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Friday, December 12, 2014

Net Neutrality does not lead to falling telecom capex

One of the main arguments given against Net Neutrality laws is that it might lead to a reduction to investment by telcos in their networks, as ISPs will be unable to generate sufficiently profitable revenues.

And indeed, as part of the recent US furore over neutrality AT&T has "paused" its investment in fibre deployment - although this is in advance of any ruling being made. 

But I suspect this is being done mostly for effect and as regulatory leverage, not because AT&T genuinely sees much difference in its chances of future revenue streams.

Earlier this year, I published a report examining the potential for "non-neutral" business models for mobile broadband. When I looked into the mechanics of 20 different approaches, from QoS-enabled "fast lanes" to sponsored data, to prioritised MVNOs, the outcomes were that (a) most concepts would likely fail for technical and commercial reasons anyway, and (b) the actual potential incremental revenues were minimal - quite possibly less than the extra costs of more-complex network infrastructure and software needed to enable such models.

Now I've done another bit of research, and had a look at what's happened in the two countries that have actually had "full" Net Neutrality laws for some time. In Chile, a law was passed in 2010.  The Netherlands voted for Neutrality in June 2011 and ratified it in May 2012. 

The interesting thing is that telco capex does not appear to have been reduced in these markets. Indeed, it appears to have risen.

The Chilean regulator, Subtel, publishes annual reports and presentations [eg see page 9 here] including aggregate capex for both fixed and mobile operators. Fixed-network capex has continued to grow since the law was introduced, reflecting expanding use of broadband. Mobile capex has been more volatile, reflecting 3G build-outs, and also in 2013 a change in accounting rules which reclassified handset subsidy from capex to marketing expenditure.

The Dutch regulator, ACM, does not appear to publish aggregate data on capex, so I've collated data from the published financials of the top telcos in that market - KPN, Vodafone, T-Mobile, UPC, Ziggo (since acquired by UPC) and Tele2. The results show continued growth in investment, since a [presumably recession-driven] low in 2010.

(Notes: I've excluded the LTE spectrum auction fees paid in 2013. Vodafone has its financial year ending in March, so I count capex against the previous year ie. FY2012/13 = 2012. I also converted £GBP to Euros at the prevailing average annual rate. Also, I didn't include Reggefiber for which I had incomplete data - 2010/11/12 capex was also rising - €186/291/381m respectively)

While it's quite possible that future Dutch network investment might fall as a result of telecoms market contraction and consolidation, I don't think it's possible to ascribe that to the Neutrality laws - rather, it reflects the general issues globally with a lack of new and compelling service offerings from telcos. Also, KPN's integration of Reggefiber is expected to result in a net fall in expenditure from the combined entity in coming years.

I'd also note that when I was at The Hague conference on Smart Cities recently, KPN highlighted how good its LTE network coverage was, including indoors. This doesn't imply a scaling-back of investment, or a decision that 4G is somehow made unprofitable by mandated neutral business models.

Taking all this together, it appears that there is currently no evidence that enacting Net Neutrality laws results in falling capex and investment. It is also wrong to attribute rising capex to the same laws - correlation is not the same as causation. Indeed, when one digs into the details of each market, other considerations such as network-sharing, changes in competitive structure, new generations of technology and myriad other changes seem to be behind the movements.

None of this should be surprising - there are no proven "non-neutral" business models, and even the ones that have been suggested are unlikely to "move the needle" in terms of revenues. While it is possible that the life of legacy telephony and SMS might be extended if operators are allowed to block VoIP or IM, most advanced markets have ruled out that type of extreme violation of neutrality.

Overall, the "net" outcome is that capex is "neutral" to Net Neutrality, based on the evidence visible so far. Where lobbyists suggest that regulatory changes in the US or Europe might lead to lower investment, this seems likely to be scaremongering and politicking, rather than a rational analysis of existing experience of Net Neutrality, or factors influencing future cashflows.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The quiet emergence of WebRTC/Telecom development shops

A subtle but growing theme I've picked up from my recent attendance at TADSummit and WebRTC World is the background growth in development and consulting shops that are addressing communications capabilities.

