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June 25, 2013

Thought Leadership for the Wireless Industry
 
In This Issue
WiFi Will be a Big Part of Mobile
What's Next for Sprint?
My Experience with Aereo
Podcast: Trends in Mobile
Appearances
Hello all,
Hello all,

Happy summer to all. A few items for you this week:

- An opinion column for Fierce Wireless, "WiFi Will Be a Big Part of the Mobile Future". Click here.

- Thoughts on what's next for Sprint, SoftBank, and DISH, now that the auction's outcome is known.

- My review of Aereo, which beams live broadcast TV to any screen using a remote antenna. 

- A Podcast, where Keith Mallinson and I discuss a range of topics related to the future of mobile. Hosted by Roulston Research.
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WiFi Will be a Bigger Part of the Mobile Future
Five years ago, the dividing lines were clear. There was your WiFi world, drafting off a home or office broadband connection; and your mobile world, for most other scenarios. But WiFi is becoming a much larger part of the overall connectivity framework. Important advances are occurring in technology and business models, and deltas between macro and micro wireless networks are shrinking. Five years from now, will you have separate subscriptions and providers for fixed and mobile broadband? Read more...

 

The Battle for Sprint & Clearwire: What's Next?

For those with bandwidth left over from the sagas of the season ending episodes of Mad Men, Bruins-Blackhawks final, Edward Snowden, or Canada's mayoral carnivals, the Sprint-Clearwire-Softbank soap opera has been quite a DISH. Now that is appears that Softbank has won Sprint and Sprint has won Clearwire, let's ponder what's next.

 

Overall, this is good for the industry. Sprint and TMO need to be properly capitalized, if they are going to mount credible competition to Verizon, AT&T, and the greater fixed and mobile broadband world. Now that there's clarity, Sprint can confidently move ahead and execute on its Network Vision initiative, incorporating its plan for Clearwire into that mix.

 

What Does This Mean for the Industry?


I think Softbank owning Sprint will not be as disruptive to the industry as DISH would have been (click here for my views on the impact of DISH-Sprint). DISH wants to upend the greater fixed & mobile broadband universe, while Softbank is more laser focused on the mobility space. The biggest near-term effect of the Softbank acquisition, if there are no more bumps in the road, is that Sprint gets to breathe a big sigh of relief and move forward with Network Vision. Sprint has a lot - and I mean a lot - of work to do to catch up to Verizon, AT&T, and TMO on the network side. This will be fairly preoccupying over the next 12-18 months. As it helps Sprint execute on Vision, I expect Softbank will push hard to differentiate Sprint's LTE network, offering tri-band LTE and wider band services, especially in cities, leveraging the Clearwire network. Softbank adds leverage and scale to convince handset OEMs to make tri-band LTE devices.

 

As Sprint's network turns from a liability into, potentially an asset (within 12-15 months if it plays its cards right), expect to see a much more aggressive company. I'd predict a big advertising campaign, possibly re-branding or re-positioning the company, but still focusing on the differentiated unlimited offer. Sprint will also have to come up with a new trick to steal some of the 50-60% of U.S. consumers who are in a "family" or "shared data" plan with AT&T or Verizon. We will surely see some disruptive pricing in the U.S. wireless market. There's a lot of room below $10/GB, which is the prevailing mobile data pricing. There's also room below the $200+ a month a family must spend with Share Everything/Mobile Share. There's opportunity to offer creative plans for the 75%+ of "connected" devices, such as tablets, that are not cellular-enabled. And with the handset ownership/procurement model slowly, but steadily, moving away from a subsidy model, there will be more froth in the market, hence more subs and more devices up for grabs, and more often.

 

Additionally, as Sprint rolls out LTE and expands its 4G capacity, I would expect the company to court a significant MVNO partnership from a major Internet or media company. Think Amazon, Google, Netflix, Facebook, or Viacom, for example, who want to develop creative offers that bundle in content with connectivity. DISH could be part of the fray if it fails to execute on a facilities-based deal. Sort of like Obama asking Hilary to be Secretary of State after he beat her for the nomination and won the election.

 

What Might DISH Do?

 

DISH was determined but clearly had a limit in terms of how much it was willing to bid for Sprint & Clearwire, especially given its unique financial situation. This will not be the last of DISH in the wireless space, however. It is determined to disrupt current market structures. DISH strongly believes there's opportunity to capture share of the relatively uncompetitive fixed broadband market. With the densification of cellular networks, spread of WiFi hotspots, and LTE roadmap, a key strategic and market structure question is whether, 3-5 years from now, fixed and mobile broadband services will still be distinct.

