Friday, October 21, 2005

Wireless Carriers Are Getting on the IMS Bandwagon

Lucent’s IMS recent win at Cingular and Sprint Nextel’s announcement that they will be deploying IMS and working with Avaya for enterprise VoIP integration is an indication that they are clearly moving into the business voice market. It appears that their first stage is to provide the middleware and infrastructure to blend services on the wireless side. Existing wireline services will be integrated though gateways. The next step is to move into delivering services completely over IP right into businesses. Then they can displace incumbent carriers. Look for those announcements early next year once they become comfortable with their IMS software deployments. Sprint is the most aggressive since their wireline business is small compared to the other carriers with RBOC ownership. They have more to gain by displacing the RBOC. The question is whether one of these wireless carriers will purchase Vonage in the mean time. Stay tuned….

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?

At least I don’t feel alone out there anymore.  People have been reading my blog. Jeff Pulver even contributed a comment so I gave him a link.  Thanks Jeff.

What do I want to be when I grow up?  A service provider (i.e. carrier) or content provider.  That is an easy question to answer:  a content provider.  While Verizon, SBC, and other carriers go to court and argue in the press about keeping their networks closed, it is the people selling the content over these networks that are growing their revenue streams by leaps and bounds.  The economics are simple enough for my 6th grader.  The cost per bit is decreasing faster than the bit rate of the pipe into the home or business.  That means that carrier revenues are decreasing for bit delivery.  Sure there is money to be made in providing bigger and higher quality pipes, but there is even more money to be made selling or distributing content.  

As a consumer, I spend more money purchasing content than I do for the pipe.  My Comcast pipe costs me about $45 per month.  Assume that $5 is for content that they directly provide like NHL games and some audio programs as well as their web hosting.  Vonage gets the largest share per month at $27.  Next comes iTunes at $10, then Real Networks at $6.  I may make other various impulse purchases like albums or movies that add another $25 per month.  When Netflix goes U.S. Postaless add another $16 per month.  There is $89 for content versus $40 for the pipe.  It’s a telling tale.

Owning the pipe gives the carrier the ability to deliver a consistent user experience to deliver content.  It is a differentiator that can be used to attract and retain customers.  As we figure out more ways to pipe bits into the house, the less important the pipe provider becomes.  Is there a difference to the viewer between a movie on-demand or downloaded from Netflix to a DVR over the Internet?  Maybe, because the DVR responds quicker to the remote control.  Technological innovations will find ways around bottlenecks.  

Smart carriers will focus on delivering content to their customers like movies, TV programming, audio programs, music, games, interactive voice (a.k.a. phone) and video, and many other services we have yet to develop.  The real question will be whether the content provider will sell services direct or through distribution.  Apple will wrestle with that question very soon.  The record companies see the success of iTunes and want a bigger piece of the pie.  Jobs wants to keep the prices low to drive the volume and sell more iPods.  Traditionally the record companies rely on indirect channels like Sam Goody or Wal~Mart to sell their products.  iTunes is just another channel from that point of view unless the record companies feel that they can set up their own Internet store fronts and sell direct;  thereby, making more profit.  It is the Cheap Revolution coming into play.

Should BMG or Sony attempt to go direct, why not the TV networks or movie studios?  ABC affiliates are already up-in-arms over Disney/ABC providing content to Apple for the video iPod.  If content providers go direct to consumers, then we will face the battle of the pipe.  Carriers will begin to restrict what runs over their networks so they can attempt to sell as much content as possible and the cost of the pipe will increase.  The last step is legal and regulatory battles like we are seeing with VoIP.