While a lot of the focus is on "developers", most observers and industry participants automatically think about either (a) in-house corporate software specialists and teams building private enterprise apps, or (b) web and mobile-app developers creating their own products.

However, I'm increasingly noticing the presence of 3rd-party outsourced developers, creating comms-enabled applications or services, on behalf of other companies that lack in-house skills and resources. Among those that have cropped up recently are Blacc Spot Media, &Yet, Daitan and Mera.

I see this tier of companies - some specifically dedicated to WebRTC or telecom APIs, some just new specialisations of larger development firms - as an important part of the "glue" between product vendors/telco-APIs and their customers, whether the latter are enterprises, telcos or standalone web and line-of-business software providers.

This builds on a theme I spotted last year, about ecosystems and partnerships, where companies like Quobis provide a valuable role helping vendors with go-to-market support, if they lack their own customisation or integration teams. Quobis also has its own WebRTC-related products as well as offering services, as does Priologic.(&Yet has its own video-chat platform Talky.io, but that's more of a showcase, rather than a monetised product).

A similar trend is occurring in the Telecom API and platform space, where there is a significant gap between telcos' in-house teams focused on service exposure, and their ultimate target audiences who might actually use those new capabilities. Although some telcos run developer programmes, there is still an issue that the firms who could benefit the most (for example an insurance company or taxi firm) often don't actually employ the appropriately-skilled developers to understand and exploit them.

The idea of outsourced development is, of course, not new in the tech industry - there are countless web-development shops and IT consultancies, while niches such as contact centres have their own specialists as well. However, it is relatively new to see general communications-centric outsourcers, and I view that as a positive sign. 

It is also going to be important to extend the new class of "embedded communications" capabilities - whether voice, video or network-oriented - out to geographic markets where skills are sparse, and beyond the personnel footprint of all but the largest vendors and service providers.

While it is easiest to see the opportunity for WebRTC development firms - especially helping existing companies add interactive voice and video to their websites and apps - it is arguably in the broader Telecom App space that they are needed even more. While certain APIs such as SMS and telephony call-control are fairly self-explanatory, it is likely that telcos will really struggle with go-to-market for more complex capabilities, especially network QoS, sponsored data, identity and so forth. This is going to be a challenge for telco-offered WebRTC APIs and service elements, too.

I remember a telco strategist once telling me (about QoS) "There are 3 problems - firstly, we're not sure it works. And anyway, we don't know how to sell it, and our potential customers don't know how to buy it".

Take-outs from this?

  • Existing IT/web development shops should be beefing up their WebRTC & Telco API skillsets, staffing and marketing presence.
  • Vendors should be identifying, encouraging and cultivating specialist communications developer firms that can assist with go-to-market.
  • Some of the smaller "platform" providers should think honestly about whether they can attain scale, and perhaps focus more on consulting and customisation gigs until they get a commission that can spawn a client-proven product.
  • There is a large gap for WebRTC and Telecom API training and education provision.
  • While WebRTC awareness is growing, Telecom Apps are still the domain of relatively few specialists. Telcos should look to consultancies to extend their reach indirectly, as well as running their own developer engagement directly.
  • It may be a good idea for Hackathons and similar initiatives to distinguish between general development shops and "final" app/web developers.

Monday, November 17, 2014

WebRTC, Microsoft/Skype, Apple & Google... some quick thoughts

I'm going to hold myself hostage to fortune here.

This week is the big WebRTC Expo event in San Jose in California. I'm moderating various panels and probably making a general nuisance of myself asking questions and picking everyone's brains about the trends they're seeing. But I'm going to risk making an analytical point in advance, and hope that the next 72 hours-worth of announcements don't make me look silly.

