Posts Tagged ‘mobile broadband’

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Wi-Fi offload won’t reduce the need for more mobile spectrum

February 5, 2014

During the Wi-Fi Offload Summit in Frankfurt on Jan. 23, a number of interesting developments in the Wi-Fi space were presented. A key question for mobile operators is whether Wi-Fi offload reduces the growth in mobile broadband (HSPA and LTE) traffic and thus the need for more mobile spectrum.

Research presented by Deutsche Telecom from tests in Hamburg and Rotterdam showed that when Wi-Fi is advertised and available free of charge in a particular area, this immediately generates substantial Wi-Fi traffic but does not reduce the volume of mobile data traffic. Towerstream Inc. presented conflicting evidence from its outdoor Wi-Fi offload network in New York.

From other findings presented, it is clear that both Wi-Fi and LTE traffic are increasing dramatically. Perhaps what is at work here is the Jevons paradox, which proposes that as technology progresses, the increase in efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. The increasing availability of free Wi-Fi coupled with a rapid uptake of smartphones and cheap tablets would underpin this theory as one feeds off the other.

The growth in Wi-Fi is also driven by the desire of shops and malls to engage with shoppers on their in-store Wi-Fi networks. There is marketing value for retailers to have shoppers on their Wi-Fi network as soon as the shopper walks into the store. EE in the U.K. is turning this into a small business line, equipping supermarkets such as ASDA with a Wi-Fi infrastructure. Rather than identifying shoppers at the checkout when they swipe their loyalty card, ASDA hopes to be able to identify and engage with shoppers from the minute they are within the store’s Wi-Fi coverage. For example, coupons could be sent to a handset at the beginning of the shopping trip and can be used right away rather than languishing at the bottom of a shopping bag. This is just one of the many marketing benefits of free in-store Wi-Fi.

The simultaneous growth in Wi-Fi and LTE traffic may also be explained by the fact that Wi-Fi has other uses compared to cellular. The proliferation of TV Anywhere apps turns tablets and laptops into TV outlets, and in Canada, Bell has launched the first wireless TV proposition. TV over Wi-Fi creates a surge of Wi-Fi traffic in residential areas. Other devices in offices, public indoor spaces and outdoors rely increasingly on Wi-Fi connectivity because it is cheaper and more flexible than cable connections. This all takes Wi-Fi capacity in cities and raises the Wi-Fi noise floor.

In regard to the rapid adoption of tablets, all are Wi-Fi-enabled, but few are 3G (HSPA) or LTE-enabled. As people take these tablets out of their homes they will look for Wi-Fi access, thus increasing Wi-Fi hotspot usage. However, smartphones have a personal hotspot feature and where tablets are not in Wi-Fi coverage, we are seeing “cellular on-loading” from Wi-Fi devices.

Having paid for a shiny new LTE device, some customers would prefer to pay another €10-20 a month rather than having to faff about with logging onto Wi-Fi. Asking smartphone users to choose between LTE and Wi-Fi is the antithesis of a ubiquitous mobile broadband experience. However, Wi-Fi 2.0 with SIM-based authentication increases the ease of Wi-Fi access and may even be transparent to the user.

Another factor which determines the amount of LTE vs. Wi-Fi traffic are the policies for applications set in smartphones. For example, which bearer is allowed or preferred for which application. Some apps do not work via LTE; for example. FaceTime on the iPhone. In the U.S., the first version of the iPhone 5 with iOS 6 did allow FaceTime over LTE. This came as a bit of a shock to cellular operators as AT&T blocked FaceTime over cellular on most plans, but subsequently changed the policy. What cellular operators really want is to be able to set policies dynamically based on the app, the location, time of day and perhaps even the type of customer.

