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EC Confusion and Prejudice around the OTT terminology

6 Nov


I have said in the past that the OTT (Over the Top) acronym is toxic and should not be used, except possibly in a very specific context of describing how a digital service is delivered to end users. The European Commission recently issued a ‘public consultation on the evaluation and the review of the regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services‘ in which the acronym OTT is used repeatedly. This is an important document, designed to flesh out major evolutions in telecom regulation.

I never imagined that the European Commission would use the term OTT to describe a type of player in the industry.  Not only that, but that they would do it without any consistent definition and in the context of an official consultation: the commission can’t seem to agree if the term designates market players or services.

Consider for a moment how cautiously BEREC handles the term ‘OTT’ in its recent report:

“OTT is a term frequently used but often not clearly defined. Some use the term to define a group of actors; others use the term to qualify a category of service… BEREC acknowledges that the term OTT might be regarded as incorrect or having a negative connotation.”

Compare this to the way in which the EC use the term in their consultation. In the document’s introduction (p3) we read:

“Since the last review in 2009, electronic communications networks and services have been undergoing significant structural changes characterised by [...] more complex competition with the convergence of fixed and mobile networks and rise of retail bundles as well as emergence of new online players (so called OTTs) along the value chains which challenge the traditional role of Telcos and Cablecos [...]“

In this usage, OTT designates market players. It’s not describing types of services but suggesting that it’s intention is actually to target specific companies without defining them. Worse still, it does so by using the terminology coined by network operator lobbyists to designate American Internet Giants. Sure, it’s not explicit, but it’s there.

Later in the consultation though (p55), things get a little more specific, but no less confusing. “Over-the-top (OTT) services”, the commission writes, “are increasingly seen by end-users as substitutes for traditional Electronic Communication Services used for interpersonal communications, such as voice telephony and SMS.”

So we’ve shifted from using the term to describe market players to using it to describe services. The definition seems relatively narrow, although it’s also very subjective. How does the fact that users see a service as a substitute for telephony or SMS make it OTT? And who decides which service end-users see as substitutes? Is the commission proposing to do European-wide end-user surveys to determine which online services they see as substitutes?

To me this is a non-sensical definition. Defining the exact scope through the subjective eyes of end-users is absurd and ineffective. Regulatory decisions need to rely on precise definitions, and this isn’t one.

But it doesn’t stop there! 10 pages further down (p65), the Commission asks about substitutability, and frames the question as follows:

“Do you think that traditional electronic communications services [...] can be functionally substituted by OTT services or platforms with communication elements (e.g. internet telephony services, web messaging services, webmail services, social media platforms, other)?”

One way to rephrase this would be: do you think that the services that end-users think are substitutable are actually substitutable? Confused yet?

Or, alternatively, this is a third, different, definition. And one, incidentally, that includes virtually every online service you can think of, since most online services include communication elements. Are we talking about AirBnB (which has embedded messaging), Call of Duty online (which has live audio communications), or are we talking about Skype and Whatsapp?

I have met my share of policy people who are completely disconnected from reality. I have also met a bunch of smart people at DG Connect over the years. I simply cannot understand how something so sloppy could make it into probably one of the most important EC consultations in the telecoms field in a long time.

It’s hard not to think that the incumbent lobbyist terminology wormed its way into the consultation, alternatively describing OTT as services and as a substitute for other acronyms like GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple.) This in itself suggests an inherent bias in the way the consultation was written, and therefore in the way the results will be analysed.

I was tempted to respond, despite the tediousness of it all, to expose that bias, but it turns out I can’t do that as Diffraction Analysis because I’m not registered with the commission in Brussels. I can only do it as a  nameless individual which seems kind of pointless. So much for wanting to hear the voice of the Industry. In fact, thinking about it, the whole thing seems biased: not only are the respondents restricted, but it’s excessively long, the interface is clunky and the questions are all closed. It’s as if it was designed for those who have an army of lawyers and policy people whose jobs it is to write such responses. Who could that possibly be ?