One obvious talking point - and probably presentation point - is around Microsoft's strategy, given its support for ORTC and the recent announcement of Skype for Web. There's also no doubt going to be a lot of talk about video codecs, and the IETF's cleverly-crafted compromise position.

But here, I just want to touch on something else. What exactly do the big ecosystem players want from voice/video/messaging, and how does that impact WebRTC? I've been stimulated by Tsahi's good analysis of the Skype/WebRTC plans, as it's made me realise something quite important:

Microsoft and Apple both seem to want to "own" certain aspects of communications services themselves, before throwing them open to all-comers via developer APIs.

Most obviously, Apple now has:
  • FaceTime Audio & Video for "calls"
  • Siri for voice-concierge capabilities
  • Video/voice messaging inside the current iMessage
  • iMessage itself for text messages
  • The upcoming walkie-talkie function in its Watch ("for a fun alternative to phone calls!")
  • Apple's push-notification service, which I think has the potential to seriously erode the A2P SMS market over time, especially if interactivity is enhanced
And Microsoft has:
  • Skype for audio/video calls
  • Skype for Business (ie Lync) for enterprise conferencing, IM & UC functions
  • Cortana (voice concierge)
  • Qik video-chat
  • Messaging (former MSN, now integrated with Skype)
  • Xbox Live Chat, Messaging & Parties
  • Video Kinect
  • Kinect Voice Command
In other words, both companies seem to view communications at least as much in terms of potential for complete products, as they do in terms of platforms.

Conversely, Google just has a few full-fledged communications applications:
  • Hangouts (including Google Talk)
  • Google Voice (US only)
  • Google Now & Voice Control
(And Firefox has just done a deal with Tokbox to integrate WebRTC conferencing into Firefox as "Hello") 

In other words, Apple and Microsoft are perhaps delaying WebRTC (or seem a bit ambivalent), in part because they want to cherry-pick certain voice/video use-cases for their own branded applications, adding value to hardware devices like phones, wearables and game consoles as well as directly monetising via their enterprise activities. Google seems less-concerned (or perhaps less-capable) of deriving revenue from communications products directly.

It will be interesting to see if this week's WebRTC conference gives further weight and shape to this view.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Retiring the term “Telco-OTT”. "Digital services" is useless too. Long live “Telco-Apps”

I’ve long railed against the telecoms industry term “OTT”, standing for “over-the-top”. It is pointlessly divisive and arbitrary, and often said in a pejorative fashion, by people who don’t understand what it means and implies. On Twitter, I’ve often called for people using the term OTT in a serious way to be summarily fired for gross incompetence by their employers. (Given that many of the worst offenders are themselves CEOs, this is impractical, unfortunately). I generally prefix it with “so-called”, or use quote-marks, to give it the disrespect it deserves.

“OTT” is used to describe a subset of Internet-based services or applications, which are thought to compete with traditional telecoms services like telephony and SMS, or hoped-for future services, such as IM or video-calling. Skype, Whatsapp, LINE and SnapChat are examples of applications which have earned the despised “OTT” tag, usually uttered by people whose PR and legal departments told them not use stronger epithets. 

None of those companies call themselves "OTT players" any more than a washing-machine manufacturer considers themselves as running over-the-top of the electricity supply. They are simply web or Internet companies, offering communication apps or services. Call them CSPs or some other acronym, if you must. In future, as "OTT" communications capabilities get absorbed into most applications and websites as features, with WebRTC or other APIs, it will be a fairly pointless distinction anyway.

There is also a considerably different interpretation in the content space, where “OTT video” is used to describe channels or streaming platforms such as Hulu and NetFlix or BBC iPlayer, which go direct-to-customer and don’t need to work with normal digital TV aggregators such as cable MSOs or IPTV platforms. There seems to be less animosity in that area among telcos, perhaps because most don't have legacy businesses there.

