Grey clouds gather over Apple as Netflix snubs imminent streaming service

Apple is on the verge of announcing something big, but its TV streaming ambitions have been undermined as Netflix dismisses any tie-up with the iLeader.

Speaking at a press event at the streaming giants HQ, CEO Reed Hastings said Netflix would not be partnering with Apple or allowing its content to be hosted on any streaming service it might announce. There are a lot of unknowns about the Apple announcement on March 25, but at least this has been cleared up.

Rumours suggest Apple is going to create a streaming platform which could potentially compete against Netflix, though this is only one facet of the increasingly fragmented content landscape. With Disney and AT&T’s WarnerMedia also set to weigh-in, consumer frustrations are unlikely to be relieved any time soon.

With content becoming increasingly fragmented, a platform which brings everything together could be the winning formula.

“Content aggregation is the holy grail,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight. “There is too much fragmentation in video/TV; no-one wants to sign up to different services and have numerous apps. It is a disastrous experience.

“Beyond having the right content, the user experience is key. This means getting the content people want in one place, with one bill, universal search and all that jazz. In reality, this is hard to achieve as typically half of a household wants sport and the other half want entertainment, movies and kids shows.

“Netflix has done a great job to date. However, more content and media owners will pull programming off its offering. This represents a significant opportunity for the likes of Apple who has scale and greater resources. There is a role for a small number of players in the future.”

One question which should get a lot of people thinking is what does an effective content aggregator platform look like?

  1. Single bill
  2. Single sign-in/authentication
  3. Integrated content library
  4. Universal search
  5. Consistent customer experience
  6. An excellent recommendation engine
  7. Buy-in from majority of content owners/creators

However, just because it is easy to set out the conditions for an excellent content aggregator platform, doesn’t mean it will a simple task to figure out. The final point, getting the buy-in from the content owner/creator ecosystem, is where anyone with such grand ambitions will find the biggest issue.

The best effort we have seen so far is Sky in the UK. Why? Because it has somehow managed to convince Netflix to let its content be hosted on the Sky discovery platform not its own.

Some might suggest a disproportionate amount of news in the content world is focused on Netflix, but there is good reason for that; Netflix is the best. Few can compete with the current depth and breath of content, the user experience, marketing clout and foresight of Reed Hastings and his team.

Without Netflix on an aggregator platform, there does seem to be a big hole. One of the issues is Netflix does not like handing across the experience associated with its assets to partners. It knows how to keep its subscribers happy so why would it allow a partner to potentially tarnish this reputation.

This is what has made the Sky partnership all the more impressive. Netflix has allowed its assets to be hosted alongside Sky’s on Sky’s discovery platform, marrying two of the best content libraries available to UK consumers in the same place. This is the sort of partnership which ticks all the criteria listed above.

Sky has made an excellent start on the aggregator model, but it needs to continue to add new partnerships, increasing the depth and breadth of its content library to ensure it continues to dominate the premium TV space. Amazon Prime should be a key target.

An interesting development over the next couple of months will be the impact of Disney’s streaming proposition. It will put a dent into Netflix, but how much remains to be seen. Disney does not have the depth or breadth of content Netflix is able to offer, the ‘originals’ and the newly generated local content around the world take it to another level, though Disney will be an excellent partner to have.

We do not want to decide on the Apple streaming proposition until we have had a chance to actually see it but losing Netflix as a potential partner is a significant dent. However, as long as gathers the buy-in from enough partners, creating a proposition which ticks all the criteria we have listed, there is hope for Apple is the services arena.

Is the VR market primed to pluck?

For all the promise of virtual reality (VR) the consumer appetite remains as somewhat of an unknown. Theoretically the technology could revolutionise the entertainment space, but we’re currently in a bit of a waiting game.

HTC is ready to gamble the consumer appetite, supporting ecosystem and product portfolio has evolved to such a position to provide the fuel for a subscription-based library of premium VR content.

“We have built a new model for VR that shines a light on the great library of VR content this industry has developed and gives users a reason to spend more time in headset than ever before,” said Rikard Steiber, President of Viveport.

“At the same time, we’re increasing developer reach and potential revenue as more developers can monetize a single Infinity user. We believe this model matches how consumers want to experience VR”

In pursuit of simplicity, Viveport is effectively a ‘Netflix for VR’. Customers can either pay $12.99 a month or $99 a year to access a VR content library with more than 600 titles already listed. As with other subscription models such as Netflix for content and Spotify for music, customers will have unlimited access to all content hosted on the platform.

However, you still have to answer the question as to whether the VR segment is ready to deliver the much-anticipated riches.

For the profits to be made, three criteria have to be satisfied. Firstly, is there an ecosystem which is creating enough volume of content, wide enough variety and immersive enough experiences. Secondly, is the hardware priced to allow the opportunity to generate mass market penetration. And finally, is there enough demand from the consumer.

