Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Gone fishin'

EuroTelcoblog is taking a much needed break in a remote corner of Britain for the next week. You can count on virtually no posts, unless something truly amazing happens. My crystal ball tells me that something pretty big is going to be announced tomorrow, but alas, I will not be around to cover it. Think of me when the press release comes out...

What's in a name?

In response to my post of last night on Net2Phone, a reader has sent me an interesting piece of information. This reader is a user of Net2Phone's Voiceline product, and on a hunch a few days back, went to the MCI Neighborhood Broadband Calling website, entered the FAQ section and selected the option allowing users to check their accounts. In the required fields he placed his Net2Phone Voiceline account details, and, lo and behold, was taken to an account status page, despite the fact that he did not have an account with MCI. The status information displayed was identical to that of his genuine Net2Phone account (he has sent me some documentation which appears to validate this). Apparently he was able to log in to the MCI site as recently as last weekend.

What drove his initial hunch about NTOP and MCI was an earlier experience involving a local cable service provider which started whitelabelling NTOP's solution. The reader, as an existing NTOP customer, was similarly able to log into the cableco's site using his NTOP details, though this problem was fixed within a week. One other observation he makes is that the service codes (commands for voicemail options, etc.) are apparently the same for both MCI and Voiceline, a fact he says can be confirmed by consulting the user guides for both. His inescapable conclusion is that MCI's product is a reskinned version of Voiceline.

UPDATE: My source has just confirmed that he tried it again at 2:35PM London time and was still able to log in.

UPDATE 2: Still able to log in at 6:03PM London time.

UPDATE 3: Andy chimes in and connects the dots pretty explicitly in a way which I only obliquely suggested yesterday. I tend to think he's right.

I'm beginning to think that sanity is breaking out in some corners of EuroTelcoland. T-Mobile today unveiled a new initiative in mobile data known as “web’n’walk,” which will be targeted at 18 – 35 year-olds and initially launched in July 2005 in Germany and Austria, followed by the rest of the T-Mobile footprint (excluding the US for now). The interesting thing here is that the default homepage for these optimized devices will be a modified version of the Google homepage (T-Zones and partner links will still be present, but pride of place goes to Google). Additionally, the homepage can be reset by the user, something my Orange SPV won't allow. This is a pretty clear admission of defeat for the walled garden content approach, and I think it may send a few shockwaves through the industry, i.e., "consumers want control over their experience - whaddawedonow?".

The other important admission coming out of this announcement is that mobile data pricing has stifled growth. T-Mobile is effectively cutting the price of data by two-thirds, by increasing the data limit on its €10 data package to 30MB from 10MB previously. For new customers on the Sidekick II device, there will be no data cap until the end of the year.

There's some other fun stuff going on here, such as a full XHTML browser, push technology for email on the Sidekick device (and apparently later on the Microsoft OS-based devices), and faster webpage rendering due to compression. By early 2006, the company expects to have ten web’n’walk handsets throughout each price range, accounting for 25% of the total handset portfolio. The company expects several hundred thousand “web’n’walk” users by the end of 2006, with an ARPU uplift for those users of €10 per month. All in all, this is fairly negligible at an aggregate level, but at least the change in thinking is commendable.

The conference call contained a couple of interesting tidbits. Firstly, asked about any revenue share agreements with Google, CEO Rene Obermann deferred to Google, which I think strongly suggests that there is something fairly sensitive in place. Also, one analyst asked how long it would be before VoIP on mobile became an issue for operators, and here the T-Mobile CTO delivered a bit of FUD relating to Skype: suggesting that beyond the initial setup there might be some complexities in configuration (?) which might discourage mainstream users, citing the lack of interconnectivity between VoIP applications, and claiming that the "monthly charges" associated with SkypeOut and SkypeIn would be an unattractive proposition for consumers. This was pretty weak, I have to say. I think consumers would jump at the chance to pay €3.33 per month for a foreign phone number (so relatives and friends could avoid the termination extortion), keep a small SkypeOut balance as a discretionary reserve, and make use of a helluva lot of Skype minutes within a 30MB bundle priced at €10 per month.
German cable telephony

German cable, due to its complex structure and legacy of underinvestment, has never been expected to be a key driver in VoIP adoption in the country in the near term, but it's doing what it can.
Lost in the fine print

I look forward to reading the weekly updates from the ASA in the UK. This week's named and shamed telco is BT, which is pinned down by a savvy consumer who clocked that a 1GB data cap and unlimited free VoIP calls don't coexist easily. The adjudicators agreed.
What's NExT?

France Telecom's investor day webcast is ongoing (slides are here), but here are a few observations (I have to be quick because BT and DT are also having briefings starting in under two hours):

Previous 2005 financial guidance was reiterated today, and longer term guidance is consistent with (though slightly more optimistic than) what I am forecasting, with one exception: the net debt/EBITDA multiple envisaged by FT implies a 2008 net debt figure not markedly different from what we expect at the end of 2005 (the range is wide, I suspect, but both we and the market expect something dramatically lower by 2008). We suspect that this target assumes some acquisitions, as well as higher dividend payouts.

Much of the strategic vision outlined today is familiar from previous FT presentations, namely the focus on integration of services, operations, and brand. There was expansion on this theme today:

  • Development of a single service portal with unified customer service by end 2006 (previously discussed)
  • Orange to become the unified international brand for mobile, broadband and multiservice offerings (new information)
  • New converged services launched in 2005: combined mobile and broadband access packages (H1 2006); enhanced VoIP services (Q4 2005); video telephony and IM client (launching now in France); flat rate call package for calls between customer’s home phone and mobile devices (launching now in France). (All of this was new, but fully expected)
  • New life service offerings: home monitoring, home care, telemedicine-related (this is also new, but largely expected)
  • Continued expansion into adjacent markets, including through MVNOs (this latter fact is new and interesting).

Certainly in terms of rhetoric, FT seems to genuinely grasp the current dynamic of the market. I particularly liked the fact that today's presentation clearly identifies both global internet players and device/hardware makers as threats. We take this for granted, and I strongly suspect that most telcos do internally, but it is refreshing to hear an incumbent telco speaking so frankly in a public forum. I'm also interested in the fact that FT is pointing towards a longer term increase in R&D spending, which is also against the grain, but probably the right move. (In fact, the proportion of R&D spend dedicated to "exploratory" projects will rise from 1% currently to 15%.) Certainly the internally developed videotelephony/IM softphone demonstrated a few minutes ago looked pretty good.

I think we can count on FT to be a prime force in the disruption of core European markets well into the future. I'm certainly interested to see what the MVNO angle is all about, and there was a fairly strong suggestion today that full unbundling in the UK is more appealing following last week's price cuts. I would also expect that these disruption efforts will include acquisitions as well. CFO Michel Combe said point blank that FT is not interested in Cable & Wireless, though I also note that the previous EUR500m acquisition cap has been lifted in the new strategic plan.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Consolidate this

There's no sign of it in the corporate website at this writing, but 45 minutes ago I got an email declaring that IDT is launching a tender offer for outstanding equity in its Net2Phone (NTOP) subsidiary, at a 20% premium to today's closing price. IDT's Toucan unit is a player in CPS, broadband and mobile in the UK, and I wonder what this deal means (if anything) for VoIP in Europe generally, given IDT's existing UK presence and NTOP's involvement in European cable VoIP. I have previously heard a wide range of rumors, ranging from a plan by IDT to sell NTOP some time ago, to a more recent rumor claiming that NTOP is MCI's partner in its Neighborhood Broadband Calling service.
Game theory 4

I was "induced" by the excellent Wonderland to visit this amazing blog from PARC, devoted to what I guess we should call an ethnographic study of ficticious societies and classes in World of Warcraft. It is interesting to see a study attempting to analyze the characters and motivations of realworld people based on how their fantasy projections of themselves behave. Telcos, did you ever feel just plain lost?
Game theory 3

As I write this, EMI is up more than 1% on the day, and Vivendi Universal by a little less than 1%, in contrast to some of the anemic responses in the US market yesterday from some of the presumed beneficiaries of the Grokster ruling (AAPL, LOUD).

Om, as usual, does a great job of pulling together some interesting points of view on the decision, including his own (I particularly like the reference to VCs rediscovering the allure of enterprise software, and am particularly disturbed by the notion that the ruling may be interpreted more widely to thwart innovation - I don't know if the place-shifting pioneers are perhaps more at risk now?).