Nevertheless, most mobile operators have some Wi-Fi offload strategy. The focus is not so much on relieving congestion in busy areas but to deliver an “always best connected” value proposition. In short, LTE and Wi-Fi complement each other. The growth in Wi-Fi does not reduce the need for more cellular spectrum to serve the growth in mobile broadband traffic.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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An upset in Norway following an auction of existing spectrum assets

December 18, 2013

In my article on spectrum renewal by auction, which was recently published on www.telecoms.com, I highlighted the potential risks that the Norwegian regulator, the NPT, was taking in renewing spectrum using a first price sealed bid auction. http://www.telecoms.com/197611/uncertainty-and-risk-the-results-of-spectrum-renewal-by-auction/ In the article I asked whether Norway would provide the first real upset and whether an incumbent would be deprived of key spectrum assets.

The NPT announced the results of the auction today and whilst incumbents Telenor and NetCom secured spectrum in the key 800, 900 and 1800MHz bands the other incumbent, Tele2, failed to win any spectrum at all. Tele2’s CEO, Mats Granryd made clear in the company’s press release that they regarded the auction outcome as an upset. Granryd said, “We are obviously not satisfied with the outcome of the auction, but we will continue to build on our strong position in Norway.” Instead of Tele2 securing spectrum, the mysterious Telco Data secured a robust portfolio of spectrum assets comprising 2×10MHz in the 800MHz band, 2×5MHz in the 900MHz band and 2×20MHz in the 1800MHz band.

So what contributed to this upset?

The choice of auction format is the primary candidate. In a first price sealed bid auction bidders effectively write a number down in an envelope and the highest bidders win and pay the amount they each bid. In such an auction it makes sense to bid less than the value you place on the spectrum or, as game theorists like to say “shade your bid.” The challenge, however, is to determine how much to shade your bid. Shade aggressively and if you are successful in the auction you create significant value. The risk, however, is that you shade too aggressively and someone with a lower valuation, but who shaded less aggressively, wins the spectrum.

Coleago Consulting has supported operators in over 60 spectrum auctions and we have worked on behalf of both incumbents and new entrants. As markets have matured it has become increasingly apparent that the business case for new market entry is not an attractive one and heroic assumptions are often required just to turn the business case positive. Tele2, as the smallest player in the Norwegian market, may well have taken the view that they only needed to outbid a new entrant and that a new entrant would have had a very low valuation. As a result Tele2 may have decided to shade very aggressively in the hope of securing spectrum at a low price and thus create significant value. The combination of very aggressive shading from Tele2 however and a super charged new entrant business case is likely to have generated the upset.

Written by Graham Friend, Managing Director at Coleago Consulting

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Challenges for EU mobile operators

July 22, 2013

The European mobile telecoms industry is now at the maturity stage of the industry life cycle.  While the introduction of LTE is still a relatively recent event, there is limited revenue growth and consolidation is starting to set in. Rather than being challengers, in some ways mobile operators themselves have started to look like the old fixed line operators at the start of the telecoms market liberalisation in the 1980s.  National fixed line incumbents (PTTs) went into defensive mode as the EU’s Customer Premises Equipment directive ended their monopoly on the supply of telephones and PABX and the opening to competition of long distance and international calls forced operators into rebalancing and cost orientated pricing.  The European Commission predicted significant contributions of market growth and benefits to consumers and businesses and there is no doubt that the policy delivered this. Indeed, without the EU’s effort to push for liberalisation of telecoms markets we would not have today’s innovative mobile telecoms markets with multiple mobile operators.

Now these very mobile operators are on the defensive as the EU increases pressure to create a single telecoms market and puts its weight behind wholesale price transparency and net neutrality. Three of the statements made by Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda in her speech of the 9th of July 2013 impact significantly on operators:

  • —  “Blocking or throttling services isn’t just unfair and annoying for users – it’s a death sentence for innovators too. So I will guarantee net neutrality.”
  • —  “European calls shouldn’t count as a costly international call; not within a true single market. …. so any difference in price must be objectively justified by additional costs.”
  • —  “In a true single market, there are no artificial roaming charges. It’s irritating, it’s unfair, it belongs to the past.”

In her speech Ms Kroes also addressed the issue of cross border consolidation: “If you’re allowed to operate anywhere in Europe – authorised within an EU framework — then you should be able to operate everywhere in the EU. … Like a single authorisation system with supervision by the home member state.”