With 600 titles already listed on the platform, this would suggest there is a large enough ecosystem in place to create the content. HTC is promising more titles, as well as some co-ordinated launches such as ‘Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs’. Secondly, the price of VR headsets has been coming down recently, and while it is still expensive, it is not prohibitively so. Consumers can spend thousands at the top end, but then again Google Daydream View can be purchased for £69. The breadth of products is now available to make this segment potentially viable.

The final criterion is the consumer appetite. This is incredibly difficult to gauge without launching a product, but as long as there are early adopters it is a good time to launch. Let’s not forget, Netflix was not an immediate success, it took time to develop the monstrous subscription base it has today, but it steadily attracted more and more thanks to it being first to market, while also offering an affordable (and very good) experience. Much of this was done through word of mouth.

Another lesson which HTC will have to learn is that enough is never enough. Netflix has maintained it position as the leader in the content world because it is constantly driving for more. Last year, the team spend almost $8 billion on content acquisition and creation, a number which will drastically increase this year. Not only is Netflix funding bigger-budget productions, but it is also expanding the local content libraries around the world. With Viveport, HTC could do the same, but it needs to ensure it is constantly expanding.

HTC has crafted itself a leadership position in the VR world, and the raw materials are currently in place to make this a profitable segment. Add improved connectivity with fibre penetration increasing and 4G constantly improving to the above three criteria, and HTC could be onto a winner.

Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be referencing Viveport as the heavyweight of the entertainment space, not Netflix.

EE takes step towards content aggregator model

Content is a tricky topic to discuss around EE and BT, such is the scale of the disaster over the last few years, but a tie up with Amazon Prime and MTV Play is a step in the right direction.

The new content offer will see EE customers receive six-month memberships to both Amazon’s Prime Video service and MTV Play. The news starts to make a more comprehensive content platform for the MNO, with customers already able to access Apple Music and BT Sport, all of which is covered under the EE Video Data Pass, a zero-rating initiative available to all customers.

“It’s our ambition to offer our customers unrivalled choice, with the best content, smartest devices, and the latest technology through working with the world’s best content providers,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division.

“In offering all EE pay monthly mobile customers Prime Video and MTV Play access, in addition to BT Sport and Apple Music – we’re providing them with a wealth of great entertainment they can experience in more places thanks to our superfast 4G network, and soon to be launched 5G service. So, if they want music on a Monday, telly on a Tuesday, films on a Friday or sport on a Saturday, we’ve got something for them.”

While the content play over the last couple of years have been pretty dismal this is an approach to content and diversification which we like. It allows the telco to leverage the scale of their customer bases, while also adding value to the existing relationship with said customers.

Content fragmentation is an irk for many customers, not only because of the various apps which need to be installed, but also the number of different bills. EE doesn’t seem to be addressing the first issue but consolidating bills to a single provider might well be of interest to some customers. It also has the advantage of making EE a ‘stickier’ provider, perhaps having a positive impact on churn.

“Content is a key differentiator for telcos,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight. “However, consumers are now spoilt for choice resulting in too much fragmentation. Telcos are very well placed to aggregate content, integrate billing and provide universal search. Whoever achieves this first will have a significant advantage over their rivals.”

Sky is one of the companies which has had a good crack at addressing the fragmentation challenge, Sky and Netflix content is available on the same platform and through the same universal search function, though EE’s push on the mobile side would certainly attract attention. Consumers no-longer consider entertainment as simply for the living room, new trends show more preference for on-the-go content.

While this is a step in the right direction for EE, this is only one step. The content options need to offer more depth to meet the demands of the user, while streamlining all the content into a single app would be a strong step forward. It would certainly be difficult to convince partners to hand over customer experience to a third-party, Netflix has shown much resistance to this idea making the Sky tie-up all the more impressive, though whoever nails this aspect of the aggregator model would certainly leap to the front.

Telcos need to seriously think about how to sell to consumers

Following the news that Sky has been slapped on the wrist for misleading claims during a 2018 advertising campaign, marketers need to have a long and hard think about whether they are doing a good job.

The most recent assault against the marketing strategies of the telcos comes from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), with the group ruling Sky’s push to suggest customers would be able to receive stronger wifi signal throughout the house because of its routers, was misleading. The campaign features characters from ‘The Incredibles’ franchise, running across TV and through mainstream press.

The campaign was originally challenged by BT and Virgin Media, with both suggesting the claims were misleading as there was no way to substantiate the assertion. And the ASA agreed. In some cases, Sky’s router might be able to improve wifi signal throughout the home, but due to the breadth of different homes, each with their own structural design, it is an impossible claim to justify. The ad was far too generalist and deemed misleading.

“Unfortunately for Sky, its promise of a strong wifi signal all over your house has been shown to be misleading, and while it is by no means unique in falling foul of the ASA, it will be stung by this ruling the regulator has upheld against it,” said Dani Warner of uSwitch.com.

“Broadband providers are no longer allowed to make such exaggerated claims about potential speeds following the ASA’s major clampdown at the end of 2017, so they have had to become more imaginative in how they stand out from the pack with their advertising.”