I prefer the distribution model.  Content providers can focus on delivering the best content that they can produce.  This is especially important to the music industry which is producing some of the lowest quality content.  Distributors can focus on bundling and delivering the content to the user.  By keeping each end of the supply chain focused on their core business, they can maximize their revenues and profits.  The corollary is that consumers win as well because they will have a greater choice of content and ways to receive this content.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Sport of Blogging

I started this endeavor because I thought that my thoughts on the telecom industry were of interest to the industry and often unique. We are an industry of great technical innovation but often lacking in business innovation. Most of the great business innovations in our industry come from industry outsiders that disrupt the status quo. Amazon is a case in point. Jeff Bezos was in finance before starting Amazon. Adam Curry, a disk jockey, is leading the podcasting revolution which will alter broadcasting as we now know it. Our technological innovation enables disruptive businesses to be created, but industry veterans prefer a more evolutionary approach. Christensen proves to us again that disrupters are often outsiders.

Skype is more of a phenomenon and not a disruptive business concept. Skype’s developers realized that they could not turn it into a profitable business so the sold it to eBay. Vonage is using disruptive technology to enable Rich Karlgaard’s Cheap Revolution, but it is questionable whether it is a disruptive business. If they were to merge with a wireless company to overtake business voice service, then they will be disruptive.

What does all this have to do with the title of the article? Nothing. The previous two paragraphs are epilogs to my Vonage articles. I really intended to write about the challenge of having your blog recognized by the public. To date, I have had about 20 unique visitors and I don’t even know if they were interested in my topics. I put META tags in the blog to get search engines and Technorati to recognize me. I registered the URL with Google, and I have been commenting on articles in Light Reading,, Jeff Pulver’s Blog, and other places. Hopefully I will start to show up in search engines. It would be nice to get some links on other sites as well. Maybe Jeff will be kind enough to include me with the other VoIP blogs he tracks. In the mean time, I’ll keep writing and trying to learn the tricks of being recognized by the cyberworld.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sprint Should Purchase Vonage (Part II)

My Reliable Motorola VT1000 ATA (first generation).  It doesn’t seem to have the problems plaguing the newer Linksys/Cicso products.During my diversion on Comcast’s IP-TV experiment, Light Reading outted offers and potential suitors for Vonage. BellSouth was mentioned as a potential buyer, but are they the ideal buyer? For Vonage any buyer that pays the most is probably the ideal buyer.

Over the last year, Vonage has focused on building a good POTS replacement service. They pushed the E-911 issue making the FCC become involved. Most of the RBOC were dragging their feet with the exception of Qwest that was working with Vonage to offer fair E-911 access. Most remarkably they expanded their footprint into the U.K. and Canada as well as picking up over 1 million subscribers through an aggressive advertising campaign. There is no question that Vonage is the leader in residential VoIP service. Subscriber growth has boosted not only their top-line but also their bottom-line. They are clearly on the road to profitability which makes them poised for an IPO or acquisition.

Vonage has left feature innovation to other VoIP startups like SunRocket and VoicePulse much to the disappointment of this author. Their R&D budget is dedicated on E-911 service roll-out and market expansion. Forget features like subscriber name for called party, calling party name in voice-mail e-mail messages, ACR, and distinctive ringing. Features like IM integration with presence and PC active call management are out of the question. As a subscriber, I am disappointed that I probably will not see any significant new features this year. As someone in the industry, I completely resonate with their chosen business direction.

EBay’s $2.6 billion purchase of Skype has to have Citron and company salivating at the possibilities of a sale. A sale would be the best exit strategy because I do not see a pure-play VoIP provider surviving in the future unless they had a very creative and innovative expansion plan. The most logical purchasers of Vonage would be an ILEC or MSO. BellSouth makes sense as does Qwest with their struggling OneFlex service. Qwest makes more sense because they have a nation wide presence and network. BellSouth would have to rely on Sprint’s MPLS network for out-of-territory service; thereby, reducing profitability. A MSO like Comcast would have a ready-made VoIP service. Most customers are running Vonage over cable modems so the transition by the customer would be negligible. These are the most obvious suitors for Vonage. What we are missing are the dark horses that can really shake up how we perceive voice service.