Some other Internet companies often get lumped into the “OTT” category too, even though their main offerings don’t overlap with typical telecoms service domains. Facebook and Google, for example, often get called OTTs simply because they are seen as a strategic threat to the telecoms industry, so it makes sense to demonise and caricature them as “the other”. Web search, social networking and online advertising are not traditional telecom businesses - they are new and purely Internet-based.

Most other Internet services and applications don’t attract the same opprobrium. Nobody calls Salesforce or Wikipedia or Tinder or a Cisco IP-PBXs & WebEx an “OTT service”, even though they also “use our pipes for free”.

I’ve made the point in the past that if Internet services are “over the top”, then surely telecoms networks are better-called “under the floor”, as that’s where the pipes and plumbing goes. Yet oddly enough, I don’t encounter many telcos proudly declaiming their “UTF” status.

In a nutshell, "OTT" is simply a duplicitous, mealy-mouthed term for "bits of the Internet we don't like". "Dumb pipe" is a dumb term too - networks are neither pipes nor stupid. What "dumb pipe" means, translated from telco-ese, is "please tax the clever people for us, or let us do it instead".

I coined the term “Telco-OTT” in 2011, to describe the growing phenomenon of telecom operators launching their own services that use the public Internet as a platform, rather than their own managed network infrastructure. As well as grabbing attention, it was intended to highlight the hypocrisy - and sometimes outright lies - of many industry executive and observers (and sometimes regulators) when it comes to the Internet

Now, following a tweet from Chad Hart, I've decided to take his advice and kill the term.

Almost all Telcos have so-called OTT offerings, whether in the field of voice/messaging, cloud offers, content/video or even home-automation. These span both fixed and mobile networks, and “pure OTT” standalone applications and “extension” models linked to existing on-net services. Some are in-house developed, others created through partnerships. I identified well over 100 such services in 2011, and there are probably 200+ today.

And of course, every single telecoms company on the planet has its own Internet-based website, gladly using other telcos’ networks as sales, marketing and support channels for both their existing customers, and their rivals' subscribers they hope will switch. Vodafone.com, att.com and kddi.com are all “OTTs” in the broad sense of the word. Of course, all the industry associations and regulators happily make use of the public Internet as well, at the same time as some are trying to limit its reach and scope.

Curiously, none of these telco-run Internet and app properties have ever openly suggested paying for QoS on their rivals’ infrastructure, or sponsoring their users’ data consumption. Surely, given Telefonica’s distaste of OTTs (”It's not a level playing field"), it would have proactively sought to recompense its rivals forced to carry traffic from Terra, Tuenti or TuGo, as a good example? One would have also thought that GSMA’s or ETNO’s webmasters would have long ago volunteered to pay for visitors’ traffic, to demonstrate “innovative” broadband business models? Or perhaps Verizon would have sought to accelerate user transactions on Verizon.com, when viewed from an AT&T broadband connection, and pleaded with the FCC to allow it to buy a “fast lane”? 

Oddly, all the CEOs conveniently overlook their own Internet businesses, when it comes to grandstanding in front the FCC or EU or investors, about Net Neutrality and similar issues. 

The bottom-line: ALL telcos are “OTTs”. All of them exploit the Internet, and would complain bitterly if they were prevented from doing so. They’re not as successful in some areas as their rivals, but that’s a separate discussion.

When telecom industry representatives clamour about the lack of “a level playing field”, most are either ignorant, disingenuous, or unwilling to confront the organisational and cultural blockages in their own businesses. Plenty of telcos do launch run “pure OTT” apps and services, in exactly the same fashion as any other firm. That said, other telcos have limitations in areas such as user-data collection and exploitation, and I'd support broader equivalency of laws and rules there, versus Internet players.  It's up for discussion whether data privacy laws should be relaxed on telcos, or tightened on web firms.

