The Disproportionate Focus on ‘Wireless Competition’

The road to T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint being approved just became a little bumpier this week, with news that additional states have joined the effort to block the deal. This has been a roller-coaster, overly politicized process that’s now dragged on for more than a year, with no clear timeframe for a resolution in sight. In a recent column for Fierce Wireless, I reiterated the three ‘big picture’ reasons why the deal should be approved: better for 5G, better for broadband competition, and better for competition in the enterprise segment.

In this column, I’d like to briefly explore another angle…which is a continued curiosity about why there is so much focus on the level of competition in wireless, given that so many other industries in communications, digital media, and the internet are far less competitive than even a three player (plus MVNO/reseller) wireless market would be.

Closest to home is broadband. This market remains a monopoly in half the county and a duopoly at best, with high prices and middling average speeds compared to other ‘peer’ countries. Now, let’s look at other sectors of the telecom space. In telecom equipment, there are three suppliers who control more than 90% of the market. And with Huawei largely shut out of the U.S. market (and a growing number of other markets), there are two players supplying the essential equipment for 4G and 5G networks. Other telecom ‘sectors’ with three or fewer players owning 90% of the market include: enterprise Wi-Fi, OSS & BSS, and towers, to name a few. In smartphones, it’s largely a two player world in much of the world, with Apple and Samsung owning some 90% of the industry profits. And on smartphone OSs, it’s an iOS and Android world (with Android controlling 70%+ share in many countries).

How about some related Internet and digital media sectors? With all the consolidation in the media space, we now have Disney owning 40% of the global box office, with Fox folded in. Digital Advertising? Nearly 60% is Google and Facebook, with a long tail of pretty large companies (Amazon, Microsoft, Verizon) fighting for scraps. Satellite TV and Satellite Radio are both two player markets. Some 70% of the streaming music market is owned by Spotify, Apple, and Amazon. Public cloud? Amazon and Microsoft control 70% of that market, and the share of ‘Other’ has dropped from 52% to 16% between 2016 and 2019.  And lest you think that the Internet Travel business is competitive, know that Booking Holdings owns, Kayak, and Priceline, while Expedia Group owns, Hotwire,, Trivago, and Travelocity. Online ticketing: Live Nation/Ticketmaster has 85%+ share of the market.

Some other examples in major sectors of the digital universe:

  • Search: Google has 90% share of the search engine market, worldwide
  • E-Commerce: Amazon has 35% share of all e-commerce, and more than 50% in seven major categories (books, toys & games, baby products, etc.)
  • Online Maps: Google Maps has 154 million monthly users, while Waze (owned by Google) and Apple are next at ~25 million
  • Social: The Facebook universe Facebook+Messenger+ Instagram+WhatsApp are 4 of the top 5 in global MAUs.

I’m sure there are additional examples, but the above probably makes the point.

Getting back to wireless, there are three additional arguments that favor the move from four competitors to three:

  • Capital intensity. Wireless operators spend some 20% of their revenues on capital expenditures. This is much higher than nearly any related sector. And that certainly is not going away with what will be required for the 5G buildout.
  • Logistics. Much of the 5G build, especially in the higher, mmWave bands, will require the deployment of enormous numbers of small cells. The sheer ability to get that number of cells approved and placed in municipalities would make a four player market a logistical quagmire, with unneeded duplication of facilities.
  • Market is more competitive than you think. In addition to the four facilities-based players, there is still a healthy MVNO/resale market, with TracFone (20m+ subs across numerous ‘sub-brands’), Metro PCS and Cricket among the largest. Plus, DISH holds enough spectrum to become a fourth facilities-based competitor, if it so chose to actually deploy that spectrum rather than just sitting on it.

I’ve argued for a year that those opposing the T-Mobile deal have been looking at it through the wrong lens. Then, add the ‘proportionality’ argument above, which shows that other industry sectors are far more less competitive than the wireless market. All this makes me puzzled as to why there’s been this outsized, expensive, and delay-inducing opposition to opposition to a deal that would make the U.S. wireless market structure look like that of most other developed countries.

Netflix Needs to Pivot. Again

Of all the success stories in tech over the past 20 years, the evolution of Netflix is among the most fascinating. Few companies in history have pivoted successfully multiple times. And Netflix is now faced with a situation where they will have to evolve, yet again.

First, a quick history. Netflix, in its initial incarnation dating back to 1997, was that ‘little red envelope’ company. During the time of peak video store/Blockbuster, Netflix created a successful subscription business of movie/TV series rentals by mail. In that pre-broadband/pre-streaming period, Netflix was that era’s Grubhub and DoorDash. And for those who lived a distance from the nearest video store, Netflix was a godsend.

Then, broadband arrived, and with it, services such as iTunes for movie purchases and rentals online. Over a period of about ten years, video stores essentially disappeared, with Blockbuster being among the biggest casualties. But Netflix successfully pivoted here, maintaining its legacy mail order business while simultaneously building a success streaming video business during the 2000s. Their ability to do this on a global basis was somewhat dependent on the availability of decent quality broadband to homes.

Then, yet again, Netflix saw the writing on the wall and engineered a second successful pivot. Competing streaming services had emerged, and on-demand capabilities and libraries from cable companies and other providers continued to grow. This meant that much of the content available on Netflix was also available through other sources. So Netflix made a bet on original content, beginning with House of Cards. Hard to imagine that was only in 2013. During the past six years, Netflix has plowed billions into original content, producing – literally– thousands of scripted shows and movies, globally. Today, Netflix is effectively in two businesses: people still subscribe to Netflix for its vast library and terrific UI; but increasingly, Netflix is another content channel, just like HBO, Showtime, or Hulu. In an era with plenty of competition in streaming, Netflix has continued to grow quickly and have incredible subscriber retention.

Which brings us to this moment, and the need for Pivot #3. Another exogenous market development has the potential to upend Netflix’s business. The slew of media M&A that has occurred over the past couple of years, and the imminent launch of new streaming services from Disney, Warner Media (AT&T), Apple, and others, will have a dual impact on Netflix: the first is a much larger number of streaming options competing for the consumer’s dollar; and the second is a dramatically altered content landscape. With Disney et al getting into the business, Netflix is losing, and is getting prepared to lose, large chunks of its content library, as those companies choose to keep their content on their platforms. For example, Netflix will lose most of its Disney content (which includes many of Disney’s properties from Marvel to Lucasfilm), and is also in danger of losing some TV staples that are among some of its most popular titles, such as Friends and The Office (here’s a good list). Even with all its Originals, 2/3 of the viewing hours on Netflix is licensed content. Another dynamic is that with Apple and other well-heeled players getting into the game, competition for top talent is becoming increasingly intense (this is a great time to be in the upper echelons of the content business!).