This is an area the ASA has been quite hot on in recent years; telcos should not be allowed to make such generalist claims, intentionally misleading customers over performance. Especially in an age where advertising can be personalised on such a dramatic scale, at best it is lazy and incompetent, at worst it is directly and intentionally lying.

What is worth noting is that Sky can potentially boost signal throughout the home, though additional equipment would be required to make this possible. This is not mentioned during the advertising campaign however. The ASA ruled that some of the claims made in the ad could be substantiated, however it is no longer allowed to run in its current form.

Sky incredibles

This is of course not the only area where telcos are being challenged in the world of advertising. ‘Fibre’ claims are another, the ‘up-to’ metric has been removed and the telcos are being forced to detail speeds during peak times. Another factor to consider is the up-coming 5G service. Do any of the telcos have a clue how they are going to sell the service to consumers, as we do not believe the idea of ‘bigger, faster, meaner’ will not work, at least for the first few years.

Starting with the ‘up to’ claim, this is one which plagued the consumer for years. Masses of customers were duped into buying promised services which could only be delivered to a fraction. Thankfully, the ASA changed rules, forcing the telcos to be more accurate in how they communicate with potential customers.

Not only did this ruling mean the ‘up to’ claim had to be avoided, but it also forced the telcos to claim speeds during peak times. This also more readily informs the consumer of services which they are likely to experience, as opposed to the dreamland which most telcos seem to think we live in.

The term ‘fibre’ and ‘full-fibre’ has also been challenged, though telcos can still get away with some nefarious messaging. Irrelevant of whether there is fibre in the connection, and there generally always will be at some point, the ‘last mile’ is where the difference is made to broadband speeds. If it is copper, you will never get the same experience as fibre, however, telcos are still able to mention fibre in advertising.

The ASA has done some work to clear this up, in all fairness, though we still feel there is opportunity to abuse the trust of the consumer. And the telcos have shown that when there is an opportunity to be (1) at best lazy or (2) at worst directly misleading, they will take it.

The final area which we want to discuss takes us into the world of mobile and 5G. The telcos have always leant on the idea of ‘faster, bigger, meaner’ to sell new services to customers, or lure subscriptions away from competitors, but 5G presents a conundrum for the marketers; do consumer need faster speeds right now?

EE

4G delivers a good experience to most, and if it doesn’t, there generally is a good reason for this (i.e. congestion, interference, remote location, indoor etc.). 4G will continue to improve both in terms of speed and coverage over the next few years, and as it stands, there are few (if any) services which supersede what 4G is or will be capable of.

Another factor to consider is the price. Many consumers will want the fastest available, even if they don’t need it, but the premium placed on 5G contracts might be a stumbling block. EE has already hinted 5G will be more expensive than 4G, though details have not been released yet. In the handsets segment, consumers have shown they are more cash conscious, especially when there is little to gain through upgrades, and this is heading across to the tariffs space as purchasing savviness increases.

“I don’t think there are many great telco brands out there most consumers see them more as a utility,” said Ed Barton, Chief Analyst at Ovum. “T-Mobile USA is an exception with their customer champion, ‘un-carrier’ positioning but there no branding even approaching the effectiveness of, say, Apple’s.

“If 5G is sold only as a faster G, sales will be slow and it’s up to the entire ecosystem to create the apps, services and use cases which can only exist because of 5G network capabilities. These will probably rely on some combination of edge computing, high volume data transfer, low latency and maybe network slicing. An early use case is domestic broadband however as 5G networks evolve the use cases should proliferate relatively quickly.”

If consumers are becoming more cash conscious and have perfectly agreeable speeds on their 4G subscriptions, the old telco marketing playbook might have to be torn-up. The big question is whether the ideas are there to make the 5G dream work. Differentiation is key, but few telcos have shown any genuinely interesting ideas to differentiate.

Priority

One excellent example is over at O2 with its Priority initiative. Through partnerships with different brands, restaurants, gig venues and companies, customers are given freebies every week (a Nero coffee on a Tuesday) or special discounts periodically (£199 trip to Budapest). It leverages O2’s assets, the subscription base, allowing O2 to add value to both sides of the equation without monstrous expense. This has been a less prominent aspect of O2 advertising in recent years; perhaps the team is missing a trick.

Another, less successful, example of differentiation is getting involved with the content game. BT has been pursuing this avenue for years, though this expensive bet has seemingly been nothing more than a failure, with former CEO Gavin Patterson heading towards the door as a result.

This is not to say content cannot be a differentiator however. The content aggregator business model is one which leverages the exclusive relationship telcos have with their subscribers, streaming-lining the fragmented content landscape into a single window. Again, it uses assets which the telco already has, adding value to both sides of the equation. It also allows the telcos to get involved in the burgeoning content world without having to adopt a risky business model (content ownership) to challenge the existing and dominant members of the ecosystem.

In France, Orange is a making a place for ownership of the customers ‘smart ecosystem’, offering new services such as storage and security, while the same play is being made by Telefonica in South America through Aura. These offerings will offer differentiation, as well as an opportunity to make more revenues through third-party services. It’s a tough segment, as it will put them head-to-head with the likes of Google and Amazon’s digital assistants, but it is a differentiator.

