Internet pipes to their customers and they are going to let customers pick up most of their products over the Internet.

If you are a dumb-pipe provider you are going to increase the speeds of your Internet product enough to keep customers happy. You are going to have to charge a lot more for that Internet connection than you charge today. If you are a triple-play provider today you will probably keep some voice, and maybe even some cable customers years from now, but for the most part those will have gone away and the data pipe is going to be your only significant product. From an operational perspective you will have to cut your staff and overheads back to the bare bones needed to keep the pipes working. Your company will be a stripped down version of what you do today, but you can make a profit doing this.

The other alternative is going to be a full-service provider. That means you will replace telephone and cable revenues with a host of other products and services that your customers are going to want. I am always asked what the next big thing is that people can do to make money, and the unfortunate answer is that there is no one big thing. There are a whole host of new product lines that you might get into, but no one of them is going to be as big as your telephone or cable business you are trying to replace.

So you will offer a host of new products – things like security, home automation, energy management, medical monitoring, cloud service resale and device monitoring and maintenance. Every one of these product lines, and the dozens of other that might pop up over the next decade will be of interest to some of your customers. And by having a suite of products you will have something for everybody.

Being a full service provider is going to require you to operate very differently than today. These new product lines are going to need you to spend a lot of time in people’s homes doing things like connecting new devices to their home automation system, making sure their medical monitoring devices are working right, making sure all of their computer-like devices are properly accessing everything.

And there will be one other big change in the way small carriers operate. Today the typical small carrier handles every aspect of a product from beginning to end. If they are in the cable business they have a full cable headend. But in the future when you will need to be in many product lines you are instead going to partner with and buy a lot of these products from wholesalers. That is going to take a big shift in thinking.

Finally, you are going to have to be nimble. The products you sell are always going to be changing and you will need to keep up with those changes. You will not have the luxury you have today to leisurely analyze new business opportunities, but instead you will need to be able to implement new products on the fly. You will need a very well-oiled product implementation plan to make changes fast while keeping customers happy.

Customer Portal

I have talked in other blog posts how I believe that the successful residential service provider in the future is going to have a choice to make between being what I call a dumb pipe provider or a full service provider. And there are merits to both approaches.

But should you elect to take the service provider approach you will be selling many smaller and niche products to your customers instead of the handful of major products you sell today. It may be a decade until voice and cable TV become 100% commoditized, but every year there will be fewer and fewer customers buying those traditional products.

One of the tools that service providers are going to need for selling multiple services to customers is a customer portal. This is a website that allows customers to see a menu of what is available to them. Last week I wrote a blog entry about upselling your current products to your customers as a way to immediately affect bottom line and a well-designed portal is a great tool for enabling that process.

Here is what I envision as the perfect customer portal:

  • The ability for a customer to see what services they are already buying today.
  • An easy-to-use menu that shows what else is available, categorized to make it easy for a customer to browse your products.
  • Product descriptions that explain the benefits of each available product.
  • Ideally, a video or demo for more complex products showing how they works.
  • The ability to offer sales specials as a customer browses to entice them to try the product.
  • A tie-in to your provisioning system so that the customer can buy, or even just try the product as they shop.

There are a number of customer portals in the telecom world today and I have yet to see one that works in this ideal way. Just last week I went in and changed several things on my AT&T Wireless bill. I found a lower cost voice package and the portal let me easily change plans. But in doing to it deleted my text messaging plan and decided I desired to pay 25 cents per text message. That took a call to fix. And I wanted to delete a feature that gave me lower cost international calling and that also took a phone call to fix. There is nobody bigger than AT&T and they don’t have their portal figured out correctly. But what they did have was a lot better than nothing because it enabled me to familiarize myself with their various plans so I could decide what I wanted, without having to involve a person in that process. I was glad to have the portal, and I just wished I didn’t have to make two phone calls to finally complete what I wanted to change.

Some of the better portals I have seen are from the major cable companies. They often offer so many different programming packages that having them all explained on a portal is a great way for a customer to shop without tying up a customer service representative. But from what I can see, none of them yet give customers the ability to change products without talking to a live person before it is finished.

I think a lot of companies hesitate to build a portal because they don’t want to commit the resources needed to build the ideal one. But there is no reason to wait since even the largest carriers haven’t perfected the customer portal yet. There is nothing stopping you from starting your portal now to let your customers see the wide range of your existing products. Every one of my clients has a number of products that they barely sell. I believe that there are a lot more customers who would buy products like unified messaging if they understood what it could do for them and if they knew that you offered it. Think of building a portal as a way of communicating with your customers.

If you are going to start a portal or improve an existing one you should consider including some of the following functions:

  • Let customers check their bill on-line.
  • Let customers make a credit card or bank debit payment.
  • Let customers change product parameters like their Internet bandwidth.
  • Make it easy for customers to order Pay-per-view events.
  • Let’s customers place a tentative order even if that just prompts you to call them back.

So I recommend that you create a portal today that does some of these functions. There is probably not going to be some magic program available that is going to let you create the perfect customer portal all at once. Rather, this is likely to be an ongoing process. Because of that, do what you can for now, but do so in such a way that you are prepared to evolve your portal into a powerful tool for you and your customers.

Finally, I would note that there is an additional set of functions that are sometimes referred to as a customer portal. On smart switches you can build a web interface so that customers with advanced voice features can maintain the settings for those products. While this is certainly a portal function, this is more of an operational function and not a marketing function.