The burgeoning of streaming options is competing for viewers’ finite dollars and the explosion of content choices is competing for viewers’ finite time. This is forcing Netflix to dust off its strategic plan yet again. This time, however, it’s less of a dramatic pivot and more of an evolution that has two components. The first part is that Netflix has been steadily raising prices, in order to pay for both more original content and escalating rights fees for licensed content (sound familiar, haters of cable companies?). In the same way cable bills went up largely because of mushrooming fees for sports rights, consumers will pay for this downstream. For Netflix, revenue growth is slower than content expenditure growth (sound familiar, haters of cellular companies?).  But Netflix is clearly taking the long view.

The second component is that Netflix is both broadening and deepening its original content productions. Some detractors describe Netflix as having become the ‘Wal-Mart’ of content. But it’s more like a department store (or at least what department stores used to be), offering content for multiple ages, life stages, and preferences, from lowbrow to highbrow. Another key component to this is investing in more regional content. Although much of its original content library is available globally, Netflix is also creating a lot of content for audiences in particular geographies, that not everyone might see. The fact that Netflix is a global company will be a key strategic advantage, going forward.

Now usually, life’s not so good for companies that raise prices as they lose content. It is interesting that so far, Netflix is relatively unscathed. Its stock price is up 50% this year, and subscriber growth has been solid. Wall Street does not seem to be overly worried. A year ago, there were all sorts of articles popping up, about Apple, Amazon, Warner Media, and Disney being ‘Netflix Killers’. But the tone has changed. It now seems that each is looking more for its specific place in the universe: Disney as the inexpensive add-on that many people will buy, since, in the words of my eighteen-year-old, “owns most stuff”; Apple, with a more Amazon Prime-like model for video; AT&T, adding some gravy to its signature property HBO; and Comcast Universal, which has announced it will launch a streaming service but whose motivations are more to have some leverage vis a vis competitors and some offering for the cord-nevers.

I think Netflix should weather the storm just fine, at least in the short-to-medium term. Mainly because it has made the right moves to become the ‘must have’ channel in a typical consumer or household’s content lineup. And even as the content universe churns up, Netflix will still have the largest stockpile of its own and others’ content. And it has a superior user interface, is on everybody’s platform (including its competitors), and enjoys a sterling reputation among consumers. But it’s interesting to see how Netflix in 2020 is very different than Netflix in 2010, which was very different from the Netflix of 2000. If Netflix is already the stuff of B-School business cases, another chapter is waiting to be written.

Major Changes Coming to the Cable-Wireless Relationship

Cable’s third, but still nascent foray into the wireless business will undergo major change over the next couple of years, driven by M&A, the rollout of 5G, and new competition in broadband from fixed wireless. Three ‘events’ are cause to revisit cable’s prospects in mobile sector: the announcement, on May 20, that New T-Mobile would continue the MVNO relationship that Sprint has with Altice (if the Sprint deal goes through), plus extend ‘fair terms’ for 5G; rumors about Altice launching its MVNO service at significantly discounted prices; and the impending rollout of 5G, and, over time, fixed wireless services by Verizon and, potentially, New T-Mobile.

Question #1 is whether the cable MVNO effort has been successful to date. In a nutshell, ‘sorta’. Xfinity Mobile, which launched about two years ago, claims 1.4 million subscribers, which is about 5% of their base of broadband customers. Spectrum Mobile (Charter’s offering) launched nearly a year ago and has 340,000 subscribers, which is about 1.5% of its broadband base. Those are real numbers, but they aren’t moving the revenue needle at their parent companies, nor has  cable taken measurable share from wireless. Those signing up for cable MVNO services are trending toward the price-conscious, in that the majority of subs are choosing the ‘pay per GB’ plan.

So, the three largest cable companies are in wireless, but they’re not all in. None has invested in deploying their own infrastructure, nor have they acquired spectrum in recent auctions. I don’t think they’re in wireless because they see huge potential profits in that business (Verizon’s wholesale terms make that very tough). They’re in it because they need to keep a toe in, given larger industry dynamics, and because of some modest retention benefits to their broadband base.

But there are three major developments on the horizon that will force a change in cable’s wireless strategy. The first change depends on what happens with the T-Mobile-Sprint deal. If it goes through, as I still believe it will, decent terms will have to be extended to Altice, including 5G. This will be part of any concessions offered. So, Altice will be able to offer a price-competitive wireless service, bolstered by its growing network of Wi-Fi hotspots. Altice’s infrastructure will prove to be an even more critical asset to New T-Mobile, as they race to build out 5G services leveraging both the 600 MHz spectrum and Sprint’s 2.5 GHz network. New T-Mobile will be a major player in 5G, and has promised it would offer residential broadband service to 50% of homes at prices below today’s typical broadband.

Second, the 5G rollout that will occur steadily over the next couple of years will alter the equation for cable. It is not clear whether the Verizon MVNO contract with Comcast and Charter includes 5G. If, as we believe, it does not, their mobile offerings would start to be at a disadvantage, especially once a compelling array of 5G phones (such as a 2020 iPhone) becomes available and as 5G coverage hits some critical mass.

The third potential game-changer is fixed wireless. As Verizon rolls out fixed wireless to more cities beginning later this year, it will start competing more directly with cable companies in the broadband business. This dynamic does not auger well for the MVNO relationship, considering especially the fact that a major motivation for cable’s wireless initiative is to boost retention of its broadband customers. It gets sticky for New T-Mobile over time, as well. Yes, they must extend fair MVNO terms to Altice for the foreseeable future, yet their planed home broadband might be competing directly with Altice in a handful of markets.