While as yet true cross border consolidation has been rare, we already witness increased consolidation within markets either outright through M&A or through RAN sharing. RAN sharing is encouraged by some regulators in order to deliver mobile broadband coverage in rural areas and better LTE speeds in a wider band. For example, the “mutualisation” of spectrum was central to the 800MHz licence award in France. Regulators are well aware of the threat to competition posed by RAN sharing but in a mobile broadband world the economics of deploying LTE in a wide band favour RAN sharing.

These factors – cost orientated pricing, net neutrality, and consolidation – will shape the European mobile industry during the coming years.  They may even lead to the unbundling of mobile access from the provision of services, just as we have seen in the fixed network. Implicit in consolidation at network level is increased price transparency at wholesale level to allow multiple operators to compete fairly at retail level. In this context the elimination of roaming charges points towards the end of the traditional Inter Operator Tariff (IOT) roaming wholesale tariffing. Possibly within the EU bureaucracy someone has already been tasked with drafting a directive that would require EU mobile operators to publish a “reference access price offer”.

Let’s imagine a future where Apple or Google obtain wholesale access (MVNO) agreements in each of the European states and, instead of replicating the national mobile operator model, launch a pan-European service where the EU is a single nation, at least in terms of mobile phone service costs. Far-fetched? Well, many consumers already make smartphone choices ahead of network choices and to many people OTT services such as Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp matter more than traditional phone calls.  We might even see a resuscitation of the trans-Europe dialling code (+388) designated for the European Telephony Numbering Space or ETNS.

As regards separating access and service, a line of attack comes from operators such as Rebtel in Sweden and Republic Wireless in the USA. These operators use WiFi offload and “push” their customers to make calls using Skype like services.  Mobile networks are only used in an MVNO fashion when out of WiFi coverage.

Is this the nightmare scenario for traditional mobile operators, where they are relegated to perform the role of the much quoted “dumb pipe”?  Firstly there is nothing “dumb” in operating a highly sophisticated LTE network while migrating millions of users from GSM and HSPA and coping with the mobile data tsunami. Secondly the massive growth in mobile broadband requires huge investments. Investments require returns and therefore it is the pipe where returns will be earned.

This scenario may actually be rather benign for investors in the mobile industry. Rather than fighting subsidy wars, being played off against each other by Apple, and driving up prices in spectrum auctions, operators could get on with building a superb mobile broadband infrastructure in an environment that allows investors to earn stable returns. After all, in the history of the European mobile industry the greatest decline in return on capital employed resulted from the 3G auctions in 1999 – 2002. Let others go crazy!  Investors who are attracted to stable returns would continue to invest in mobile network operators whereas those who seek a higher risk / return profile would invest in companies that provide services over these networks.

What has been the reaction of the mobile operators to threat to roaming and international call margins?  Some claimed that the loss of margin from roaming would lead to price increases elsewhere.   Yes, it probably would i.e. prices would become more cost orientated. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the mobile industry.

As the market is opened up and access is unbundled from other value chain activities, this provides an opportunity for new competitors. Operators such as Lebara and Lyca had some success in competing on the basis of low cost international calls from mobile phones. MVNOs such as Truphone, WoldSIM, roamline.com arbitrage the difference between wholesale and retail prices to deliver cheap roaming. Mobile operators watch these trends carefully and will not make general price cuts on high margin services if this reduces overall profits. They are responding in smart ways by offering low cost roaming to those who seek it. For example, EE of the UK which focusses on LTE offers “inclusive unlimited roaming minutes and texts for an extra £5 a month on a 24 month roaming plan”. Here we can see the future of roaming tariffs. The bigger threat is to those niche operators because their arbitrage opportunity reduces.

In response to lower intra-EU roaming charges some operators increased roaming prices outside Europe, but not in a cost orientated manner.  Most operators are wedded to a zonal pricing approach, pretending that somehow costs increase with distance. That’s nonsense.  Some of the highest Inter Operator Tariffs are levied close to Europe. For example, Tunisian mobile operators collude to set wholesale roaming prices as high as €1.50 per minute. While a European operator’s retail price for roaming in Tunisia of €2 per minute including VAT might seem high, it barely covers the wholesale cost. In some other markets much lower wholesale roaming prices can be obtained. This is also evident from the countries covered by EE’s unlimited international roaming deal which includes Europe and an odd mixture of countries including Australia, the US, Peru, Turkey, etc.

