Death of the Smartphone?

Over the last few weeks I have seen several articles predicting the end of the smartphone. Those claims are a bit exaggerated since the authors admit that smartphones will probably be around for at least a few decades. But they make some valid points which demonstrate how quickly technologies come into and out of our lives these days.

The Apple iPhone was first sold in the summer of 2007. While there were phones with smart capabilities before that, most credit the iPhone release with the real birth of the smartphone industry. Since that time the smartphone technology has swept the entire world.

As a technology the smartphone is mature, which is what you would expect from a ten-year old technology. While phones might still get more powerful and faster, the design for smartphones is largely set and now each new generation touts new and improved features that most of us don’t use or care about. The discussion of new phones now centers around minor tweaks like curved screens and better cameras.

Almost the same ten-year path happened to other electronics like the laptop and the tablet. Once any technology reaches maturity it starts to become commoditized. I saw this week that a new company named Onyx Connect is introducing a $30 smartphone into Africa where it joins a similarly inexpensive line of phones from several Chinese manufacturers. These phones are as powerful as US phones of just a few years ago.

This spells trouble for Apple and Samsung, which both benefit tremendously by introducing a new phone every year. People are now hanging onto phones much longer, and soon there ought to be scads of reasonably-priced alternatives to the premier phones from these two companies.

The primary reason that the end of the smartphone is predicted is that we are starting to have alternatives. In the home the smart assistants like Amazon Echo are showing that it’s far easier to talk to a device rather than work through menus of apps. Anybody who has used a smartphone to control a thermostat or a burglar alarm quickly appreciates the ability to make the changes by talking to Alexa or Siri rather than fumbling through apps and worrying about passwords and such.

The same thing is quickly happening in cars and when your home and car are networked together using the same personal assistant the need to use a smartphone while driving gets entirely eliminated. The same thing will be happening in the office and soon that will mean there is a great alternative to the smartphone in the home, the car and the office – the places where most people spend the majority of their time. That’s going to cut back on reliance of the smart phone and drastically reduce the number of people who want to rush to buy a new expensive smartphone.

There are those predicting that some sort of wearable like glasses might offer another good alternative for some people. There are newer version of smartglasses like the $129 Snap Spectacles that are less obtrusive than the first generation Google Glass. Smartglasses still need to overcome the societal barrier where people are not comfortable being around somebody who can record everything that is said and done. But perhaps the younger generations will not find this to be as much of a barrier. There are also other potential kinds of wearables from smartwatches to smart clothes that could take over the non-video functions of the smartphone.

Like with any technology that is as widespread as smartphones today there will be people who stick with their smartphone for decades to come. I saw a guy on a plane last week with an early generation iPod, which was noticeable because I hadn’t seen one in a few years. But I think that most people will be glad to slip into a world without a smartphone if that’s made easy enough. Already today I ask Alexa to call people and I can do it all through any device such as my desktop without even having a smartphone in my office. And as somebody who mislays my phone a few times every day, I know that I won’t miss having to use a smartphone in the home or car.

Will the Real 4G Please Stand Up?

English: 4G LTE single mode modem by Samsung, ...

English: 4G LTE single mode modem by Samsung, operating in the first commercial 4G network by Telia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all aware of grade inflation where teachers give out more high grades than are deserved. But US cellular marketers have been doing the same thing to customers and have inflated the performance of their data products by calling every new development the next generation. Earlier this year the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) approved the final standards for 4G cellular data. One of the features of the final standard is that a 4G network must be able to deliver at least 100 Mbps of data to a phone in a moving vehicle and up to 1 Gbps to a stationary phone.

Meanwhile in the US we have had cellular networks marketed as 4G for several years. In the US the earliest deployments of 3G networks happened just after 2001. That technology was built to a standard that had to deliver at least 200 kbps of data, which was more than enough when we were using our flip phones to check sports scores.

But since then there have been a number of incremental improvements in the 3G technology. Improvements like switching to 64-QAM modulation and multi-carrier technologies improved 3G speeds. By 2008 3G networks were pretty reliably delivering speeds up to 3 Mbps download using these kinds of improvement. Around the rest of the world this generation of 3G improvements was generally referred to as 3.5G. But in the US the marketers started calling this 4G. It certainly was a lot faster than the original 3G, but it is still based on the 3G standard and is not close to the 4G standard.

And since then there has been other big improvements in 3G using LTE and HSPA. For example, LTE is an all-packet technology and this allows it to send voice traffic over the data network, gaining efficiency by not having to switch between voice and data. One of the biggest improvements was the introduction of MIMO (multiple input multiple output). This allows LTE to use different frequencies to send and receive data, saving it from switching back and forth between those functions as well.

For a while Wi-max looked like a third competitor to LTE, but it’s pretty obvious now in the US that LTE has won the platform battle. All of the major carriers have deployed significant amounts of LTE and most of them say these deployments will be done by the end of this year in metropolitan markets. Speeds on LTE are certainly much faster than earlier speeds using 3.5G technology. But this is still not 4G and around the rest of the world this technology is being referred to as 3.9G or Pre-4G.