For years, wireline carriers have been seeing their wired voice minutes decrease while wireless voice minutes increase. Verizon and SBC have recognized this trend and doubled-down with increased investments in their wireless properties. Sprint has also recognized that their growth is in their wireless business. In the last year, the U.S. wireless carriers’ strategy has been to offer more entertainment services to increase ARPU. There is no question that ring-tones have been a rousing success but watching TV on a postage stamp screen at 10 fps will not cut it. Why aren’t they looking more at the business customer to drive their revenue?

Sprint gets it. They purchased Nextel to get a better footing in businesses. Why not purchase Vonage? More businesses are relying on wireless services for their employees. How many times have you called a colleague’s office phone and not been shuffled off to voice-mail? Calling their cell phone results in reaching the contact more often. That is why the cell phone is quickly replacing the office phone. Mix that with Blackberry for mobile e-mail and you have most of your office on the run. Businesses with a mobile workforce are spending as much on mobile services than wired services. That is why today’s wireless carriers are perfectly poised to take over business voice services.

The distinction between wired and wireless is an artificial one in my view. IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) is the fabric that can sew together business voice, and even data, services. Today, businesses provide their mobile workers with a desk phone, mobile phone, and one or two computers. Some even give Blackberry’s and other PDA type devices. The capital and operational expenses are large when you factor in all of the back-office software and support required. With IMS, employees can be issued one mobile phone that rings in their office or on the road integrating with the corporate data network. Wireless carriers are poised to offer businesses a complete voice solution for all of their employees. One handset is all that is necessary. Mobile workers can be given a tri-mode phone supporting VoWi-Fi, CDMA/GSM, and AMPS. Stationary workers can be issued a VoIP desk set. Next add on value added services to increase carrier revenue.

Wireline carriers are seeing VoIP erode their traditional business by commoditizing voice service. They are getting into VoIP as a survival strategy. The wireless carriers should get into VoIP as an expansion strategy which makes Vonage a hot property. They can offer businesses seamless voice and data services which is something that most wireline carriers cannot. Sprint and Verizon are the most logical suitors in my opinion. They have wireline and wireless nationwide networks with business and residential subscribers. T-Mobile is also a contender since they are increasing their investment in the U.S and have a nationwide Wi-Fi network. They can offer a complete residential subscriber package through their retail outlets and expand into business voice service.

Where are the wireless carrier suitors? Purchasing Vonage would be a great way for T-Mobile to gain equal footing with Verizon. For Sprint it would be a way for them to realize value in their wireline network. Verizon and SBC could use it to continue their national domination, if only they could get out of their wireline mentality. Seidenberg should let Strigl take the reigns and run with them. The more that the wireless carriers focus on delivering a service instead of the pipe the more that they will grow. Viewed in this light, Vonage is worth much more than Skype.

For the next article, I will continue on with the theme that service delivery is more important than the pipe. As long as U.S. carriers continue to focus on the pipe, we will continue to languish in broadband penetration.

Friday, October 14, 2005

IPTV Works! Comcast Comes Through

Last night, just in the nick of time, Comcast came through and fixed the problem I was having with viewing live NHL games.  I was able to watch the Rangers decimate the Devils with about the same quality as on a regular TV.  All of my escalated trouble tickets were returned no trouble found (NTF).  I didn’t change anything on my end.  So what happened?  My best guess is that they had some setting problems with their multicast reflectors that they figured out and changed.  The end result is that I can now view live NHL games in a 640x480 pixel window streaming at 678 kbit/s.  The quality is pretty good as long as I don’t start doing any network intensive activities on my network.  I can start and stop the stream reliably.

After some rough starts, it seems that their IPTV experiment is working.  Their IP network has not come crashing down, but they are only providing one streaming channel.  IP multicast helps off-load the burden of millions of users hitting the server simultaneously.  Let’s take it to the next step and offer a few different channels.  That will be the real test.  