Photo: ‘In Over (the Top of) my Head’ by Benoît Felten

Plucking the low-hanging broadband policy fruit

5 Nov


Ever since moving to Asia last year I have been looking around for what was happening broadband policy wise and gradually realized how much work needs to be done in this area. Earlier this year I wrote an article for FibreSystems entitled The Many Paths of Asian Fiber. This was the beginning of a thought process that matured in a speech I made at CommunicAsia in June (Telecom Asia did a write up about the speech with a somewhat more spectacular title than I felt my speech was).

To cut a long story short (and I of course encourage you to read the two articles above), there is no model deployment for fixed broadband in Asia, and policy makers are by and large not addressing the core issues that stifle private initiative. There is a prevailing view that no infrastructure investment will happen without public subsidies, and I think that view is just plain wrong.

Earlier this week, I spoke at the FTTH Council Asia Pacific’s Gimme Fiber Day in Kuala Lumpur. Telekom Malaysia is (in many ways) rightly held as one of the enlightened incumbents in the region (deploying fiber, embracing open access, etc.) but something struck me while I was there: if you look at the amazing commercial success that HSBB1 (the first phase of their fiber deployment) has been, with low deployment costs and high take-rates, you wonder why it needed public subsidies in the first place. This would have been a perfectly viable infrastructure project, with a breakeven (according to my back of the napkin calculations) well below 10 years. And remember that 10 years for infrastructure is already a very good breakeven.

All this to say that before thinking of publicly financing wireline infrastructure deployment, policy makers should look at the low-hanging broadband policy fruit that would eliminate many of the pain points of deployment and make private initiative viable on its own terms. Here are two of these low-hanging fruit:

  • Fibering new properties up front: many countries in Asia are building new accommodation at a very fast rate. The emerging middle-class aspires to live in apartments that have all the modern amenities. Yet few if any of these countries have grasped the connectivity opportunities these new apartment blocks offer: most of them are still connected with copper, even in countries where copper was never much deployed in the first place. I have had a hard time tracking consolidated numbers for new builds in APAC, but I know a number of markets where the growth of new accommodation is a big thing (India, Indonesia, Malaysia). In all of these countries, a law mandating that fiber ducting and/or fiber be deployed when the property is build, with a proper mechanism for patching that fiber to whichever service provider’s network decides to serve the property would make a massive difference in wireline broadband adoption very fast. And the cost would be exactly zero since deploying fiber to a new home is no more expensive than deploying copper (in fact, it’s likely to be slightly cheaper.) A few years ago, Diffraction Analysis did a study on real-estate benefits of FTTP deployment in Europe. One of the aspects we examined was legal obligations. If you’re interested in this topic, you can check the webinar we did at the time or get in touch with us.
  • Laying fiber duct alongside all other infrastructure work: digging to lay fiber is the primary cost driver for deployment and therefore the primary challenge. By mandating that fiber ducts be laid alongside all public infrastructure work (water, electricity, roads, etc.) and handing the management of those duct assets to a public entity, governments can drive the cost of deployment down dramatically. A number of attempts have been made in the US to pass just such a law and one is under discussion right now. They call it ‘Dig Once’. For emerging markets, this could be a golden opportunity at no or very little cost.

Both of these low hanging fruit have limited cost. And even if they require a little public money to cover the cost differential, the amounts would be an order of magnitude lower than broadband subsidies and no doubt well spent.

Photo: Low-Hanging Fruit (c) Benoit Felten

The Incumbents’ Net Discrimination Plan Exposed

27 Nov

I was just pointed to this fantastic German video that ‘unveils’ Deutsche Telekom’s plans with internet discrimination. It’s both funny (because it turns every creepy aspect of it into a ‘feature’, like “you will no longer be bothered by these thousands of services you could never figure out“) and scary, because from all I can gather in discussions with Incumbents across Europe and the US, this is exactly what they hope to achieve. Seriously worth watching.

Oh, and since I always insist on the lobbyists working for Big Telecom being exposed, the guys behind this are Internet activists, and you can find them on

Behind the Great Firewall

3 Sep


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

The Right to be Forgotten

2 Jun

For the last few days I’ve been musing about the recent “right to be forgotten” that has been imposed on Google (and, presumably other search engines, although I haven’t looked at Bing and others in any detail on this issue). Read this good Techcrunch feature if you don’t know what I’m talking about. And then I watched the excellent segment above last night and things started to coalesce.