But to date there are very few phones that have been deployed that use the LTE network to its fullest. There have been a few handsets, like the HTC Thunderbolt that have been designed to use the available LTE speeds. And Verizon says it will roll out smartphones in 2014 that will only work on the LTE network.

There is a big trade-off in handsets between power consumption and the ability to switch between multiple cellular technologies. A typical cell phone today needs to be able to work on 3G networks, 3.5G networks and several variations of the latest networks including the different flavors of LTE as well as the HSPA+ used by T-Mobile. So, interestingly, the most popular phones like the iPhone and the Galaxy S4 will work on LTE, but don’t come close to achieving the full speeds available with LTE. And of course, nobody tells this to customers.

Starting in September in South Korea will be a new deployment of another incremental improvement in cellular data speeds using a technology called LTE-A (LTE Advanced). This is achieving data speeds of about twice those achieved on the current US LTE deployments. This is achieved by layering in a technology called carrier aggregation (CA) that links together two different spectrums into one data path.

And the US carriers have talked about deploying the LTE-A technology starting sometime in 2014. No doubt when this is deployed in the US some marketer is going to call it 5G. And yet, it is still not up to the 4G standard. Maybe this is now 3.95G. Probably by the time somebody actually deploys a real 4G phone in the US it is going to have to be called 8G.

What is Behind the Aereo Controversy?

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

The Aereo ruling on April 1 certainly has the cable industry in an uproar. In that ruling a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that Aereo’s wireless streams to customers are not a ‘public performance’ and thus do not constitute copyright infringement. On Friday Glenn Britt, the CEO of Time Warner, said that his company was considering pulling the broadcast networks off of his cable TV systems and sending them to customers over a radio in the same way that is being done by Aereo. And recently, in response to the Aereo ruling the broadcast networks threatened to pull all of their content off the air and move their programming to cable TV. So what is up with Aereo, and can these companies do what they have threatened?

Aereo has an interesting product that seems to have found a market niche, at least in New York City where it is now operating. Aereo sets up a radio link to each customer and sends them a 28 channel packagethat includes the major networks, some other low-cost networks and some spanish and asian-language channels. Aereo can be installed on any Windows or Mac computer and can then be streamed to iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad or Apple TV. It can also be made to work with a Roku box. And one would imagine it will soon be made to work with other pads and tablets. The service also lets a consumer record some programming for later playback. The pricing is cheap compared to cable TV with a $1 per day plan, monthly or annual plans, including a monthly plan for $8 that lets a customer watch everything live plus record and play back 20 hours of programming per month.

Why does this controversy even exist? Can’t people just receive the broadcast networks over the air? On June 12, 2009 all full-power analog television transmissions ended and starting with that date the full-power television stations, which include all of the major networks like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox could only broadcast in digital. Customer now need a Digital Television Adapter (DTA) to receive the signals and any home that is near to a station can receive it for free. But it is not easy for the average consumer to get these signals from the TV to mobile devices, and Aereo’s real marketing niche is providing signals to computers, iPhones and iPads.

Why are Time Warner and the cable companies so stirred up over Aereo? Aereo seems to have found the niche of people who want to watch mainstream programming without being tethered to their TV. If Aereo was limited to New York City this probably wouldn’t be a huge deal, but they have announced that the service is coming to 22 other major markets in 2013.

As is the case with all big business controversies it all comes down to money. In the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act, Congress required that all cable operators obtain the permission from broadcasters before carrying their signals on their cable systems. For a while this permission was granted for free, but in recent years the broadcasters have asked for significant fees and it is not unusual to see each local broadcast network charging $1 or more per customer per month for retransmission consent. So a cable system now has to pay that much each for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, and in some markets multiple stations of some of these. This has driven large increases in cable rates and is now a point of huge contention between broadcasters and the cable companies.

The broadcasters are angry that Aereo is able to bypass their fees since retransmission fees currently make up as much as 10% of their revenue. And the cable companies are angry that Aereo has gotten out of paying the same fees that they must pay. And they are worried that Aereo will accelerate the trend of customers who are ditching traditional cable TV in favor of programming from the web and elsewhere, the trend referred to as the cord-cutters.

Can Time Warner really do the same thing that Aereo is doing? Certainly Time Warner or anybody could form a company that does the same thing as Aereo and compete with them. Such a company could sell the same sort of line-up and do it using radios like Aereo has done. But they first must recognize that it’s important that Aereo is using radios because this is what allows them to not be a cable TV company, which is defined as somebody who delivers cable content using cables. So Time Warner would have to use radios also. And Time Warner is still hoping that the Supreme Court will look at the issue so it’s not entirely certain that Aereo, or anybody, has the legal last word that this is okay.

So Time Warner could establish an Aereo-clone company and do exactly what Aereo is doing. But they could not do this as an alternative to putting the network channels onto their cable system. In the aforementioned 1992 Cable Act, Congress set forth the rules for cable systems to carry broadcast channels, referred to as the must-carry rules. Congress said that a cable system with 12 or fewer channels must carry at least three local broadcast channels. Larger cable systems must carry all local broadcast channels, up to a maximum of 1/3 of their system. This means that Time Warner could not pull the local broadcast networks off of their cable and deliver it in a different way. But Time Warner could probably sell an Aereo-like product to somebody if that is the only product they sell to that customer.

