BT hatches a cunning new multiplay plan

UK operator group BT has unveiled a bunch of initiatives for its consumer business unit, focusing on a new ‘BT Plus’ converged plan.

The point is apparently to offer BT punters the best combination of services across its three UK consumer brands: BT, EE and Plusnet. It’s all about keeping them connected regardless of the brand and the connectivity method – whatever gets the job done. There’s also a fair bit of posturing about customer service and improved retail.

“BT runs the UK’s most advanced mobile and broadband networks, but our customers demand better connections, and the best service no matter where they are,” said BT consumer CEO Marc Allera. “We’re investing across BT, EE and Plusnet so that we can provide our customers with the widest choice of products and services, on the best networks, and with the best service in the UK.

“We’re beginning our journey to create one converged, smart network built on our world-leading fixed and mobile networks – going beyond 4G, 5G, wifi and ultrafast broadband to seamlessly connect our customers wherever they are to the things that matter most to them.”

All this amounts to ‘the UK’s first converged, smart network’ apparently, a process BT expects to complete by 2022. In practice this seems to be the stitching together of a few initiatives that were already underway, including fibre rollout, improved 4G coverage and an expanded public wifi footprint.

BT Plus groups broadband and mobile into one plan – something that has been anticipated ever since BT bought EE. “The announcement of BT Plus marks the launch of the UK’s first fully converged service offering,” said Paolo Pescatore of CCS Insight. “Positioned as a premium offering, it is a modest start but we expect more competitive offers to emerge. The slew of more than 20 announcements was impressive and reinforced BT’s commitment to be a leader in converged offerings delivering innovative services.”

Pescatore was especially moved by some of BT digital partnership announcements. “Arguably, the biggest partnership announcement is with Amazon,” he said. “BT will be the first UK telco to offer Amazon Prime video to its customers. The move to support Amazon Prime video positions BT TV as an aggregator of content services including Netflix and Now TV from next year.  We believe that this will turn around its fortunes given that BT TV has recorded losses for the last two quarters and subscriber growth over the last couple of years has been lacklustre.”

This set of announcements seem designed to offer a narrative of Allera having an immediate impact as overall head of consumer at BT. It also needed to generate some positive vibes after the recent announcement of redundancies, etc. BT has an enviable array of assets and products at its disposal and if Allera can get the best out for them in terms of consumer offering, that could go a long way to improving the company’s fortunes.

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Consumers not convinced by the price-point of new smartphones – report

The smartphone is central to our lives, but it doesn’t seem like we are being bought by the latest fads as easily anymore.

According to research from Counterpoint (first spotted by the Wall Street Journal), the idea of buying a refurbished or second-hand smartphone is becoming more attractive to consumers, while refreshment cycles are getting longer. Such news could not be worse for a segment which is struggling with profitability and sluggish sales already. The report indicates one in ten devices now being purchased are refurbished models.

Of course Apple is generally excluded from such misery, though there have been rumours that the new iPhone X didn’t meet internal expectations. This is a brand which is usually able to contort it customers into all sorts of uncomfortable positions, but it seems not even the iCultists could swallow the $1000 price tag. This might be a worry for other brands who don’t have the luxury and robust brand positioning of Apple.

According to the research, refreshment cycles are up from two years, pushing towards three, while additional research from Baystreet Research suggests Equipment Installment Plans could also be a contributor to the misery. As these payments are hidden in monthly plans the consumer is less aware of how much a new device actually costs. With telcos becoming less inclined to push the subsidized device model nowadays, more consumers are leaning towards buying devices outright and perhaps getting a shock at the price. Realistically, refurbished or second-hand devices are almost as good, while substantially cheaper. It seems consumers are starting to accept this trade-off.

The iPhone X at $1000 is very expensive, as is Samsung’s Galaxy S9 at $840 which was launched at MWC this year, but what do customers actually get. There are few revelations when it comes to new flagship devices so what is the point in spending such extortionate amounts of cash. Refurbished devices are pretty much the same, unless you are a photograph buff but we question how many people there are who care that much about exceptionally detailed photos and videos.

The slump device manufacturers are in is perfectly demonstrated by the euphoria at MWC this week. Samsung might have launched its device, but HMD’s re-release of the banana phone, grabbed a lot of attention. This is the second year in a row where nostalgia have triumphed over the new and adequately demonstrates our point.