Some also have actual – or merely perceived – regulatory hurdles on things like lawful intercept. But they have had 10 years to convince regulators and ministries to be more relaxed on communications areas outside of traditional telephony. Seriously, if an operator launches a karaoke app, are they expected to record hours of terrible singing, and metadata of the music tracks sung for the authorities? Instead, too many operators argue for new rules to be imposed on Internet companies, rather than arguing for relaxing rules on themselves.

The time has now come for me to retire the term "Telco-OTT". It is now in mainstream use, and various vendors and media outlets have come to embrace it more fully. The market has understood that telcos need to have web and mobile apps and services, decoupled from their own networks. WiFi-calling exploits third-party wireless connections. TV-anywhere apps use whatever networks are available. WebRTC services are quite clearly expected to be accessed from any Internet entry point. Many telco SaaS/cloud offers are accessible from anywhere. Numerous operators have VoIP apps intended for expats, travellers and the "diaspora" outside their home market, and away from their controlled and managed home networks.

Continuing with term Telco-OTT now just lends legitimacy to the unvarnished OTT label, and the phony war that is continually perpetuated by vendors and regulators in that regard. I want those that use the term OTT to be accused of blinkered "entitlement", as evidenced by ignorant comments about "OTT stealing revenues". Communications and content provision are open battlegrounds. Nobody is "entitled" to market share, revenues or profits for telecom and Internet services. They are up for competition. And if you offer Internet access to your customers, you should understand and accept the risk that Internet applications will be better/cheaper/cooler than on-net alternatives.

So what to call these services now that "Telco-OTT" is to be consigned to history?

Easy. Let's just call them "Telco Apps" (or Telco-Apps with a hyphen - I'm open to persuasion on the punctuation). Certain things may have to be called Telco Platforms or Telco Enablers, if they are thin delaminated Internet service "slices" rather than full applications.

I'm also calling time on "Digital Services". It's a stupid term as well. Apart from AM/FM radio, I can't think of any analogue communications services. They're all digital, as is the entirety of Internet & telecoms networking. As Alan Quayle often points out, "Digital" hasn't been a useful adjective since it was used to describe Casio watches in the 1970s, or perhaps the replacement of old phone exchanges in the 1980s. Today, "digital" is most often associated with techno-illiterate fools in the marketing and advertising industries, who talk about "digital marketing", or use cringeworthy phrases when you meet them like "Hi, I'm in digital".

So. "Telco-OTT" is dead, "OTT" is for telecom people who don't like the Internet but are too scared & hypocritical to say so as they use it too, and "Digital" is for people who haven't understood the last 50 years of technology. 

Internet companies make apps, websites & Internet services. Telcos exploiting the Internet do the same. Telcos are Internet companies. Call their Internet  activities Telco-Apps, if you need to distinguish them from network-integrated services - although even those will be extended over the Internet anyway. The Internet - and the Web & Apps - has won.

Oh, and make sure you understand the difference between the Internet and the Web, too. Or else, once again, you should be fired for incompetence.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

5G standardisation requirement: The need to support multiple concurrent network service-providers

There are numerous 5G-requirements/use-cases documents being circulated by mobile vendors, industry bodies and governmental organisations. For example, 4G Americas recently put out a top-level white paper listing a variety of possible user- and network-functional options for consideration, based on the expected devices and user scenarios.

There are some very sensible conclusions – such as limiting the provision of complex mobility functions to those devices or contexts that actually need them. There is no point having complex, expensive and battery-consuming cellular mobility signalling protocols for IoT installations that are at fixed locations, for example. This type of context-smart design, built into the architecture upfront, could massively improve 5G efficiency and flexibility. This is a big shift from the one-size-fits-all approach seen in 3G and 4G design.

But, ultimately, many of the industry-issued papers are trying to reset the future balance of application/context-aware networks, vs. the growing trend towards network-aware applications. Coupled with hoped-for regulatory frameworks that allow more app-specific network operation, the intent is that mobile operators will retain a strategically important role with additional monetisation opportunities.

