THD Seine = RIP ?

16 Sep

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The French Fiber PPPs are called RIP, Réseau d’Initiative Publique (Public Initiative Network). An unfortunate acronym, perhaps, considering the largest one of these seems to be in big big trouble. THD Seine is the largest such network in Europe, with the ambition of covering 800k homes in one of the densest (and better served) regions of France, just outside of Paris.

THD Seine was a landmark project because it successfully overcame every regulatory and legal challenge both in France and in Brussels by focusing on the SIEG notion, which means General Interest Economic Services in English. Basically, the notion was that if the public subsidy in a project helps make said project universal when commercial propositions will never offer full coverage, then public subsidy for the part that wouldn’t get done otherwise is fine.

Unfortunately, the project seems to have hit some major execution hurdles. Targets have not been met and Sequalum, who won the deal (a subsidiary of Numéricable and SFR) seems well on its path to be rejected and imposed massive penalties for not delivering. The political authorities of the 92 have issued the following statement (in French) entitled Towards an Annulment of the Public Service Delegation.

Seems like that particular RIP might well be RIP…

Photo: (cc) Corentin Foucault

Is management T-Mobile USA’s layer of fat ?

15 Sep

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There’s an article in French magazine Challenges this week about Iliad and T-Mobile. It’s entitled “How Iliad-Free bluffed the Americans” (in French). As usual with the business press, it doesn’t actually answer the question, and by and large there’s little new in there. Still, there’s a quote that I found interesting in the context in which I view the potential acquisition, as described in my earlier post from last week. Here it is (translated by myself, apologies for imprecisions):

The synergies they are talking about mostly happen at management level, explains a business banker. Stating that they are capable of lifting the margin from 20 to 30% is an insult to the CEO.

Or is it?

The alternative is that the management is the layer of fat that you can most easily get rid of without harming the company. And that’s insulting to the CEO only because it means he hasn’t been doing his job.

Let me tell you a couple of anecdotes. Back in 2006-2007 when I was still a telecoms consultant in the French market, I wanted badly to have some kind of “Iliad” reference on my CV and on the roster of my company. I managed to set up a meeting with an ex-colleague and friend who’d joined Free in the early days. I asked him if he would introduce me to the marketing director. “There isn’t one” he responded. I was gobsmacked, but the fact is that they didn’t need one. They had less product managers than most companies have VPs, and it worked just fine.

Here’s another story, told to me by the CTO of a European operator. He went on a two-day fact-finding trip at Iliad’s in France. When he came back, during a board meeting, the CEO asks him to recount the trip. “Errr, there’s not much that’s applicable to us”, he responds, trying to dodge the topic. “Come on”, says the CEO, “they’re the most successful operator in Europe, surely there are things you learned that would help us”. Cornered, the CTO starts: “There’s no marketing director”. The marketing director blanches. “There’s no communications director”, the communication director blanches. You see where this is going.

Therein though, lies the challenge that Niel and his teams will face: as I mentioned last week, it’s one thing to create a super-lean corporate structure, one where anything that’s not vital is not necessary. It’s much harder, and much more painful, to trim down an existing “fat” structure into a lean one without losing the employees’ spirits along the way.

Offshore Bandwidth Sparks Africa Fiber Boom | Light Reading

12 Sep

Africa is starting to see the knock-on effects of having greater international connectivity via multiple subsea cables.

Source: www.lightreading.com

In developed market, the broadband debate focuses access because for the most part, that’s the last remaining hurdle to better connectivity. In the developing world, as we highlighted in our white paper Connectivity Models for Developing Economies (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2343233) we highlighted by example how a solid and affordable backhaul would spark spontaneous access investment (at least in mobile). It’s great to see that in the case of Africa, it’s sparking wireline access investment as well. 

See on Scoop.itConnected World

The Maddening Schizophrenia of US Incumbents

11 Sep

(cc) Evan

(cc) Evan

I must confess to a particular fondness for those moments of synchronicity when different news items happen to collide in the same cycle, violently contradicting each other. This week is a great example.

On Tuesday, Techzone 360 published a really interesting editorial entitled Shifting Towards Symmetry: The New Broadband Landscape. I strongly encourage you to read it, but here’s the elevator pitch: AT&T and Verizon have finally realized that symmetry not only sells but differentiates them from cable. Suddenly, after years of arguing users didn’t need it, they flip around and extoll its virtues. Of course, to you and me, that’s not an incredibly forward-thinking stance, but think about where they are coming from!