And what about the subsidised contract customer, i.e. the customer supposedly “owned” by the operator? After all the separation of handset and SIM was one of the great innovations of GSM because of its potential for increased competition. It is not necessarily the case that a customer life time value is higher for a consumer with an operator provided subsidised smartphone compared to a SIM only smartphone customer with a 30 day rolling contract.

Operators are aware of these trends and their offers are evolving in a segmented response to changes in the regulatory and competitive environment. There may be bumps along the road, but I am optimistic for the future of the mobile industry as a sector worth investing in.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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How much is in a Gigabyte? – or the not so broad-band experience

May 31, 2013

The ordinary broadband user does not grasp the concept of “Gigabyte per month”, despite many years of educational efforts by operators around the world. A typical operator illustration looks like this: for one Gigabyte you can get x (low single digits number) hours of video, or y (double-digit number) hours of music, or z-thousands of (not too high-resolution) photo messages. The often advertised promise of high-definition video on the go and the actual reality of limited data packages are usually far apart.

A friend, who recently moved to a farm house in the country side complained to me: I cannot get any fixed-line service here and while my 3G mobile connection works fine, my data is used up within 3 days – so for the rest of the month, I’m left with chatting on whatsapp.

An illustration of what happens here: In most European countries the average person consumes around 4 hours of TV per day. Bringing this experience to an IP world translates into an astonishing data volume of 1 Terabyte (or 1000 Gigabyte) per month (assuming high-definition video). This is far from any current mobile data package and even far from the newly data-limited DSL packages of Deutsche Telekom, which offer a maximum data allowance of 75GB at entry level and 400GB at the highest package. So, even this highest package would cut you off in less than half a month, if you were to bring all your average TV consumption to the Internet.

There is still a long way to go until an all-IP world can become reality.

Written by Matt Halfmann, Partner, Coleago Consulting

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New LTE Bands in European Version of iPhone 5S?

May 24, 2013

When back in September 2012, Apple launched the iPhone5, I commented on the fact that the Region 1 version (Europe and Africa) only included the 1800MHz band for LTE whereas Samsung and HTC already had triple band LTE models in the market with the 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz bands.

This week came the announcement that Vodafone UK delayed its LTE launch to coincide with the launch of the iPhone 5S. This seems to indicate that that the new version of the iPhone will include three main Region 1 LTE bands.

It was reported that Vodafone’s Group CEO Vittorio Colao commented on the delayed launch: “End of the summer means when there’s going to be a good commercial moment for launching 4G … EE had a little bit of an advantage because of the iPhone at 1800MHz. To be honest that will go away as soon as we launch our 4G.”

The fact that Vodafone UK organised its launch date around a handset speaks volumes of the marketing power of Apple.  Many consumers make handset choices first and network choices second.  Mobile network operators would gain a lot from promoting Android and Windows phones to counteract the marketing power of Apple. 

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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Australian spectrum auction failure

May 13, 2013

The Australian 700MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum auction results were announced on the 7th of May. The most striking result is that 2x15MHz of the 700MHz spectrum remained unsold because VHA (Vodafone) decided not bid and Optus acquired only 2x10MHz. This poor result is due to the extremely high reserve prices. The reserve price for the 700MHz digital dividend spectrum was set at 1.36 $/MHz/pop. This is 186 per cent of the average price paid in other auctions for digital dividend spectrum as shown in the chart below. Furthermore, by comparison the reserve price for digital dividend spectrum in the recent auction in the UK was only 0.30 $/MHz/pop and in Germany the reserve price amounted to less than one cent / MHz / pop.