By having these initiatives in place, marketers have something unique to go to market with, enticing consumers with promises which are genuinely different.

Three is a company which is taking a slightly different approach, hitting the consumers appetite for more data as opposed to speeds. Here, the team is leaning on ‘binge-watching’ trends, offering huge data bundles, but you have to wonder whether this is sustainable in the long-run when it comes to profitability and customer upgrades. There is only so long a company can persist in the ‘race to the bottom’.

Go Binge

“There are too many claims in an attempt to stand out in a crowded market,” said Paolo Pescatore, Tech, Media & Telco Analyst at PP Foresight.

“This is not the first time and wont be the last. It will only proliferate with the rollout of fibre broadband and 5G services. Consumers are happy to pay for the service they’ve signed up for, not to be misled. In essence, telcos are struggling to differentiate beyond connectivity. There’s a role for a provider to be novel and provide users with value through additional services and features.”

With the ASA chipping away at what marketers can and cannot say, as well as the traditional playbook becoming dated and irrelevant, telcos need to take a new approach to selling services to the consumer. The winners of tomorrow will not necessarily be the ones with the best network, O2 currently sits at the bottom of the rankings but has the largest market share in the UK, but the telco who can more effectively communicate with consumers.

5G offers an opportunity for telcos to think differently, as does the emergence of the smart ecosystem. Other product innovations, such as AI-driven routers, which can intelligently manage bandwidth allocation in the home, could be used as a differentiator, but it won’t be long before these become commonplace.

At the moment, all the bold claims being made by telcos, each competing the game of one-up-manship, are merging into white noise. The telcos have lost the trust of the consumer, many of which has cottoned onto the claims being nothing more than chest-beating. The telcos need to get smarter, and it will be interesting to see whether there are any unique approaches to capture the imagination of today’s cash conscious, technologically aware and savvy consumer.

Failure to do so, and the telcos might as well start calling themselves utilities.

Trump opposition to AT&T/Time Warner deal was personal revenge – report

Few would consider Donald Trump a conventional President but attempting to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner to get revenge for poor coverage would be another level.

Trump’s distaste for CNN is widely known, though The New Yorker is now claiming the President’s opposition to AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner was little more than a personal vendetta against the newsroom for poor coverage as opposed to an ideological protest against market consolidation. We’re not too sure whether to be surprised by such an accusation, such is the dramatic impact to the status quo Trump has had on politics.

It is claimed President Trump was attempting to pressure the Department of Justice into blocking the monstrous acquisition as revenge for the negative news coverage on Time Warner-owned CNN. According to The New Yorker, in a meeting with Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and former Chief of Staff John Kelly, the President said:

“I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened. I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked.” Gary Cohn was, at the time, the Director of the National Economic Council – the main Presidential policy-making forum for economic matters.

The New Yorker then goes onto to claim Cohn resisted the push from the President, with aides suggesting he did not understand the ‘nuances’ of antitrust and competition law.  The Department of Justice did eventually file its complaints, though these were eventually overturned by a Federal Judge, with the DoJ then turning to the court of appeals.

It’s worth noting is that The New Yorker is not a friend of President Trump. Owned by Conde Nast, the editors are apparently given complete freedom from the parent company, with the publication having endorsed Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential Election. The main topic of the New Yorker piece was an investigation into the relationship between right-leaning Fox News and President Trump.

While there certainly is a left-sided slant, it is also a highly respected title which has never failed a fact check according to the Media Bias/Fact Check website. This should not be considered as unusual as there are very few (if any) mainstream media titles in the US (or worldwide for that matter) which can honestly state they are impartial; there is always some sort of political bias.

What this does indicate is the growing, and not always positive, influence of politics of the TMT segments. Although politicians might have been slow off the mark in regard to the digital euphoria, they are certainly catching up quickly. Mass market communication has dramatically shifted away from traditional media in recent years, and the politicians are following the wake.

For AT&T, this is a headache which it will be happy to put in the past. Last week, a US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected an appeal from the Department of Justice challenging the Federal Judge which overturned its complaint against the acquisition. The DoJ claimed AT&T would have “both the incentive and the ability to raise its rivals’ costs and stifle growth of innovative, next-generation entrants”, though the Federal Judge and the appeals court dismissed the antitrust claims.

The number of lawsuits, counter-lawsuits and appeals has now created an incredibly complicated timeline, but there does not seem to be many routes of resistance left. Sooner or later, AT&T will be able to start figuring out how to recoup the $107 billion it decided to spend on Game of Thrones.

Apple expected to launch half-baked streaming platform

Rumours are swirling around the Apple content business once again, this time pinning an April launch date on a streaming product which would offer third-party bundles in-app.

The aggregator platform for content is one which is becoming increasingly popular as the industry starts to realise how difficult it is to be a content creator. Apple has tried over the years, with only a sprinkling of success, but it seems it is hedging this new position by bundling other premium subscription services into the same content platform.