I also think the comments from Andrew Parker of CacheLogic are particularly salient, and point to an issue which many seem to have overlooked: the developers in this area are faster than those chasing them, and have proven themselves to be very resourceful in the past. From the ashes of Napster rose something infinitely more damaging, which is still with us five years later. In any event, as a number of studies have shown, the FastTrack networks which have traditionally been the focus of litigation (and indeed of this decision), are in terminal decline. Users have moved elsewhere, and the early success of the MPAA in getting torrent aggregator sites shut down has simply driven this activity elsewhere, often seemingly beyond the reach of the industry.

More fundamentally, I'm not at all convinced that some of these third generation applications can be subjected to the same sort of treatment as we envisage the likes of Streamcast receiving in future:

  • Firstly, they are clients, not "networks" or "communities."
  • Secondly, they are almost invariably developer projects, rather than products, and revenues, if any, come from voluntary donations. I doubt very seriously that the author of Azureas is in a financial position to retire to the Seychelles anytime soon, and persecuting Bram Cohen would be a source of national shame, in my view, for a country which prides itself on innovation, entrepreneurship, and the potential of the individual. He unleashed a potent distribution tool, and it's not his fault if the content world wasn't ready for it.
  • Thirdly, while users downloading these clients might have every intention of "stealing," I think it would be impossible to argue that the developers have pushed people towards any particular sort of behavior, as might have been relevant in the Grokster case. If we are going to extend the net to encompass developers of software/hardware that might be employed in infringing uses, then I guess we had better include all IM platforms, Skype, all flash memory devices, all PVRs and portable media devices, and hell why not all computer hardware?

I guess it would be churlish to point out that the entertainment world hasn't always been 100%, iron-clad averse to file sharing as a phenomenon. I agree that yesterday's decision brought some hard lessons to some people who thought they might have escaped on the strength of their rhetoric and legal precedents. At the same time, I think we have to be honest and recognize that this was a victory against five year-old technologies and business models, i.e., this was the easy win. The real problems/challenges arise with greater decentralization, and this is potentially another world of pain for the industry. I am reminded of the 1980s, when US law enforcement focused on interdiction of marijuana traffic, presumably because it was easier to find and produced more dramatic news footage, and inadvertently spawned an explosion of cocaine use.

UPDATE: JD Lasica's post contains some other difficult questions.

Game theory 2

A Platinum Circle value reader writes in to question the ultimate goal of the MCI Neighborhood Broadband Calling trial. He and a group of like-minded people did some primary research in the availability site, and came up with the list below. His question: isn't this quite extensive for a "trial"? My question, from a Eurocentric point of view is: if the European incumbents view IP as the new stick to beat each other with, might the RBOCs also come to view hosted voice as a low cost way to revisit their abandoned European expansion strategies? Any views, on either issue, would be welcomed. Here's the painstakingly assembled list:

Montgomery, Alabama 256-653-6258 - NO
Birmingham, Alabama 205 934-4011 - NO
Tucson, Arizona (520) 621-2211 - YES
Phoenix, Arizona (602) 239-6800 - YES
City of Bryant, Arkansas 501-847-0292 - NO
Little Rock, Arkansas 501 374-7856 - YES
San Francisco, California (415) 863-8892 - YES
Los Angeles, California 213/617-1475 - YES
San Diego, California 619-281-1999 - YES
Berkeley, California (510) 883-7000 - YES
Denver, Colorado (303) 329-9894 - YES
Colorado Springs, Colorado (719) 520-7475 - YES
Westport, Connecticut 508-483-0537 - YES
Stamford, Connecticut (203) 878-5791 - YES
New Castle, Delaware (302) 322-9801 - YES
Dover, Delaware 302-760-7460 - YES
District of Columbia 202-727-8822 - YES
Miami, Florida 305-470-5001 - YES
Gainesville, Florida (352) 331-3535 - YES
Monticello, Georgia 770-504-2000 - NO
Macon, Georgia (478) 757-3400 - YES
Boise, Idaho (208) 334-3316 - YES
Peoria, Illinois (309) 688-7858 - YES
Bloomington, Indiana 812/336-5839 - YES
Des Moines, Iowa 515-246-2328 - NO
Topeka, Kansas (785) 296-3240 - YES
Lexington, Kentucky (859) 246-2247 - YES
New Orleans, Louisiana (504) 524-1210 - YES
Portland, Maine 207-874-8774 - NO
Baltimore Maryland 410-328-6830 - YES
Woburn, Massachusetts 781 932-4430 - YES
Lansing, Michigan (517) 373-8370 - YES
Milwaukee, Minnesota 414.358.8138 - YES
Clinton, Mississippi (601) 924-7533 - YES
Jefferson City, Missouri 573-635-4128 - NO
Springfield, Missouri (417) 862-4507 - YES
Helena, Montana 406-447-1580 - NO
Great Falls, Montana (406) 452-2265 - YES
Lincoln, Nebraska 402-464-0065 - NO
Kearney, Nebraska (308) 865-7181 - NO
Las Vegas, Nevada 702-365-1900 - NO
Trenton, New Jersey (609) 292-6500 - YES
Newark, New Jersey 973-648-4109 - YES
Santa Fe, New Mexico (505) 769-1613 - NO
Albuquerque, New Mexico 505-823-0877 - YES
New York, New York (212) 949-2000 - YES
Fayetteville, North Carolina 910-488-1228 - NO
Greensboro, North Carolina 336-373-2065 - NO
Fargo, North Dakota (701)476-0853 - NO
Bismark, North Dakota 701-223-2700 - NO
Cleveland, Ohio 216-751-5000 - YES
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (405) 271-4000 - YES
Portland, Oregon 503-283-2925 - YES
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 412-369-7748 - NO
Providence, Rhode Island (401) 421-7740 - YES
Columbia, South Carolina (803) 898-3630 - YES
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (605) 977-3504 - NO
Rapid City, South Dakota 605-341-2424 - YES??
Nashville, Tennessee (615) 741-1763 - NO
San Antonio, Texas 210-738-7799 - YES
Salt Lake City, Utah (801) 596-3705 - YES
Vermont (802) 656-3040 - YES
Virginia (804) 228-5818 - YES
Seattle, Washington - YES
Charleston, West Virginia 304 263-1345 - YES
Wisconsin 608-263-1110 - YES
Wyoming (307) 234-5311 - YES
Reader survey

Some lightning fast and very kind people over at Macromedia have provided me with a custom reader survey, which I would be gratified if you could respond to at your convenience.
Game theory 1

KPN has this morning announced the acquisition of Telfort, the former O2 wireless business in the Dutch market, for EUR980m in cash and assumed debt, plus an earnout of up to EUR140m, subject to undisclosed performance criteria.

Since being taken private, Telfort has targeted the more cost-conscious segment of the market and has been particularly aggressive in the prepaid segment (the last published data shows ARPU at EUR26, versus EUR33 for KPN in the most recent fiscal year, and EUR28 in Q1). This move appears to echo TDC's acquisition of MVNO Telmore (and E-Plus' creation of the Simyo brand in Germany), as an attempt to partially stabilize a tough domestic market and gain some exposure to growth in more marginal market segments. The press release alludes to operational (and presumably) network synergies, though these are not quantified presently.

Telmore has 2.4m subscribers, which will take KPN to a market share of subscribers above 50% in the market, and apparently drive it toward its 40% revenue share target. In its most recent financial year (the company still reports on a March year-end as a legacy of the BT/O2 days) Telfort generated EBITDA of EUR97m on sales of EUR509m (margin 19.1%, vs. 38% for KPN in Q1). So here we have ARPU and margin dilution in the name of reaching a capital markets-facing target, with the additional benefits of taking out an irritating competitor and generating a tax shield. Financial ratios look to be safe for now, based on the little information we have, and the market has initially interpreted this transaction positively. Not bad, but will it ultimately be viewed as the right deployment of EUR1bn, and is it enough to fundamentally change KPN's long term prospects?
Census time

Apologies for this ham-fisted measure, but I want to get a clearer idea of how many people are actually reading this bloglet, which is difficult as I don't have my own server and syndicate stories in their full version. So, for the next two days (or so), I will be syndicating only a few lines, in order to see how the traffic flows change. Apologies for this inconvenience - it is not a permanent change in policy.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Trilingual telco TV

Belgacom is going to launch its Belgacom TV product tomorrow with a press conference at 10:15 AM CET, though sparing itself (and the rest of us) any analyst involvement. Pick your language of choice and tune, um, log in.