Digital Dividend Spectrum Price Paid vs. Australian Reserve

blog oz

The rationale for freeing up spectrum from analogue TV for use by mobile broadband services is the benefit this brings to the economy.  At the start of the process of the digital switchover, the Australian Mobile Telecommunication Association (AMTA) engaged Spectrum Value Partners and Venture Consulting to determine the net economic benefit generated by redeploying the 700MHz spectrum freed up by the switch-off of analogue television, i.e. digital dividend.  They reported that:  “Allocating the optimal mix of UHF spectrum to mobile operators is forecast to generate a net benefit to the economy of between $7bn and $10bn, depending on which overall market scenario is realised. “ (Getting the most out of the digital dividend in Australia, Spectrum Value Partners and Venture Consulting, April 2009).

This estimate assumed that all of the digital dividend spectrum will be allocated to mobile.  In the event one third of the APT band plan 700MHz spectrum remains unsold whereas 100 per cent of the cost of freeing up the spectrum has been incurred. Therefore potentially several billion dollars of benefit to the economy has been lost as a result of setting reserve prices above the level where weaker operators can earn a normal return of capital employed.

The damage that has been inflicted on the Australian economy does not end there.  Since VHA ended up without spectrum it will further weaken their relevance in the market. Since competition is likely to have been weakened this will reduce the “consumer surplus” from the digital dividend i.e. the benefit consumers would gain in the form of lower prices.

Of course the most direct impact is the lower auction revenue for the Government. The Australian government budgeted in revenue from the auction at least equal to the total reserve, i.e. AS$ 2,894 million. In the event the auction raised only AS$ 1,964 million, i.e. 32 per cent below the target.

The auction failure could hardly be more complete.  Yet, it was widely predicted that with these high reserve prices spectrum would remain unsold, in fact Vodafone said it would not bid unless the reserve prices are lowered.  The outcome says a lot about politician’s lack of understanding of how investment decisions are made and also demonstrates an unwillingness to listen to the industry.

The blame for the ACMA’s auction fiasco lies mostly with the government since the reserve prices were set by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy who set out his stall in his now infamous declaration of “unfettered legal power” over telecommunications “The regulation of telecommunications powers in Australia is exclusively federal. That means I am in charge of spectrum auctions, and if I say to everyone in this room ‘if you want to bid in our spectrum auction you’d better wear red underpants on your head’, I’ve got some news for you. You’ll be wearing them on your head … I have unfettered legal power.”

Conroy clearly told everyone that he had no intention of listening to the industry. The reserve prices were set to plug the Government’s budget deficit. This is the worst way to set reserve prices for spectrum. It is devoid of any rationale and is in effect a hidden tax to be paid for by consumers in form of higher prices.

Although Australians are always good for a bit of fun, I very much doubt that bidders in the Australian spectrum auction wore red underpants on their heads. However, in the light of the spectrum auction fiasco, it is plausible that the Minister now wears a red face.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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The end of spectrum auctions?

April 22, 2013

Last week the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) announced a value-for-money study of Ofcom’s CCA format spectrum auction, with the presumptions that it should have raised more money. Last week the US Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division made a submission to the FCC, questioning whether spectrum auctions deliver the greatest societal value. In March 2013, the Czech Telecommunication Officer (CTO) cited “excessively high” spectrum prices as the main reason for the cancellation of a spectrum auction. While these events come from three different angles, they in effect question whether auctions are the best method of allocating spectrum to mobile operators. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of spectrum auctions?

Let’s start with a fundamental argument against spectrum auctions. Last week the US Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division made an Ex Parte Submission to the FCC In the Matter of Policies Regarding Mobile Spectrum Holdings. “The Department believes that a set of well-defined, competition-focused rules for spectrum acquisitions, particularly in auctions, would best serve the dual goals of putting spectrum to use quickly and promoting consumer welfare in wireless markets.” The Anti-Trust Division of the DoJ is concerned with competition thus it strives to prevent the emergence of monopolies or oligopolies to ensure that end-users benefit from competitive markets. The DoJ previously voiced its concern with regards to spectrum auctions but it is not the first to realise the potentially negative effects of auctions.

Policy makers believed that market based allocation through competitive auctions were the best method to allocate spectrum in as much they would generate greatest societal benefit. When all bidders are equal, a spectrum auction may well be preferable to a beauty contest style spectrum allocation which lacks objectivity and transparency. It is in that sense that spectrum auctions played a useful role while the wireless industry went through its growth phase.

