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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Uploaded - recent free white papers on mobile data policy management

A month or so ago, I announced that I'd written and published three detailed white papers, plus an introductory document, covering new use cases and concepts for what Disruptive Analysis referes to as "holistic" mobile data policy management. These look beyond the simplistic early 'silo' approaches to DPI, policy, optimisation and offload, many of which have been arbitrary and often user-unfriendly.

These are now available by download via Scribd.

The introduction is available here:
  • Device-aware: not just what brand and model, but over time much more granular detail about OS version, firmware, connection managers, security, power management and the ability to communicate about network status and policy with the user. Increasingly, network vendors and operators will need to link network infrastructure boxes to on-device clients. This also ties in with application awareness - particularly around dealing with mashups, VPNs and so forth. See & download from here
  • Bearer-aware: the policy infrastructure will need to be much more informed about the status of the radio connections(s) - what technology, femto vs. macro cells, whether Wifi is available and suitable, what is happening with signalling load, whether congestion is actually occurring at a given time/cell and so on. See & download from here
  • Offload-aware: whether data is being (or should be) routed via WiFi, femtocells, RAN offload and so on - and whether this should be managed or unmanaged. There are many variables here, and many use cases, such as the ability to use multiple networks simultaneously, "selective offload" (SIPTO / LIPA) and so on. See & download from here
Given that regulators such as the FCC and Ofcom seem to be moving towards policies on traffic management & Net Neutrality along the lines of "minimum necessary" or "reasonable" control of traffic by operators. This means that any policy enforcement will need to be reasonable, proportionate and context-specific. Arguably, there is no justification for unnecessary throttling or compression at quiet times / cells, unless you live on a Pacific island and IP transit is expensive. There is certainly not likely to be justification for much arbitrary discrimination between websites or applications, especially if this is not done with full transparency.

Each of these issues is covered in a separate white paper, plus there is an overview introduction.

This is an area I cover in a lot of depth. If you are interested in an internal workshop, advisory consulting project, or need an external speaker for an event, please get in touch at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

(Note: The papers have been kindly sponsored by the folks at Continuous Computing, who have given me a completely free rein to write about topics that are interesting, and which hopefully push forward the industry thinking about how better to control & monetise mobile data). 

Why application-specific policy and charging will (almost) always fail

Over the last couple of days, the technology blog and Twitter world has reacted with righteous anger to this slide and the underlying sentiments around Net Neutrality, especially given the FCC's announcements recently.

I don't think Openet and Allot have done themselves any favours with that webinar chart. Not only was it guaranteed to cause a storm of controversy, it's all made 100x worse by the fact that that sort of app-centric policy / charging mechanism simply will not work, either technically, commercially or (probably) legally. There are so many workarounds, pitfalls, gotchas and risks that any carrier would be crazy to even try it, especially in developed countries.

On the other hand, it's the sort of slide that will make some mobile operator marketing people salivate, especially the more gullible and technically-ignorant among them, so I guess I can cut the two vendors some slack. In all probability, there are some operators which will try to do this sort of thing anyway, so if they're going to waste their money, then I can understand the vendors thinking "well, they might as well waste it with us rather than the other guys".

[Sidenote - if you work for an operator and want to get a detailed view of why this is a *really bad* idea, please get in touch with me to arrange a workshop]

I'm supposed to be on holiday & am waiting for a rebooked flight, so I'm not going to give the long list of problems. But just to get the debate going, let's start with:

  • Customer dissatisfaction & churn
  • Likely regulator disapproval & censure
  • Stuff inside VPNs
  • Mashups (what happens to the YouTube video embedded in a Facebook page?)
  • Who pays for *uploads*?
  • Acceptable level of "false positives" and the legal liability associated with that
  • Need for network ops guys to *really* understand applications & how they evolve on a daily basis
  • Lack of anybody with the job title "policy manager" who grasps and has authority over all the necessary bits of the puzzle - radio, core network, app trends, devices, user behaviour, legal issues, PR, partnership etc
  • Multiple fraud possibilities
  • Fit with CDN architecture & difficulty of charging Akamai
  • Probability of key Internet companies turning the tables on the operator and say "no, you pay *us* or else we're going to block access to your subscribers, suggest they churn, and give free adverts to your competitors"
  • It gives implicit permission for fixed operators to charge your customers to use your femtocells on their DSL/cable
  • Doesn't reflect signalling load in the RAN
  • Difficulty in predicting future direction of applications. Is Facebook's new email service going to be classified as Facebook, or email? What happens if Facebook buys Skype?
  • Tons of arbitrage opportunities
  • Lack of decently flexible upstream billing & reconciliation systems
  • Need to have perfect coverage before charging for incremental services
And plenty more.