I have yet to hear how many people are watching the hockey games, but I can imagine that the number is in the several tens of thousands.  Hopefully they will add the other content that they promised soon so we can see how the web can enhance TV viewing.  Maybe the next step is adding their OnDemand programming to HSI subscribers.  With a 6 Mbit/s pipe into the home, we can expect to see more IPTV from Comcast.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Comcast's IPTV Experiment

Comcast’s IPTV Experiment

Comcast announced on October 4th the availability of live NHL games for their 7.7 million Internet service subscribers.  For hockey starved fans this is a great way to watch games that they would normally not see or have to pay extra through the NHL game package.  The press release states that 300 games will be shown throughout the season including the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Also, Comcast plans to provide archived games, clips, and a hockey community on the web site.  All users need is Windows Media Player 9 or later and Internet Explorer 6.

At first blush this event seems like a nice extra benefit for Comcast Internet subscribers, but it is really Comcast’s trial attempt at IPTV.  They are using the same technology that telcos, such as SBC, are using in their IPTV trials.  The video streams will be encoded using Windows Media 9 with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and sent over their HFC network.  The customer will use similar software on their PC as will be embedded in newer set-top boxes.  The head-end will utilize media servers with the WMP CODECs.  The only thing that will be different is that the NHL streams are being delivered over a DOCSIS connection.  

Comcast has built a small test-bed to trial the delivery of broadcast TV over IP.  NHL programming is available to a little over a third of their TV subscribership.  They can test the scalability of IPTV without the risk of an expensive trial.  Comcast can test the strength of DRM without exposing a large quantity of material.  In addition to a technology trial, it is also a marketing trial to build an interactive community around the programming.  If it works they can claim that they have successfully executed the largest IPTV trial to date.  If it fails, they have some great ammunition against their RBOC competitors who are dependent on IP to deliver video programming.  They have nothing to loose really.

How is it working so far?  I wish I knew.  I have not been able to access any of the programming since it started on October 5th.  I have the latest version of everything necessary to play the streams.  I have no problem playing other streaming Windows Media content from the Comcast or other web sites (Light Reading).  I have only been able to reach Comcast’s contract technical support in Canada which cannot verify that the streams are even working or if they are over subscribed.  Their national support team in Denver is equipped to verify if they can access the stream, but I have not been able to reach them during a game.  I’ll try again tonight.  At this point, I am under the impression that their servers cannot handle the subscriber load.

What about the other content?  I thought that I could at least try to view an archived game to see how it worked.  The archived content is no where to be found on the web site.  A call to customer service yielded the response that more content will be posted by the end of the month.  Forget about clips of the game highlights or previews and the fantasy hockey league.  By the time they are posted, the season will be well under way.  

A cynic would think that Comcast is trying to show that IPTV will not scale to support a large quantity of users.  That would certainly be a shot across the bow to all of the telcos and associated equipment vendors.  Think of the billions of dollars invested in bringing IPTV to market.  Comcast does not need IPTV to be successful.  They have a 1 GHz broadband plant with digitization underway that will buy them a tremendous quantity of channels.  On the other hand, the telcos have no alternative but rely on IPTV.  Their narrowband/wideband plant can only handle a couple channels at a time.  Their triple-play depends on video to add a new revenue stream.  MSO will add telephony services without a significant impact to the loading of their plant.

So what is really happing here?  Chances are that it is just a poorly executed trial and by the end of the month all 7.7 million Comcast High-Speed Internet users can access live NHL games and all of the rest of the content advertised.  Success with the NHL games will allow Comcast to demonstrate that IPTV works so they can deliver content to any household media device alleviating the need to network DVR and Media Center PCs.  Once again it is all about who will own the customer.    

One day later, I still cannot watch games, and technical support has been little help.  I polled others in different Comcast markets and they indicate that they are having similar problems.  Hmmmmmm, does it scale?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

My Beginnings with Vonage (Part I)

My Beginnings with Vonage (Part I)

I have been a customer and evangelist of Vonage for over two years.  While living in the San Diego area, I had two POTS lines:  one with AT&T and the other with SBC that was required for my DSL.  I used the AT&T for residential calls and outgoing long distance.  The SBC line was used for faxes and incoming business calls only.  I was paying at least $75 per month for both lines just for POTS and a few CLASS features.  In a fit of fiscal conservancy and to be on the bleeding-edge, I decided to see if Vonage could replace my primary line.