In an ideal world, both philosophies would co-exist. However, as the current concerns over net neutrality illustrate, there is considerable fear that network operators could abuse their position, especially in markets with limited access competition. There is a risk of oligopolistic operators demanding rents from application or content companies, which are both financially burdensome and act as a brake on innovation, by introducing extra business-process friction.

The huge success of the Internet model has largely been driven by the decoupling of application from network – and virtually no developers appear to wish to go back to the “bad old days” where they had to interact with the underlying infrastructure providers. Most would rather use a generic “vanilla” data connection. Perhaps others will emerge – especially in the IoT arena – that are prepared to pay for “priority” or “QoS”, but as yet there have been no enthusiastic potential customers. There is a notable absence of any lobbying group clamouring “please let us buy some extra QoS”, which suggests the entire concept is network-push rather than application-pull.

There are other stakeholders here too – notably end-users, and their employers, IoT infrastructure owners, families and other affiliated groups. They will wish 5G to be as responsive to their needs as possible – especially in offering flexibility of pricing/quality trade-offs. Furthermore, if networks are allowed to differentially treat (or even block) specific applications or content, then users will still want to be able to access those services through different channels instead.

Disruptive Analysis believes that a possible solution is to design 5G devices and networks with the explicit expectation that users should always have access to at least two completely independent network providers. This would allow users (or devices / OS’s acting as their agents) to arbitrage between different sources and styles of connectivity, as well as providing redundancy should one network experience a problem.

To an extent, this already happens. Most cellular 3G/4G devices also have user-controlled WiFi, which in many locations enables connectivity completely decoupled from the cellular operator’s control. In addition, short-range connections can be made over Bluetooth for certain use-cases, including device-to-device connections. And of course, there are some devices with dual SIMs or even dual radios. However, these are additions added by manufacturers, and work against the cellular industry’s polarised vision of “one device, one network operator”, rather than being designed-in as desirable models upfront.

It is imperative that the current level of user control over networking switching is maintained in the 5G era, and ideally extended considerably. Firstly, extreme care must be taken in any “multi-network” scenario to protect “seams”. There is a huge danger in trusting the concept of “seamlessness”, as often promoted by believers in carrier WiFi technologies like ANDSF, Hotspot 2.0 and Passpoint. While there are instances where automatic handover is useful, there must always remain a user-override and full visibility over which networks are used. This is especially true where one network is in unlicensed bands, as there will be a good chance that a cheaper/better/different network operator is available locally. This is often the case today with WiFi, where many locations are free at the point of use, and private access of utility WiFi (not “offload”) allows users to avoid using data plans, and perhaps avoid any onerous policy-management conditions their cellular provider imposes.

But ideally, this approach would go much further. Explicitly mandating devices to support at least two cellular network providers – where one might be virtual (e.g. with a Soft-SIM or second SIM or other network-authentication mechanism) would introduce extra competition, innovation capabilities and user/app choice at an architectural level. It would encourage networks to compete sincerely on quality and performance, as they would face easier switching. Applications and OS’s would be able to avoid “bad actor” rent-seeking operators by choosing an alternative path – and this in turn would make concepts such as prioritisation more palatable, as it would act to “keep the networks honest”. It would also make the distorting effects of handset subsidies much less tenable – which fits in with a broader move towards cellphone financing plans, rather than direct subsidy and locking.

A related approach is to make sure that device-to-device connections are decoupled from the cellular operator(s) entirely, and not locked-in to the user’s normal data plan. That way, users and their software agents will be able to “route around” over-restrictive or expensive operator controls, by using others’ connections instead. We already see this with portable-hotspot WiFi tethering, but more generalised and user-friendly forms of “social tethering” can be devised. It is quite plausible to imagine “sharing my connection with my Facebook friends”, or perhaps having separate, independent, D2D service providers.