The fact is that the market has moved beyond copper, whether they like it or not. That’s why Verizon can aggressively push symmetry (they’ve shed a lot of their copper, and have fiber everywhere else). AT&T, as is clearly highlighted in the editorial isn’t quite so at ease, having a large FTTC footprint that most definitely doesn’t support symmetry.

Still, no matter what the reasons, we should applaud them for being so modern, right?

Not so fast! That same day Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin writes an article (AT&T and Verizon say 10Mbps is too fast for “broadband,” 4Mbps is enough) detailing how the same AT&T and Verizon are fighting the FCC tooth and nail to stop the regulator from increasing the requirements for a data service to be considered broadband. Today, 4Mbps down and 1 Mbps up is considered broadband, the FCC would like the download to go at least to 10Mbps and argues (quite convincingly) that you need that much for a perfectly normal evening at home. AT&T and Verizon are having none of it though, and their main argument is the same as ever (I quote AT&T): ” a 10Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today”.

The real reason, again, is elsewhere: with a 10Mbps definition of broadband, suddenly the market doesn’t look so competitive anymore: 10% of users have no access to service and 30% only have one option for service. In other words, 40% of the market is either unserved or a monopoly. That doesn’t look so good…

So there you have it. PR schizophrenia at its most beautiful. I say the FCC should up the broadband requirements to a symmetrical 10Mbps. That should help AT&T and Verizon reconcile their paradoxical positions!

 

Photo: Insomnia, (cc) Evan

3G/4G as a landline data substitute

10 Sep

(cc) Philippe Henry

(cc) Philippe Henry

A guest post by Herman Wagter.

In the never-ending discussions about platform competition, the notion that mobile data is a substitute for landline data keeps coming back. I thought it might be interesting to recount a real life experience of trying to do just that.

One of my friends owns a couple of farms in rural France. They date back to the year 1100 and are located on the hills of the Rhone valley near Valence. He has restored them to apartments which he now rents to tourists.

Offering Internet access as part of the accommodation is a big problem. 10 miles of old copper lines doesn’t work for DSL, and there’s no line of sight to someone who might have better DSL to share.

The only option is to use 3G and (hopefully) later 4G as a substitute for landline data. Since the farms have a wonderful view over the Rhone Valley – which is populated with masts – this seems like a feasible idea. The signal strength though is quite low outside the buildings, and inside there is nothing as the walls are made of stone, and are of medieval thickness (80 cm).

In order to solve this, we installed:
- a 17 dBi planar directional antenna, with cable through the wall to
- a Teltonika RUT550 3G/4G router-to-wifi

and purchased some prepaid SIM cards (SFR as provider). I’ll spare you the administrative telecom-hell associated with these prepaid sims.

The planar antenna got -75 dB signal strength, which is fine. In all likelihood, the signal comes from a mast which is 7 km away, near line of sight. The Wifi signal inside the homes is fine as well.

The throughput fluctuates from 2 Mbps down to almost nothing, 100kbps up to nothing.

Looking at the throughput we see:
- sawtooth patterns, with a periodicity 5-10 seconds
- sometimes it takes tens of seconds to start the connection to a website

Still, it’s more or less usable to check mail, IM, and websites. For Youtube you need a fair bit of patience.

So we installed one per rented accommodation.

The big surprise turned out to be the data consumption: the prepaid SIMs had to be topped up constantly. 1Gbyte of data was usually gone within a day. We first suspected excessive Youtube viewing or the like, but every tenant swore they did not have any data-intensive kind of usage.

After analysis, testing and elimination of likely causes we found out that:
- the average number of connected devices per family member was more than one. Multiply that by the number of family members…
- phones and tablets are very frugal with data when they use a 3G or 4G connection. As soon as they see wifi (which they equate to a landline) the floodgates open.

So we now tell guests to:
- switch off icloud
- not update their OS
- switch off Dropbox, Gdrive and other cloud storage syncs
- check that muTorrent or other bittorrent clients do not start automatically in the background (which is the default on laptops)

That cuts back the consumption to bearable levels.

What this real life example of a mobile substitute to landline tells us is that you can do it if you’re willing to seriously cut back on most of what is considered “normal internet activities”, and if you’re willing to risk paying through the nose for overage charges.