Now most of the anger is around the general philosophy of Net Neutrality and whether operators should be "allowed" to do this sort of thing. I'm actually fairly, er, neutral on that. It's simply that this sort of approach is woefully flawed, and in any half-competitive market will lead to immense customer dissatisfaction and churn.

It's not wrong or evil. It's just naive.

Now... that doesn't mean that *all* application-based policy use cases are going to fail. There are some which I can see having value, or which are less prone to outright failure. I can see "zero-rating" of specific partner apps being valuable, because that will encourage the provider to collaborate with the telco. Although it's probably easier to just put those in a separate APN rather than sift through the main data-stream. I can also see the arguments of rate-limiting of P2P traffic for congested cells, especially uplink. In the fixed world, I can certainly see the role of this for specialised services which are use the broadband, but which are not Internet-based (eg IPTV or home security or specific cloud apps).

But the idea that an end-user will pay extra per-application, for major Internet services like Skype or Facebook, on their broadband access? Utter nonsense. As I wrote yesterday in my 2011 predictions earlier this week, there's a huge opportunity on the horizon for Policy and DPI. But the slide on Engadget is 100% the wrong way to attempt to monetise it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The inevitable 2011 predictions - successes and failures

It's the time of the year for snow-induced travel chaos and long lists of predictions. So before I chance my luck at Heathrow later today, I thought I'd put my stake in the ground with an assessment of winners and losers for 2011.

I'm focusing here on my main research themes at the moment:

  • Mobile broadband and 3G/4G, technology and business models
  • Mobile data traffic management and the network core
  • New telco strategies and revenue opportunities
  • Next-gen communications services
  • Devices and smartphones

HSPA/+ and smartphones for data - Really, the big story in 2011 is going to be "more of the same". More smartphones at both low and high ends, more dongles, and slow but certain growth in new device categories. Despite the fervour over LTE, it's going to be the growing maturity of "normal" 3.5G which is going to be driving the industry, if not the headlines. This will have a number of knock-on effects for both infrastructure and device vendors. Increasing densification of 3G networks in urban areas, along with network-sharing deals, will be top of the list for many operations and strategy departments. Policy (discussed below) will continue to be an issue.

Shifting demographics and usage patterns (eg cheap Android phones, new & unpredictable app adoption) will drive the need for coverage and capacity in unexpected places. A growing volume of prepay data users in Europe, Latin America and Asia will start using 3G, and rapidly ramp up their data consumption both via smartphones and featurephones. Many of those incremental users will be using "vanilla" unsubsidised devices, which are more difficult for operators to control.

Infrastructure vendors will continue pitching both HSPA equipment and managed services, while talking-up LTE. However, operators in developed markets will start considering whether fully-outsourced networks - while offering predictable Opex - might actually reduce their strategic flexibility. Disruptive Analysis believes that "under the floor" players have the potential to be even greater threats to telcos than the much-maligned so-called OTT providers, hollowing out operators' core skillsets, source of value and key differentiator - the network itself. 2011 success rating: 10/10

Evolved policy management - Linked to the growth of mobile data, and the shifting revenue/cost equations of mobile broadband networks, Disruptive Analysis expects to see a continued intense focus on traffic and policy management solutions. A particular theme will be a move towards more "holistic" approaches, shifting from the easy-but-crude approaches to managing content at the GGSN towards much more RAN-centric and device-centric approaches. Using an optimisation server stuck in the core of the network to squash down video content will be viewed as a primitive solution - not least by regulators, who will likely flex their stance on Net Neutrality to allow greater levels of active traffic management, but only when it is actually essential. Applying blanket policies in the network core, irrespective of actual or predicted congestion levels in the radio, and without a user's-eye view of QoE (no, not QoS) will start to become a competitive disadvantage.

