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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

There needs to be an Alternative Communications Providers Association (ACPA or OTTA) to counterbalance the GSMA

One of the speakers said something really profound at last week's Sonus Connexions event in Miami:

"Skype is now the world's biggest telco". It has more users than China Mobile has subscribers.

And one of the notable outputs from the Rich Communications summit in Munich this week has been the push by mobile operators and the GSMA for RCS-e to be embedded "natively" in mobile phones, so that "It's just there". The operators hope to use their purchasing leverage with the handset OEMs to encourage and cajole them into building RCS-e into the basic handset software/firmware stack - implicitly putting broader IMS capability in with it.

That got me thinking.

The GSMA talks incessantly about its 5 billion+ "community". Never mind the fact that it's no more a community than the 5 billion with electricity - or shoes, for that matter - it's a large number, irrelevant as it is. (And yes, riddled with errors because of multiple SIMs per person). One of the speakers at the event said this mean that RCS-e had the "potential" to reach 5 billion people in future.

I commented at the time that Facebook has similar potential, as it uses not just downloadable smartphone apps, but also Java ME, Facebook Zero (WAP) and even USSD menus. That takes it to a potential 5 billion user reach today, not at some indeterminate point in the future.

But thinking further - if the mobile operators can start trying to mandate "native" capabilities in devices, why can't Facebook as well? Or, indeed, its peers.

Let's imagine for a moment what an Alternative Communications Provider Association might look like, made up of the various non-MNO voice/video/messaging providers. You could even call it OTTA if you wanted a nice logo of an aquatic mammal.

We've got (roughly and non-comprehensively):

Service               Users
Facebook            800m 
QQ (China)         800m
Skype                  600m
MSN                   500m
Sina Weibo         250m
Twitter                200m
Yahoo IM            200m
Renren                 200m
LinkedIn              150m

Orkut                    60m
Nimbuzz               50m
RIM BBM           50m
Google+               50m
Kakao                   25m
Cyworld (Korea)  20m
Viber                     20m
WhatsApp             20m

And then there's Apple's Facetime and iMessage, Google Voice, Kik, enterprise VoIP from Cisco and Avaya, IBM SameTime and many others. So, give or take, about 4.5 billion users collectively. You could also add in various providers of webmail for another 3 billion or so as well. Potentially, you could add in the telco-OTT operations like ON, Comoyo, Bobsled and O2 Connect as well. And yes, there's a lot of overlap in terms of the user base - but then that's also true (albeit to a lesser degree) of SIMs.

So now let's consider what specifications and other activities that ACPA / OTTA could start doing, if it acted collectively like the GSMA. (Obviously with appropriate anti-trust safeguards).

- Define handset standards that give equal priority to 3rd party communications services as the "official" MNO ones
- Define mechanisms that ensure that users can easily install - AND delete - any handset communications apps, including SMS, RCS etc.
- Specify multiple identity and authentication methods for services (leaving the SIM for network registration though, for now).
- Develop an equivalent to the GSMA IPX for interchange / backbone services
- Define methods for VoIP / social network portability
- Act for collective lobbying vs. regulators and governments on issues like Net Neutrality, termination regimes and structural separation
- Examine business models for monetising MNOs that currently deliver their services to users "for free", exploiting their R&D and data centre assets. (Who wants to be a dumb data centre, working equally with all networks?). For example, rev-shares on data roaming fees, which aren't even based on the billing operator's network assets.
- Market the benefits of unlocked "vanilla" handsets without operators' software add-ons
- Develop a shared approach to emergency calls / lawful intercept
- Work with banks or credit organisations to provide alternative sources of handset subsidy/loan
- Defining ways for multiple comms apps to "peacefully coexist" on handsets without software conflicts
- Examine ways to minimise battery drain, for example by using shared notification systems
- Work with network equipment & IT infrastructure providers to develop optimised hardware for data centres, private overlay networks etc

In a way, it surprises me that no such grouping exists already. For all their competitive animosity, I can't believe that Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook (and maybe QQ as an outsider) can't work together as effectively as the squabbling telco world - and probably make decisions and take action an order of magnitude faster. Perhaps there have already been secret discussions I'm not aware of, and they concluded that it wasn't necessary given the companies are still ascendant.

But given that the legacy telcos have failed to change their ridiculous "them and us" stance versus their newer peers, it is perhaps now appropriate for these maturing organisations to work to their mutual benefit against a common front.

This is just a starting point - I've literally just thought of this in the last hour or so.

Needless to say, if any of the organisations mentioned would like some analytical insight into this concept, I'd be delighted to assist in any way possible. You can contact me via @disruptivedean or information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com


Curtis Carmack said...

Brilliant, and long overdue!

Eelco said...

Most OTT service providers have a global reach and want to have as many users as possible. Hence there is no need for federating with other services.

Companies like Nimbuzz, eBuddy and Fring exists because these the larger OTT providers do not federate with each other. These companies offer a federation like user experience to their users.

In 2009 we wrote a paper about context federation and the different stages you historically see in the federation of services.

It is an interesting idea though, OTT service providers working together towards a federated user experience...

Alessandro Bogliolo said...

Food for thoughts!

SiP said...

You forgot to mentioned that MNO and others buy and rent phones. They are not sell directly most of the time but via MNO.

This wont work. 70-80% of customers cant prefer to buy a phone "inside" or "with" subscription.

Your solution would not work.

The Voice on Telecom said...

I can't speak for the messages put out at the RCS conference, but do you really think the telcos are still that much "us and them"? It seems that instead the trend will be towards incorporate them into their larger platforms ?

Still, fascinating idea.


Dean Bubley said...

Curtis & Alessandro - thanks

Eelco - this isn't about federation. If anything, it's the complete opposite, embracing fragmentation and multi-identity / multi-app / multi-ecosystem users, but trying (a) to avoid stepping on each others toes too much, and (b) taking collective action to maintain a stance against legacy MNOs on important issues

SiP - (a) you're wrong. Globally, most phones are sold direct. In markets like the US and Japan, they're operator-dominated, and in Europe it's fairly mixed. (b) the whole point is that it would benefit Google, Apple etc if they encouraged *more* people to buy phones unlocked/vanilla, and I'm suggesting that they work to evangelise that.

The Voice on Telecoms: No, I still see a huge amount of "them & us" attitude. Not from everyone at every operator, but a ton of slides and presentations with "How do we compete against OTTs?", "How do we monetise OTT traffic on data networks", and then there's ridiculous #telcowash nonsense like ATKearney's Internet Value Chain study earlier this year.

I wrote 4 years ago that telcos should partner with the independent mobile VoIP companies and it didn't really happen much. We may well see more of it in the next few years as telcos realise that VoLTE isn't as easy as they think.

Mavenir Marketing said...


Always thought provoking. The trend is obvious.. however, not with the intent of defending the squabbling operators, but as a consumer, i see more squabbling within the ACPA/OTTA providers. It is a gold rush or land grab with guns blazing at each other.

The day the ACP/OTT decide they want to execute on your list of items - in other words, take on real costs and liability in a truly open environment (OTT/ACP are NOT open) - I will be the first to line up for a membership.

hope to catch up with you in the next GSMA event.