Finally, can the broadcast networks pull their signals off the air and move them to be cable only? I can’t think of any reason why not. At that point they would no longer be a broadcaster and they would avoid all of the FCC rules applicable to over-the-air broadcasters. But if they do this they would become like any other cable network, and so ABC would be treated the same as HBO or TBS or any other cable network. It is likely that such a change would infuriate Congress since around 15% of the people in cities still receive free TV over the air. There would certainly be political repercussions from a broadcast network deciding to become just another cable network. For instance, might they lose their ability to carry professional football?

At the bottom of this controversy are huge dollars and also the underlying fear of the cable industry that Aereo is one more factor that is accelerating the bypass of their systems. It seems like Aereo might be in a similar position to MCI back when they broke the long distance monopoly. Aereo has stuck a sharp stick in the eyes of both the cable companies and the broadcasters and there is one hell of an interesting fight yet to come.

HD Voice

A spectrogram (0-5000 Hz) of the sentence &quo...

A spectrogram (0-5000 Hz) of the sentence “it’s all Greek to me” spoken by a female voice (Image:en-us-it’s_all_Greek_to_me.ogg). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HD voice (or wideband audio) is a technology that delivers the full frequency range of the human voice.  Traditional telephony has delivered a narrowband voice transmission and only transmitted sounds between 300 Hz and 3.4 kHz. However, the human voice extends between 80 Hz and 14 kHz, so traditional telephone has chopped off parts of every voice transmission.

The range of frequency was curtailed for traditional telephony based upon the limited bandwidth available for transmitting voice calls over a twisted copper pair. But voice that is sent over an IP path does not have those limitations and can send the full range of the human voice.

There has been an industry standard for wideband voice since 1987. However, until recently the only uses of the standard were in high-end video conferencing systems and for transmitting sports announcers back to the home station for rebroadcast.

But the industry is starting to use the HD voice protocol for calls made over VoIP. For example, Skype and some other PC-to-PC voice providers use the full HD voice bandwidth and the higher quality of the call can be experienced by a caller using a high-quality headset or handset. These same calls don’t sound better when listened to on a standard phone due to limitations in the speakers. There are also a number of vendors offering wideband telephones such as Avaya, Cisco, Grandstream, Gigaset, Polycom and others. These sets are capable of both sending and receiving a wideband voice signal, but the phones at both ends must be wideband capable to engage in an HD quality call.

So what are the business opportunities with HD Voice? Businesses are interested in having high-quality calls, particularly in conference rooms, noisy areas and other places where the quality can make a difference. The business opportunity is to make the phones available to businesses that are served with IP voice paths. HD Voice can then be sold as an add-on feature or as a more expensive voice line. A company that wants the higher quality calling is a great candidate for moving off of traditional TDM services onto VoIP, IP Centrex or other IP voice solution.

What Do Households Want?

The telecom industry has spent decades bringing residential customers the products we think they want. This has resulted in the ubiquitous triple-play bundle of telephone, data and cable TV. But one has to only spend a little time with a Millenial to know that customers are no longer satisfied with what we have been selling them. While many customers are still buying the traditional products, more and more people are actively looking for alternatives.

And alternatives are showing up. I have one client who has been serving over 20,000 cable TV customers for many years. But for the last year they have been steadily losing 200 customers each month and it doesn’t take a lot of math to see that in a decade they won’t have any cable customers left.

So I am advising clients to start looking at delivering products that people want today and into the future. To help figure out what those products might be, I think you have to start by understanding what customers want today.  I offer the following list of I have made a list of what I think households want today from their telecom provider:

The ability to use multiple devices shared across multiple networks. Customers want to a variety of devices to access the web. They want to seamlessly move from desk top to cell phone to pad to TV to game box. Customers want to be able to move back and forth between the cellular and home WiFi network for voice. Anyone who can facilitate this ability will have an edge.

Faster download and upload speeds. Households want to ability to operate multiple devices at the same time. This requires faster speeds and in some cases QOS.

Mobility. Customers want mobility in both directions, both into and out of the house. They want to be able to start a phone conversation on a cell phone and seamlessly transfer it to a landline when they get home or to the office. They want to be able to access data and do work at home or wherever they are.

Choice of video. Customers want the option to buy only the video they want to watch. And they want to watch it on multiple devices.  

Security and alarm services. Many households want reliable alarm services. They also want to easily operate cameras they can watch remotely.

Integrated entertainment. Customers want to share entertainment content. They want to watch what they want in different rooms and on different devices. They want to be able to move seamlessly from TV to PC to pad to phone. 

Use of cloud-based services. As more and more data is stored in the cloud, customers want an easy way to access and manage the cloud.

The ability to make impulse purchases. Customers want to be able to buy a TV show, a movie, a song and then experience it immediately. People are shifting from buying large monthly subscriptions (cable TV packages) to buying entertainment in small doses.

Help making things work. Households are faced with a confusing array of possible technical solutions and they will value anybody who can make their video, computers, wireless networks and other devices work seamlessly together.