The implications are that cable will be forced to revisit its wireless strategy in the not too distant future. If they want to get to the next level of growth, cable will have to reduce its dependency on a purely wholesale relationship for their mobile offering. Fortunately, some viable options are presenting themselves, and at just the right time. Rather than a choice of one option or another, it’s more of a ‘cocktail’, consisting of the following:

  • CBRS. This is the 3.5 GHz shared spectrum service that will be launching later this year. This could be a lower-cost, lower-risk way for cable to reduce its dependency on wholesale arrangements and complement its Wi-Fi offerings. MulteFire is another option on the menu, but is more of a wildcard.
  • Mid-Band Spectrum. If cable companies were to ever bid on spectrum, the 3.7-4.2 band that the FCC will likely auction is the best ‘fit’ for cable. It would also fit well with any planned CBRS initiatives
  • Wi-Fi and small cells. These worlds are converging (see my recent Wi-Fi roadmap piece). Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) improves Wi-Fi speed, range, and reduces interference. It also helps address the ‘Wi-Fi Purgatory’ issue, which in my view has been a major damper on the Cable Wi-Fi experience. One could also see cable companies complementing their Wi-Fi networks with strategic deployments of small cells, as Charter has indicated it might do.
  • DISH. As always, DISH remains a wildcard. If it ends up deploying some form of wholesale 4G/5G network, that could be a game changer as far as MVNO relationships are concerned. But as with most things in the cable/telco/mobile/internet landscape, it’s complicated, since cable remains DISH’s principal competitor on the pay TV side, which could certainly affect its appetite to host cable companies as wholesale customers.

The current state of affairs in mobile and broadband is in a sort of equilibrium that will not last beyond 2019, as cable dipping its toes further into cellular, and cellular starts to dip its toes into broadband (cable). Over time, we all realize that fixed and mobile networks will converge, and that the customer, circa 2022-2025, might well not have separate fixed and mobile subscriptions (they’ll be having to spend that extra money on their 20-odd streaming TV services).

But for wireless to be anything more than a rounding error in the cable companies’ business, they’ll have to make a more substantial physical investment than they’ve been willing to undertake to date.

An End to ‘Wi-Fi Purgatory’ Is In Sight

Little has been written or publicly discussed about one of the most vexing consumer frustrations in wireless. I call it ‘Wi-Fi Purgatory’. It’s what happens when your phone hangs on to or attaches to Wi-Fi even when the signal is poor, and doesn’t ‘switch’ over to to a good cellular signal, which results in a very slow or non-existent connection. The phone just stays stuck on Wi-Fi, rendering it useless for data and voice connectivity. Even worse, battery drain accelerates as the phone strives to connect. The only solution seems to be to manually disable the Wi-Fi connection in order to be able to use the cellular network. And of course, this means the user also has to remember to re-enable Wi-Fi the next time they’re in the home or office.

This Wi-Fi Purgatory issue seems to be more prevalent among iPhone owners than Android users. And one of the big culprits is ‘Cable Wi-Fi’ — the millions of Xfinity/Spectrum/Cox hotspots that are not only in the home but spread around all sorts of indoor and outdoor locations. The cable companies have known about this company for years and have done very little about it.

The main cause of the issue is that the current Wi-Fi architecture uses a scheme called ‘listen before talk’, which leads to inefficiencies and latency when moving from access point (AP) to AP, or between LTE and Wi-Fi. The phone sort of ‘half connects’ to the network, resulting in this ‘purgatory’ issue, which to the user looks like hanging on to a bad AP or not properly switching to cellular.

There is potential for this problem to get even worse, with the proliferation of small cells, rollout of 5G in the mmWave bands, and new 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) APs that will have even greater range. In theory, it will be even more challenging for a mobile device to distinguish between licensed and unlicensed services as the distinction between Wi-Fi and cellular narrows. After all, mmWave is more like a “super hot-spot” from the outside in, while more sophisticated APs and services such as CBRS have many of the same characteristics, but from the inside out.

Fortunately, there is help on the way. The architecture of Wi-Fi 6, which is scheduled to be rolled out over the next year (see my piece in Fierce Wireless on Wi-Fi evolution), uses the same MAC and physical layer as wireless. There is also a feature called deterministic scheduling, which allows the radio to be used on a particular schedule, rather than a randomized schedule, which is used by previous generations of Wi-Fi. 3GPP-based cellular technologies are also deterministic, which means that Wi-Fi and cellular will be more harmonized. Scheduled, rather randomized access also allows for lower latency and a greater density of devices. This combination of capabilities and improvements should help with the ‘purgatory’ issue.

Industry also needs to play a role here. One way they can do so is to embrace approaches such as Passpoint, which is an industry solution to streamline network access in Wi-Fi hotspots and eliminate the need for users to find and authenticate a network each time they connect. Another key feature of Passpoint is that service providers can set policies that optimize whether users connect to Wi-Fi or LTE/5G. Passpoint has been around since 2012, but it has gained renewed momentum lately, for example being part of AT&T’s recent agreement with Boingo.

Three things need to happen in order for there to be visible progress on this issue. First, we need a critical mass of Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure and CPE to be deployed, which will take a couple of years. Second, more service providers — across the cellular, cable, and Wi-Fi ecosystem — need to adopt industry solutions such as Passpoint and other aspects of Hotspot 2.0. Third, we need both hardware and software upgrades at more venues, such as airports. Cable companies, which operate tens of millions of hotspots between them, need to upgrade their ‘Cable Wi-Fi’ infrastructure, and also, simply, pay some attention to this issue.

There’s also work required in the iOS and Android camps, both natively on devices and in software. I haven’t seen a lot of tuning or adjustments with regard to the order in which SSIDs are prioritized on devices. With all the improvements coming down the pike, the ‘old order’ of how this was done will require a re-look.

We’re at a fork in the road on this Wi-Fi Purgatory issue. With the narrowing of the delta between fixed and wireless networks, and between licensed and unlicensed, complexity will only increase. Which means things could get worse. Fortunately, key vendors and organizations such as the Wi-Fi Alliance have been developing solutions to address the issue. Service providers, device OEMs, and venue owners must also do their part.

The ‘New TV’ Era is Entering a New Phase

The past few years of the ‘new TV’ era has been characterized by four major trends: the explosion of original programming; the growth of SVOD options (DirecTV Now, Sling, Hulu + Live, YouTube TV, etc.) and cable cord cutting; altered viewing habits (bingeing, screens everywhere); and a dramatic reshuffling of the media landscape, through M&A. For consumers, this has meant a proliferation of choices — volume of content, more options for where and how to view it, and new models for how to pay for it.

But just as we get accustomed to this ‘new era’, I believe more change is coming, and at an accelerated pace, over the next couple of years. It is going to be pretty messy. And there will be a more pronounced set of winners and losers. Here are my thoughts on how this might play out, and what sorts of opportunities will be created.

Content Wars. Two things are going on here. On top of the continued proliferation of content, a huge battle for rights fees is shaping up, given the altered structural landscape (AT&T-Time Warner, Disney-Fox, etc.). This means that consumers must become more accustomed to a constant deck shuffling of where some of their preferred content can be found. The average consumer is likely going to have to subscribe to at least one or more additional streaming content ‘channel’ (i.e. new Disney, new ESPN, new Warner Media) in order to maintain their existing library of content. There’s also been a run-up in contract values being awarded to marquee talent. Top writers, directors, actors, and producers are being courted like star sports figures.