For English:

For French:

For Dutch:
More power to you

Email may be broken in many ways as a communication tool, but it still works well enough to have some startling consequences. Consumer revolt by viral email campaign is an area of great interest for me, so I was intrigued to see this message, forwarded to me a moment ago by my boss, who had received it as part of a long chain, suggesting it is making its way to every inbox in the UK:

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
From: xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
To: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Sent: Friday, June 24, 2005 5:48 PM
Subject: Telephone Rip off

Calls to numbers commencing 0845 and 0870 incur premium rate charges of up to 10p/minute. This invisible "profit" is shared between BT and the owner of the number. To avoid this rip off, do the following:

Visit and click on the search link. This will invite you to either enter the 0870 or 0845 number you are trying to avoid or to enter the name of the company you are calling. In most cases, it will give you an alternative national rate number or even a freephone number to use instead.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Martin ranted about this issue back in October, and even pointed to an entry on the Say No to 0870 forums which itself pointed to minutes of an OFCOM meeting suggesting a significant EBIT contribution from these so-called "number translation services". Now it looks like the consumer is spreading the word.

ASIDE: It's interesting to look at the absurdity of Google ads in this context. The homepage for the anti-0870 movement advertises, what else, 0870 numbers and what they can do for you.
Stick a fork in 'em, they're done

In an interesting meeting with fund managers on Friday, there was absolutely no debate that the industry is on a one way trip on the Downbound Train, but the issue of timing for the investor was one where we could achieve no consensus. My final take on the issue was that all the ingredients are in place for things to move faster than many may suspect, and that change so far has been faster than I expected three years ago when I went over to the dark side of telecom naysayers.

Here's another clue. Telia has seemingly partially bought into the idea of "sessions, not minutes," today unveiling a new call package which offers unlimited calls to fixed lines, and more importantly, to Telia mobiles (thereby foregoing the termination gravy). At SEK74 per month, that's a cool EUR7.90 for unlimited calls to loads of people, with a EUR0.7 setup charge per call.
Mirror, mirror

Had an interesting meeting with some fund managers on Friday, during which one remarked, "The problem with the incumbents is that they are still unwilling to admit that they are utilities."
Double funk

An uber-mega value reader points me to some news from Friday which I would have expected to make some impact on the mainstream news wires by now, but curiously not yet. O2's German unit is to team up with WiMAX player DBD for a joint product called SmartDuo, pairing the WiMAX offering with O2's Genion product (which bills GSM calls at fixed line rates within a defined "home zone").

The 300k home coverage area reportedly in the pipeline for September of this year isn't huge, but it's certainly one more incremental source of pressure for DT both in mobile and broadband. The Flash graphics on the DBD site tell it all, with the mouse and the "handy" coming together to push the fixed phone into oblivion.

UK paper The Business last weekend added its voice to the growing chorus suggesting that DT is so frustrated by O2's performance in the mobile market that it may take O2 out. Genion is indeed a showpiece, accounting for more than 50% of O2's contract net adds (i.e., 450k) in the last financial year. Nevertheless, I don't buy the takeover story, on regulatory grounds alone.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Duck and cover

If you find yourself in need of some weekend reading, try the US Federal Trade Commission's report on P2P.
Gas attack

UK leading gas retailer/domestic services company Centrica released a trading update today, in which it cites "very strong" growth in its OneTel CPS business, but warns of weaker margins due to rising customer acquisition costs. The customer growth is attributed to cross-marketing with gas. Incidently, one of my colleagues visited the local branch of the post office yesterday at lunchtime and received an impassioned sales pitch for their HomePhone product, which broke the 100k mark in early June, and claims to be signing up 1,000 people a day.
Viva secession!

A Diamond Club megavalue reader points me to some news which escaped my notice: a massive open network in Catalunya, backed by regional government and a federation of 782 local governments. Given the intense regional rivalries characterizing this country, I wonder whether the Madrillenos will sit passively by while the northern broadband secessionistas build the future.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

This internet thing is gonna be big

I feel like I'm living in a dream world this week. First we get the Murdoch dynasty embracing (partially) the internet as a content distribution channel (and slipping in a 2% price hike while they're at it), and now, Reuters is reporting that the Malone camp is going to launch an internet-based VOD service in its chello broadband unit. The service is going to be powered by LibertyGlobal stablemate Arrivo on Demand, keeping it in the family.
VoIP fatigue

A client recently remarked to me, "VoIP events - why would you go at this point? I mean, when was the last time you attended a conference on email?" That may be a bit harsh, but I'm beginning to see his point. However, it was previous commitments, rather than boredom, which kept me from attending KPN's VoIP event in London yesterday. As these things go, it looks to have been a pretty frank presentation of the ugly situation in the Dutch market (which I have repeatedly documented here - also see slides 7 and 9 of the slide pack). As for the product itself, it's another good example of mathematics in the telecom world, where "always free" costs EUR10 per month (see slide 23) and we're still dumping a call setup charge on top of call charges.
Accentuate the positive

Disruption in the UK market got a leg up today, as OFCOM unveiled the preliminary conclusions to phase 2 of its strategic market review. Most of the key elements are along the lines of what BT itself proposed back in February, though a few elements of the fine print lead me to think that this is a fairly tough settlement for BT, perhaps reflecting the company’s desire to cooperate in order to avoid more serious intervention. The stock is up over 4% as I write, and the financial press interpretation is that this is a relief rally as "BT escapes breakup." I'm not sure how many in the market genuinely thought that breakup was a likely outcome, but I guess that following the adage that the market hates uncertainty, some visibility is better than none, even if the picture itself is not that pretty. Both OFCOM and BT are holding calls later today, but at this point, the important stuff is:

  • As previously proposed by BT itself, a separate unit will be created within BT for the purpose of guaranteeing equivalence of access. This unit, to be known as the Access Services Division (ASD), will have 30,000 staff, be headquartered in a separate location (I would recommend Coventry), use separate operational and trading systems, and over time will develop its own distinct branding to reinforce its presumed independence from BT. Importantly, OFCOM has insisted that Access Services personnel’s bonuses will be determined on the basis of success in achieving the goals of the unit (i.e., fostering competition), rather than those of BT Group (or the performance of BT shares, which may be inverse to the success of this unit).
  • To achieve greater separation between Wholesale and Retail units, BT will agree to segregate product teams in its Wholesale unit managing products where BT is deemed to have significant market power (SMP). These product management teams will have financial incentive schemes similar to those promised for ASD employees.
  • OFCOM has put in place clear compliance and enforcement mechanisms, including a five member Equality of Access Board (three of whom will be independent, versus two under BT’s February proposal), and a financial penalty of 25p per line per month if BT fails to deliver its targets for Wholesale Line Rental process improvement by 31st December 2006. Moreover, by agreeing to today’s measures in lieu of action under the Enterprise Act, OFCOM will have the power to take BT to court for non-compliance, and members of the BT board of directors will bear personal responsibility for ensuring compliance with the rulings in any court cases which may arise out of this process (a fact which Cable & Wireless seems to like).
  • The 21CN network must be structured so as to support unbundled access for third parties to key bottlenecks, and 21CN retail services may only be launched after equivalent wholesale products are available. Moreover, wholesale and unbundled access pricing for 21CN must reflect the greater cost efficiencies of the new network. (This is what I would have expected OFCOM to say, though BT has previously only referred to "fair access" to 21CN.)
  • BT will cut the annual rental on fully unbundled local loops by 24%, from £105 to £80, effective from 1st August. This goes £5 farther than we had expected in terms of absolute decline, and is significantly sharper than what BT was suggesting in February (around 8%). OFCOM has taken the additional step of barring BT from cutting the rental price of its wholesale DSL products until such time as the number of unbundled lines reaches 1.5m (from only 59k at the end of May).
  • If OFCOM concurs with BT's view at some future date that the WLR product and processes are functioning properly, then there may be scope for BT to increase monthly line rental, however I note that a piece on broadband regulation is also due from OFCOM next week, and I would bet 50p that it will include some serious consideration of naked DSL.