In other words, it’s possible, but it’s not much of a substitute. We’ll see if 4G offers anything different, but one thing is for sure: the data consumption drivers aren’t going away…

Photo: (cc) Philippe Henry

TWDM and the regulatory framework for Fiber broadband

9 Sep

 

From the start, in markets where competition was valued over oligopoly or monopoly, regulation for next-generation broadband has been an issue. Trying to replicate the model for copper unbundling over a new fiber network was complicated for a number of reasons:

  • point to multipoint fiber, the cheaper way to deploy FTTH, does not allow for such passive unbundling
  • incumbent operators, the market players most likely to deploy some FTTH were happy with a technology that pushed hitherto passive wholesale customers into higher margin active products.

This led to point to multipoint technologies being deployed en masse by large scale players in most countries (exceptions: Sweden, Netherlands, Switzerland) which in turn led to essentially two regulatory models:

  1. either the regulator favored infrastructure competition, which in most markets is a very short term road to a duopoly in dense areas (cable / FTTP) and a monopoly everywhere else,
  2. or the regulator favored infrastructure sharing, with active wholesale products the norm and the incumbent operator retaining an upper hand on the market.

(France, typically, could not choose between these models so we have infrastructure competition with network sharing, and it’s a mess. But that’s a story for another day.)

The shortcomings of the latter model were partly addressed in some countries by forcing the incumbent to separate the network and services activities, either functionally as in the UK, or structurally, as in New Zealand.

Still, the wholesale price gap between passive unbundling over copper and active bitstream over fiber is a major issue as competing ISPs face either a significant margin drop as their wholesale costs double (roughly) or customers face a significant price hike, which may endanger the success of fiber products in general. In practice the market tends to price somewhere in between, but it slows down fiber adoption.

In the short term, it’s not a massive issue, simply because as with copper, no one would think of buying passive products (which require heavy investment to activate and operate) before they’ve acquired a significant market share in a given area. When that happens though, the classic “ladder of investment” concept that powered DSL competition in the last decade simply won’t work with PON networks as passive products cannot be delivered.

Or at least could not until now.

TWDM is a standardized technology that (on paper) delivers more capacity to PON architectures. In a (very) simplified way, what TWDM allows is to stack up to 4 virtual PON networks, operating on different wavelengths onto an existing PON architecture. These ‘virtual PON trees’ would each deliver 10G down and 2.5G up (although a symmetrical product has been specified, there’s no operator demand for it yet), which is about 4 times the capacity of current PON.

The beauty of it is that although you might use these stacked PONs to deliver way more capacity to end-users than what you currently can deliver with PON, you could also use them to lease these separate wavelengths to different ISPs, thus replicating a quasi-passive unbundling model over PON fiber.

This is probably not why some incumbents were so eager to choose PON for deployment, but it could eliminate a regulatory headache in the years to come as a more even form of competition is allowed to happen over existing architectures with limited reinvestment (and, most importantly, no outside plant work needed).

The technology is standardized and the first commercial products are expected from the big players (Alcatel Lucent, Huawei…) within a year. TWDM really is going to be the tech to watch for in the fiber space.

Can Iliad Succeed in the US Market?

5 Sep

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A topic that I’ve been following closely over the summer despite a relatively lackluster press coverage in non-French speaking media is the attempted bid by Iliad on T-Mobile US. This is interesting to me for a number of reasons, one being that I have long spoken of the potential for an Iliad-style disruption in a number of markets (including the US), and another one being that I know Iliad well, and I know the US market reasonably well. This is really me musing on whether Iliad could make it work more than anything.

I won’t go into valuations and other financial aspects that might allow Iliad’s bid to succeed or not. My gut feeling at this stage is that with the removal of the competing Sprint bid, they are well positioned, particularly if they get a consortium of investors around them, but I’m too far removed from pure financials to have a viable view on that.

The more interesting question (to me) is, assuming the bid is successful, can the industrial project be successful? The financial markets clearly seem to think not, or at least seem to think that it’s very uncertain. Iliad’s valuation has taken a serious hit as a consequence of the bid being announced.

