China has more IPTV subscribers than any other country in the world, and IPTV is available to millions of households nationwide. At the 2016 Huawei Global Analyst Summit this Spring, Mr. Jie Feng, CTO of China Telecom Sichuan Branch, explained how its own IPTV service has changed the DNA of his organization.
Traditionally, competition among communications carriers in China has been about providing bandwidth at the lowest possible price. On the mobile side, the three major mobile carriers in Sichuan Province are in a price war: the price for 700mb of data plus 200 minutes of voice service from Sichuan Mobile is equivalent to US$14/month, while Sichuan Unicom and Sichuan Telecom were at US$12 and US$13 respectively. The result is low customer loyalty and greater customer retention costs. In 2011, revenue was growing at a rate of more than 13 percent, but by mid-2013, growth was down to just over 8 percent.
The management of China Telecom Sichuan Province decided that a different approach was needed. Instead of joining the voice and data price war, it would focus its attention on providing Video First. Broadband has long been a national priority in China, not only for the benefit of consumers, but also to attract private investment and accelerate industrial growth. Because China Telecom has rich experience in the fixed broadband business, the company already had the foundation to differentiate itself from its mobile competitors by bringing video to as many consumers as possible.
To accomplish this Video First strategy, a new “Zero, One, Two” business model was put in place, where there is Zero cost for video as a basic service, Internet access over One fiber connection to the home, plus Two smartphones. Unlike the competition, Zero, One, Two enables China Telecom to appeal to the entire household, all for a single price. To support the transformation toward video as a basic service, China Telecom also transformed its organization by combining its TV Broadband, Multimedia, and New Media Operations departments, and placing them under unified management and operations.
By 2015, China Telecom had deployed a full optical network with 90% coverage. Traditional local exchange switches have all been shut down, and voice is all over IP. It took just 330 days from Sichuan Province to go from one to 21 fully-optical cities. In September 2015, the Sichuan government held a ceremony celebrating that it had become the first fully optical province in China. While some construction still remains in remote areas, coverage in cities in 2016 was greater than 98%.
At more than 9 million subscribers, China Telecom Sichuan Branch operates one of the largest IPTV deployments in the world. To provide high definition television, 4K ultra HD and Blu-ray video content, the operator built its ultra broadband metro networks to support 100mbps access. China Telecom also decided that CDN was integral, so it could accommodate not just traditional broadcast video, but also streaming video over the Internet. A three-tier CDN architecture was built, at the province-wide level, in municipalities and in areas that had marginal coverage. To meet the demands of its consumers, China Telecom Sichuan Branch opened its network platform to business partners. Content includes live TV such as China Central Television (CCTV), as well as video on demand, music and games.
Devices are also an important element. Before China Telecom Sichuan Branch placed video in its list of basic services, the operator certified full 4K set-top boxes, a first for any Telco worldwide. Then, there’s a feature called Home & Love. While consumers in other cultures tend to communicate mobile-to-mobile, China Telecom recognized that many younger Chinese consumers rely upon video to communicate with family members far away, so Home & Love enables video calling from Handset-to-Handset, Handset-to-TV, and TV-to-TV.
“We know there are high requirements,” said Mr. Feng. “If there are interruptions or pixilation, we will get calls. So over the past 3 years, we have been developing an end-to-end system for video quality maintenance, from user through the operator’s network. We also are striving for zero configuration of the home gateway and set-top box, and zero verification of quality. We have automatic fault-finding: currently our system can find errors in the home, in the optical modem, and in the network, so it’s an end-to-end system.”
China Telecom’s rigorous standards have been paying off. Installations have increased by four times. Fault isolation has increased by 10%, and customer satisfaction has gone up 12%. The company knows that customer satisfaction can increase greatly if they can identify and deal with problems before customers see them.
“If we can become pro-active, not passive, and forecast the user experience before the complaints come,” said Mr. Feng, “it will help a lot. We will continue to push the border of our video services and become a global leading operator.” China Telecom Sichuan Branch is already well on its way.
As the 2015 CES conference fades (already!) in the industry’s rear view mirror, it’s worth recognizing how much occurs during CES week, but not at CES itself. Apple famously casts its long shadow each year, since Apple products are surrounded by a large halo of aftermarket offerings, but Apple (the company) had no overt presence in Las Vegas that week. But another company of similar stature does: AT&T, which begins its annual Developer Summit with a Hackathon during the weekend prior and concludes it with a conference, consisting of a keynote and breakout sessions on the Monday just prior to the CES opening day.
“Mobile is eating the world!”
The 2015 AT&T Developer Summit, in its ninth year, had 4,000 developers in attendance. For the Hackathon, the attendees broke up into groups to create apps that followed the decidedly “mobile” themes of the event: mobile apps, the ‘Internet of Things’ (including smart homes and the Connected Car), WebRTC, atop the software-defined network (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV). SDN and NFV are about defining the resources you want in your applications, and making sure that the network can provide them on demand.
The conference keynote was opened by AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions President and CEO Ralph de la Vega, who exclaimed that “Mobile is eating the world!” (riffing on the famous 2011 “Software is eating the world” article, about how old-school hardware companies like HP are turning toward software to help ensure their futures). Mr. de la Vega then explained how the combination of software, mobility, the cloud and security have already disrupted many industries, changing the way consumers live and work by creating ecosystems that connect secure end points to a secure VPN. Uber is the obvious example.
If it’s not networked, it’s dumb
In an ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) panel later in the keynote session, Glenn Lurie, now CEO of AT&T Mobility, elaborated that “Any device that’s connected is smart, and if it’s not connected, it’s dumb,” and that AT&T’s goal in the IoT space is to connect to any kind of device or customer, whether it’s an individual or a city; a network of street lights, or a consumer’s automobile or smart watch. With that context in mind, Mr Lurie’s panel had a wide-ranging discussion.
