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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Just give me a wireless pipe....

Great piece by James Enck at EuroTelcoblog today . But my view is that the IP/Internet issue is going to hit the mobile operators even harder than the fixed guys, and that the cellular industry is even more ostrich-like in its state of denial at present.

I reckon a lot of the hybrid fixed/mobile operators like FT/Orange, TI/TIM and BT(+MVNO) now "get" the issues around VoIP, and the impact of MSN, Yahoo!, Google, Skype/Ebay et al.

They might not like it, but I reckon most of them understand its importance.

It is notable that BT is pretty cozy with Yahoo and FT with Microsoft.

I also think they have internalised that the way they will make money in the future is by becoming "smart pipes". They are rushing to deploy IMS or other IP-based NGN core transport networks, with various types of application platform layer sitting above it.

Sure, they will try & slow down the rate of change, but fundamentally, the fixed operators have long understood the value-added opportunities associated with network connectivity. This is because they have long dealt with selling wholesale services to other carriers, and above all the complexities of the enterprise communication world.

Fixed operators sell plenty of "smart pipes"already. They provide IP-VPNs, managed security services, they resell and maintain IP-PBXs and do all sorts of other complex nuts-and-bolts services with acronyms like MPLS. Increasingly, they are pushing into mainstream IT services, and enterprise LAN/WAN sales and management.

And although there have been some strange outbursts about MSN, Skype et al from some carriers, the fact remains that they have long accepted the existence of 3rd-party VoIP for millions of users. Fixed carriers aren't complaining that corporate firms are using "their pipes" for services delivered via grey boxes with Cisco and Avaya logos. Many of them sell & install IP-PBXs themselves.

None of this is glamorous stuff. It doesn't involve glossy TV advertising campaigns with pop stars & footballers. Their office Christmas parties will probably be full of boring people in boring clothes, talking about boring network widgets. But it's got a fighting chance of being profitable. It's difficult to commoditise hardcore network engineering expertise.

But the mobile operators are different. They are addicted to the consumer market, to glossy marketing, and the idea that absolutely everything is a "service" and therefore billable. Although some grudgingly wholesale capacity through MVNOs, they're still incredibly sensitive about being seen as pipes, especially "dumb" ones. Most don't have a sophisticated enterprise group that is educating the rest of the organisation that pipes can be "smart", albeit at the cost of being dull. Instead of trying to offer robust mobile IP-VPNs so users can deploy their own VoIP solution, they're still trying to pretend that "mobile PBX" solutions can succeed. Many also seem convinced they can offer billed IM services that don't interoperate well with MSN and Yahoo.

Many seem uncertain about deploying IMS, worrying that it could open the floodgates to 3rd-party IP applications. What they don't realise is that it's going to happen anyway, and that opening the floodgates is the only way to avoid drowning in the flood.

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