Bills Will Go Up. Thought all this ‘cable cord cutting’ would sock it to the cable companies and you’d be paying a sweet $50 per month for pretty much everything? Think again. I’ll predict your ‘content bill’ will increase 25-30% over the next 2-3 years. Already this year, we’ve seen cable-esque fee increases from many of the major SVODs, as they pass down rights fee increases and their ballooning spend on original programming down to consumers. New streaming channels from AT&T/Warner Media, Disney, and Apple will only exacerbate this increasingly expensive and complicated picture.

It’s Back to the Future! You’ve gotta love the irony here, but all this change is going to drive us back in time, in some respects. To begin with, cable is making a comeback. First, their programming bundle has been rightsized and is competitive. I gladly pay $20 more a month for the X1 UI from Comcast/Xfinity than if I a la carted it. Why? Terrific voice search, an effective way of sorting through the complexity, and a more consistent quality experience with ‘streaming’ channels.

Another feature of this ‘way back machine’ is the survival of traditional advertising. Hulu has most effectively delivered this master stroke, dropping its price to $6 and providing advertisers with a needed additional way to reach viewers. Finally, just when you thought SVODs killed cable (and MTV 10 and the Giraffe Channel), there will be the return of the bundle! Only it won’t come from cable. It’ll come from Apple, or Amazon, or some of the SVODs who will need to come up with creative ways to package all these additional subscription options rather than the +,+,+ structure that is prevalent today.

There Will Be More Winners and Losers. For the past 10 years, it’s been more, more, more: More screens, more content, more SVOD options. But there are only so many hours in the day, and there is a limit to how much more consumers are willing to spend for their (broadly defined) content budget. Apple entering the picture later this year, in a still undefined way pricing and package wise, will be the catalyst, in my view, for a shakeout in the SVOD and streaming channel landscape. There will be some high profile failures…or some that are propped up as loss leaders by well-heeled parents with a broader agenda. I also expect that there will be a slow- down in the rate of growth for original programming. The current pace is unsustainable. In just five years, Netflix has gone from being the Neiman Marcus to Target to now practically the Wal-Mart of programming (plus the occasional ‘designer’ choice). Let’s hope it doesn’t become Dollar General.

5G Won’t Be Much of a Factor for the Foreseeable Future. No, you will not be getting unlimited 4K content delivered to any screen, wirelessly, nationwide, by your beloved wireless carrier. In the near-to-medium term, 5G (and continually improving, capacity expanding 4G LTE) networks will impact the TV/content world in a primarily experimental way. Experiment One, in the very early innings, is whether fixed wireless can become a viable broadband substitute/alternative. The answer is, maybe, in some places and for some types of consumers, but this will not be a broad-based, landscape-altering phenomenon. Experiment Two will involve some interesting partnerships and initial forays into the AR/VR and gaming worlds, leveraging popular programming and content relationships. Verizon, for example, is working on new AR and extended reality (XR) content projects which will be produced at a 5G studio in Los Angeles. For a glimpse at AT&T’s efforts, head to its Shape conference at Time Warner Studios in June. Initially, these opportunities will largely be extensions of content and brand relationships, sort of like the existing gaming and toy landscape.

One opportunity I see, from a consumer standpoint, is some sort of ‘uber guide’ to what’s available on what channel/platform. Type in a movie or TV series, and see a grid displaying what platforms it’s on, rent/purchase options, is it available for download, etc. This is an opportunity for Apple, especially if it’s prepared to show programming on rival platforms. There’s also a need for more comprehensive curation – both human and AI-powered. Sure, there’s been a rise in the number of TV reviewers/critics, but more help is needed to help sort through this incredible content choice.

This ‘peak TV’ era is also leading to ‘peak messiness’, with regard to sheer choice of platforms and channels. This will intensify with Apple, Warner Media (AT&T), and Disney entering the picture later in 2019. Expect there to be a big sorting out in the 2020-2021 period.


What if The T-Mobile, Sprint Merger Doesn’t Go Through?

Wednesday was quite the day for the wireless industry, with three front page Wall Street Journal articles: “Apple, Qualcomm End Legal Feud”; and “U.S. Threatens to Sink T-Mobile, Sprint Merger”, and feature piece on Nokia, with the Huawei situation as a backdrop. And within hours of the Apple-Qualcomm agreement, Intel announced it was exiting the 5G modem business. That’s a lot to unpack.

There are some quite interesting ironies here, given Qualcomm’s market power on one hand, and the U.S. government’s near irrational focus on wireless industry competitiveness on the other. So the tea leaves appear to be reading more negative on deal that would result in a viable competitor to AT&T and Verizon in wireless, and increase the chances of competition in the near monopolistic broadband industry. At the same time, government seems blasé that well-heeled Intel can’t effectively compete in the wireless modem business, facilitates a duopoly in network equipment by blocking Huawei from supplying its gear to U.S operators (and encouraging other governments to do the same), and allows further consolidation in the media business.

I’m not going to re-hash the arguments in favor of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. But I do believe that the DOJ, and other government entities seeming to lean against the merger as currently structured have not fully thought through the implications of the deal not going through. President Obama was famous for always asking “and then what”, when confronted with difficult policy choices. As in, “we send troops to Syria…and then what?”  So, the DOJ blocks the T-Mobile/Sprint deal…and then what?

The first, not fully thought through implication is what happens to Sprint? It’s not often the acquiree in a deal mounts a campaign in favor. Sprint has not been able to effectively compete for years, and its principal owner has shown little appetite to up its investment. Will Sprint be left to slowly bleed out? How good is that for consumers?  Scenario two is that Sprint gets acquired, by somebody else, on the relative cheap. Cable would be the natural, but has shown little appetite to do so, historically. But for kicks, let’s say Comcast or Charter did buy Sprint. How beneficial would that be? Consumers aren’t exactly begging cable to offer them a wireless service, and they haven’t exactly flocked to their relatively me-too MVNO offerings. And how would this be good for broadband competition given cable’s current approach of “buy my Triple Play or I’ll charge you through the nose for broadband” pricing approach, and the fact that broadband pricing is among the highest in the OECD?

And what happens to T-Mobile? The picture is more optimistic, but the company is still weakened. It will have to reduce planned capex on 5G, will not be able to offer a competitive fixed wireless product in the absence of that 2.5 GHz band spectrum, and will have greater difficulty competing in the enterprise market. Oh, and it will have to go out and spend billions more in spectrum. Having to pay billions for more spectrum is, ultimately, an indirect tax on consumers.