Auctions are said to be economically efficient if they allocate spectrum to the bidder who places the highest private value on the spectrum. Economic efficiency assumes that the bidder who generates the highest private value also generates the highest social value. If the two diverge then the outcome is not efficient as it is the maximisation of social value that is critical to efficiency. The bidder with the highest private value may therefore not necessarily be the bidder who generates the highest social value.

Coleago has carried out many spectrum valuations projects and a key task is to identify the sources of spectrum value. In many cases the largest source of value was the “blocking value”, i.e. the value to the bidder of keeping out a new entrant or preventing a smaller competitor from acquiring sufficient spectrum resources to compete effectively in the mobile broadband market. The DoJ refers to this as the “foreclosure value” as distinct from “use value”. Regulators are often desperate to prevent this and may set aside spectrum for new entrants (e.g. AWS in Canada, 2008), try to ensure that recent new entrants survive (e.g. 800MHz auction in France, 2010), or set spectrum caps.

Despite the issues highlighted above telecoms regulators are still keen on spectrum auctions and now favour the Combinatorial Clock Auction (CCA) format. A combinatorial auction has many benefits, but also limitations, particularly in a mature mobile market. An unfettered CCA favours large bidders and, depending on the rules, may allow vexatious bidding purely to impose costs on others. Hence regulators introduce all manner of rules to undo what a combinatorial auction is all about, namely to allocate spectrum to the highest bidder. Such “auction limitation rules” include band specific or overall caps, band specific obligations, limitations to bid based on market share, high reserve prices, roaming rules, deployment rules, etc. The imposition of such limitations invalidates the central hypothesis of a combinatorial auction with a second price rule; they are a misuse of this auction format. These limitations are also a tacit admission that auctions are no longer an appropriate spectrum allocation mechanism.

The auction orthodoxy has been further discredited by high reserve prices. In some cases reserve prices are so high that operators merely buy “their share” of the spectrum on offer at the reserve price. The Greek spectrum auction in November 2011 was a fine example. The combined reserve price was set at €82 million and the combined bid value amounted to €82.52 million. In other cases auction formats and reserve prices lead to extremely high prices in terms of €/MHz/pop, taking large amounts of money out of the industry. This is rather schizophrenic. On the one hand governments are taking billions out of the wireless industry and on the other hand they try to promote the building of broadband networks.

In this context the most bizarre event is the cancellation of the multi-band spectrum auction in the Czech Republic in March 2013. The Czech Telecommunication Officer (CTO) cited “excessively high” spectrum prices as the main reason for the cancellation, fearing these high prices would lead to higher prices for mobile broadband and slower deployment. Setting aside the point that the CTO’s arguments are not supported by economic theory, if the CTO does not believe in market based solutions, why have a spectrum auction in the first place?

The CTO’s reaction to high “high prices” is thrown into sharp relief by the announcement of the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) on 15th of April 2013 to conduct a value-for-money study of Ofcom’s CCA format spectrum auction. The auction which concluded in February 2013 raised £2.3bn, which was £1.2bn less than the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer budgeted for. Apparently the NAO does not believe that the CCA delivered what it should and is taking a politician’s budget target as an indication of the “right price”, and this despite the fact that Ofcom made clear that the primary objective of the auction was not to maximise the amount of money raised.

In most markets the mobile industry is now mature. Rather than new market entry consolidation is the name of the game. This is what is to be expected in maturing markets in any industry. The emphasis should therefore be to ensure that consumers have choice and prices are as low as they can be. This is not necessarily achieved by insisting on spectrum auctions and insisting that there is a large number of competing network operators. Sooner or later regulators will abandon the dogma of auctions and accept that the industry is heading for consolidation, at least network level and may devise administered spectrum allocation mechanism which “distribute” new spectrum among a reasonable number of operators, perhaps 3 or 4 in each market, depending on absolute size.

