O2 held a Twitter chat yesterday, putting up its COO Derek McManus to answer the public’s questions on any aspect of O2’s technology. “Talk to the man who spends a million pounds a day on technology” was the operator’s strapline for this.
I like this idea, and think it is exactly the sort of thing that operators should be doing. But it has served another purpose for me. Punters, and many of them are pretty informed ones if you dig into their Twitter profiles, are for the most part not asking involved questions about NFC, about the quality of experience on video, about how they can opt-in for localised, targeted advertising, about personalised context-aware services.
What they are overwhelmingly asking is, “Where’s my coverage?” Here’s a selection:
“Why does the whole O2 data network go down in London so often.”
“Can’t you spend some on development of Femotocells to help improve the o2 signal issues in a lot of areas. Driving customers mad.”
“When will all mainline railways have good 3G coverage?
“Spending that much n my area selby still has no hi speed mobile data from o2.”
“How can you be spending £1m a day when the 3G coverage in Scotland is abysmal. The coverage maps dont reflect reality.”
“Why can I get 3G in the middle of nowhere (Stonea, Cambs) but not in Stamford, Lincs? Not enough money spent it seems.”
The other main topic has been pricing, specifically around data. Here’s a few more tweets that show the difference between how operators think consumers are reacting to mobile data caps, tiered pricing and the rest, and what the actual experience is. They show customers aware that they are entering a different world for mobile data, and also a suspicion that they are being squeezed, somehow.
“I get less data allowance now than I did two years ago, for more money. What the hell are you spending £1m a day on exactly?!”
“When will you enable everyone with data to tether and use allowance how we want to?”
“what exactly are you spending 1 mill a day on? I don’t see data/tethering rates getting any cheaper per MB.”
“Why is it we only get 500mb data now? Were using our phones data more and now you have made it next to impossible to afford!!!”
“Why do i have to pay extra to tether devices to my iphone when i already pay for data? Can’t i just use the data i have?”
All of this I think illuminates the difference between the stories we in the industry tell ourselves, and what actually gets on users’ wicks. It’s not a go at O2, either. I reckon that all the operators would get similar feedback if they did something similar. Of course that’s not to say that all the thorny issues of policy, optimisation, backhaul, service differentiation and white iPhones are not relevant. Specifically on pricing issues, of course, all of that is relevant, if only of background interest to consumers.
But mainly this Twitter chat shows that what users want is service availability. It’s as simple as that. That means that network coverage and capacity, average speeds, all of that, are still competitive differentiators for operators. Which of course is going to lead us into this week’s two biggest stories – operator consolidation and the UK’s “4G” spectrum auction.
So, consolidation. Yes, T-Mobile USA and AT&T ruined many a tech hack’s Sunday by announcing that they intend to tie the knot. But the only surprise was T-Mobile’s choice of suitor, not that the company was attending single’s night in the first place. I will say only this, we in Europe have many, many much smaller markets that support 4-5 operators. Most of those are going down the same data-intensive path of the US operators. LTE (or 4G, if you insist) spectrum is being released, which offers an opportunity to lower the delivery cost of mobile broadband in the medium term, but requires Euros in the short term. What do you think is going to happen? Consolidation Everywhere, we might term it.
Witness the quotes above if you doubt the dynamic. People want mobile broadband, they love it. But they don’t expect to pay a great deal for it, and they don’t want to feel they’re being made to pay twice for “their” data (tethering). That’s a disconnect that requires low, low cost bases for the mobile industry.
So it will be fewer operators. It has to be. Unless of course, a regulator decides on a minimum number of wholesale operators, to protect consumers by encouraging competition. This is what the UK regulator, Ofcom, has done. It has decided that 4 is a good number for this. Just enough to give consumers some choice, not so many that the market implodes in an orgy of cost-cutting and unsustainable network investment models.
There is some tinkering around with a service obligation for 800MHz, which will mop up some government broadband targets. There is a nod to new entrants acting locally in shared spectrum, operating at low power. But essentially what this auction will do is chuck a lot of bandwidth at the existing operators as they seek to become more profitable.
Industry analysts are a bit “over” the data revenue crunch. You’re not allowed to show Cisco VNI slides, or use the terms capacity crunch or dumb pipes any more. That stuff is so 2010, they say.
I tell you what, it isn’t. Perhaps we can find another term for it to please those who make their living identifying the next big word with which to beat telcos up with. But for now, if we want to see what operators are dealing with, let’s get back to the Twitter chat: “Like many others I’d like to see unlimited data plans back. Any realistic thoughts on this? Three have a good plan, copy theirs?”
Welcome to the future.