Judging from share price performance today, clearly the market is relieved at what it sees as the removal of an “overhang” issue regarding BT’s future. However, it seems to be ignoring to some extent that the structural complexities involved in setting this system up may be great. We are talking about a new headquarters, structure, IT systems, etc. for 30k, as well as the cultural upheaval which the ringfencing of parts of Wholesale is likely to cause. These are not trivial issues. Additionally, the dramatically lower full ULL rental charge is a green light to Wanadoo, AOL, Tiscali, Bulldog, et al, while BT's ability to mitigate this impact by lowering wholesale pricing is frozen until ULL is well-established.

UPDATE 1: OFCOM's conference call slides are here. The call itself was not hugely informative beyond what we already know from today's statement, though it added some context around OFCOM's thinking. There were a couple of interesting facts which came out. Once the 1.5m lines benchmark has been achieved and the freeze on wholesale pricing removed, the national average decline in IPStream pricing will still be kept to below 3%. Asked about how OFCOM will measure success, Stephen Carter remarked that he expected that once a genuinely level playing field with attractive margins had been created, competition would flow into various segments of the market, ranging from ULL through to innovative voice packages (for which read VoIP). On the ULL issue, I couldn't determine whether he meant DSL service provision over ULL, or in infrastructure itself. The analysts seemed to be focusing on the retail service provider space (which is a given in my view), but I am aware of at least one new company which is looking to compete head to head with BT on the infrastructure side. It is interesting to ponder the additional complexity that this might add to the market, and I wonder how many have contemplated its implications.

UPDATE 2: BT's call was fairly upbeat, at least in the sense that management sounded relieved to have removed uncertainty. In terms of additional information which came out, Clive Ansell, head of regulation, remarked that there is actually a backstop date in 2007, when BT will be allowed to lower wholesale prices, even if the 1.5m threshold has not been reached. Financial impacts were quantified thus:

  • "Several tens of million pounds" over a couple of years to set up the Access Services business.
  • A £12m hit from building in the 10% margin for competitors on WLR (on the basis of a 10% margin on 1m WLR customers over 12 months), though this figure is obviously going to rise as WLR grows and the next incremental cut in WLR pricing is made.
  • Impact from ULL of £30 - 40m, based on 1m lines. This was clearly a back-of-envelope exercise on BT's part, and seems to represent a central case. For example, management said that if we assume that all ULL growth is driven by market growth, then it's a net positive. If all growth is churn-related, I come up with something like negative £45m impact at 1m customers, if they're all fully unbundled lines. Clearly neither of these scenarios is likely to dominate growth in the market in such an absolute manner.

Another indicative forecast was 5m unbundled lines by 2010, but this was stated as just one scenario. Drastic, yes, but better than seeing defections to cable (by the way, have a look at NTL's £9.99 offer for 12 months). Something tells me this market's about to go off like a rocket.

Key statistics

Two items here:

1) I opened up Bloglines this morning to see that this humble bloglet has reached the 200 subscriber threshold, which is incredibly gratifying to me. Thanks to all who have made it whatever it is. As I've said before, some of the most interesting things found here are the product of the ideas and suggestions you have sent my way.

2) Point Topic reckons there are 164m broadband lines worldwide at the end of Q1, representing sequential growth of c.14m lines, or just over 9%.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Nextgen wireless coming of age?

Just two days ago we had a win for IPWireless in the Czech Republic, and today brings news that Finland's 450MHz license has been awarded to Digita, a proponent of Flash-OFDM, which is presumably good news for Flarion and Siemens. Digita is a broadcast infrastructure company controlled by TDF of France, and also controls the DTT infrastructure in Finland - thus its aspirations in this case are as a platform owner, rather than service provider.
Remember the bad old days

The amazingly prolific Regine points to this gallery of retro telecom ads. It's interesting to see how little some of the industry rhetoric has changed over the past 60 years. It's also interesting to see the notion of the "option value of contacts" being embedded in the service so explicitly at this early date, a notion we are still trying to quantify today. Some of the photos prompt laughter, as it seems almost absurd now to imagine a time when people were mostly "out of touch," but it wasn't that long ago. Our children will look back with pitying wonder at some of our notions of progress.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Salarymen, prepare to Skype

Another off-message post (in the sense that it's not Europe), but an interesting story nevertheless. Atheros has announced that its chipsets will be included in the Livedoor public WLAN project on the Yamanote line in Tokyo. This will launch in July in a free public trial, with commercial launch expected in October, with 80% coverage of the area within the Yamanote line being provided by 2,200 access points. The service is going to cost a mere Y525 (that's EUR4.00) per month. The Yamanote line is the giant circular overland train route covering central Tokyo, and I can't begin to imagine how many potential users there are within its boundaries over the course of a typical day. Livedoor, of course, is Skype's co-branding partner in Japan, and I love the thought of thousands of drunk salarymen Skyping home late at night with some lame excuse at some date in the not-too-distant future. Seriously though, the Skype arbitrage opportunities immense for those with the right devices.

Heat wave

We're having some hot weather here in the UK, and it's making me a bit mad, hence this post. Not remotely telecom-related (though at GBP59.99 it probably should have WiFi or an MP3 player), this made me laugh when I saw it at the bus stop this morning (yes, bus stop - my normal limousine service with armed motorcade escort has the day off). The England portable fridge.

UMA, schmUMA

Dean Bubley over at Disruptive Analysis has unleashed a report which may make the UMA camp's collars grow a little tighter after the beating BT Fusion took last week in the blogodrome, and among the mainstream press and brokers. The tag quote in the press release gives a good intro:

“UMA generally ignores the existence of the user’s PC. But if a customer
has a multimedia-capable, WiFi-connected device, using their paid-for broadband
connection, he or she will probably want to link the two. For voice calls and
basic coverage improvement, this isn’t a major issue. But if the phone is also
an MP3 player and a multi-megapixel cameraphone, customers will be annoyed if it cannot access the PC’s hard disk - or benefit from the PC’s connection to the
real Internet, to access email, music, VoIP or other services. There may also be
complex security and customer support issues, connecting a UMA-phone via a
customer’s existing WiFi access point, that mobile operators will struggle to
deal with.”
I don't get no respect

I'm usually pretty skeptical as to what, if anything, surveys like this mean, but they usually reliably give me an opportunity to say "telecom - ouch!"
Conspiracy theories, revisited

I've been seeing more broker/investment bank URLs in the site lately, one in particular with growing frequency. Said bank even apparently posted a link to my site on some sort of internal message board/wiki, judging from the referral data I could see in my Site Meter summary. So, I have managed to outsource myself, at last! The post was called "Google to buy Skype," and I think it was in response to this post. If there is any substance to this story from yesterday (and eBay investors certainly seemed to think there is), then I feel even more comfortable with this scenario.

How's this for vertical integration? You have arguably the world's most extensive contact database (which is growing evermore suited to the mobile environment), feeding into/fed by an advertising machine which others would kill for, add Skype as the connector/facilitator (and generator of incremental revenue through breakout services, voicemail, video, etc.), and own the billing engine for all of the transactions which this chain could capture/enable. You potentially extract value at every step - search, contact, completion. Whether you build it or buy it, I think the rationale is there to put all the pieces together, and speed to market is probably of the essence.

Monday, June 20, 2005

vSkype, take 2

My partner in crime and I revisited vSkype tonight, this time each with our own suitable webcams and headsets. I don't quite know what to make of the results.

Initially there seemed to be a two-minute gap between audio and video, with a very low video frame rate, which was bordering on the surreal. Then my counterparty realized that he had MSN Messenger running in the background and suspected that this might be causing trouble. We decided to end the call and start over once he had shut MSN down.

The second attempt was better in the sense that the video signal seemed to refresh every 1 - 2 seconds, as opposed to 15 - 20 previously. What I couldn't understand at this point was that, while there might have been obvious reasons why my comrade's video experience had not functioned properly before, my own nearly brand-new laptop (complete with custom-ordered RAM overkill) had been running only Skype, vSkype, and a web browser, over a 1Mbps/256kbps cable connection. In other words, if he had some bandwidth/compatability issues at his end (2Mbps/400kbps DSL), and I didn't, then why did it seemingly affect us both equally?