When we were at the event, Heavy Reading Analyst Steve Bell pointed towards graphene batteries which can be charged quicker and last longer as possibly the next big buzz for devices, while Light Reading’s Dan Jones is keeping an eye on the on-device storage improvements. Improvement to batteries is long overdue in the space while improved storage could drastically change the way content is consumed, stored and cached. Both areas could drastically improve performance of the devices.

These are two areas which could reinvigorate the refreshment cycle and get consumers excited again, but right now the trends are going the wrong direction for manufacturers who want to charge more for less value.

All systems Go for Amazon bricks-and-mortar consumer IoT move

The opening of an Amazon physical retail store is cruel irony for its competitors and an inflection point for consumer IoT.

As if it’s not enough that Amazon has taken massive chunks of business from pretty much every retailer in countries where it operates, the etail giant now fancies a go at the one area it doesn’t currently dominate: bricks-and-mortar shops. It’s called Amazon Go and the first one has just opened its door in Seattle.

Amazon has decided not to issue a PR about the store, perhaps because it opened a year later than originally planned, but did invite plenty of media. Somehow fell off the invite list, for which Jeff Bezos is presumably remorseful. Some reports lazily reflected on the irony of there being queues to a shop that is supposedly designed to eliminate queues, but most were cautiously excited at this fork in the consumer IoT road.

The big deal about Amazon Go is that it’s cashier-free. You simply enter the store, grab what you want, and leave. It’s all about your smartphone and sensors: you scan your Amazon Go app to enter the store and then a bunch of cameras and sensors that would make Big Brother green with envy track what you grab and walk out with. Your Amazon account is then automatically charged for what was in your possession when you leave.

The smartphone bit is pretty straightforward, although this does mark a milestone in the use of it as a physical shopping tool. The tricky bit is knowing exactly what you walked out with. The use of cameras and shelf sensors has the feel of an interim technology until consumer IoT ramps up and becomes affordable at scale. Once every product has its own embedded sensor then cameras will presumably be needed only for security and dispute resolution.

CNBC gave the store a go and found that one of the items it walked out with didn’t appear on the subsequent Amazon bill. They confessed the error immediately to Amazon, which knew a PR opportunity when it saw one and said ‘don’t worry about it’, as did the brand concerned.

This store is clearly designed as a prototype and a dress rehearsal. There will be flaws and the only way to fully stress test a new technology is to introduce it into the field. Giving away one or two yoghurts is one thing, but that error rate needs to be as close to zero as possible.

This also serves as a very conspicuous illustration of the concerns around automation. If this concept takes off then a lot of retail cashiers are going to lose their jobs and it’s not immediately obvious what fresh employment opportunities might be generated. A lot of the shelf stacking at Amazon warehouses is already done by robots so maybe that will be the case in bricks-and-mortar stores too, before long.

Orange outlines the grand plan for connected devices

With Christmas fast approaching, Orange might not have chosen the worst time to capitalize on the IoT buzz which is beginning to sweep the consumer world.

After launching three new consumer IoT assaults (a 360 degrees camera, a VR headset and a drone), we have a chance to chat with Fabien Dallot, Director of Connected Objects Portfolio at Orange, who outlined the future ambitions of the telco.

“As an industry, we’re not at the level we thought we would be (connected devices penetration), but over the course of next year and 2019 we believe the market will take off,” said Dallot.

And he isn’t wrong. Although Orange’s VR offering has seen considerable growth over the course of 2017 compared to the previous year, mass market penetration has not been as enthusiastic. That said, Orange’s consumer IoT team has seen sales growth of 45%, compared to an industry average of 28%. The team must be doing something right.

When you look at the bigger picture, it is still small fish for the moment though. In the latest quarterly results, ‘other revenues’, which includes the various differentiation ventures such as connected devices and banking, accounted for €138 million of the €4.529 billion in France. But it is the beginning of the curve.

In Orange’s ‘Essentials 2020’ strategy, its cunning plan to make millions and billions, banking and IoT are the two areas which are supposedly going to create the extra mile on the spreadsheets. It’s more than just being a telco, with these extra areas Dallot pointed out the team plan to be major players in several segments, most notably value added services, connectivity and content distribution. In short, Orange doesn’t want to be limited to your smartphone anymore.