Needless to say, I think it’s a bad idea. If you are (to take a hypothetical example) a failed Spanish business man who is tired of people finding newspaper articles on your failures, you should turn to said newspapers and ask them to remove the incriminating articles from their online archives, or at least delete your name. The newspapers are the ones who wrote about you. Google changes nothing conceptually from someone finding an article on you in the paper archives of a library. Sure, it’s easier to find information on you via a search engine today than it was twenty years ago, but the search engine is not responsible for the information it links to.

The implementation seems even more ridiculous to me. Quite simply, here it is: I can see three circumstances here where this plays out, and all three are different :

  • first, you post stuff that you regret later. Then it’s your responsibility to remove it. Or it should have been your responsibility to not post it in the first place. Ignorance is a lame excuse in that instance: it’s been said enough that anything posted to the internet is there forever.
  • second, someone (an individual) posts stuff about you that harms your reputation (photos, sex-tapes, illegal recording). Then there are laws to protect you, you should sue their ass and get the content removed by law.
  • third, the (online) press at large writes about you. That’s not a search engine issue, it’s a freedom of the press issue. If it’s defamatory, you sue.

In none of these circumstances is the fact that potentially harmful information about you is available on the internet Google’s responsibility. None.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about absolving Google on all issues, but on this particular issue, I think this is totally wrong-headed. Ironically, Google is playing this the way they play best: they’re playing dumb. The process to remove things is so manual and so subjective that the results will most likely be disheartening for anyone who wants out of Google.

And, as John Oliver points out in the video above, the Spanish guy who wanted his debts forgotten now is famous worldwide… for his debts.

Talking Smart Cities in Stockholm

5 Mar

The week before last, after the FTTH Council Conference in Stockholm, Stokab and Stocholm IT Region organized an event for their customers and stakeholders. They filmed the whole proceedings and have put it all up on a the Stockholm IT Region website. Since all of the speeches were of great interest, here are individual links to each one of them:

The morning started with an address by the Chairman of the Board of Stokab, followed by a fun presentation on the history of telecommunications in Stockholm by Anders Johansson.

This was followed by a very interesting presentation by Ericsson’s Head of Strategic Marketing on Smart Cities, presenting Ericsson’s Networked Society Index. You can find the Index itself here. What was interesting, beyond the ranking itself, was the trends emerging in terms of infrastructure, affordability of services and usage maturity.

Which led to Diffraction Analysis’ intervention, specifically on Smart Cities and the Infrastructure issues that are raised by connected community initiatives. It’s not the first time we deliver this speech, but I believe it was very appropriate to this audience and went down well. You be the judge.

Then followed an excellent speech by Christopher Mitchell on the US market and how some cities are taking broadband matters into their own hands (and others can’t). Christopher also talked about Google Fiber and the impact it’s having on the US market.

Henry Quek of Singapore’s regulator iDA then detailed how Singapore led the pack in terms of NGA and structural separation, and in particular showed how despite quasi-universal coverage the story is not over. Some fascinating things about enabling Smart City applications there, and a graph from Diffraction Analysis research quoted, always good for our ego.

The final speaker of the day was Chorus’ Martin Sharrock who explained very clearly how groundbreaking the New Zealand NGA model is, and the challenges that it faces from political turmoil.

There was finally a 45mn Q&A session with Ulla Hamilton (City of Stockholm), Crister Mattsson (Acreo) and Benoît Felten (Diffraction Analysis). The discussion was very complementary to some of the discussions had during the Investor’s Day earlier in the week: EU political process, structural separation, community involvement, etc.

Since Stokab then ran separate interviews of all the speakers, here’s Benoît Felten’s interview that summarizes some of the topics discussed during the presentations and panel discussions.

Gigabit Musings

21 Jun

Just a quick note to point out two recent articles on gigabit broadband.

Despite similarities in theme, the two are very different and address different facets of a same issue.

Broadband and Over-the-Top

17 Jun

Plum Consulting has released a really excellent and concise paper on the impact of over-the-top services on the telco business model. It’s entitled (appropriately) Over-the-top – hindering or helping achieve European Digital Agenda goals? If you read me on a regular basis, you will find a lot of the arguments exposed there to be familiar. What I find interesting though is the way they’re framed.