The sign-up was easy and a few days later my first ATA arrived.  Excited, I quickly hooked it up to my cordless phone, and few minutes later, I was making calls.  I loved it.  I could control all of my features through a web interface plus see all call activity almost instantaneously.  Not more than a day later, submitted the form to have my primary phone number transferred to my Vonage line.  Three weeks later my AT&T residential service was terminated and we were using Vonage for everything.  My POTS bill was a consistent $27 per month plus another $16 for the required SBC line.  My next step was to connect the ATA to my home wiring so my family could use the service with any phone.  Since there was no QoS on my DSL, I threw bandwidth at the problem.  The DSL service was upgraded to the next tier for $5 per month to get 256 kbit/s upstream.  The service worked fine except for the occasional echo, garbled speech, and constant clicking.

In January 2004, we moved to Boulder and ran the service over Comcast’s High-Speed Internet.  We were able to keep the same San Diego phone number and get a new local number.  The transition for our friends and family was minimal.  What we noticed was a marked increase in the voice quality on Comcast’s network.  I had plenty of upstream bandwidth and there was no 200:1 oversubscribed DSLAM to block my packets.  I was elated.  We moved from hotel, to condominium, to our home without any service interruption.  A few months in our new home, I put a UPS on the cable modem, router, ATA, and office phone.  Now we have at least 8 hours battery backup on our service.  Due to the unreliable nature of Xcel Energy’s service, I have been able to test our backup power on several occasions.

Vonage has been a great replacement for traditional POTS.  I have had almost no problems with the service since moving into our home, and the voice quality has steadily improved.  I attribute this fact to Comcast’s Internet service and improvements at Vonage.  They have introduced two new features in 2005:  7-digit dialing and Click2Call.  Click2Call is a handy little program (developed by a Vonage customer) that runs on a PC enabling users to call from their contacts in Outlook or by cutting-and-pasting a number in a dialog box.  It could use SIP to do it instead it sends a HTTP message to a Vonage server.  Dialing 911 gets me to my PSAP without any ANI or location information.  I should have complete E-911 capabilities sometime in November.

Now that VoIP is maturing, I would expect Vonage to start releasing more features to keep up with the 1,100 other competitors out there.  I would also expect little bug fixes like calling name being sent to the called party and the calling party name in the subject header for e-mailed voice mail messages.  Nothing.  Everyday I am enticed by Microsoft and some partner’s announcement of presence integration with a VoIP service; IM integration with VoIP; VoIP peering with Skype and other providers; thoughts of voice over Wi-Fi; and new features like anonymous call rejection; distinctive ringing; PC call announcement/selectivity; and incoming ANI name replacement.  Other VoIP providers are offering these features.  Why not Vonage the market leader and innovator?

That question will be the topic of tomorrow’s blog and the point of this discussion.  I didn’t intend to go on and on about my experience with Vonage, but I was on a roll.  Next week  I will get to the point and discuss their transition from offering a great new service to a POTS replacement and how it plays into their business strategy.  Hopefully I can get it out before any more of my predictions, like being sold to BellSouth, are out in the press.

Getting Starting

Everyone is blogging these days. People with opinions, people without opinions, people that should keep their opinions to themselves, CEO and other C-levels to the engineers getting the work done. Why shouldn’t I? Even though I have enough going on, why not take on another task? Since Google is good enough to provide this opportunity for free, I may as well take advantage of it. The only thing I have to lose is my time. You have guessed by now that I am going to focus on telecommunications industry issues. I'll tackle everything from emerging services like VoIP and IPTV to how the U.S. can once again lead the world in communications. Since my experience is with the development and marketing of telecom products, I'll discuss what is lacking in how we (the industry) market products and services. Feel free to post comments on my musings. I don't mind criticism and accolades when due. Future Topics:
  • Vonage Who?
  • Decoupling Services from the Pipe: It’s the Content, Stupid!
  • The Wireless Companies Could be Poised to Win the Business Market