Third-parties are next battleground in video streaming war

Securing a partnership with the likes of Netflix and Amazon might be the golden-ticket for the telcos, but no-one should forget they have as much negotiating power as the OTTs.

For the telcos, convergence is an oasis of profit in the barren desert of the connectivity industry. As traditional means of generating cash are either destroyed (SMS and voice tariffs) or increasingly squeezed (CAPEX investments for 5G), many telcos are searching for differentiation to charge more and prove they can add value beyond the utilitised connectivity column. Content is a very popular route for many to take.

Aside from attempting to create content platforms, more telcos are seeking third-party relationships to move into the aggregator business model. This is a very sensible approach to business, the telcos can add a lot of value to the OTTs and securing a partnership with one of the more prominent streaming players is a key cog to their own ambitions. However, despite the desperation of the telcos, they should consider themselves on equal terms to the OTTs.

“Every telco is fighting to become an aggregator, but there is also a battle between the streaming OTTs to gain visibility,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

As Pescatore notes, outside of the two major players in the streaming world (Amazon Prime and Netflix), achieving visibility and scale can be very difficult. This is and will continue to be an incredibly congested field, therefore the relationship between telcos and OTTs could add an edge for any challenger.

Looking at the growth opportunities for the OTTs, there is plenty of cheddar left on the table, though in the developed markets, there are only crumbs left. Take the US for example, here Netflix subscriber growth has slowed, suggesting the glass ceiling for direct customer acquisition has been reached, or will be in the near future. The question is how these final customers can be engaged? Third-party relationships are key here.

At IBC last year, Maria Ferreras, VP of EMEA Business Development at Netflix highlighted that partnerships with telcos were an important cog as the streaming giant continues to evolve. At the time, the discussion was primarily from a billing relationship, though there are plenty of other opportunities.

Partners with their own content platform offer Netflix and Amazon something incredibly important; real-estate. Whoever can secure the most prominent position on the content platform will gain additional visibility and engagement with customers. It is evidence the OTTs are buying into the convergence strategies employed by the telcos, but also the value of the telco relationship with the customer.

Looking around the world, these partnerships are becoming much more common. Netflix has been embedded in the Sky platform in the UK, while Amazon Prime has been integrated into the Virgin Media platform. Mexico’s Totalplay has become the first operator in LATAM to add Amazon Prime to its TV service, while Vodafone Spain has secured partnerships with Netflix, HBO Spain and Amazon Prime.

There are of course numerous ways in which these partnerships can develop. Some are simply billing relationships, allowing the streaming service to be added onto the monthly bill, while some can have the OTT experience embedded into the content platform offered by the partner. What is clear, however, is this is an arms race from the OTTs.

The more partnerships which are in place, the more opportunity there is to engage potential customers and increase subscriptions. These partnerships are not only about securing visibility or accessing billing systems, but also leaning on another brands credibility to engage customers who wouldn’t have been previously accessible.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many telcos or content providers who have relationships with more than one of the streaming giants. This might be a coincidence, or there might well be a desire from the OTTs to secure exclusivity through the platform of choice, even if it is not made official or public.

The challenge which many will face is going toe-to-toe with Amazon and Netflix. If these partners are securing the best relationships with the telcos, they will gain the most eyeballs on their services. Disney is company which will certainly want to lean on relationships with third-parties, but it will have to move sharpish to ensure it is not shut out.

Although Disney is one of the most prominent brands on the planet, it is almost unknown in the content world. This will present a challenge in two ways. Firstly, cutting through the background noise to educate the user on its offering, and secondly, the billing relationship.

For both of these challenges, third-party relationships with telcos and content platform owners can help. A direct line of communication is already in place, visibility can be offered through apps, billing relationships already exist, and third-parties are looking for partners to help build bundling options.

If Disney is going to be successful in its pursuit of streaming fortunes, it will need more than engaging content. It already has the content, and the ambitions for original content creation do look promising. The challenges will be in terms of securing visibility and credibility in the eyes of the consumer.

Telcos should realise sooner rather than later that they are an equal partner to the OTTs in this context, as they are just as desperate to secure favourable partnerships as the telcos. This is the next battleground in the streaming race; partners mean prizes.

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.

Orange Bank is on a roll

Cutting through the noise at Mobile World Congress is a tough job but Orange’s play for the financial industry is certainly a good attempt.

After a successful venture in the French market, Orange Bank CEO Paul De Leusse gave us a brief run-down of future plans for the business. Spain is on the horizon, as is Poland, while the African markets are going to be given some more love.

“The aim of Orange is to build banks in every country we operate as a telco,” said Leusse. “We want a bank which benefits from the telco and brings benefit to the telco.”

It’s a bold ambition for the business, though there certainly is strong progress being made. At the end of 2018, Orange Bank had 248,000 customers, only 40,000 of which were Orange employees, while the synergies between the telco and the bank are very apparent. 150 of the telcos branches now have banking sales people, each of which can open more than 12 accounts a month. Compared to a traditional banking representative opening three or four a month, the numbers are encouraging.

Looking at where the telco benefits the financial business, the facts are somewhat surprising. Using telco data, Leusse claims he can take out the 30% of customers who represent 80% of the credit risk, while the insight on risk is more reliable than the data from the Romanian credit bureau. And of course, the benefits head the other direction as well.

Those customers who have both a banking and telco relationship with Orange are 15% more satisfied, while churn has been decreased. The Polish business has seen a 18% churn reduction, while Orange Money customers in Africa are 40% less likely to. Orange is a massive believer in the convergence business model, but this is taking the idea to another level.

Interestingly enough, fortunes could be greater on the road, with the Spaniards the next to get the banking dream.

Leusse pointed out the in Spain there is no need for the sales staff to be certified by the financial regulator, perhaps suggesting there will be a larger retail footprint. The Spanish market is digitally more advanced than the French, with customers more readily embracing the new normality of the internet.

According to research quoted by Leusse, 77% of Spaniards suggest they would happily do without a banker, while the number is only 51% in France. 66% of Spanish customers would also be open to being advised by Djingo, the telcos digital assistant, while this number is only 50% in France. Launching a bank in Spain could be just as a promising opportunity as France, maybe even bigger.

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.

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.