When we then decided to share his desktop, we got into deep trouble. I could see his desktop beautifully (albeit at an inappropriately large aspect ratio), and at the top of the frame, I could see, constantly updating, the time period remaining until his desktop data was updated (which ranged between 25 and 130 seconds), but anytime this dropped below about 90 seconds, he seemed to lose my voice channel completely, sometimes for as long as 30 seconds, though I could hear him perfectly at all times. This became too frustrating in the end, and we both shut down the video call and moved back to plain vanilla Skype.

What was apparent upon switching back to non-video Skype was the extent to which the audio had suffered at the expense of video during vSkype calls - not just the breakup problems, but the entire wideband codec experience, which seemed decidedly muddy during vSkype calls. As my partner pointed out at the time, "Voice quality is one of the only true USPs Skype has, and if this is eroding it, they have a serious issue."

Anyway, once we had reverted to pure Skype, in three successive calls, my partner had deafening static in his headset within three minutes of the call starting. My end sounded fine, but I could hear the loud hiss at his end (plus a lot of swearing). Neither of us would insinuate that this phenomenon is related to vSkype (it could be a hardware problem at his end), though at the same time neither of us has ever experienced this previously. He later commented (in a call from his local SIP service to my mobile phone - our last, desperate resort for voice when Skype had failed us) that since installing vSkype, some of the audio settings in his Skype client have changed and require maintenance when he is using vSkype (he is using a USB headset, apparently). For my part, I still can't understand why, since installing vSkype, the Skype client ignores my instruction not to launch until I tell it to.

Note to readers/tech journalists: The foregoing is based purely on my own personal experience, and forms neither an explicit endorsement, nor condemnation, of any service/application/company/person/philosophy, living or dead. Any similar experiences, or even diametrically opposed positive and trouble-free ones, are most welcome, and will be reflected accordingly. No animals were harmed during the creation of this post.

UPDATE: Apparently the automatic start-up for vSkype is inherent in the application, and will be addressed in future versions.
Love your Auntie

Apologies to those not resident in the UK, or in the dwindling ranks of the Anglophiles: "Auntie" is the historic term of reference for the BBC, which later this year is launching an open-source challenge to the proprietary triumvirate of media player codecs available today. Dirac, as it is known, is something I recall coming across something like 18 months ago, and I think I may have written something about it in one of our .pdf spam products. I wish in retrospect that I had blogged it at the time, because I think it clearly is going to be huge.

Outside the UK, commercial terrestrial and satellite broadcasters, as well as telcos, should look to the skies and thank the deity of their choice that they don't have to contend with an entity like the BBC. Whatever the complaints and criticisms levelled at her, Auntie understandably feels she has a remit to extend digital uptake of her services by any means necessary (Freeview, P2P, Dirac), and to a great extent she has the freedom to pursue her vision without fear of self-cannibalization. This confronts everyone in the UK media space with an everpresent 800lb. wildcard.

At the tail end of last week, the advocacy group VLV issued a whitepaper which added another public layer of complexity to what is already a very complicated UK TV market. I was lucky enough to have a meeting some months ago with some very switched-on people within BBC strategy, and one thing that came across clearly was a passionate interest in seeing the success of Freeview replicated in a free satellite model, ostensibly to address the c.27% of UK households not covered by Freeview. I recall that at the time they claimed to have received inquiries from something like 4m unique households in these areas, asking when Freeview (or something comparable) would be available to them. I may be colorblind, but this certainly looks like a green light.
Czech convergence

Here's some unwelcome news for Telefonica, which recently received EU approval for its acquisition of Cesky Telecom: T-Mobile is to attack the residential broadband market with a deployment of IP Wireless UMTS TDD gear, aiming for c.50% population coverage by this time next year. T-Mobile's Czech business has 4.4m subscribers, of whom 1.1m are contract, which is a nice captive audience to start off the marketing effort.
Seen/not seen

There's no evidence of this in the corporate website, but Reuters is reporting that Sky has today confirmed its impending entry into broadband on-demand services, echoing the report in yesterday's Telegraph. Based on the description here, it looks like a lure for migration of sub-premium customers to top tier packages as well as a retention strategy for premium customers, which are around 52% of the subscriber base. I'll be interested to see pricing. In the report I published on Sky back in February, my central case was that lack of internet connectivity in the Sky product offering was a long-term vulnerability, and this seems to be a partial admission of that, though at this early stage, the connectivity piece is still missing. It's probably a step in the right direction, but my initial impression is that 200 film titles may not be terribly compelling.
Telio accelerates

I hear that Norway is having an unseasonably cool June, but interest in Telio seems to be heating up. The company has sold 1.34m shares (670k new, 670k existing) at NOK23 (representing 7.5% of the adjusted equity of the company after the transaction) to Equity Management Associates and Kinderhook Partners. This is a EUR3.9m transaction, which values Telio at just under EUR52.2m.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

vSkype reVisited

Looks like the controversy has abated. Jaanus has posted an explanation of his earlier comments, making clear that others within Skype had indeed had experiences similar to mine in setting up vSkype. Stuart from Santa Cruz, in his followup, states that vSkype has been downloaded 200k times already, which is interesting. I'm relieved I didn't start some sort of panic based solely on my own confusion.

Perhaps the vSkype startup process should actually ask you to identify individual contacts you want to add, rather than asking you to de-select those you want to exclude. The former approach probably leads to maximum proliferation of the service, but as in this case, may lead to misunderstandings.

One other thing I'm curious to understand. I have set my Skype client NOT to start when I boot up the machine, but to wait for an explicit startup command. This has always worked in the past - until I installed vSkype. Now, even though the client is still set not to launch automatically (tools/options/advanced/startup/"Start Skype when I start Windows"), it appears that something is overriding this. The only variable which has changed is the addition of vSkype. Has anyone noticed the same thing?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Read my lips

This VSkype thing is devolving into some sort of collective panic attack, with executives of Santa Cruz now posting comments in defense of the application. I have posted a comment on the site trying to clarify my original post (please read it slowly and carefully - maybe even print it out for future reference), which I thought was pretty clearly GODDAMNED POSITIVE on the whole to begin with. One reader of Share Skype points out that his first VSkype experience went smoothly, which is great, wonderful, terrific, I'm sure you'll both be very happy. I have no axe to grind. I am genuinely interested in what "firsthand experience" Jaanus is referring to in his post, as well as anyone else's experience of anything similar to what I described.
Cut the waffle

It's Miller Time here at EuroTelcoblog world headquarters, but here's a last minute notice. If you're hanging around Brussels next Wednesday, why not drop by the free seminar on municipal networks on offer from the Swedish Urban Network Association. If any of my legion of high fiber value readers attend, I would welcome your accounts of the event.
Lies, damned lies, and VoIP statistics

This is a weird article. Sandvine reckons that Skype accounts for nearly half of all VoIP minutes in North America. The last figures I had showed that the US accounts for just over 9% of total Skype users, and Canada just over 2%. My monitoring of Skype's reported on-net traffic shows around 40m minutes per day for the entire user base, or roughly seven minutes per day per user throughout a given 24-hour period (based on c.6m users online each day).

If Skype users in the US and Canada (11% of Skype users) are average and represented equally, then let's call it 6m users x 11% = 660k users x 7 minutes = 4.6m minutes from North America on an average day. This is where it gets strange. Telio, which is only 1/10th the size of Vonage, does 1.5m minutes per day. So, to believe that Skype accounts for half of VoIP traffic in North America, we have to assume that Vonage customers, who outnumber Telio 10-to-1, are significantly less talkative (Norwegians and North Americans - debate). Even if Vonage customers' usage is only half that of the average Telio customer (i.e., 15 minutes per day), we're still talking about 7.5m minutes per day.

Even in math classes back in Tennessee, we couldn't have worked this one out to be a position of dominance for Skype. I'm also curious as to how Sandvine collected its data. Could they be including IM exchanges in this? Perhaps they're looking only at on-net minutes. As I recall, only around 5% of Vonage traffic is on-net, so maybe Vonage is counted as only 750k minutes out of the total, in which case perhaps the Skype number is right. I don't know, and hell, I don't care. I think the message is increasingly clear (whether the industry has heard it or not) - counting minutes is a mug's game.
Wag your long tail proudly

Fabchannel, the very interesting Amsterdam-based new model web broadcasting/VoD portal which I wrote about last week, yesterday won the prestigious prize for best multimedia project in the Netherlands, as well as the subcategory for best cultural multimedia project. Up next, don't miss the live webcast of the Dutch National Air Guitar championships on 25th June!
Wanna be in my gang?