Government has also not fully considered the DISH angle here. If the T-Mobile/Sprint merger were to go through, two positive-for-competition results are likely. First, DISH is in a stronger position to build out a wholesale wireless network, given the better prospects for a creative competitive offering (Cable? Google? Amazon?) in a three, rather than four player market. Second, a stronger New T-Mobile puts greater pressure on Verizon to do some sort of deal with DISH. In short, DISH’s spectrum is likelier to be put to productive use, and sooner, in a New T-Mobile scenario.

I’ll reiterate a concern that the government is looking at this merger through too narrow a lens. Yes, given the raft of consolidations over the past few years, the high level optics on going from four to three wireless competitors don’t look great. But the DOJ and other federal entities seem fixated on the HHI index for wireless, while not applying that same rigor to other sectors of the telecom/digital media/tech landscape, which are far more concentrated.

I’d suggest a different approach. First, the government needs to consider what is better for broadband competition, not just wireless competition. The focus on four-to-three in wireless seems myopic, given the state of competition in broadband. Yes, there are would-be competitors in broadband such as Starry, Google/Webpass, and Verizon 5G Home, but those deployments are moving at a relatively slow and piecemeal pace. Second, what is best for U.S. 5G leadership? Better to have three really good 5G networks, and more quickly, than two good 5G networks and some uncertainty as to the breadth, depth, and timing of T-Mobile and Sprint’s deployments if they were to remain standalone. Third, is to recognize that a big part of the 5G opportunity is in the enterprise, industrial, and IoT markets. In wireless today, that’s a relative duopoly, with AT&T and Sprint holding an outsized share compared to the consumer wireless space. New T-Mobile would have a much better chance of competing there than if they remained standalone wireless pure plays. It’s not just about deploying the infrastructure, it’s also about building a significant sales and marketing force to address the broader enterprise opportunity.

I am more optimistic than many other industry and financial analysts that the deal will go through, though there might be more onerous terms/concessions than initially considered. Those opposing this merger have brought up viable points about the potential effects of consolidation on competition and price. But they’ve not adequately considered what the longer term implications are if the deal does not go through.

Scooters, Bikes, and ‘The Third Lane’

As a long-time telecom analyst, I’ve done numerous projects and written countless reports about the ‘last mile’ problem. In fact, one of the most promising use cases for 5G is using wireless to get from a fiber drop (or small cell) to the home, since FTTH has proven so cost-prohibitive. But Tim Bajarin’s Techpinions column on Monday, “How Scooters Are Rewriting our Views Of Personal Transportation”, got me to thinking about an equivalent problem that exists in how we get from A to B – and how electric scooters, bike/e-bike sharing, and the like can help with that ‘last mile’ challenge. Tim wrote that his Element folding scooter has helped with that ‘last mile’ in certain instances. I’d like to expand on that concept in this column. And introduce another metaphor: The Third Lane.

Two weeks ago, in a column on “Tech’s Unintended Consequences”, I wrote, as a prominent example, about how Uber, Lyft, and the TNC are creating enormous congestion problems in major cities. At the same time, investment in public transportation has waned, leading to a vicious cycle of higher fares and declining service. But these ‘personal transportation solutions’ (PTSs) could be part of a broader solution for the last mile, and in a way that enhances, rather than eviscerates, our current transportation infrastructure. Consider public transport, particularly in close-in suburbs (rather than cities, where more is walkable). Often, a bus or a commuter train drops you a couple of miles from your final destination. Which is where TNCs have proven valuable, but also clogging roads that were never built to handle that sort of volume. Or think about how, in Silicon Valley, there’s a train that connects the major towns (Palo Alto, Mountain View, etc.) but from there people have to fan out to offices from A to Z. Or in my home town of Boston, where an entire new neighborhood and series of office buildings (the Seaport) was built, employing tens of thousands of people, but requires a 1.5-2 mile walk, often in crappy weather, from the closest subway station. The TNCs (and private shuttle buses subsidized by companies) have come in to fill that gap. But they are not a viable long-term solution for so many one-of, one-person, short-haul trips.

This is where these ‘third option’ solutions such as bike sharing, e-bikes, and electric scooters can help fill an important gap. While they might not be optimal for a commute of more than 5 miles for most people (and the bike lane infrastructure might not exist for that entire route), they’re perfect for a couple of miles. The issue is, what part of the road can they use? They’re not permitted on sidewalks. And in many cities, there aren’t adequate (and protected) bike lanes. As a result, the percentage of people who use PTSs is limited to about 5%, mainly zealots and the fearless/intrepid.

So I’m going to borrow a concept coined by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who described his cafes as ‘The Third Place’. If PTSs are going to be a viable component of a multi-modal transportation solution, they need a safe and enjoyable passage from parking junctions and transport stops to their final destination. I call it ‘The Third Lane‘. That means reconfiguring or building a protected road lane or part of a sidewalk that radiates out to places people live, work, and play. We might not be able to build safe lanes everywhere for each person’s individual commute, but we can think about corridors that serve large clusters of people. In addition to being protected, these lanes need to be properly surfaced, since scooters and bikes can’t handle potholes, sewer ruts, and the like, in a way that cars can.

A critical piece of this is that municipalities have to be part of the overall planning. We can’t have Lime, Bird, etc. barging in, and then getting regulated after the fact, having befriended no one. Think about downtown Atlanta as an example. There’s a MARTA stop in Buckhead (with no parking), and then there’s probably 100,000 people employed within 2 miles of that station, at numerous office building clusters. What if they added a lane/path/portion of sidewalk along key corridors that people could use PTSs that they reserve in advance, to within a couple hundred meters of their final destination? And, as an alternative/supplement, a system of buses along dedicated lanes that run in a loop, sort of like the airport rental car shuttle?

This mentality exists in some of the denser, more forward-thinking cities. In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, all four modes of transportation are on relatively equal footing, from a planning perspective: car, public transport, bike/PTS, and pedestrian.

So, my message to the Limes and Birds of the world, with your dockless PTSs: use your goodwill, your data, your AI, and your tens of billions in valuation to work with local governments to create viable ‘third lanes’ along key corridors. Pick a couple of signature projects, where there are large numbers of workers who need to get a couple of miles from a transport or parking hub: South Station to the Seaport in Boston; Buckhead in Atlanta; Georgetown in Washington; from downtown Miami’s emerging multi-modal hub to the Brickell area, etc.