Panelist Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm, unsurprisingly believes that a fundamental quality of IoT will be mobility. Benedict Evans of the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz believes that IoT will be a bigger opportunity than mobility, the PC, and software. Cisco’s Chief Technology and Strategy Officer, Padmasree Warrior, said that now that it is in place, is commerce-enabled and is social, IoT is the next logical step in the evolution of the Internet. Alex Hawkinson, CEO of SmartThings, a ‘smart home’ technology company, added that the key to IoT is to make devices and use-cases simple, accessible, easy to use, and to be sufficiently open to enable walled gardens that provide opportunities for innovation.
The panelists agreed that there is no single unified trend in IoT because it’s so diverse. The most interesting things will happen at the edges of networks, but the availability of connectivity and bandwidth will limit how much ongoing communications will take place, and therefore, how much of the experience will actually need to be available within a given device if the connection can’t be guaranteed. There must be a balance between them to best leverage both. Devices will become so cheap and so useful that they will be everywhere, but they will need software and networks to enable the use-cases.
Smart Homes and IoT are the next frontiers
A September 2014 Goldman Sachs report quotes the Consumer Electronics Association as saying that only 10% of new homes current have home automation. To drive adoption, the panelists said that greater awareness must be created that home solutions exist in the first place. Another driver will be a combination of openness and a consolidation of standards, because consumers will not want to have to decide which walled garden they want to be a part of. It’s up to the developer community to enable use cases regardless of device and network. [ My comment: in the adjacent Connected Car space, some car companies are already planning to enable consumers to bring either Android or iOS into the car, and not force that choice on the consumer. ]
Security was another area of discussion. Last September, a Hewlett-Packard report said that 70% of IoT devices lack security. In order to accommodate security, several things will need to change. First, security must become appropriate to the use-case, and less of a ‘point product.’ For example, DRM for video and data security for health care applications are very different. Yet, an AT&T consumer might have the need for both within the same account relationship. Also, there is already a simultaneous need for security and privacy: data is collected about a device user, but it must be kept anonymous – often for regulatory reasons. In all, the Internet will be called upon to enable an increasingly diverse and personalized experience. There will be more end-points, so the architectures of networked applications and devices will have to accommodate that. There must be distributed intelligence that functions in realtime and, from moment to moment, recognizes that an end user’s device or data may be vulnerable to attack, and decides when to implement security from the cloud and when to invoke it local to a device.
“Hundreds of electric motors”
Andreessen’s Evans noted that “you have hundreds of electric motors in your home, but you didn’t set out to buy these electric motors. Instead, you bought refrigerators and mixers and applienaces and all of them have use-cases. So developers need to respect these accepted use-cases.” Ms. Warrior from Cisco elaborated, saying: “There is a lot of value in connected IoT devices and developers must expose that value. They must make them more efficient, which is where analytics comes in.”
Another issue is one of ‘certification.’ Many devices will be retrofitted into connected applications that have never been connected before. Who will use the technologies? Who will enable them? Are they capable and qualified for use? Developers must ask themselves: “how will we make it easy for applications to happen, and how do we make them easy to use?”
This discussion seemed rather remote from AT&T, but the opposite is true, since AT&T already offers a home security and home control service (AT&T Digital Life) and is trying to drive adoption against entrenched competition like ADT. In addition to AT&T’s strategic initiatives into the Connected Car, where AT&T offers a global automotive telematics platform in partnership with in-country communications carriers in virtually every market where automobiles are sold. AT&T’s NetBond platform provides APIs that enable developers and enterprises to create virtualized applications that integrate AT&T’s network with cloud partners that include SoftLayer, CSC, Amazon Web Services, VMWare, IBM and Microsoft Azure.
But this was a Hackathon – what happened?
Developers participating in the Hackathon had 48 hours to put together apps using the AT&T network platforms and APIs. Many teams formed, from which 20 teams were selected for further evaluation by AT&T, which eventually resulted in three finalists. The winning team won $25,000, and was presented with a check on the spot.
Anti-Snoozer, the winning app, utilized AT&T’s Drive APIs, a camera, and motion-sensing to monitor the driver’s position and the dilation of the driver’s pupils to sound an alarm to awaken a drowsy driver (presumably, for long enough to find a place to pull over or stay).
The other apps both used Web RTC to establish a realtime video conference between a user and a business via Web sites, using AT&T Web RTC APIs. “Sitter” is for care-givers in the home. It enables a parent to advertise for care givers. The applicant can record a personal video interview for the parent via a Web site. When the selected sitter gets to the home, the app connects to AT&T Digital Life, to enable or block access to rooms in the house, as enabled by the parent. “Host Magic” was for a home owner renting a property. Potential renters sign up, and the property owner receives an email notification that there is an applicant waiting. Similar to ‘Sitter,” the property owner can interview the applicant and grant access only to desired parts of the property.
The meaning of it all
Telcos will win the long-term battle of communications, because they place the network itself at the center of their business, not the delivery of paid content – as cable companies do. In other words, AT&T’s product is its network, and it is AT&T’s strategic interest to rally as many developers around it as possible. Just as Apple began doing in 1990 with its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and Microsoft with its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in 1992.
In this “Part 2” article about the AT&T 2012 Consumer Industry Analyst Conference, we look at AT&T’s forthcoming Digital Life home automation and home control offerings, several other connected consumer market initiatives, and provide a peek toward AT&T’s larger game plan. Read the rest of this post on Telecompetitor.