No it's not Newcastle United fans on a rampage, or the Labour back benches - ExtremeMob is the latest MVNO on the UK scene, apparently targeted at an uncompromising "youf" market. I'm curious to see what the "new approach to content" turns out to be.
Whose side are you on?

I've seen some commentators recently highlighting the fact that Skype and VSkype developers Santa Cruz have a common backer in the form of Draper, and have inferred some deeper level of involvement. Therefore I was surprised to see this message on the excellent Share Skype site. I'm pretty sure that my unintentional spamming episode was due to my own stupidity and sleep deprivation, but Jaanus alludes to a similar personal experience. Now I'm confused.
Idle Friday thoughts

I have a low geek quotient, so feel free to tell me this is a stupid or unworkable idea, but I've been thinking about VSkype. Let's say I have a TV tuner slotted into my PC. If I can share my desktop with 200 people, and that desktop happens to be displaying a live tranmission of the latest episode of "Desperate Housewives," then what are the chances that we could add the audio channel and rebroadcast the program live to users around the world? Also, if each of the 200 people I'm sharing my desktop with can share this in turn with 200 others, then don't we have the makings of a massive video content sharing community within Skype. I'm sure this is a less-than-straightforward scenario to bring about from a technical standpoint - for now.
Consolidation train rolls on

Last month I published a list of IP-related stocks in Europe which I expected to see strong relative performance this month on the back of consolidation speculation. Yesterday one of them, Saunalahti, was confirmed to be taken out by Icelandic investor group Novator. At the end of play yesterday this stock was up 6.2% so far this month. For the group of eleven as a whole, average performance in euros is +3.2%, vs. +0.9% for STOXX Telecom, and +3.2% for the broad market. Iliad and Nextgentel are both up over 10%, and the three German names are up in excess of 5%. Now this morning I am hearing that the unlisted Norwegian broadband/mobile player Chess is about to be taken out. Speculation seems to revolve around TeliaSonera, which is curious given the fact that they are already the number 2 mobile player in Norway. I hope this is a not a tit-for-tat response to the Bredbandsbolaget deal from last month...
Tinkering at the edge

Countless pieces have been written recently speculating on the true extent of shortcomings in Microsoft's IP TV solution, and given what we believe about the long-run trend for video consumption, it's interesting to see Microsoft apparently hedging with a P2P project codenamed "Avalanche," which looks to me like it may end up being pitched as the content publisher's friend in the nasty world of file sharing (note that the article mentions an impending BBC tender for a P2P platform).

While Microsoft is working to insinuate itself into P2P content distribution, BSkyB yesterday unveiled its new initiative in WTVML, a language for repurposing web content for presentation on Sky's interactive digital TV service, which the company claims is accessed by 10m unique viewers each month. Household PC penetration in the UK is above 65%, internet penetration is at 60%, and household broadband penetration is pushing 30% - i.e., I'm not sure I entirely buy the claim that this is a great opportunity for web content publishers to have visibility in households which lack internet access.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Something for the weekend

I know it's only Thursday, but I'm living in hope. For those out there who enjoy nothing more on the weekend than curling up with a 383 page report on market mechnisms and regulation, this one's for you.
Converge this

Pipex, probably little-known outside the UK (though at 200k DSL subs should be considered a major league player in UK broadband), is launching VoIP across its full customer base (previously it only offered it to business customers via its Nildram sub-brand). For GBP4.99 per month, broadband subs will get 3,000 minutes (ouch!) to fixed lines in the 01 and 02 standard number ranges. This company is the owner of the only nationwide license covering 3.6 - 4.2GHz, and will be a stealth player in the increasingly confused UK wireless market.

UPDATE: Lars updates on the state of play in Austria, where WiMAX Telecom is looking to spend EUR70m over 3.5 years to get 70% population coverage in a much more difficult terrain with a more dispersed population.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Dear John

In response to yesterday's Yahoo!/Dialpad deal, a Diamond Cluster value reader speculates on how long it will be before the talons of other global internet players will be revealed (about five minutes is my guess). In the case of Microsoft he writes:

Just speculation on my part, but wouldn't you think something like the following is about to be sent to a bunch of large incumbent telcos:

'Dear Big Telco,

Sorry, but we have no choice but to upset you guys big time. I know you thought we were friends and all...but it's a different world out there and we can't let Messenger get squeezed out of the future of communications. So, we have no choice but to launch a service which you will probably view as competitive with your core business and we suspect it could impact our friendship a bit. But you guys are bright people anyway, and I'm sure you saw this coming given all the SIP extensions we've been putting in our software and such.

Yours truly,

Steve and Bill'

VSkype early experience

Following a message overnight from the developers, today I downloaded and tried out VSkype, the video and collaboration plug-in for Skype. Apparently the application is already being used by some VCs in Silicon Valley, and the developers say they see strong demand in settings like online foreign language instruction, political and religious interest salons. I can see applications in the telemedicine and counselling fields, as well e-government scenarios (town meetings) and "lite" applications ("see and chat with Kylie online after tonight's show - limited places available"). VSkype claims to extend video conferencing to an amazing 200 participants, and allows sharing of files, or the entire desktop. Future iterations will include some gaming apps as well.

Notwithstanding the fact that my webcam is shamefully bad (let's just say that I have a good face for blogging!), and the contact I chose to test it with had neither headset nor webcam, I was impressed with what I saw. A couple of caveats are in order for the first time user, however:

  • When I installed VSkype, it apparently absorbed my entire contact list and asked who I wanted to invite, by automatically selecting all contacts. I tried to highlight one in particular, but somehow (probably my own stupidity/clumsiness) sent invites to all of my contacts, which resulted in a torrent of response messages at once. So, take it slow when setting it up.
  • Secondly, in my test call with my mute and invisible partner, he asked me to share my desktop with him - and this really means "share your desktop." He later told me that he could see all applications that I was running (fine), but could also see the various Skype chat windows I had open (mainly apologizing for pinging all my contacts at once and explaining that I couldn't chat now). So, while this could be a truly great vehicle for holding a company conference call in which true collaboration takes place, I wouldn't try to engage in other subversive Skype chat ("this guy is an idiot - how did he get to be CEO?"), until you're sure about who you're sharing with and what they can see.
This looks really promising, and I'm intrigued by the potential for Santa Cruz to extend this sort of functionality to MSN, AIM, et al. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
It's no game

When you're not using your broadband connection to make cheap outgoing calls on BT Fusion (outgoing minutes on the PSTN average about 7 per day, outgoing mobile minutes about 3 per handset), here's another way to occupy your time and spend the money you're saving on mobile. Vivendi Universal Games subsidiary Blizzard has 2m paying customers worldwide for its World of Warcraft MMORPG, up from 1.5m just three months ago. Monthly subscriptions cost $14.99 for month-to-month, $13.99/month for three months, or $12.99/month for an annual subscription. If we're looking conservatively at 3m paying subscriptions by year-end, that implies annual run-rate revenues of $500m.

Telcos, you're selling the wrong service! At a recent industry conference where I was fortunate enough to be moderator for the entire day, I heard a couple of very bright people talk about the need for the industry to move from selling minutes to "selling experience." This is probably an unpopular point of view, but why aren't telcos using their abundant cash to buy content/experiential assets, rather than merely aggregating/reselling it? Can we imagine a music label which doesn't have a publishing arm, or a film distribution business which is not connected in some way to origination/production?

Looking at the broadcasting world, some years ago BSkyB (in)famously tried to buy Manchester United, which is only now really flexing its muscles as an independent media brand, and in the telecom world the only player to take a serious stab at it was Telefonica, though strategic architect Juan Villalonga was subsequently exiled to Siberia (uh, Miami), and the company has now moved to the opposite end of the absurdity spectrum - acquiring network assets in the Czech Republic rather than content assets in the sizeable Spanish-speaking world which is its stronghold.