I realize it’s not easy, and that in many cities, finding the ‘real estate’ for that third lane is a big challenge. But it would be great to try this, in a greenfield sort of manner, in a few spots where it’s both viable and serves enough people where we could gather some good data. Sort of like some of the larger scale ‘smart city’ demo projects that have kicked off in places like Amsterdam and Toronto.

It’s Time for Tech to Tackle ‘Unintended Consequences’

Mark Zuckerberg did not set out for Facebook to be a platform for Russian hackers, or for Facebook Live to be used a broadcast tool for killers. Steve Jobs did not intend to cause screen addiction and some of the societal ills that have come from that. Travis Kalanick might have wanted to disrupt the taxi industry (which was sort of ripe for it), but he probably didn’t intend for Uber and his TNC brethren to be a cause of both an alarming rise in traffic congestion and a decline in investment in public transportation. Brian Chesky didn’t intend for AirBnB to become a vehicle for property investment companies, driving a surge in rental prices in some cities. And if you’d asked Jack Dorsey whether he thought a U.S. president would conduct nuclear diplomacy or fire his senior staff over Twitter, he might have said, ‘umm…don’t think so’. But this is where we are.

So while last year there was a lot of focus on data privacy and security issues, leading to GDPR and the beginnings of some change at Facebook and others, I think we do need to start a broader conversation about ‘unintended consequences’.  Here, I’d like to focus on a couple of particular examples of companies whose current avenue of growth seems to have strayed from the original mission, causing some broader societal repercussions. Put another way, I’d like to see a little more questioning along the lines of  “Yes, We Can Do This, But Is It A Good Idea?”

Uber/TNC. In their first phase, TNC companies were successful because they were a ‘better version of a taxi’, leveraging the power of software and a smartphone. There was little love lost for the taxi companies (though sympathy for individual drivers), and the ‘medallion’ structure in some cities that concentrated money and power in the hands of a select few. But the rapid (and largely unregulated) growth of TNCs has caused a marked increase in traffic congestion in many cities. TNCs have also induced a reduction in transportation ridership…creating a vicious circle of higher fares and lower investment in infrastructure. And along have come corollary services, such as Uber Eats, having a further impact on congestion (plus more double parking and other such behavior). At some point, have any of these companies asked the question: “Is it really a good idea to have all these cars out there just to deliver a cup of coffee or a sandwich?  What is the impact of this on a city’s transportation network?

AirBnB. The idea was initially welcomed as a complement to the prevailing lodging industry. Want to occasionally rent out your away-at-college kid’s bedroom, or your house for a week while on vacation? That phase of AirBnB was great…while it lasted. And, they used the power of the platform to create related, and valuable experiences such as AirBnB Experiences – pasta making in Florence, a history tour of New Orleans.

Unfortunately, however, the corporados have corrupted the AirBnB model. Investors and developers have bought millions of properties, with the sole purpose of turning them into temporary rental apartments. As has been well documented, neighborhoods have been altered, and rents have been driven up in many cities. Using one of the travel sites like Expedia today is a totally different experience, as one is presented with a mélange of accommodation options, including AirBnB-type apartments.  It’s very difficult to tell who’s who or what’s what. And now, predictably, regulators are stepping in, sometimes with draconian (and very uneven) measures. But along its path to Super Unicorn status (or whatever you call a private company valued at $30 billion), AirBnB grew unchecked, with almost no self-policing, not really asking, as vast swaths of New York and Miami and Paris were being transformed, “Is this a good idea? How are young people going to be able to afford to live in cities now?”

Amazon. A great company, in so many ways. The bets on AWS. On Amazon Prime. The creation of wonderful content. A ruthlessly efficient machine. And, their platform has enabled success for millions of small businesses. But, with a perhaps unintended consequence of having hollowed out physical retail. And there’s the larger question of the path that Amazon is on, as Recode’s Jason Del Rey articulated in a recent article, Amazon wants to sell “every genuine product in the world.” That’s a mistake.  To quote Amazon’s SVP Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon wants to sell  “every genuine product in the world.”, which, Del Rey points out, has “created all sorts of openings for what Amazon’s trust team calls ‘bad actors’” – counterfeit goods, fake reviews, etc. “It’s a fork in the road moment for Amazon, as its ambitions to grow even larger, there’s greater risk of ‘eroding customer trust’”.  Here’s a company that controls nearly 50% of on-line retail spend. Consider what a $300 billion company has to do in order to just maintain growth. It might be time to be asking what the longer-term implications of all this are.

Facebook Live. In an ideal world, Facebook Live might be a great idea – “a fun, engaging way to connect with your followers and grow your audience”, as Facebook says on its website. But, there’s a certain percentage of bad actors who are going to use this type of platform to broadcast inappropriate content or for other unsuitable purposes, as happened last week in New Zealand in the most extreme of examples. There is no way, regardless of how many people monitor the site or how much AI is thrown at it, that Facebook will be able to prevent other, similar exploitations of its platform. Even YouTube is different, because content is uploaded and it is easier to monitor – and therefore prevent/take down.  There might be some ways to de-risk Facebook Live (and other, similar concepts). But in its current incarnation, the risk of bad actors, even if an extremely small minority, makes the case for Facebook Live too perilous, in my view.

We are clearly at a point where there is some revisionist thinking going on about the impact of tech. And the risks multiply when AI is thrown into the mix. As part of this thinking, I suggest we expand our consideration to include long-term societal consequences: “Just because we can, is it a good idea”?

Reflecting on #MWC 2019: Network Edition

Last week, my Techpinions colleague Carolina Milanesi wrote a terrific piece reflecting on Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona. Since her column focused mainly on the device aspects of the show, I thought an analysis of the network aspects of MWC might be a good complement.

Let me tee off my saying this was one of the most positive MWC events in several years. There was broad realization that this is Year 1 of 5G. Equipment is available, contracts are being signed, and initial services are being turned up. I spent quite a bit of time in major equipment vendors’ booths, and operators were definitely in ‘shopping mode’.  Things will get especially interesting as the first 5G phones are introduced toward the middle of this year.

There was also a broad realization that, more so than with LTE, 5G will be a 10+ year journey. The first wave of services that will hit this year will be more LTE+ or like Super-Wi-Fi: pockets of coverage on a first wave of devices. These are not services that consumers will, initially, pay more for, or that will contribute any meaningful incremental revenue to the operators, over the next couple of years. Much more compelling were the ‘next phase of 5G’ demonstrated in vendors’ booths. Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei showcased a host of enterprise and industrial business cases, focused on smart cities, the ‘factory of the future’, cloud gaming, and AR/VR. Each found very creative ways to demonstrate the benefits of the low latency (URLLC) capabilities of 5G, which will be among the first true game-changers of 5G. I loved the Bosch screwdriver at Nokia, the robots at the ZTE booth, and Ericsson’s 5G Rock Band.