Apple’s SIM card, with its selectable mobile networks, is a good step in the right direction here, but care must be taken to avoid anointing Apple or Google as another single point of network control as well.

A further possibility here is to apply strict Net Neutrality to just one of the connections. That way, the user always has open access to all legal apps and services via the public Internet, but the other connection(s) could support alternative business models, if they prove technically and commercially viable. Indeed, the user might choose to purchase both Internet and non-Internet service connections, and thus allow non-neutral connections to prove their “more innovation and investment” credentials over time.

Overall, 5G requirements and standards should support switchable, multi-network capabilities, using independent service providers, with at least one neutral Internet connection. By mandating this:

  • Users and applications can always exercise choice over network connections and pick “the best tool for the job at hand”
  • Network connections can offer optimisations for specific applications or contexts, potentially getting revenue premiums from end-users, or (conceivably) application providers.
  • Full and open Internet access is always available, but so are other potential “managed” services which can compete directly and fairly. 
  • Innovative solutions involving network bonding, roaming, D2D sharing and other models will be encouraged. We may see the emergence of new classes of secondary network service-providers.
  • WiFi or other unlicensed technologies remain valuable as an “arbitrage layer”. We may see the emergence of unlicensed-band LTE/5G networks run by third parties.
  • Regulators can manage to “square the circle” of guaranteeing both consumer choice, open Internet access and the potential for new mobile broadband business models. 
  • There can be good fits with new MVNO or liberalised-MNC models for network service provision.

All that said, it seems unlikely that the traditional mobile industry will suggest this approach itself, as the usual model tends to view lock-in as preferable to loyalty and choice. It will be important for regulators and other stakeholders (eg Apple which is now a member of NGMN) to push for multi-network capabilities to be recognised as a 5G requirement. This is a critical area, which seems to be overlooked at the moment. 5G needs not just “seams”, but “zips” that allow it to be more open, more versatile, and of greater benefit and value to the user.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reality-check: some real stats on SMS and voice telephony usage trends

It's very easy to get caught up in "what's next". I spend a lot of time predicting the future of communications: apps/web-embedded voice and video (usually with WebRTC), new forms of enterprise collaboration & conferencing, Internet-based communications services (the ignorants in the industry still call them "OTTs" - they should be fired for incompetence) and so on.

But what is actually happening back in the real-world of good old phone calls and SMSs? We hear a lot about possible revenue declines (or revenue "stolen" by OTTs - ignoramuses again) as well as some bright spots like application-to-person messaging growing. But what about usage? While I disagree with the continued myopic focus on minutes and message volumes for the future, there is no doubting that those metrics still form the basis of many telecom industry mindsets.

I'm moderating a work-stream at TADSummit in Istanbul this week, about innovation in legacy services. While a lot of that concerns value-adds and APIs, some of it is going to look at innovative ways to encourage use of phone calls and SMS/MMS. 

So, bringing this to life a bit, I thought I'd do a quick scan of reported numbers by operators and regulators on what they're actually seeing in terms of usage. It should be noted that there's always definitional complexities here, so comparison between countries might not be perfect. There's some fuzziness in areas like corporate VoIP and SIP-trunking too. However, trends over time should be indicative. I'm also constrained by what I can find quickly & easily in English - which tends to push me towards European regulators, which generally have hard-working stats departments and accessible publications.

First, Ofcom in the UK. In a report published in August 2014
  • SMS/MMS volumes fell 24% in 2013 vs. 2012
  • Total outgoing fixed+mobile voice minutes fell by 3.9% in 2013. Total outgoing fixed voice call volumes fell by 10.7%, while mobile-originated minutes increased by 1.4%. (Interestingly, the mobile growth reversed an earlier decline - perhaps because of the growth of unlimited bundles)
  • 35% of UK adults used VoIP services in Q1 2014