If we accept that the future for pure service/content aggregators is ugly, then why not take the much-publicized abundant cash flow of the telecom industry and actually deploy it in trying to secure a meaningful place in the value chain for the long term? If you have the eyes/ears of millions of consumers, why not take an active role in generating cash from their interests, rather than just facilitating them? In its most extreme embodiment, instead of fretting about late entry strategies for markets like India or Brazil, why doesn't the only truly global player in the sector, Vodafone, move way outside the box and make a move on a truly global media brand?
Bluephone Christmas

After more anticipation than the Jackson verdict, BT today unveiled BT Fusion, its converged product. To be honest, there's not much here that we didn't know before: first iteration is Bluetooth, WiFi comes later, with six WiFi UMA handsets to be launched in around 12 months (some models will be available for the corporate market before that). There is also a BT Fusion version of the Motorola RAZR in the pipeline for release by year-end. As expected, the handsets will authenticate on BT hubs outside the home if the user registers with a PIN number issued by the owner.

What was new and interesting was the pricing, and here BT has come out swinging. A 200 cross-network minute plan costs £14.99 per month at launch (future pricing officially unclear until launch), which is 50% below typical mobile packages in the UK. In "fixed line" mode, call pricing is in line with existing BT plans. One interesting tidbit, which seems a potential flaw in the product, was revealed in the last question of the session. An analyst asked about the billing mechanism involved when the handset hands over from Bluetooth to GSM: does the charging structure reflect the technology being used on a per second basis? The response was that, in order to preserve transparency for BT customers, whatever technology the call started on, the relevant call charge would remain in place for the remainder of the call. For the cynically-minded, this opens up possibilities for interesting fun and games, as consumers initiate calls to fixed lines at home and then roam out onto the GSM network, paying 5.5p for up to an hour. That's transparently a good deal for the consumer and network partner Vodafone, but of debatable value for BT.

I could see this product having significant appeal for SMEs who have DSL access in the office and are currently being stung on mobile call charges for calls originating within the office. With the availability of WiFi-enabled handsets for the corporate space (apparently in something less than 12 months), I could also see this being an interesting proposition for larger enterprises (BT has access to 7,800 hotspots in the UK, and 30,000 globally) over time. However, in the consumer space, I don't expect a lot of traction in the near term.

Firstly, the product is only going to be marketed to BT Broadband customers, of which there may be something like 2.5m by year-end (of which c.2.0m will be residential, the remainder being business). Of those customers, either existing or new, how many will be looking to change mobile service providers? In the past, this might have been a more straightforward calculation under 12-month contracts, but UK operators are pushing 18-month contracts, which makes the phasing of renewals more complicated. Additionally, BT is rightly selling this as a "household" solution, in which a wireless hub can accomodate up to six handsets, and three concurrent calls. This is wonderful in principle, but how many households have mobile subscriptions which are in sync? As these effects wash through, I can see some pent-up demand being unleashed further down the road (there appear to be around 2.4 mobile phones per household in the UK), but not in the near term.

One obvious target in the residential space would be the 250k consumer MVNO customers BT is likely to have by year-end. However, the law of averages suggests that maybe only 7 - 8% of these will be BT Broadband households (similar to the overall proportion of households in the UK with BT Broadband by year end), so maybe there are 20k raw candidates there, plus whatever churn is generated within the other mobile businesses in Q4. For the sake of argument, let's say that 500k contract customers churn every month in Q4, which would represent about 200k household conversion opportunities per month. Of these, based on our law of averages figure, maybe 15k (45k over three months) will be existing BT Broadband households.

This doesn't take into account new converts to broadband who may also take Fusion at point of sale, nor does it capture prepaid mobile subscribers who may opt for contract on these terms. However, even notionally adjusting for this effect (which I think will be small) and factoring in a more enthusiastic uptake among SMEs, I'm struggling to see BT gaining more than around 70k customers on the service in Q4. No doubt the marketing message will be everywhere, and BT management today alluded to using conventional retail sales channels as well as direct and online acquisition channels. If BT can up the take rate to 100k per quarter beyond that (the sort of level Carphone Warehouse has achieved with a much more straightforward CPS offering), then we may be looking at 500k customers by year end 2006, which is almost immaterial versus the total line base of 29.6m.

What could really kick off consumer demand for a product like this is naked DSL. However, in the current scenario, the residential consumer still needs to fork over £43.50 per month to BT just to get started (a PSTN subscription of £10.50 minimum, BT Broadband at £17.99 minimum, plus £14.99 for Fusion). Apart from the attractive GSM subscription pricing (and whatever loopholes there may be in billing for Bluetooth/GSM handoff), the only real differentiator in the short term is in the single device aspect. WiFi may change that, but not for a year. This is the sort of product which BT has to launch to defend its position, but it should not be viewed as transformational in the near term, and possibly not ever. What will be perhaps more interesting to watch is what response this provokes from the mobile players, and what other converged products appear from the likes of Wanadoo or AOL to challenge this.

UPDATE: It is my understanding that after an initial promotional period, pricing on Fusion will rise to reach parity with similar packages from competitors, which I think will make driving demand even more challenging. Also, there has been some sense of outrage (understandable) that BT is taking a termination revenue share (undisclosed) from incoming calls in what appears to the user to be an IP "fixed line" setting. However, the IP portion is on outgoing only, and the handset is assigned a mobile number, so incoming calls will be GSM. However, to a consumer this is a less than trivial distinction - i.e., I think BT has a significant consumer education challenge ahead here, and it looks like Martin (in inspired form) seems to agree. As one Double Platinum Class value reader observes: "The customer just doesn't see the divide that the network provider sees."
Lies, damned lies, and telco pricing

In an era when no one wants to be visibly going ex-growth, it's clear that telco cost savings claims will require evermore scrutiny. This week the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK slapped Tiscali for a real classic - basing cost savings claims on calls to Guam. I'm pretty certain that Guam is not even in the top 100 call destinations for UK consumers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

So much for conspiracy theories

I suspect there is a high degree of overlap between our readerships, but just in case anyone hasn't seen it, some solid investigative reporting by Om and Andy has apparently smoked out an impending acquisition of Dialpad by Yahoo!. I must say that this doesn't fit with my inane ramblings from Friday night, but it does suggest that, even if Yahoo! is not gunning for Skype in the sense of acquisition, it may be, as Andy suggests, gunning for Skype's market positioning. UPDATE: KABOOM, it's now official! The global voice market has now changed forever. Andy has some additional followup here (this is the sort as-it-happens coverage that the brokers just can't match).

One of my Platinum Club value readers today reiterated a view that Microsoft might be a more natural partner (owner) for Skype (and that the earlier Yahoo! story was a ruse), though my preference remains steadfastly in Googleland. I noted with interest that, at the VON show in Stockholm, Niklas Zennstrom explicitly invoked the Google mantra "don't do evil," whereas at VON Europe 2004 in London he referenced Yahoo! as an inspiration for the business model. I'm reasonably sure there's no significance in this, but it's interesting to ponder the philosophy underlying the rhetoric. Whatever the background, perhaps Yahoo!'s move makes a counter-offensive by the other two more likely (as well as the widely-acknowledged shortcomings of one).

As Aswath astutely observes, there is a growing case for arguing that the more "mystical" aspects of Skype do not pose the insurmountable obstacles which we might have once expected. Perhaps Yahoo! creates a Skype/SkypeOut/SkypeIn-like experience in SIP, working off a larger user base, vastly more brand power, huge financial strength, and a different strategic agenda. Maybe it won't be up to Skype's standards in the voice arena, but maybe that doesn't ultimately matter.

From a purely selfish point of view, what I really like about this deal is the fact that, for the past three years I have been warning investors of a potential "attack from cyberspace," in which global internet brands end up co-opting the voice space, and have received quite a few confused looks in response. Today is the validation.

Telco limbo, how low can you go?

National Statistics

An old note title of mine from several years back (which very coincidentally appeared on a competitor's research a month or so later). Anyway, all that's in the past now, along with telco pricing power. The UK Office of National Statistics today released an update on May's CPI number, which showed communications pricing at an all-time low. Here's the graphic representation of trends since 1990, which isn't pretty, particularly not the last 14 months or so.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The hills are alive...

Warner Music today reported that in the most recent quarter digital music sales accounted for 4.6% of total sales (or $35m), which is more than was generated in the whole of the previous financial year. In terms of revenue share, this is the biggest number I've seen yet, and though I have repeatedly poked fun at the entertainment world for its inability to get to grips with new distribution models, this is bound to be a nice little earner for the labels in the meantime. Meanwhile, the OECD has released an in-depth look at the digital music market place, which I'm looking forward to wading through.
The death of silence

For anyone who enjoys the occasional hour or two of uncontactability while on an airplane, forget it - game over. First we had Skyping at 35,000 feet, now welcome to the world of inane gossip, tedious sales pitches, vicarious divorce and human resource micromanagement via good old GSM.