One thing is for sure: the initial instinct that got Niel (Iliad’s founder and CEO) interested in T-Mobile US is correct: the US market is ripe for price disruption, with ARPUS two to three times higher than European averages and there is no reasonable explanation as to why costs would be two to three times European costs in the US. Iliad successfully entered the French market as a low-price competitor by building a lean operation in an environment where margins were already much lower than in the US. The opportunity is clear.

The thing that many people don’t understand about Niel is that he’s one of those entrepreneurs who is still willing to take risks. I would actually argue that he thrives on risk. Financial and industry analysts are trying to read Iliad’s bid within the framework of industry accepted practices, but I believe that’s the wrong way to look at it, especially in the US where price competition has been very limited due to the oligopolistic nature of the market. The right way to look at it would be to try and anticipate all that an Iliad owned T-Mobile could offer end-users that nobody expects. What could they give away for free that everyone in the industry agrees has to be paid for? What could they radically simplify in terms of portfolio, distribution, etc. Which partnerships could they strike that would open up possibilities for visibility and commercial success.

This isn’t so much about replicating the French success as it is about bringing in (and hopefully transitioning the existing teams to) a radically different culture, one of lean disruptiveness. That’s what Iliad would be bringing to the table. And unlikely though it sounds, it could very well work. It’s worked in the past, multiple times. I’m not underestimating the cultural challenges here, but I do think with Niel you need to keep your mind open to the fact that his success might surprise you.

Still, the biggest challenge here is that Iliad isn’t starting from scratch. Every success of Iliad’s in the past was built from the ground up. The only failure they had to deal with was their acquisition of Telecom Italia’s French subsidiary Alice. In the case of T-Mobile, Iliad announced that $2bn of savings per year could be generated, and they may very well be right. But there’s a long way between identifying where money can be saved and actually restructuring to save it. And it’s a very different thing building a super-lean operation from a clean slate and turning an organisation with the kind of technical, organisational and cultural legacy that T-Mobile US has into a similarly lean outfit. To me that is the greatest challenge: not only in transforming the company’s culture (hard enough as it may be) but in trimming down the company to the lean operation they think they can turn it into.

Still, I hope it happens, because it’s going to be super-interesting to watch, and because I’d love to see the US incumbents quake with fear once they realize that someone is operating the same type of business they have at a fraction of the cost, and it’s working…

Why Internet governance should be left to the engineers

4 Sep

It’s simple, keep the engineers in charge, not governments.

Source: www.washingtonpost.com

If there’s one thing you have to read today it’s this. Larry Downes articulates the uneasy truths of the political side of the Net Neutrality debate much better than I could have, but I wholeheartedly agree with him. 

See on Scoop.itConnected World

Behind the Great Firewall

3 Sep

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I’ve been living in China for close to 4 weeks now. Admittedly not long enough to get a real sense for what it is to live here, especially since my living conditions are not exactly similar to those of your average Chinese citizen, but enough to have faced a number of challenges on the connectivity side that I thought were worth sharing, especially since they cast a different light on some of the debates that are still raging in the west around Net Neutrality and traffic discrimination.

To clarify a number of things up front, I have fiber in my home, or at least what’s advertised as fiber (I suspect it’s FTTB, which is indeed considered fiber in most of the world) with a nominal service of 100 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up. As a foreigner here, I have essentially two issues:

  • the general low quality of any traffic outside of China,
  • the large number of blocked services.

The former is a challenge because most if not all of what I access is not hosted in China. As a consequence, no matter what I’m trying to do, my speed is close to what I’d expect of a slow DSL or even worse. And there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s not censorship, at least not openly, but it’s traffic degradation for sure.

The latter is an addressable challenge, at least on paper. I subscribed to a VPN service before I came, and it’s been working fine, mostly, except that by definition the VPN tunnels to a non-Chinese destination (hence crappy bandwidth) and also that it’s regularly targeted by the Chinese authorities, so somewhat unreliable. Sometimes it kicks me out, sometimes it slows to a crawl.

What astonished me was the sheer scale of the stuff that’s forbidden. The most shocking discovery (and with a great impact for me) was to find out that all Google services have been blocked since the doodle on June 4th to commemorate Tienanmen Square. And when I say all, it really is everything: search engine, mail, maps, shared documents, everything. Dropbox is also blocked, for reasons unknown. Every large non-Chinese hosted blog platform (blogger, of course, but also wordpress, tumblr, etc.) is out.