In Spain:
  • Mobile voice minutes grew 11% in the year to Q2'2014. Again, there had been a fall in 2012-2013, but it is now rebounding. Fixed minutes decline 18%, however
  • SMS/MMS volumes in Q2'2014 were down 32% on the previous year, and are now 82% lower than at their peak in Q2'2007

In Germany
  • Fixed minutes declined 3% in 2013, and mobile grew by just 1%. Unlike most countries however, fixed usage is still about 60% higher than mobile, so it is past the point of overall "peak telephony"
  • SMS volumes fell by 37% in 2013 

In France
  • Overall telephony volumes fell 0.5% in Q2'2014 - with 8% growth in mobile not offsetting 11% falls in fixed calls.
  • SMS volumes actually grew 3% year-on-year, unlike most markets. This seems to reflect unlimited-text contract plans, as prepaid SMS volumes fell by 13%
In Sweden
  • Fixed minutes fell 13% & mobile-originated phone calls grew 4% in 2013
  • SMS volumes seem to have fallen in 2013 based on the chart in this report, but the text says the number increased by 13%.
In the US
  • Mobile voice minutes grew 14% in 2013
  • SMS volumes fell 13% in 2013
Other stats from a brief scan:
  • Canadian SMS/MMS volumes fell 4% in 2013
  • Chinese SMS volumes fell 18% in the period Jan-May 2014 vs. the previous year. Local mobile minutes grew 2.3% in that period, but at a substantially lower rate then the previous year
  • For China Mobile specifically, voice minutes grew 3% in 2013 although average use fell about 5%. SMS fell about 1.5%
  • NTT DoCoMo's overall mobile telephony minutes fell by 5% in FY2013
  • MTN Group (mostly active in Africa) had a 19% increase in voice minutes in 2013
  • SingTel telephony average MoU fell 6% in the year to March 2014, and SMS volume per-subscriber fell 30%
Overall, it seems pretty clear that there are multiple overlapping trends here, often driven by local competitive/pricing issues, as well as some cultural factors.

Firstly, it seems as though prepaid users (on pay-as-you-go plans) are much more likely to switch to Whatsapp, Skype and similar services to directly save money. This makes sense - if you pay per-message, there a direct and clear incentive to look for alternatives. Secondly, markets with all-inclusive telephony and messages seem to see volume usage improve. I suspect that this is partly due to pent-up demand from people who previously saw communications as expensive/variable-cost, and partly because when something is "free" people sometimes use more than they need, to perceive "value" (think buffet food...).

There is also...
...the chance that...
...SMS use switches to IM-style phrases...

... when users have unlimited messages, especially coupled to a good smartphone-type device with well-threaded and scrollable messaging interface and a decent keypad/touchscreen.

The aggregate numbers of fixed+mobile calls seem to demonstrate that many markets are now past "peak telephony", although they do not capture all the call-equivalent VoIP services around. There does appear to be a clear peak of calling volumes in affluent markets with a lot of post-paid contracts, however. Watching 2014 data will give an indication of whether people really are now "talking less", as certain use-cases get carved off by competing apps or complete substitutes.

The data sets we don't have are "usage by purpose". Are calls growing longer or shorter? To a greater number of contacts or fewer? From certain locations, or particular applications? For example, maybe there are more long calls (conferences, calls to family etc) but fewer B2C interactions or short "information calls" (eg arranging meetings). The lack of analytical insight into the voice telephony and SMS market make it hard to discern the inner details of the macroscopic trends.

Taking everything together, there appear to be a few general observations that can be made:
  • Not everyone is "bored" with telephony yet, especially in mobile. It's also still not that easy to replace with VoIP on smartphones.
  • SMS is facing both huge pricing pressure and people switching for both price and utility/function reasons. Volumes may not tell the whole story.
  • We have not yet seen a major shift toward in-app / in-context comms for voice communications.
  • More granular detail would be good, as otherwise important trends may get "lost in the noise" as pricing plan changes and other factors swamp and hide the initial stages of market evolution.