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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Time to ditch the phrase "over the top"

One of the big themes of this year's MWC appears to be the justification of LTE deployment business cases. The received (but largely whispered) wisdom seems to be that plain-vanilla "pipes" for normal mobile broadband just won't cut it. You might as well just stick with HSPA and sweat the assets. The CTO of an operator might like LTE's architecture, spectrum flexibility and overall performance - but I can imagine some interesting discussions when CFOs ask "So, what new stuff does it do? How much extra money can we make - or save - and in what timeframes?"

One answer is around operator-managed end-to-end device + service combinations, perhaps for in-car or healthcare sectors. That seems a reasonable target, although I definitely have my doubts about locked or "walled-garden service" laptops.

But I'm also hearing from various large vendors that LTE should enable new revenue streams from exposing QoS or other network assets to web-based businesses or software providers. Fair enough, that's very aligned with Telco 2.0, two-sided business model philosophies.

But there seems to be little emphasis on actually convincing those upstream providers that they really need these extra capabilities - or that the incumbents can be trusted. Given the issues around DPI and Net Neutrality, it would hardly be surprising if many of the Internet application providers viewed these "offers"with wariness. Perhaps they would be better off just lobbying for ever-bigger pipes?

One particular aspect stands out. I've never heard anyone from Google, Facebook, Skype or an enterprise PBX vendor refer to themselves as an "over the top" provider. It's a phrase only used by incumbent operators or major vendors - and usually in a disparaging tone. I get the distinct impression that it's usually used as a more polite alternative to "parasite", on the orders of the speaker's PR team.

I think "over the top" exemplifies the arrogance of the telecom establishment. Most operators wouldn't like their networks and services to be dismissed with hand-waving terms like "plumbing", "legacy" or "dinosaur".

Given that the telecom industry wants to convince these companies to spend money on enhancing "quality of experience", perhaps buying QoS-managed pipes, or advert insertion, or identity management services - shouldn't the industry start being a bit more polite towards their target customer base?

The computing industry refers to third-party applications by the neutral term "ISV" (independent software vendor). Perhaps an equivalent term like "IAP" (independent application provider) would be more appropriate in discussions like these?

There also needs to be an acknowledgement of symmetry. For every capability exposed by an operator and consumed by an Internet player (eg location or messaging or QoS guarantees), there is likely to be a reciprocal relationship in the opposite direction. Why shouldn't an operator use Amazon's data centres for hosted storage - or even use Skype or Facebook as identity and contacts management providers?

If the mobile industry (and also fixed broadband providers) continue to sneer down their noses at Google et al, they should expect to see a even more strenuous efforts by those players to force operators into being plumbers.

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