The DoJ’s filing does not call for an end to auctions, but it clearly voices the opinion that unfettered spectrum auctions are not in the public interest. Implicit in the DoJ’s approach is the belief that government knows best and is best placed to determine what number of network operators generate the greatest benefit to society. However, it is questionable that the public interest is best served by such an approach particularly since governments have erred on the high side with regards to the number of operators that a market can sustain. Enforced competition at network level leads to the destruction of value as has happened for example in Canada, Australia and some other markets. In any event, regulators start to have problems of a different kind: how to deal with global oligopolies created by successful OTT players.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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The end of geography and roaming in telecoms

March 4, 2013

Today most people are familiar with services such as Skype. Effectively a location independent mobile service, with Skype it does not matter where people call from nor does it matter where the called party is located. Geography has become irrelevant. By the end of Q4 2012, it was anticipated that roughly 50 per cent of international call traffic is likely to have taken place via Skype and similar services rather than traditional carrier traffic.

More and more people are installing Skype on their handsets or using Facetime on their iPhone, and they are getting used to the fact that calling from their mobile phones doesn’t necessarily have to involve the mobile operator. What’s more they also get video telephony. Increasingly people use WiFi on their smartphones, both at home, at work and in public places. The introduction of WPA2 as well as SIM based authentication which allows automatic connection to a WiFi network without signing in makes it easy for users to route their traffic via WiFi and opt out of traditional telephony.  Operators such as Rebtel in Sweden and Republic Wireless in the USA focus on this opportunity – these mobile operators that use WiFi offload “push” their customers to make calls using Skype like services.

The trend away from making standard mobile voice calls is accelerating with the adoption of LTE. For example, in contrast to older versions of the iPhone, the new iPhone with Apple’s iOS 6 upgraded FaceTime from a WiFi only feature to a cellular feature. AT&T Wireless was the first to allow customers to use FaceTime over LTE if they signed up to their new shared data tariff plan.

During 2013 we will see the start of a fundamental reshaping of mobile telecoms service offerings driven by new services based on the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), the evolution of mobile wholesale as well as regulatory trends. Some operators may go all the way and break the link between the mobile telephone numbers and geography. After all it seems somewhat archaic that in a world where distance does not matter, mobile operator tariffs are still based on location and distance. Location is not an issue with Skype or FaceTime and this is one of the reasons for the success of these OTT operators.

Some operators have already introduced services based on IMS, for example in Canada the Rogers One Number service allows the seamless switching between a smartphone and computer. It allows mobile operators to leverage the proliferation of free WiFi connectivity to in effect extend their network coverage world-wide.  This allows mobile operators to fight back against OTT services such as Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime by in effect becoming themselves an “OTT over WiFi” player.

There are also traditional mobile services that allow users to avoid roaming charges and thus take at least one aspect of geography out of equation that already exists for voice (Truphone, WoldSIM and other) and data (roamline.com, in collaboration with KPN). The business model is built on exploiting the difference between lower wholesale prices paid by MVNOs versus high inter-operator roaming tariffs by offering customer SIMs with multiple numbers in different countries.

The opportunity to take geography out of mobile pricing is not limited to roaming. For example, Turk Telecom launched a service in Germany and Belgium aimed at the Turkish ethnic segment in these countries. Customers are charged exactly the same amount to call numbers in Belgium or Turkey. Turkcell could add the ability to recharge linked accounts (a Turkish person working in Belgium can recharge the prepaid SIM of relatives in Turkey) and make small mobile payments across borders. Smart, of the Philippines is already going down this route, targeting the Filipino diaspora segment around the world.

As a result of these trends in international call pricing as well as roaming, Geography may soon become irrelevant.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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The APT Bandwagon Reaches Cruising Speed

February 13, 2013

On the 7th of February Brazil made the decision to make available 698MHz-806MHz for mobile broadband services. The frequencies are those of the Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT) band plan. ANATEL, Brazil’s regulator, now has the authority go ahead with clearing and the allocating this 700MHz spectrum to mobile operators for mobile broadband use. This should help Brazil to achieve the goals of the country’s national broadband plan (Plano Nacional de Banda Larga).