As part of this, expect to see more refined pricing / charging strategies. New ways of tiering charges by volume, or by speed / time / device are very likely. However, we are still unlikely to see successful deployment of the mythical gold/silver/bronze tiers of service beyond speed caps. Ultimately, the largest gating factor on QoE is the radio network, and no amount of QoS-twiddling is going to make a big difference if your house is on the edge of the cell. Device-specific pricing will have far more success than attempts to charge differentially for certain Internet applications. Despite DPI vendor hype, the network does not really understand applications, just traffic types. Some broad categories might be applied (eg P2P), but attempts to try to charge differentially for VoIP or social networking or even video are doomed to failure. There will also be growing recognition that the "tonnage" way of metering mobile data by GB is not really a useful or appropriate way to align usage with actual costs of running the network. 2011 success rating: 9/10

Own-brand operator OTT services: This is going to be the big surprise of 2011. I've been talking about access-independent services for some time, but it's still been a taboo among many operators. The idea of Operator #1 launching services targetting Operator #2 and #3's access customers has sat very uneasily with the clubby, collaborative, "we're all in this together against Google and Facebook" interoperability mentality of the telcos. This ethos is now fraying. Various collaborative efforts (think RCS....) have ended in failure as coalitions of the losers. Most operators, either publicly or privately, through major efforts or skunkworks, are now thinking about decoupling access and service, and attempting to play the Internet companies at their own game. This is absolutely the right approach, and one which is currently underestimated by many - who will find out to their costs when they lose first-mover advantage.

Now the devil here is in the detail - Vodafone 360 had great vision but has suffered from poor execution. Going forward, there should be some serious innovation around VoIP (both telephony and other voice applications), social network, OTT-style social TV for fixed broadband, and various enterprise / cloud offerings. There will be out-of-region expansion (perhaps AT&T in Europe, or Orange in the US) via smartphone apps, or on-PC clients. Third-party hardware is also an option - femtocells already work over other telcos' networks, and that model is likely to extend to set-top boxes and maybe tablets as well. - 2011 success rating 8/10  [Note: this one is success relative to general expectations & consensus (ie none) - clearly it's not going to change the industry overnight, but it will point the inevitable way to the future]

Femtocells - Various people have been asking me if 2010 was the "year of the femto", which I've been hesitant to agree to, as I see market evolution more as a steady progression. Nevertheless, the femto concept has been hugely validated by a number of high-profile launches, and we are likely to see continued growth in 2011. In particular, we will see a move from a coverage-led proposition to one more based around capacity and offload. There will also be an early move towards use of femtos in public spaces or "macro femtos" for capacity enhancement in the street, perhaps attached to street furniture or cable plant. However, obstacles still exist - not least the femto model for prepaid users who are using mobile broadband as a substitute for DSL or cable contracts (a lack of prepaid deals for fixed broadband is an ongoing omission of the industry, leaving money on the table). We will also see some early interest in LTE femtos, although the concept of building a completely "inside-out" network does not seem to have legs immediately. Disruptive Analysis also remains skeptical of the market for enterprise femtocells, except simple installations for SMEs. 2011 success rating: 7/10

LTE for data - Although HSPA will continue to go from strength to strength, there is a groundswell of both optimism and activity on LTE. Not only that, but a stream of spectrum auctions - especially 800MHz digital dividens - is coming through, which will almost inevitably be used for LTE deployment. Disruptive Analysis does not expect to see a wholesale switch to LTE, even in markets where it is deployed, but certain operators will be very aggressive, especially CDMA operators that are struggling to evolve their EVDO networks to match the reality of HSPA+. Other markets will use early LTE deployments as flagships and testbeds, especially for PC users. LTE smartphones will start to emerge during 2011, but will gain likely minimal uptake outside of the US and Japan. There will lots of noise about LTE M2M, but remarkably little action. 2011 success rating: 6/10

Tablets - I've been somewhat surprised by the iPad's success, but I still don't see tablets as a major game-changing trend, beyond the "Apple Effect". I still think that the iPad is primarily a nice (and for some groups of people also very useful) gadget which complements their PC/Mac and smartphone usage. I don't see massmarket Android platforms fulfilling the same roles and I certainly don't see tablets heralding some sort of mythical "post-PC" era. I do seem them as becoming important for "social TV" use cases in the home, though. I expect to see a declining % of tablets with embedded/activated 3G radios going forward - the bulk will be WiFi-only. 2011 success rating: 5/10

Two-sided operator business models - I spend a lot of my time examining realistic ways that operators might monetise "non-user" sources of revenue. At the moment, I'm seeing something of a mixed bag. Certain niches such as M2M are showing signs of growth. Others such as (some) operator app-stores have potential. Mobile advertising is growing but still small at an absolute level. There is growing interest in the "personal information economy" around identity and authentication, but it is early days and operators have various commercial, technical and regulatory challenges.