According to CNBC, Apple will create a video content platform to host its own content, which will be free to those who own Apple devices and offer the option for users to tie in premium subscriptions from third-parties. This sounds like an excellent idea, the fragmentation of content across different platforms is a frustration for users, though the absence of some might be a significant stumbling block.

As it stands, Apple has been unable to negotiate a relationship with HBO, though this is still a possibility, while the report also claims Hulu and Netflix will not be on the platform. For such an idea, and it is a good one which will appeal to consumers, all the various options need to be available. As it stands, with some of the most popular streaming services absent the appeal of the platform is severely dented.

“Any move is long overdue and comes at a challenging time for any new player,” said independent analyst Paolo Pescatore. “We’ve seen an explosion in OTT SVOD services.

“For the service to be successful it will need stand heads and shoulders over rivals, great content, great UX, a one stop shop destination. Unfortunately the market is hugely fragmented and consumers do not want to sign up to numerous services. There is an opportunity to unite all of these services. Whoever gets this right will be in pole position. If Apple has serious aspirations to compete in this landscape it needs to make a significant acquisition.”

But what could be the issue? Rumours are pointing towards the terms and conditions set forward by Apple; they might be asking for too much.

Looking at the App Store, Apple has traditionally asked for a 30% slice of any subscriptions bought through the platform, a number which decreases to 15% in the second year. It also demands 30% of in-app purchases, leading some developers to take users off-app to complete any transactions, creating a loophole in the terms and conditions. It seems these terms ate being extended to the aggregator platform and might be the reason Apple is finding difficulty in negotiating with partners.

Anonymous sources quoted by CNBC are suggesting HBO is resisting so far as Amazon Prime offered better terms than Apple. Sticking to its guns might sound like an attractive move to the management team and investors, but unless Apple gets a decent level of premium content on the platform to supplement its own mediocre library the platform will not be a success.

“Apple’s strength has always been seamless integration between hardware, software, services and now, presumably, content,” said Ed Barton, Chief Analyst at Ovum. “It has a lot of strengths to leverage in launching a video service. It’s problem is launching a video service in 2019 is about as hard as it has ever been, the competition is insanely strong and very well established in audience viewing habits.

“More well funded competitors are launching this year and making enough shows to attract and retain audiences is getting harder and more expensive. I don’t doubt Apple can launch a great video service, whether apple can sustain a great video service over the longer term in the brutally competitive environment for premium video is the question.”

Another strand of the software and services push will take Apple into the world of magazine subscriptions. Similar to the plans above, premium magazine subscriptions will be offered to users through the iOS news app, though considering the strife traditional content providers are in, Apple might be able to throw its weight around a bit more.

This is perhaps the problem Apple is facing; it thinks it is more powerful and influential than it actually is. Of course, Apple is one of the most respected and dominant brands on the planet when it comes to consumer hardware, though the software world is a completely different dynamic. It cannot bully companies like Hulu, Netflix and HBO into its own terms and conditions, as these are companies which are successful in the content world in their own right. Apple is trying to break into a new space, not necessarily the other way around.

That said, Apple does have a very strong relationship with its hordes of loyal customers. It can add value to any business it partners with, but perhaps it needs to realise it is only one hand amongst hundreds which is trying to lure customers onto its platform. What is clear right now, is that without enough headline grabbing content on the platform, the idea will certainly fall flat.

Are you ready to look at 6G?

We can hear the groans already, but we’re going to do it anyway. Let’s have a look at what 6G could possibly contribute to the connected economy.

Such is our desire for progress, we haven’t even launched 5G but the best and brightest around are already considering what 6G will bring to the world. It does kind of make sense though, to avoid the dreaded staggering of download speeds and the horrific appearance of buffering symbols, the industry has to look far beyond the horizon.

If you consider the uphill struggle it has been to get 5G to this point, and we haven’t even launched glorious ‘G’ properly, how long will it take before we get to 6G? Or perhaps a better question is how long before we actually need it?

“5G will not be able to handle the number of ‘things’ which are connected to the network in a couple of years’ time,” said Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK. “We need to start thinking about 6G now and we have people who are participating in the standards groups already.”

This is perhaps the issue which we are facing in the future; the sheer volume of ‘things’ which will be connected to the internet. As Petty points out, 5G is about being bigger, badder and leaner. Download speeds will be faster, reliability will be better, and latency will be almost none existent, but the weight of ‘things’ will almost certainly have an impact. Today’s networks haven’t been built with this in mind.

Trying to find consensus on the growth of IOT is somewhat of a difficult task, such is the variety of predictions. Everyone predicts the same thing, the number of devices will grow in an extra-ordinary fashion, but the figures vary by billions.

Using Ericsson’s latest mobility report, the team is estimating cellular IoT connections will reach 4.1 billion in 2024, of which 2.7 billion will be in North East Asia. This is a huge number and growth will only accelerate year-on-year. But here is thing, we’re basing these judgments on what we know today; the number of IOT devices will be more dependent on new products, services and business models which will appear when the right people have the 5G tools to play around with. Who knows what the growth could actually be?