Brian Williamson who wrote the paper notes something important, and that is that the rate of growth of internet traffic, both over fixed and mobile networks is slowing down considerably. The source for this information is Cisco’s own Visual Network Index, hardly a source that could be suspected of downplaying traffic growth. Indeed, there’s a note by Karl Bode on that same topic that’s a little more direct, shall we say. He called it So Much for that Exaflood, Huh? I wish Andrew Odlyzko was still compiling internet traffic growth data like he used to: even back in 2008-2009 he was pointing out that actual growth numbers were systematically lower than predicted growth numbers.

All this to say that the argument that telco lobbyists constantly use that traffic growth is killing them is nonsensical: traffic growth is now lower than the capacity growth enabled by equipment renewal!

Anyway, Plum Consulting’s piece is on the point and recommends three complimentary policy actions (and I quote):

  • Promotion of the principle that consumers should have access to lawful applications and content of their choice.
  • Limiting use of the term “internet access” to those access providers who offer full and non-discriminatory access to lawful internet based applications.
  • Extending the concept of equivalence to internet applications in addition to network access and requiring equal treatment for over-the-top and vertically integrated services.

That last point goes above and beyond anything we have seen in policy circles ever on this topic, and I don’t dream of ever seeing it applied unless telcos start embracing OTT as a delivery mechanism for their own products and services (which some are doing, albeit quietly).

But even the first two bullets, which seem kind of straight-forward, I don’t believe will be implemented. As I wrote this morning in a ZDNet France article (in French) entitled Transparence n’est pas Neutralité (Transparency isn’t Neutrality), Neelie Kroes’s discourse shifted from protecting a neutral internet to demanding an internet where discrimination is transparent.

I’m not optimistic.


Photo Credits: CC Claremont Colleges Digital Library

Collaborative is the new black

21 May

Last week I had the opportunity to speak about Net Neutrality at two separate events organised for and around internet start-ups. The first was an informal gathering organised by the recently founded France Digitale, a structure devoted to carrying the voice of internet entrepreneurs to the French government (who seems to rarely understand the specifics of start-ups). The second was a broader and more formal event called Web2Day. It’s an annual gathering in Nantes, and even though I only really had half a day there, I loved every bit of it and will undoubtedly attend again.

Of particular interest to me was a panel on the collaborative economy, a euphemism for all those disruptive business models (from project financing to accomodation  booking) that circumvent the established aggregation structures like banks and hotel chains to address the end-user directly. I’m fascinated by the potential of these initiatives. On the panel in particular were Kiss Kiss Bank Bank and AirBnB, two emblematic examples of such collaborative initiatives.

The potential for disruption of these initiatives is hard to assess. Of course, they themselves think they are changing the world, and maybe they are, but at the same time they’re careful to stress that by and large they are not displacing existing business models as much as complimenting them (for example AirBnB insisted that the places where they see the most supply and demand are places where there’s very little accomodation to be found anyway because these places are saturated with demand.) At first I thought that was naïve or disingeneous, but at the same time I can’t really figure out how these currently grassroots initiatives may grow in the future.

A point about the disintermediation that I found interesting was the element of trust. Kiss Kiss Bank Bank for example insisted on the fact that very few of the projects the platform finances result in crooks taking the money and bailing, simply because most of the financing comes from people who know the entrepreneur personally. The interpersonal trust is an additional layer of stability into the system.

All this connects with the work of two of my favourite people: Robin Chase and her various carsharing endeavours, and Doc Searls and his Vendor Relationship Management approach. In fact, the latter is why The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge is on my to read list. I’ll tell you about it once I’ve read it.

So much for mobile-only network strategies…

16 May

I had a “wow!” moment this morning reviewing a presentation given by WiK’s Scott Marcus entitled State-of-the-Art Mobile Internet connectivity (thanks for Chris Marsden for pointing this out).

In particular, there’s one graph in there that blew my mind, I’m reproducing it here.


Source: Mobidia / Informa (2013)

This shows the proportion of mobile data traffic that is offloaded to private wifi networks (in blue) or public wifi networks (in light blue). Basically, only a quarter to a third of the data traffic consumed by mobile devices is actually delivered over mobile networks (except in Japan and India where it’s half).


Take that, “we’ll only need mobile networks in the future” posse…