The willingness of telcos to enable "comes with data" models for new devices has been slow, largely because of the constraints of the legacy "subscription mindset". The SIM/subscription model is extremely ill-suited to most consumer electronics products, for example. Telcos have also been very slow at releasing and marketing developer-centric APIs on a commercial basis, focusing too much on capabilities well-served by alternative solutions, such as SMS or location. Instead, they should focus on more useful & unique information sets for developers, such as network congestion APIs, or mechanisms for communicating device capabilities, status and customer tariff plan.  

Another area that operators are in danger of failing on is around broadband prioritisation and attempts to derive revenue from "upstream" players such as Netflix or Google. The wrong way to do this is via confrontation or trying to enforce some sort of "pay per GB" toll. The ridiculous operator appeals to the EU for a Google tax earlier in 2010 are classic examples of what not to do "They're clever, we're dumb, please punish them". Frankly, Google and Netflix have more of a moral (and perhaps legal) argument to charge telcos, not vice versa. Instead, MNOs need to focus on "success-based" broadband value-adds, with measurable SLAs, not just vague promises of QoS. Cableco's pay for good TV content for their access customers - telcos may be prepared to pay for good Internet services for their broadband subs, as they have more to lose in a "switching war". Another option would be a Google-style affiliate model, where clear telco-enabled uplifts to advertising (by QoS, customer data targetting etc) would be rev-shared. However, I'm doubtful that we'll see a switch from aggression to pragmatism in many cases. 2011 success rating: 4/10

NFC - I've been a long-term critic of NFC, especially for mobile payments. The noise around the technology has risen to a crescendo recently, with Orange launching a major initiatives in 2011, and a three-way project by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. Apple and Google are also rumoured to be joining the fray. I'm still very skeptical, especially when it comes to the more ridiculous notions of "bill this to my phone account", or attempts to integrate Oyster-style travel passes or hotel room keys onto handsets. None of these make obvious sense as operator business models. However, I wouldn't discount the chance of Apple of Google in particular doing something clever, such as an NFC-based way of authorising music purchases, or perhaps acessing specific services in particular locations. 2011 success rating: 3/10

LTE for voice - Despite talks of trials of VoLTE, Disruptive Analysis does not expect to see successful massmarket voice services launched on LTE for several years, with the possible exception of NTT DoCoMo. There are huge barriers to getting any form of LTE voice working well, especially to the levels that can be experienced with a $20 GSM phone. There are likely to be many, many challenges in getting primary telephony working well - we'll probably have to go back to the drawing board in terms of voice quality as well as the network side of things. Echo cancellation, packet loss concealment, all the clever stuff the Internet VoIP guys have been doing for years will need to be replicated in LTE mobile. It is conspicuous that the GSMA VoLTE initiative focuses on the middle of the network (interoperability) and much less the factors that drive customer experience (battery life, on-device call quality and so forth). In many ways, VoLTE is mis-named - it's really just ToLTE (telephony over LTE), and not a generic multi-app voice architecture, starting from first principles of "what are the use cases for voice in future, and how should these be supported?"

The network might be good at minimising packet loss and jitter, but the real difficult stuff in mobile VoIP is what to do with the data stream when packets are lost. Cure is actually more important than prevention, especially where RAN coverage will inevitably introduce problems. As for CSFB (circuit-switched fallback), it's a disaster in the making. Call setup times, breaking LTE data connections and so on. VoLGA? Maybe, but it needs either handset vendor support or perhaps a good OTT-style client implementation. Disruptive Analysis maintains that the best short-term solution for voice with LTE is one of the afore-mentioned $20 phones, and a strip of Velcro.   2011 success rating: 2/10

I'm struggling to pick out a single outright loser for the 1/10 spot (or even zero/10), so instead a quick list of next year's biggest turkeys:

  • IMS RCS. 'Nuff said.
  • Any new operator-specified handset OS.
  • Federated operator-run cloud services (although single-operator clouds have good potential). Likely to get hyped as a triumph for interoperability, and therefore the best candidate for a new losers' coalition.
  • Subscription-based Mobile TV (as always). Yes, there's a handful of iPad video addicts. And yes Japan uses terrestrial TV-to-the-phone. But massmarket TV on massmarket phones? No, just as unlikely as in 2006 when it was last hyped.
  • It's about time for the FourSquare-style "check in" model to implode under its own preposteroussness. The only good thing about FourSquare & peers is that it's a great way to know where not to go, if you want to avoid meeting dull social-media people.
  • Paid apps for Android, Symbian and BlackBerry. There's a strong correlation between a willingness to spend $$$ on apps and willingness to give Steve Jobs $300 gross margin per device. Everyone else counts their pennies & will go for cheap/free wherever possible.