IOT Growth

Another aspect to consider is the emergence of new devices. As it stands, current IOT devices deliver such a minor slice of the total cellular traffic around the world its not much of a consideration, however with new usecases and products for areas such as traffic safety, automated vehicles, drones and industrial automation, the status quo will change. As IOT becomes more commonplace and complicated, data demands might well increase, adding to network strain.

Petty suggests this will be the massive gamechanger for the communications industry over the next few years and will define the case for 6G. But, who knows what the killer usecase will be for 5G, or what needs will actually push the case for the next evolution of networks. That said, more efficient use of the spectrum is almost certainly going to be one of the parameters. According to Petty, this will help with the tsunami of things but there is a lot of new science which will have to be considered.

Then again, 6G might not be measured under the same requirements as today…

Sooner or later the industry will have to stop selling itself under the ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra, as speeds will become irrelevant. If you have a strong and stable 4G connection today, there isn’t much you can’t do. Few applications or videos that are available to the consumer require 5G to function properly, something which telco marketers will have to adapt to in the coming years as they try to convince customers to upgrade to 5G contracts.

4G and arguably todays vision of 5G has always been about making the pipe bigger and faster, because those were the demands of the telcos trying to meet the demands of the consumer. 6G might be measured under different KPIs, for example, energy efficiency.

According to Alan Carlton, Managing Director of InterDigital’s European business, the drive towards more speed and more data is mainly self-imposed. The next ‘G’ can be defined as what the industry wants it to be. The telcos would have to think of other ways to sell connectivity services to the consumer, but they will have to do that sooner or later.

The great thing about 5G is that we are barely scratching the surface of what is capable. “We’re not even at 5.0G yet,” said Carlton. “And this is part of the confusion.”

What 5G is nowadays is essentially LTE-A Pro. We’re talking about 256-QAM and Massive MIMO but that is not really a different conversation. With Release 16 on the horizon and future standards groups working on topics such virtualisation, MMwave and total cost of ownership, future phases of 5G will promise so much more.

The next step for Carlton is not necessarily making everything faster, or more reliable or lower latency, but the next ‘G’ could be all about ditching the wires. Fibre is an inflexible commodity, and while it might be fantastic, why do we need it? Why shouldn’t the next vision of connectivity be one where we don’t have any wires at all?

Carlton’s approach to the future of connectivity is somewhat different to the norm. This is an industry which is fascinated by the pipes themselves and delivering services faster, but these working groups and standards bodies are driving change for the benefit of the industry. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about making something faster, so you can charge more, just a change to the status quo which benefits the industry.

Coming back to the energy efficiency idea, this is certainly something which has been suggested elsewhere. IEEE has been running a series of conferences in California addressing this very issue, as delivering 1000X more data is naturally going to consume more energy to start with. It probably won’t be 1000X more expensive, but it is incredibly difficult to predict what future energy consumption needs will be. Small cells do not consume as much energy as traditional sites, but there will need to be a lot more of them to meet demand. There are a lot of different elements to consider here (for example environment or spectrum frequency), but again, this is a bit of an unknown.

Perhaps this is an area where governments will start to wade in? Especially in the European and North American markets which are more sensitive to environmental impacts (excluding the seemingly blind Trump).

Echoing Petty’s point from earlier, we don’t necessarily know the specifics of how the telco industry is going to be stressed and strained in six- or seven-years’ time. These changes will form the catalyst for change, evolving from 5G to 6G, and it might well be a desire for more energy efficient solutions or it might well be a world free of wires.

Moving across the North Sea, 6G has already captured the attention of those in the Nordics.

Back in April 2018, the Academy of Finland announced the launch of ‘6Genesis’, an eight-year research programme to drive the industry towards 6G. Here, the study groups will start to explore technologies and services which are impossible to deliver in today’s world, and much of this will revolve around artificial intelligence.

Just across the border in Sweden, these new technologies are capturing the attention of Ericsson. According to Magnus Frodigh, Head of Ericsson Research, areas like Quantum computing, artificial intelligence and edge computing are all making huge leaps forward, something which will only be increased with improved connectivity. These are the areas which will define the next generation, and what can be achieved in the long-run.

“One of the new things to think about is the combination of unlimited connectivity as a resource, combined with low latency, more powerful computing,” said Frodigh. “No-one really knows how this is going to play out, but this might help define the next generation of mobile.”

Of course, predicting 6G might be pretty simple. In a couple of years’ time, perhaps we will all be walking around with augmented reality glasses on while holographic pods replace our TVs. If such usecases exist, perhaps the old ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra of the telco industry will be called upon once again. One group which is counting on this is EU-funded Terranova, which is currently working on solutions to allow network connection in the terahertz range, providing speeds of up to 400 Gbps.

Another area to consider is the idea of edge computing and the pervasiveness of artificial intelligence. According to Carlton (InterDigital), AI will be every in the future with intelligence embedded in almost every device. This is the vision of the intelligent economy, but for AI to work as promised, latency will have to be so much lower than we can even consider delivering today. This is another demand of future connectivity, but without it the intelligent economy will be nothing more than a shade of what has been promised.