And then there’s the sheer randomness of it all. Some services you can’t access for no apparent reason, others are so slow that you can’t figure out if they’re blocked or just snail-paced. And as I experience this, I wish some of our politicians and media people, those who see net neutrality as the enemy, I wish they’d come here and experience what a radical version of non-neutrality is. Again, I have a VPN service to overcome most of this (at the cost of speed) but most people don’t and/or can’t afford one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that not enshrining net neutrality is the equivalent of doing what the Chinese (or Iranian, or Indian) government does. But I look at the UK’s blocking mechanisms supposed to protect children but really targeting just about any kind of site for arcane reasons that no one can figure out, and I think that what I have here is an extreme version of the same thing.

After years of experiencing a reliable internet, one where you don’t have to wonder before you access content or as you wait for it to load whether it’s actually accessible, being behind the Great Firewall is a humbling experience. You suddenly become aware of things you had forgotten, like the importance of your page loading within a reasonable amount of time.

Etsy last week came out with an impassioned plea for Net Neutrality for that reason alone : the smaller commercial sites will actually lose business (more business) to the large retailers under a net discrimination regime, simply because they won’t be able to afford the cost of bringing down their page load times. Meanwhile, a moronic French representative of rights holders comes out with a speech where he argues that Net Neutrality protects the big guys (meaning Americans) against the little guys (meaning French) and I’m thinking this guy should come here a bit and experience a radical version of what he’s wishing for.

They say you don’t know what you have until you lost it. In the case of an open internet, I’m certainly here to tell you that that’s true.

Photo: The Great Wall of China (CC) lutmans

Orange opens a Gigabit Testlab in San Francisco

2 Sep

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It came to my attention recently that Orange, the French incumbent ISP and a powerful market player in numerous other European and non-European countries had launched a Testlab for Gigabit apps in San Francisco.

It’s an interesting move, one that on paper goes in the right direction although one might argue that it’s coming a little bit late. I’ve been advocating for years that ISPs need to understand how to integrate OSP innovation in their offers, either as an intermediary or simply through exposure. Step one is for said ISPs to be aware of what’s out there as early as possible in the development cycle. A form of externalized innovation.

The lab works very simply by giving start-ups access to gigabit connectivity for free to test their products and services. In exchange Orange, presumably, gets early visibility on interesting or innovative products that require heavy bandwidth to deliver. In fact, the blurb on the GigaStudio website suggests distribution opportunities through Oranges international footprint. In other words, once they identify a promising service, they can help spread it around because they have a critical mass of Gigabit customers already.

Let’s forget for a minute that most likely Orange does not have a critical mass of Gigabit customers (fiber is only deployed en masse in France, and Gigabit isn’t on the menu yet), the focus is on heavy bandwidth apps. Still, the move raises a number of interesting questions.

First and foremost is the following: is a gigabit app an app that requires a gig at the point of production or a gig at the point of delivery ? I would argue the latter, the former being, all things considered, easy to set up in most large cities (provided you can pay). Then what does the lab offer exactly? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to set it up in a city that has gigabit to the home already? Chattanooga, Kansas City, Austin, Wilson NC, etc. Hell, even closer to San Francisco in Brentwood just across the bay, where Sonic is deploying?

Tied to that is a second broader question: why Silicon Valley? Silicon Valley has been the hotbed of startup activities, but actually very few of these are wireline focused. Most of the investment in the last decade has been in mobile services and software, not wired services and/or hardware. That’s not to say there will be no interesting wireline start-ups there ever, but I suspect Orange set up the lab there because they already have a presence in San Francisco rather than go where they might find more interesting and relevant projects. A typical case of looking for your lost watch under the streetlamp even though you lost it elsewhere just because there’s light.

Finally, can Orange really play an intermediary role in distribution? Can they really speed up the ramp for startups to worldwide critical mass? I doubt it, although I’m happy to be convinced otherwise. It would certainly require a massive shift in culture and commercial approach. Not that it would be wrong, quite the contrary. But if I look at a functional example of exposing customers to cool apps instead of developing yourself (albeit at a much smaller scale) I think the guys at Adamo are doing the right thing, embedding a Chromecast into every subscription. It’s (in my opinion) the smart and cheap approach to app exposure, but I can’t imagine Orange doing anything like that…

Still, I’m intrigued, and I might very well try to meet these guys next time I’m in San Francisco…