 

There is a chance that DISH could try to scoop up T-Mobile, or perhaps sign some form of unique MVNO or network sharing deal. It could also cobble together a terrestrial wireless network, through select acquisitions (Leap comes to mind) or some form of hybrid structure, similar to how Metro PCS and Leap Wireless had structured their "nationwide" offerings over the past few years. Some stake in or relationship with Clearwire is still on the table, once the boards vote and the heat of the current moment dies down.

 

The battle might be over but the war is not.  

 

My Experience with Aereo

As many of you know, I do a lot of work in the area of disruptive technologies and business models. So I thought I'd share a few thoughts on my experience with Aereo, a new service that allows subscribers to view live broadcast television, over the Internet, on their TV or any mobile device, using a remote antenna, without subscribing to cable. Aereo's service is available in New York and Boston, with plans to roll out additional U.S. cities this year. The service costs $8 per month, and subscribers can try it for free for a month. Broadcast shows can also be recorded and viewed later using Aereo's DVR service.

 

Having tested Aereo in Boston for about two weeks, I would give the service a solid "B". I was able to set it up easily on my laptop, iPhone, and iPad (the device "authorization" devices works similarly to iTunes). Within about five minutes, I was watching the French Open while my wife was driving along the Mass. Turnpike. When one launches the service or app, the UI is excellent: the viewing guide is clean, easy to read, and responsive; the DVR takes one touch to record.

 

Picture quality is very dependent on the quality of the connection. On a strong Wi-Fi or broadband signal, the image is crisp and looks great even in full screen format. On an LTE connection, picture quality is also excellent. On AT&T 4G, it is a bit fuzzy but viewable. In situations where I was "mobile", there were frequent screen freezes, which is probably their version of buffering. For example, on a cab ride from Logan Airport to my house, using the AT&T network (which curiously read "4G" the whole way rather than LTE), the screen froze four times in 25 minutes. I also experienced frequent crashes on my iPad, although admittedly it is a first generation iPad.

 

Others who I have talked to say Aereo works and looks great on a conventional TV, when connected, for example through a Roku box or Apple TV.

 

Note that Aereo viewers will have to be mindful of their mobile network usage. According to Aereo, a half-hour of viewing over a mobile network uses about 100 MB of data, using the "low" video setting.

 

The key question is, of course, whether Aereo is a useful service. On that front, I am not 100% convinced. The service is ONLY available locally. So if you have the service in Boston, you can only view Aereo in Boston - not even in other Aereo markets that have launched. So Aereo is more of a "cut the cord", "multi-device" appeal. It is distinctly not "TV Everywhere". Aereo would be much more appealing if the service outside one's home area, which, I understand is on the roadmap.

 

By contrast, as a Comcast subscriber, I can view On Demand content, on mobile devices, anywhere, as well as content from other content providers who have agreements streaming agreements with Comcast (ESPN, ABC & HBO, for example).

 

Aereo is clearly aiming at the price sensitive segment of the market, and the steadily growing number of "cord cutters". For those with an Apple TV or Roku device, and a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription, Aereo helps fill a pretty big gap, namely broadcast TV programming, whose share of total TV viewing is 30-40% and shrinking but still features a lot of popular shows and live sports. Combine Aereo with an OTT service such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, and you have a pretty compelling library at about the cost of cable.

 

Aereo is to be praised for its creative approach, and the service works as advertised. It is an important development in the evolution of content distribution models. And the networks have taken notice, given the lawsuits currently underway, and the threats by CBS and Fox to move to cable.

 

However, I maintain my view is that it will take a long time before the current TV content distribution model is significantly disrupted. There will be a lot of nibbling around the edges, but even the cable companies are having a hard time trying to find a profitable way to unbundle or offer some form of alternative pricing, given media company concentration in the U.S. Any "alternative" service today still has major compromises, either in breadth of content, the user experience, or geographic availability.

Podcast: Trends in Mobile
Mark Lowenstein and Keith Mallinson spend an hour talking about key trends in mobile, in this June 21 podcast hosted by Roulston Research.

Among the topics:
  • Operator consolidation
  • Innovative business models
  • Network evolution and economics
  • Wireless IP and patent issues
  • Value of spectrum

CLICK HERE to listen or download  

 
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