The consumer IoT team will factor into several areas, and while there isn’t a direct link to the convergence business right about now, it is logical. As the connected devices become more prominent in the consumer world, the trends will add fuel to the desire for e-SIM and multi-SIM contracts. Offering pricing benefits to the consumer over multiple areas will only increase Orange ‘stickiness’ and reduce customer churn.

This is obviously a long-term ambition of the team, as the consumer IoT market is still embryonic right now. The market is still in the discovery stages in terms of using these new breakthrough technologies, whether it would be VR or drones or 360 cameras. The role of Dallot and his team is to facilitate this learning. Offering content to demonstrate the value of VR or platforms to host and enable user generated content.

It’s a sensible strategy which is built on patience, and in that sense it is very unlike anything telcos usually come out with. It does sound eerily similar to something one of the OTTs would say. Prove the value of something today to monetize it tomorrow. It worked for the likes of Facebook, so why shouldn’t it work for the telcos as well?

But a good plan will only get a company so far. To make a difference in this brave, new world, Orange will have to prove it can play outside its traditional market and create good products in the hardware world; easier said than done. It also has to figure out the economics of scale as well, as right now VR, drones and 360 cameras are pricing a lot of people out of the market.

The right steps do seem to have be put forward. For its camera, Orange is working with Giroptic, an award winning camera manufacturer, and on the VR front, it has made promising steps forward from its first headset release last year. The VR2 device, as Dallot described it, is 30% lighter and also cheaper, while the team is releasing more content as well. There does seem to be a bit of a loss leader approach right now, but, as mentioned previously, proving the value and then thinking about money later is a proven strategy.

As with the bank, Orange is making the positive and patient steps towards the connected devices world. Whether the team can continue to separate financial targets and business vision in the early days might prove to be the game changer here. A lack of long-term ambition, if short-term financial ambitions become too heavy, could result in disaster, but only time will tell.

Vodafone reckons it has nailed consumer IoT

Four new connected gadgets, a dedicated SIM and a new consumer sub-brand are intended to showcase Vodafone’s IoT expertise.

The brand is called ‘V by Vodafone’, apparently a somewhat ambitious attempt to align its gadget brand with the fashion industry. Google any letter of the alphabet followed by ‘by’ and the auto-complete will reveal a clothing or fragrance brand already had this bright idea. In fact clothing site Very has already got a ‘V by’ so that could be awkward.

The big idea seems to be to offer a device that comes with a special SIM for Vodafone’s IoT network, thus allowing regular punters to live the IoT dream for the first time. The general theme seems to be to introduce plug-and-play IoT functionality (tracking, remote access via an app, etc) to every-day consumer stuff. Here are the four new shiny things.

  • V-Auto – The dongle can apparently be easily installed by the end-user and then offers the kind of ‘eCall’ functionality, that automatically makes a call to the car owner if they’re in an accident, that will be manadatory in all new cars sold in the EU from next year. It also enables owners to track their car if it gets nicked and even provides driving performance data if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • V-Pet uses the mobile network and GPS to track where your pet is and even sends an alert if they stray from a designated area. That cool be pretty cool for seeing what cats get up to. Inevitably is also offers handy health hints to tell you if Fido has been sitting around the house too much.
  • V-Camera allows continuous remote video monitoring anywhere there is Vodafone coverage. It also alerts you when it detects movement, so you don’t have to constantly stare at your phone and provides seven days of cloud storage for recordings.
  • V-Bag is an IoT bag clip that, surprise surprise, lets you track what your bag is up to. Are you noticing a trend here? Not only that but it will set off an alert if someone has nicked your bag but you haven’t noticed yet. It does this with the same ‘designated area’ functionality as the cat-tracker, but that doesn’t seem anywhere near as useful in this case.

“V by Vodafone makes it simple to connect a wide range of IoT-enabled devices, helping customers keep everyone and everything that matters to them safe and secure,” said Vodafone Group Chief Exec, Vittorio Colao. “We look forward to applying our world-leading expertise in IoT to help consumers make the most of the next phase of the global digital revolution.”

All this cutting-edge gear is only available to Vodafone customers for now and, on top of the cost of the device itself it will cost them £4 per month to stay connected. That’s likely to put V by Vodafone in the early adopter category, but it’s still not a bad effort at taking on the very tricky consumer IoT market. Vodafone UK seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment.

Not to be out-done, Orange has coincidentally announced three new connected devices today too. A 360 camera for smartphones, a VR headset and a drone indicate Orange is focused less on IoT than other emerging tech buzzwords.