And I know I'm normally opinionated about everything, but I also have a few questionmarks, where I'm really not sure at the moment:

  • Operator-run appstores or app-malls. Might work out in certain contexts, but I can't see them worrying Apple. 
  • Large-scale M2M. I'm still unconvinced that a zillion sensors and fridges are going to get networked up. And if they do, they also guarantee that GSM/GPRS will be around for the next 30 years, and we won't be refarming much 2G spectrum any time soon.
  • New variations of the SIM card (eg OTA IMSI-updating, multi-IMSI, wholesale & switching etc)
  • Augmented reality
  • Whether Nokia can stage a return to its glory days with MeeGo
  • Will a major Internet / IT company buy into cellular, either via acquisition or as an MVNO
  • Satellite-based mobility

I'm going to be away for the next couple of weeks, so probably won't have a chance to review and respond to many comments - but I will try to get online at various points to review any feedback.

Happy New Year to all....

Now, let's see if I'm one of the favoured few to get out of LHR this afternoon.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Falling smartphone prices = problems for operator control?

Conventional wisdom has it that operators are looking forward to smartphone prices dropping, and it means they will need to spend less on subsidy to acquire and retain customers.

Leaving aside the likelihood of iPhones continuing to stay at the top of the range, it's certainly becoming true that the lower end of the Android device range, as well as Symbian, Bada and BlackBerry, are falling precipitously, already in some cases to below $150-200.

Now while there will always be the tech enthusiasts wanting the ultimate 2GHz, super high-res screen, OS version 9 smartphones, it's possible that Joe or Joanne Average will be happy with something with a decent browser, fairly responsive screen, OK camera, good Facebook client and a screen big enough to watch kittens doing backflips on YouTube. Some will want a QWERTY

That price point is likely to reach $100 in the not-too-distant future. At that point, the world changes a bit. It's a discretionary purchase, like a new shirt or a pair of mid-range trainers, or a nice meal. It becomes subsidisable down to zero by a whole host of companies, not just mobile operators who want to pad out their ARPU with repayments from a thinly-disguised consumer credit loan.

And this will bring some interesting issues - especially whether  people continue to opt to buy the "operator-ised" version of phones, or end up getting them "vanilla" via Amazon or (almost) free with their breakfast cereal. You'll certainly get smartphones given away free with other purchases - maybe "Buy a new Samsung TV and get a Samsung Android Remote Control Smartphone free!!!".

At the moment, about 50% of the world's phones go through mobile operator-controlled channels. But a higher % of smartphones take that path, because they tend to be predominantly bought by post-paid customers, often bundled with a subsidy or a fixed "plan".

As smartphones become more accessible to prepaid users or basic SIM-only conract customers (who usually buy phones for "full retail" price, or re-use an old handset), there becomes less incentive to get them through the operator channels.

This then means less incentive to get the operator software-load (own-brand apps, appstores, connection manager / offload client etc). Coupled with Apple's reluctance to let operators customise iPhones, this is likely to mean that operator "control points" will, in a growing % of smartphones, be relegated to the SIM card or the network, unless the telco can persuade users to download their branded clients and install/configure them.

As I'm writing this, I just received a  press release from ST-Ericsson about hardware platforms for the growing demand for dual-SIM phones. They will *obviously* be sold as vanilla devices as well.

At the moment, most of the world's unlocked phones are low-end devices for voice/SMS customers.

What's unclear is what happens when there's a large enough population of unlocked smartphones as well, with 3G and WiFi and lots of memory. What applications and user experiences go viral? Will we see auto-tethering and connection-sharing emerge? Wide use of a cool new VoIP service? Content-sharing? Applications which work out how many minutes / GB you've got left at the end of the month, so they can resell them or share them with your friends?

The bottom line is that lower phone prices might lead to a reduction in subsidy expenditure by operators. But ultimately this may just further erode control over the user as well. If a phone only costs $100, why would you buy it from someone who takes a strict line in telling you how you may use it?