And of course, the more intelligence you put on or in devices, the greater the strain on the components. Eventually more processing power will be moved off the devices and into the cloud, building the case for distributed computing and self-learning algorithms hosted on the edge. It is another aspect which will have to be considered, and arguably 5G could satisfy some of these demands, but who knows how quickly and broadly this field will accelerate.

Artificial intelligence and the intelligent economy have the potential to become a catalyst for change, forcing us to completely rethink how networks are designed, built and upgraded. We don’t know for sure yet, but most would assume the AI demands of the next couple of years will strain the network in the same way video has stressed 4G.

Who knows what 6G has in store for us, but here’s to hoping 5G isn’t an over-hyped dud.

T-Mobile US ditches streaming for aggregator TV play

After T-Mobile acquired Layer123 back in 2017, the US has been holding its breath for another Uncarrier move to disrupt the content world, but its not going to be as glitzy as some would have hoped.

Speaking on the latest earnings call, the management team indicated there will be a foray into the content world, but it appears to be leaning more onto the idea of aggregation than creation and ownership.

“It’s subscription palooza out there,” said COO Mike Sievert. “Every single media brand is, either has or is developing an OTT solution and most of these companies don’t have a way to bring these products to market. They’re learning about that. They don’t have distributed networks like us. They don’t have access to the phones like we have.

“And we think we can play a role for our customers as I’ve been saying in the past at bringing these worlds of media and the rest of your digital and social and mobile life together. Helping you choose the subscriptions that makes sense, building for those things, search and discovery of content. We think there’s a big role for our brand to play in helping you.”

The T-Mobile US management team might be antagonistic, aggressive and disruptive, but ultimately you have to remember they are very talented and resourceful businessmen. A content aggregation play leans on the strengths of a telco, allowing the business to add value to a booming industry instead of disrupting themselves culturally trying to steal business.

Content streaming platforms have been an immense successful not only because of our desire to consume content in a completely different way, but also due to the companies who are leading the disruption. The likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are agile, creative and risk-welcoming organizations. Such a disruption worked because the culture of these businesses enabled it. Telcos are not part of the same breed.

However, this is not a bad thing. The basic telco business model is connecting one party to another and this can be of benefit to the content segment. Telcos own an incredibly valuable relationship with the consumer as most people have an exclusive relationship with a communications provider (not considering the broadband/mobile split) and a single device for personal use. The telcos own the channel to the consumer.

Sitting on top of the content world, providing a single window and, potentially, innovative billing services and products could be immensely valuable to the OTTs, as well as securing diversification for the spreadsheets internally. The content aggregation model is one which is functional and operational, perfectly suited to the methodical and risk-adverse telcos.

Specifics of this Uncarrier move are still yet to emerge, but the T-Mobile US management team are promising to do something with the Layer123 acquisition sooner rather than later. It might not just look like what most had imagined initially.

Google investors slightly spooked by free-spending execs

Revenues might well be booming again at Google, but it seems shareholders are slightly concerned by increased costs, which is one of the fastest growing columns in the spreadsheet.

Looking at the final quarter, revenues stood at $39.3 billion, up 22% year-on-year, though traffic acquisition costs (TAC), what Google pays to make sure it is the dominant search engine across all platforms, operating systems and devices, were up by over $1 billion. Cost-per-click on Google properties were also down. A glimmering ray of sunshine was higher-than-expected seasonal growth for premium YouTube products and services.

Total revenues for 12 months ending December 31 stood at $136.8 billion, up 23% over 2017, while net income was back up to the levels which one would expect at Google, raking in $30.7 billion. The company is not growing as quickly as it used to, while expenses are starting to stack up. Investors clearly aren’t the happiest of bunnies as share price declined 3.1% in overnight trading.

“Operating expenses were $13.2 billion, up 27% year-over-year,” said Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat. “The biggest increase was in R&D expenses, with the larger driver being headcount growth, followed by the accrual of compensation expenses to reflect increases in the valuation of equity in certain Other Bets.

“Growth in Sales and marketing expenses reflect increases in sales and marketing headcount primarily for Cloud and Ads followed by advertising investments mainly in Search and the Assistant.”

Headcount by the end of the last period was up by more than 18,000 employees to 98,771. While CEO Sundar Pichai was keen to point out the business is continuing to invest in improving its core search product, diversification efforts into areas such as the smart speaker market, cloud and artificial intelligence are hitting home. Perhaps investors have forgotten what it’s like to search for the next big idea.

For years, Google plundering the bank accounts with little profit to offer. These days are a long-distant memory, but it is the same for every business which is targeting astronomical growth. You have to perfect the product and then scale. A dip in share price perhaps indicates shareholders have forgotten this concept, but Google is doing the right thing for everyone involved.

Some businesses search for differentiation and diversification when they have to, some do it because they have ambition to remain on top. Those who are searching because they have to are most likely reporting static or declining numbers each month and did not have the vision to see the good days would not last forever. Google is pumping cash into the next idea so when growth in its core business starts to flatten, something else can pick up the slack and pull the business towards more astronomical growth.