Now, allow me to get a bit wonky for a minute…but among the major highlights of MWC 2019 were…antennas!  More specifically, something called Massive MIMO. These are the smart antennas that, in various configurations, are going to play a big role in getting 5G deployed. They will reduce the need to build as many new cell sites for 5G, will enable existing 4G sites become 5G sites (great example: Sprint’s 2.5 GHz strategy), and will help expand mmWave site signal range. Ericsson’s acquisition of Kathrein’s antenna business on the eve of MWC signals the need to bolster that part of the company’s portfolio…and while others were gawking at foldable phones, the geeks among us were oohing and aahing at Ericsson’s Radio Stripes.

There are three other mega-trends on the equipment side I’d like to point out. First, it looks like there’s growing momentum for fixed wireless. Several notable operator contracts for fixed wireless were announced, for both urban and rural ‘connect the unconnected’ type applications. Fixed wireless was especially prominent in Huawei’s booth, with its new RuralStar solution.

Second, I came away with some concerns about mmWave. Less on the “will it work” side, and more on the fact that only a handful of countries appear to be seriously considering using mmWave spectrum for 5G. Most of the action is in the sub-6 GHz bands — which is one of the reasons there’s a lot of pressure to move forward on the C-band in the United States. If mmWave doesn’t scale, there are concerns that it will be deprioritized from a CPE perspective, which could mean less choice of, and more expensive, phones and other ‘connected devices’ in those high bands. Plus, there’s still a lot of R&D needed to continue to improve mmWave network equipment and CPE, but it will be challenging to get the proper resources allocated if it’s going to be a niche service relegated to a handful of countries.

Third, there was a lot of positive discussion about more open, and virtualized networks. The O-RAN alliance is gaining momentum, signing up more Tier 1 operators. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) was at MWC, and made some announcements about OpenRAN field trials. Providing a glimpse of the future, new Japanese MNO Rakuten seemed everywhere at MWC. The company is building the first all virtual telco cloud network at substantially lower cost, using components from a slew of different vendors.

Finally, although the incumbent vendors had an impressive and successful MWC, it also became clear that a new breed of companies are starting to play a greater role in the evolution of 4G and 5G networks, with lower cost, software-oriented solutions. Among the more notable are Altiostar, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Blinq Networks, Affirmed Networks, and Athonet. They are not yet disrupting on a major scale, but things are moving beyond trials and demos into some fairly significant wins.

Also impressive is the progress Intel has made. They seem poised to be greater participants in 5G than they were in 4G, working with service providers and infrastructure vendors on cloud-based access solutions helping them deliver greater computing resources at the network edge.

Apple Should Take The Lead in ‘Digital Drivers Ed’

Apple has been aggressive, and quite public, in recent months in vilifying some of its Silicon Valley coopetitors for how they’ve handled privacy and customer data. This stuff is of course catnip for the trades, who have gleefully coined the term ‘tech civil war’. Apple is certainly right to point out certain egregious practices, and reinforce its own, supposedly more protective, approach. No doubt Apple is also seeing this as an opportunity for some political and competitive gain. I find this disingenuous in part because some of the companies Apple is criticizing are also an important source of how its bread is buttered.

I’m also surprised that Apple seems to be fighting this largely in the media, at public events, and in various internecine missives and salvos. In the midst of all this, Apple hasn’t been very proactive at communicating its approach to privacy and the handling of consumer data with its own customers. As a customer of multiple Apple devices and services, I have not received one email or other item of proactive correspondence related to Apple’s approach on privacy, what safeguards I might take, or what settings on my device or apps I might adjust. There is very little about this issue prominently displayed on Apple’s website. There aren’t any ‘privacy’ tutorials at its stores.

That said, if you dig a little, there is a lot of information on Apple’s approach and what a consumer can do. But it’s buried pretty deep on the company’s website (way at the bottom, under Apple Values—Privacy). There is a lot of information here, and it’s quite nicely explained. Why not place it more front and center rather than on a part of the site where 99% of its customers won’t go?

Overall, this is a missed opportunity for Apple. It’s an opportunity for the company to educate its customers, in a more user-friendly way than Facebook or Google could probably do. Given Apple’s recent travails, and the increasing importance of the services side of its business, this is an opportunity for Apple to reinforce its customer relationships and build loyalty. And this will take even greater importance as Apple increases its focus on the health sector, and the opportunities/risks associated with that.

Apple can take the high road here, and say: “Look, being aware of privacy, how your data can be used, and knowing how to take the right measures, adjust settings, and so on is the digital equivalent of taking a Drivers Ed course before getting behind the wheel”.  Here are the steps I would take if I was Tim Cook:

  • Develop a compelling video tutorial/class, with the objective of getting every customer more educated on these issues and what steps they can take. Put it front and center on the Website. Develop a version for phones and tablets that comes pre-loaded on all new devices and in the next major software update. Incent customers to take the tutorial and complete it ($10 credit?).
  • Develop a pro-active security check-up. I see this as sort of like the way one does a virus scan on their PC. Perhaps this is a new app that Apple develops, which the customer can run and receive information and alerts – i.e. “this location data is being shared with Starbucks…are you OK with that?” The check-up would not only look for vulnerabilities, but also identify any app that is using the customer’s data in violation of certain pre-sent limits.
  • Add Privacy/Data Security tutorials at stores. This is a category that should be added to the list of Apple’s ever-expanding catalog of sessions available at its stores.

This ‘Digital Drivers Ed’, as I’m calling it, should not be limited to strictly to Apple’s own apps and services. Recognizing that the iPhone is the remote control for the digital life for billions of consumers worldwide – including some 50% of U.S. smartphone owners – Apple should also provide some guidance on how settings on its devices affect leading apps. Focus on the popular ones, such as Google Maps, the Facebook universe, key messaging apps, ride sharing, shopping, and media/content apps, and apps/games targeted at minors. Do it in a way that doesn’t criticize these companies or take them down. Rather, ensure that customers are aware of the following:

  • What are the default settings?
  • What information is, or can be shared? What can be adjusted, and how is that done?
  • What are the tradeoffs?
  • If you’re a parent, what are age-appropriate options and settings for minors? And what can you control?