Friday, June 10, 2005


Well, Om had the scoop (via Rodrigo, via Michel), which was then picked up (completely lacking in attribution) by Engadget, and I can now also confirm that this scenario is the story I heard and referred to in this post from last month, as some perceptive readers might have already figured out. If it comes off, it is going to seriously rock some telco worlds.

UPDATE: This is all very interesting. Just as this story starts to break, we get a feature article on Reuters Newswire regarding Yahoo!'s interest in voice, in which the company appears to be expressing loyalty to Plan A, the partnerships with telcos:

"For what the future could hold, Yahoo points to its deal with Britain's BT Group, which sells the BT Communicator -- a version of Yahoo's Messenger that can not only handle voice calls between computers but make and receive telephone calls. 'We view voice as a fundamental aspect of the instant messaging experience,' said Brad Garlinghouse, vice president of communications products for Yahoo, in an interview Thursday with Reuters. 'We will continue to enhance and expand the voice functionality within Messenger.'... Garlinghouse declined to offer specifics of Yahoo's future plans for voice services. But officials at SBC say they were considering a Skype-like service that could be sold with Yahoo. 'We could put one together real quickly,' said Scott Helbing, senior vice president for consumer marketing, in a recent interview with Reuters.' We don't have that service right now, but we're interested in it and we're investigating time to market and the services that are out there.' Garlinghouse said Yahoo preferred to work with telephone companies like BT and SBC instead of pursuing
customers independently."


Reasons to think something might happen:

1) Relative to MSN and AIM/ICQ, Yahoo! is a more marginal player in IM, and may be looking for that critical leg-up.
2) Yahoo! may be looking at Microsoft (LCS, Groove Networks, Xbox 360, Sylantro deal) and getting paranoid.
3) Yahoo! may be pre-empting a move by someone else (my money has always been on Google to take out Skype).
4) Yahoo! may have rightly appreciated the potential value of the Skype user base, and more importantly, the developer community taking shape around it.
5) Maybe this is not an acquisition, but an interconnect agreement, though I can't see Yahoo!'s telco partners (BT and SBC) going for that one (or maybe Yahoo! doesn't care about that).

Reasons to think nothing is going to happen:

1) As is apparent in the quote above, Yahoo! has so far committed to telco partnerships (though the latest iteration of the Messenger client demonstrates just how divergent their thinking actually is likely to be - besides, if you had a choice between teaming up with a couple of old telcos, or enabling millions of users to connect/transact via your painstakingly-collected database of contacts, which would you choose?).
2) Yahoo! has only just released the latest version of Messenger, which is already moving closer to Skype in terms of user experience (though interestingly, this now does SIP, which we know Skype can accomodate), so why cannibalize that investment/effort?
3) I sense, as I've said before, that Skype is still in a relatively early stage of its development, with more to come, so selling at this point would be premature (then again, if we agree that Skype faces growing distractions/costs from compliance issues surrounding 911/112/data retention, maybe it makes sense to run into the arms of someone with the resources to weather it all).

On balance, I can come up with more reasons for why there may be something to this story than not - but what do I know?
Iberian shuffle

It's probably best not to attribute a huge amount of significance to this announcement of stronger ties between France Telecom and Sonaecom in Portugal, but given the hell Wanadoo is trying to raise next door in Spain, and given the fact that Sonaecom is somewhat unique among alternative carriers in having the ingredients for some interesting converged services, I'm curious to see where this one leads over the next three years.
Better, faster, stronger

Telio, perhaps Europe's biggest (or would that be smallest?) success story in the commercial, access-independent VoIP space, reported Q1 results yesterday (apologies, no link available). Revenue NOK35m, EBITDA NOK7.8m (22% margin), net income of NOK5.3m. There were apparently some extraordinary items which boosted results, but on the face of it, at the current run-rate of growth, it looks like revenues for the full year might triple/quadruple vs. last year's numbers.

One interesting data point was that roughly half of the NOK10.6m costs booked as "other operating expenses" relate to customer acquisition costs. In other words, acquisition accounts for around 18% of total operating costs, and around 15% of sales. By way of comparison, in the financial year to March, Vodafone UK spent the equivalent of 15.4% of sales on acquisition and retention. Vodafone is an incumbent in a mature market looking to maintain its position and improve customer mix. Telio is a newcomer in a nascent market with a product which is still unfamiliar to most consumers, even in a sophisticated market like Norway. Interesting, then, that acquisition costs (relative to revenues) for the two are so close.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

And now for something completely different

It may be months late, and still shrouded in more secrecy than Area 51, but next Wednesday (15th June, 2005) at 10:00 AM GMT, BT will unveil the Bluephone in a webcast. Tune in with me here.
Super-miniaturize my handset

More interesting doings in Berkeley.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

To utility, and beyond

In the not-so-distant past, I have seen cases of pretty blatant rip-offs of broker research titles by competitors, but I will gladly acknowledge that this title is copped from a Goldman Sachs note of a couple of years back. Just now, watching the CNBC Closing Bell program, featuring the unnervingly Frazier Crane-like Tyler Mathisen and the Sophia Loren of financial journalism, Maria Bartiromo, I heard a US fund manager comment that today on Wall Street, the dividend yield on telecom exceeded the yield on utilities for the first time in a quarter century.

Given that dividend yield moves inversely to share price, and keeping in mind that in some cases a very high yield may indicate increasing investor pessimism about the ability of future cash flows to support dividends (in other words, current profit and dividend projections may be too high), this development should probably send some new warning signals to investors. I'm out of the office today and without many of my cherished analytical tools, but I will look into this situation in a specifically European context tomorrow.

However, on the surface, the message out of the US is quite straightforward - despite volatility in energy prices, investors appear to be more willing to chase "boring" old utility stocks, trusting that their cash/dividend flows will be less risky over time than those of the telcos. Recent meetings with clients have borne this out to some extent. A "live-for-today" attitude shines through, and this sort of view is common - "We know the telcos are screwed, but in the near term there is no need for alarm - we'd just as soon take the yield and run, as long as things don't deteriorate suddenly."

The real crunch point is going to come when, at that inevitable future date, market conditions suddenly take a dramatic turn for the worse, and everyone wonders where all the nastiness is coming from. I keep thinking back to the Swisscom Q1 results presentation, which was entitled "Not the last, not the least." Here, a cash-rich company whose guidance was pretty much unchanged for the preceding three years, took a slight haircut in Q1, and management were speaking as though future results, though not representing a crisis, would never quite be the same again. I'd say the sector is on a genuine knife edge.
Poo in the sandbox

Loudeye, which serves as packager of white label music download services for ISPs and telcos, as well as a professional polluter of P2P networks, today announced that it has acquired a patent which will further enhance its ability to taint P2P content. US Patent 6,732,180, discussed on Zeropaid last year, has been acquired for an undisclosed sum.

Personally, I'm skeptical, given the resiliency and resourcefulness of the P2P developer community. Moreover, we see here another example of the industry focusing on sticks rather than carrots (reasonable pricing, flexible DRM, incentivization of "good behavior"). Loudeye's share price tanked 24% in a single day last month when Yahoo! Music Unlimited was announced, suggesting that perhaps the true threat to the kind of legal download services which Loudeye specializes in will come from other "trusted parties" rather than from piracy.

More fundamentally, while the majors like Universal and EMI are currently seeing digital music accounting for around 3% of sales (in cases where the label owns the mechanical publishing rights, it's safe to assume that most of this revenue falls straight to the bottom line) and growing rapidly, the growth of long-tail publishing/consumption options points to issues of A&R pipeline and market awareness which may prove more difficult over time.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Raise your hands in the air, and stream like you just don't care

Following on from yesterday's post on these naughty, naughty people, a hyper-deflationary value reader alerts me to Fabchannel, a streaming site featuring performances at the Paradiso club in Amsterdam. Apparently, Paradiso stages 650 events every year, and is streaming an increasing number of them - half the viewers are located outside the Netherlands. The acts themselves (presumably mainly the lesser-known ones) can refer to the site as a sort of resume, plus they receive their own DVD copy of the performance to take home. Through this process, Paradiso is also amassing an archive of material for on-demand viewing. Time-shifting and place-shifting at once.