This is what is so remarkable about the ‘other bets’ column on the spreadsheets. It might have costs growth every single year, as does the wider R&D column, but having graduated the cloud computing business and most recently Loon, there are businesses which will start to contribute more than they are detracting. This is a company which never sits still, and this is why it is one of the most admired organizations from an entrepreneurial perspective. Shareholders might do well remembering this every now and then.

Looking at joy around the world for the final quarter, US revenues were $18.7 billion, up 21% year-over-year, while EMEA brought in $12.4 billion, up 20% and APAC accounted for $6.1 billion, up 29%. Revenues in LATAM were $2.2 billion, up 16% year-over-year. APAC and LATAM were subject to negative FX fluctuations, particularly in Australia, Brazil and Argentina.

In the specific business units, Google Sites revenues were $27 billion in the quarter, up 22%, with mobile collecting the lion’s share, though YouTube and Desktop contributing growth also. Cloud, Hardware and Play drove the growth in the ‘other’ revenues for Google, collecting $6.5 billion, up 31% year-over-year for the final quarter.

Although these diversification efforts are growing positively, there are also some risks to bear in mind. Firstly, the cloud computing business is losing pace with Microsoft and AWS. Google is making investments to attempt to buy its way through the chasm, but it will be tough going as both these businesses make positive steps forward also.

Secondly, some properties and developers are choosing to circumnavigate the Google Play Store, instead taking their titles direct to the consumer. This is only a minor segment of the pie for the moment and there will be a very small proportion of the total who actually have the footprint to do this (Fortnite for example), though it is a trend the team will want to keep an eye on. Perhaps the 30% commission Google charges developers will be reconsidered to stem dissenting ideas.

Finally, the data sharing economy which will sit behind the smart speaker and smart home ecosystem is facing a possible threat. Google will not make the desired billions from hardware sales, but it will from the operating systems and virtual assistant powering the devices. Collecting referral fees and connecting buyers with sellers is what Google does very well, though this business model might be under threat from new data protection and privacy regulations.

The final one is not just a challenge to the potential billions hidden between the cushions in the smart home’s virtual sofa, but the entire internet economy. GDPR complaints are currently being considered and potential consequences to how personal data is collected, processed and stored are already being considered. The Google lawyers will have to be on tip-top form to minimise the disruption to the business, and wider data sharing economy.

Costs might be up and while there are dark clouds on the horizon, Pichai and his executives are moving in the right direction. The lawyers can lesson the potential impact of regulation, but the exploration encouraged by the management team in the ‘other bets’ segment is what will fuel Google in the future. Costs should be controlled, but spending should also be encouraged.

Microsoft to make the gaming experience device-agnostic

Microsoft is about to launch a cross-platform developer kit which will allow the Xbox service, and content on the platform, to be integrated Android, iOS and Switch devices.

Although the firm has not announced the developer kit just yet, an overview of its keynote session at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next month details the plans. There have been rumours of Microsoft making such a move to broaden and deepen the gaming experience, though this seems to have made the reports official.

“Now Xbox Live is about to get much bigger,” the conference blurb states. “Xbox Live is expanding from 400M gaming devices and a reach to over 68M active players to over 2B devices with the release of our new cross-platform XDK.

“Get a first look at the SDK to enable game developers to connect players between iOS, Android, and Switch in addition to Xbox and any game in the Microsoft Store on Windows PCs.”

Back in October, Microsoft launched Project xCloud, an initiative to extend the reach of the Xbox platform on more devices and screens. This would appear to be the first step towards delivering on the promise of consistent gaming everywhere.

Although gaming has become much more prominent in recent months, this is perhaps more of a plug for the over-arching cloud computing business than it is for the Xbox brand. Taking the Xbox brand onto multiple devices moves the emphasis from hardware into the cloud. Perhaps it would be more accurate to state Microsoft does not care where or what content you are playing, as long as its Microsoft cloud kit which is powering the experience.

Another interesting factor to this snippet of information is it is yet another incremental step towards linking up all the various siloes in the digital world.

With saved passwords, using social media for online authentication and the free flow of personal data through intermediaries, all the internet giants are very keen to ensure each of the siloes throughout the digital economy are linked together. Google is starting to get very good at it, while others are certainly spreading their influence. There is money to be made in connecting the mobile experience to the same laptop user.

Perhaps this also demonstrates another step towards making the smartphone redundant?

Although restricted to gaming for the moment, Microsoft is demonstrating an online profile can follow a user around anywhere. Maybe this could be extended to the entirety of the smartphone and then onto the user’s whole digital profile. With biometric authentication improving, screens could soon become ‘universal interfaces’, with any user loading up his profile in a fraction of a second.

Of course, the communications aspect of the devices would have to be embedded elsewhere, perhaps in connected earphones, and AR glasses would have to take off on-the-go entertainment, but who knows what the digital world will look like in a few years’ time.