Friday, January 29, 2010

The Greatest Free-riders of Our Time

Former Southwestern Bell CEO, now General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre famous accused Google of free-riding his network, despite the obvious truth that Google pays for traffic delivery to peering points and ISPs gladly enter into reciprocal peering agreements in lieu of cash transactions that would likely result in a near zero payment as roughly equivalent traffic balances out. Mr. Whiteacre did raise a legitimate question whether there are free riders and I’m see one darling and one unexpected group flying below the radar.

My list of supreme free riders: Apple and cellular radio carriers. Anytime an Apple customer and/or a wireless carrier customer pays for and downloads content via a wi-fi connection, Apple and the carriers avoid having to pay for transport, or providing transport respectively. So Apple can get paid for a book delivered to the iPad without incurring any delivery cost. Such a deal. I have not heard that Apple will pay a gratuity to Starbucks and all the other wi-fi hotspot operators whenever a book gets downloaded “off network.”

Similarly recognize that anytime a wireless carrier subscriber uses wi-fi, in lieu of the carrier’s network, the carrier has avoided having to provide service. Subscribers are not conserving monthly service minutes when they use wi-fi, particularly for data downloads by all you can eat data plan customers.

Some time ago, wireless carriers required cellphone manufacturers such as Nokia to disable wi-fi access in the mistaken perception that the carrier would not benefit when subscribers avoid having to use the carriers’ network. Given the sorry state of these networks in the face of vastly increasing demand, wireless carriers wised up.

Now Apple and the cellular carriers qualify as the greatest free-riders of our time.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Top Ten Insights from the 33rd Annual Conference of the Pacific Telecommunications Council

I have just returned from my annual trek to Honolulu and the PTC Conference; see Living in a place with extraordinary cloudiness and chill, I look forward to a brief respite despite the frequent airline screw-ups that this time occurred both inbound and outbound (20+ hrs each way plus the unique opportunity to hang out on the tarmac of the Quad Cities airport located in Moline, Il.)

Here are my top ten insights from the conference:

1) Internet-mediated video (particularly 3D) will continue to pump up demand for bandwidth. Both satellite and submarine cable operators talked about offering capacity capable of delivering multiple Terabytes (1000 to the power of 4) capacity.

2) While voice may not offer much revenue prospects as a standalone retail service, consumers still need the application and service providers look to embed it everywhere. It’s possible that in the future we might key in a telephone number in an Internet browser to connect seamlessly. That makes the browser a “universal client.”

3) Ebay may have given up on Skype prematurely. Skype now carries 12% of all international calls, not all of which are free PC-to-PC traffic.

4) Look for further blurring of the line between web-mediated and real time communications with social network sites offering real time messaging coupled with the ability to tag voice to content.

5) The conference emphasis on cloud computing may have been overhyped, but I left convinced that software increasingly will become a service instead of something infrequently installed and updated on one’s hard drive.

6) There is cause for optimism that the “lost” continent of Africa will start to have true broadband access at least on the eastern side. As major markets reach some type of saturation the profit motive makes Africa more attractive even at vastly reduced margins. Bear in mind that wireless operators in Africa have offered service for pennies a minute while generating a respectable profit.

7) As smartphones proliferate look to wireless as the preferred convergence medium for many consumers. Dr. Robert Pepper of Cisco offered an estimate that two thirds of all mobile traffic will be video by 2013. Operators can expect vast demand, but will it come from 4 million customers downloading 50 YouTube videos per month or 2 high definition movies? The aggregate throughput demand is the same—18 petabytes. Speaking of YouTube, I heard that the company is spending up to $2 million a day in Internet capacity to offer its mostly free services.

8) Satellite carriers will have the capacity to offer 100 Gigabits per second service soon and some operators are thinking about installing router functionality on the bird instead of on the ground.

9) There was very little discussion about network neutrality, but a lot about offering differing quality of service performance guarantees.

10) Lastly, it was remarkable to see that most of the major conference sponsors are based outside the U.S. The intellectual, financial and entrepreneurial juice seems more widely distributed as never before. Thanks to financiers’ fees that helped bankrupt the home telephone company, Hawaiian Telcom, the conference had limited local color even as it provided shorter flying times for the dealmakers.