A Look into my Crystal Ball

Technology of the FutureI have spent quite a bit of time recently reading futurist books and articles that think about the most likely future. I’ve done this to the point where my wife asked me if I am unhappy with the present! After chuckling, I told her that I am happy now. But thinking about the future is a worthwhile effort when one is engaged in a technology-based industry. Everything I have read tells me that selling to residences is going to change a lot over the next few decades. And I believe that those who understand where the trends are taking us can begin preparing for that future today.

So what will the future residential customer want from a telecom company? Everything I have read tells me that traditional telephone service and cable TV service as we know it today will not be around. Voice will have become a total commodity. You will probably be able to put a phone in your house if you insist, but it will be an IP device and very few people will still have a traditional telephone.

Within twenty years voice will be a commodity for cellular service also and the cell phones we carry today will also be a thing of the past. There will be devices far smarter than our ‘smart’ phones. Many of these devices will be somehow integrated into our body and will be far more sophisticated than the first generation of Google glass. I am not enough of a futurist to predict the specific technology that will win the battle, but we will not be carrying around a device whose primary purpose is to talk to people.

Cable TV is headed down the same path and there will no longer be a subscription to hundreds of channels for a high price. Video will be available ubiquitously on any device you want to watch it on. People will subscribe to the programming they want and will not pay for what they don’t want.

But people will still want bandwidth at their homes – lots of bandwidth. As we move towards the Internet of Everything, where multitudes of devices will include cheap chips and will be networked together to make our lives easier, the average house will want a lot of bandwidth.

And there will be two kinds of bandwidth providers – dumb pipe providers and service providers. There are already dumb pipe providers today. I live in the country and I get my Internet access through a wireless link from a nearby tower. And that wireless link is all that my ISP sells. They don’t offer any other services over that link and I doubt I would buy them if they did. I have my smart phone to give me everything else.

Many of today’s networks will morph over time to become dumb pipe providers. They will raise the price of bandwidth until it is high enough to compensate them for their network. They will have much smaller staffs than today who will be needed just to install and maintain the network.

But there will be another kind of provider that I call a full-service provider. They will also deliver a bandwidth pipe to the house, but they will also provide a host of services. And mostly these services are going to look like a future version of today’s Geek Squad. These companies will send technicians into people’s houses to help them make everything work together. When there is an Internet of everything it is going to get complicated. People who are not very technological are going to want lots of help to customize the many options to get just what they want. And so when a technicians visits he might be asked to help a customer get a medical monitor working right, find some programming they had trouble locating, fiddle with the controls for the lighting, and put a different personality on the home AI. The service-oriented provider will build customer loyalty and will be perceived as something very different from the dumb pipe provider.

There is a lesson today from envisioning this future. Far too many service providers today sell products that they treat as commodities, and once they sell them they rarely talk to their customers unless there is a problem. Technology has already gotten complicated for the average household and I think there is already a market for sending technicians into homes to make things work together better. I have clients who do this and they say that changing to a service model is the best change they ever made. They generally sell something new every time a technician visits somebody’s home. But the vast majority of the telecom companies I know look a lot more like the dumb pipe provider. They may sell telephone and cable TV on their data pipes, but what are they going to be left with when those products turn into a commodities and then disappear into the cloud?

“Dumb Pipe” versus Full-Service Provider

Broadband and cable TV companies have been looking at their long-term strategy and they are going to have to decide if they are going to be what we at CCG call either a “dumb pipe” provider or a full-service provider.

A “dumb pipe” provider is a broadband company that sells a very fast Internet connection as its primary product and not much of anything else. A perfect example of this is what Google is doing in Kansas City. Google is selling a 1 Gbps Internet connection there for $70 per month. That is far more speed than is possible from the competition, but it is also more expensive. The only other product available from Google is one cable TV package that is bundled with the data for $120. Google only offers one other data package for low-income homes. Google doesn’t offer different size cable packages. They don’t offer voice. They don’t offer security, or cloud services or any of the panoply of new services that can be provided over fiber.

In my opinion Google has looked into the future and they believe that most of the other services that they could be selling will be available to customers over the very fast Internet connection that Google is selling them. One of the primary advantages to Google of the dumb pipe strategy is that they have a very simple product mix to sell. Fewer products means less staff needed to market, sell, provision and support customers.

The downside to the dumb pipe provider is that they will have a much lower average revenue per user (ARPU) than the full service provider. But both types of providers have a very similar cost of the network. And this is at the heart of the discussion that many of my clients are having about the long-term trends in the industry.

Most providers in the industry today are full-service providers. They support the full residential triple-play, have multiple options for cable TV, have multiple options for voice. They also sell a wide range of other products and their marketing strategy is aimed at getting the highest ARPU from customers they can.

But the full-service providers are worried when they look at some of the trends in the industry. They have already seen a lot of voice customers drop off the network. They are starting to see cable customers leave the network and they look ten years down the road and see a very different cable market. And so full-service providers are faced with figuring out how to go from where they are today to where they think they must be in the future.

I am starting to see evidence of the shift in the strategy of full-service providers. In the last year I have seen data prices being increased all over the country for the first time. And this is not because the cost of providing data is growing, because the margins on data have grown steadily each year over the last decade and are still growing. I think the service  providers have embarked on a long-term upward shift in data prices so that they will be getting more revenue from the one product that is likely to survive into the future.

The companies with the biggest dilemma are these just entering the market for the first time. Do they make the leap straight to being a dumb pipe provider, like Google, or do they become a full-service provider and enjoy the remaining years of high ARPU before voice and cable TV losses pull those numbers downward? It is a hard decision and a conversation I am now having with every new service provider.