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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.


Anonymous said...

typo (should be home not hoe I guess)
nice article!

Anonymous said...

Another one:

Should be disIngenuous, not disengenuous, right?

Great article btw, made me laugh (yes, I work in a telco)

Dean Bubley said...

Thanks for the proof-reading guys - I had to hit "publish" running to the gate for a plane & didn't manage a full read-through.

Glad you liked it!

Anonymous said...

Are services like cars which don't need to coordinate their actions with the network? This is what I call the "OTT" model.

Or are services like trains which need close coordination with the network to avoid accidents? This is what I call the "non-OTT" model.

Of course "OTT" services became more network-aware over time; eg they try to find servers near you or attempt to limit wireless usage.

"non-OTT"providers try to serve customers outside their controlled networks. Which doesn't work well, because IMS is such a horrible outdated architecture.