Of course the process will take time because the process of moving terrestrial TV from analogue to digital will be lengthy. In some parts of Brazil the spectrum could be cleared as early as 2016. Given the size of the country, a regional approach to opening the band to mobile broadband may be possible, although this potentially creates an interference problem.

Brazil’s decision means that the APT eco-system is gaining the scale which confirms it as a mainstream solution for LTE deployment. This means the 700MHz APT band plan may appear in chipsets and more devices earlier rather than later.

Many Asian countries have committed to the APT plan. However, the clearing of the band appears to be slow and countries such as India have only just launched 3G and therefore Region 2 may not be the main driver in developing the device eco-system. The confirmation of the adoption of the APT band plan in Latin America indicates that it will become well-established in Region 2. In addition some African countries have also looked at the APT band plan and the Russian 700MHz allocation is reasonably close to the APT band plan. Therefore we may see the APT band plan being adopted in also in Region 1.

Exhibit 1: 700MHz Allocation in Russia & APT Band Plan

700MHz Plans

Mobile Transmit

Centre Gap

Mobile Receive

700MHz in Russia

720 MHz to 750 MHz = 30 MHz

750 MHz to 761 MHz

761 MHz to 791 MHz = 30 MHz

APT Band Plan

703 MHz to 748 MHz = 45 MHz

748 MHz to 758 MHz

758 MHz to 803 MHz = 45 MHz

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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Do we need telephone numbers?

January 11, 2013

Already most communications that take place over telecoms networks do not involve telephone numbers. Email and other internet based communications increasingly dominate business and consumer communications. Fixed network voice calls are moving to mobile and Skype like services. By some estimates the last fixed line phone will be retired in 2025. Even if the decline of fixed phones and with it fixed telephone numbers is not that fast, clearly the writing is on the wall.

Meantime in the mobile world, telephone numbers are growing fast. However, sending messages to mobile numbers and calling mobile numbers has started to go out of fashion. Messaging services such as WhatsApp are replacing SMS and increasingly people use Skype on their handsets. Of course Skype also sells telephone numbers, but most Skype users don’t bother to buy one.

The trend away from making standard mobile voice calls is accelerating with the adoption of LTE. For example, in contrast to older versions of the iPhone, the new iPhone with Apple’s iOS 6 upgraded FaceTime from a WiFi only feature to a cellular feature. AT&T Wireless was the first to allow customers to use FaceTime over LTE if they signed up to their new shared data tariff plan. The key aspect about the new tariff plan is that in terms of pricing it is data centric, with voice playing minor role. Most mobile operators still base their tariff plans on a minute bundle with data added to that, but this will change rapidly as LTE becomes commonplace.

If telephone numbers become obsolete this poses challenges not just for operators but also regulators. The world of telephony is organised around telephone numbers and there is an element of sovereignty in country codes and national numbering plans. If telephone numbers become obsolete, governments have surrendered this sovereignty to the internet. This is a frightening prospect to some governments.

Many aspects of telecoms regulation are number focussed. If people no longer need telephone numbers, national regulatory agencies effectively lose control over telecommunications within their borders as well as internationally. The spat at the December 2012 ITU meeting in Dubai over regulating the internet is only the opening skirmish in what is likely to turn into a major battle.

The way in which the obsolescence of telephone numbers will impact will differ between markets. Some emerging market countries still have not fully re-balanced fixed network tariffs, e.g. Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait to name a few I am familiar with. Subsidising the cost of the line rental from long distance calls will no longer be possible. For example, in the case of Tunisia the fixed line rental retail price would have to increase by a factor of four to cover costs. Such price increases are politically unacceptable and hence it seems tempting to look for money elsewhere, e.g. from Google, Skype (Microsoft), and perhaps even from the most valuable company on the planet, Apple.

The transition will not be problem- free for developed markets. Already regulators fret over the issue of calls to emergency services. On its website Skype clearly states “Skype is not a replacement for your telephone and can’t be used for emergency calling”.

On the plus side, if telephone numbers become irrelevant, operators and regulators will not have to worry anymore about fixed and mobile number portability.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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