Maybe this can be done in cooperation with some of the leading firms, rather than this ‘tech civil war’ that squanders a lot of calories and goodwill but does little to help or educate consumers. Being proactive here will also forestall regulators getting involved. Few of us believe they would  do a better job addressing this than Silicon Valley’s best and brightest.

Garmin’s Place in the Fitness Wearables Ecosystem

The fitness wearables market has been brutal of late, with more exits than entrances over the past couple of years. Apple leads in global shipments, followed by Xiaomi, Fitbit, and Huawei, with the remaining 50% of the market divided between 20+ companies. Apple’s share has risen as the category has tilted toward the ‘smartwarch’ segment. But in the fitness-oriented segment, there are really five players of note: Garmin, Polar, Suunto, Fitbit, and Apple. Garmin, Polar, and Suunto have always been very focused on the fitness segment, more recently adding ‘smartwatch’ products in order to compete more broadly, while Fitbit and Apple have added devices and features to become more competitive in the fitness part of the market.

Among these, it’s interesting to take a closer look at Garmin, which has been the market share leader in the higher end fitness part of the market. They’re the Strava of the wearables segment. They’ve held a pretty steady ~5% share of the market for some time, and are still the favored products among more serious athletes. Apple has taken some share from Fitbit, but not really from Garmin. And indications are Apple’s future emphasis will tilt in the health direction (which, while not easy, makes total sense). [Note: this commentary is focused on the fitness/wearables segment, not other Garmin product lines such as automotive, marine, etc.]

As a fitness enthusiast, I’ve spent a lot of time with devices from all the major vendors. But it’s only more recently that I’ve plunged into the Garmin ecosystem, as the owner of the Forerunner 645, one of their newer and high-ish end devices (~$400). My conclusion is that Garmin makes excellent devices that outperform the competition just enough. My advice for them is that they would be better to focus on the needs of their core market, than trying to compete more broadly in the wearables segment.

First, my quick impressions on the overall Garmin experience so far. (this is not a detailed review – the best in the biz is Ray Maker). I find that the device itself does better than most of its competition in areas that fitness folks care enough: GPS accuracy, support for multiple activities, waterproof and supports swimming, and measures a few extra fitness performance metrics that its competitors don’t (some useful, others gimmicky and not accurate). Battery life, particularly for a device that has on-board GPS, is excellent. It is in the same basic league as its competition in two areas that are now standard on most higher-end devices: wrist-based heart rate monitoring and sleep tracking. None of the major players has really nailed sleep tracking yet – what they offer is fine as a general indicator, but not accurate enough in areas such as REM sleep, time awake, and so on to be useful to a practitioner. One other point on the Forerunner is that the build quality is excellent. It feels like a premium product that will last for some time. My experience with some other products in this category is that they seem almost disposable – expect them to last 12-18 months, then it’s back to the well.

Garmin’s lack of specific support for certain popular activities is a disappointment. Common activities such as Crossfit (and numerous equivalents) can only be measured in a generic “Cardio” setting. There’s “indoor cycling”, which is too generic a category for those who do a lot of spin classes (and don’t want to get into the whole Peloton ecosystem). They have no additional metrics beyond time and heart rate for popular activities such as tennis. Even a little more transparency on how a more intense activity (say, an hour of singles compared to an hour of doubles) would affect ‘intensity minutes’ or calorie burn, would be helpful.

I also believe that Garmin’s user interface, on the device and the Garmin Connect app, can be overly complex and obtuse. The standard bearers here are Fitbit and Apple. Garmin actually has quite a bit more functionality and customization options in some areas, but the experience of figuring out what the device/app can do and how do to it is not at all intuitive. This is definitely a ‘gotta read the manual’ if one is going to take full advantage of the product. One major positive is customer support. Direct, free phone support to knowledgeable experts is the best I’ve experienced in the category. It would be reason alone for me to own a Garmin device over a Fitbit device that claims to do many of the same things.

The app ecosystem, called Connect IQ, is a mixed bag. There are some useful and terrific apps, but also a good number that are sort of incomplete or have not been updated in some time. I’d also recommend Garmin put greater effort into curation and advice with regard to apps. There’s also lot of triage to go through to see if XYZ app is supported on your particular Garmin device. And there are some oddities such as the distinction between an app and a widget, etc.

More broadly, what I’ve seen over the past 12-18 months in this category is the major OEMs trying to broaden their market by introducing new devices or features, but this has resulted in quality dilution. For example, Apple has added more fitness-oriented features to the Apple Watch Series 4, but has not really produced a good enough product to encroach into the Garmin-Polar-Suunto crowd. Conversely, Garmin has added music support to some devices, and even LTE connectivity, but the experience does not feel best-of-breed like the rest of the experience on their products.

If I were CEO of Garmin, for the fitness segment of the business, I’d focus my 3-year plan on going from 5% of the market to 10% of the market, by really owning the fitness watch/wearable category. Don’t try to match Apple or Fitbit at every pace. Focus on the fitness enthusiast/athlete segment, with the following priorities:

  • Extend leadership and be best-of-breed in areas that active people care about. GPS performance, heart rate accuracy, and battery life.
  • Continue to add and refine metrics of particular interest to the fitness/athlete segment (V02 max, etc.)
  • Add real support and metrics for certain popular activities, with specific algorithms for those sports.
  • A more curated, athlete-centric app ecosystem.
  • Work on the UI, both on the device and on the app. This has always been a Garmin weak spot. It doesn’t have to be as good as Apple’s or Fitbit’s, but it needs to be in the league, to make sure they hold onto the fitness segment of the market.
  • Don’t go down the rabbit hole of matching every last ‘smartwatch’ feature. If your base thinks your priorities are adding LTE connectivity to compete with Apple Watch, rather than improving core features and functionality, they’ll start poking around for other products.

These are ways Garmin can help build share in a segment that has been very loyal to the company over the years.

Setting The Ground Rules For What Qualifies As 5G

Even though some 5G services were launched during the fourth quarter of 2018, it appears that this week’s CES is serving as the unofficial start of the 5G marketing wars. After a 2-3 year hiatus of significant mobile-related activity at CES (for a time, CES was the venue for iconic device debuts), 5G is one of the big deal themes at this year’s confab. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg delivered a keynote address (sporting a very un-Verizon-like T-shirt), and there’s been lots of attention to 5G phones, absent any significant actual product announcements.

But the real news this week has been the kickoff of what looks to be a protracted debate, played out in the media and on Twitter, of not only who has the best 5G, but what is and what is not 5G.  AT&T got this party started last year, when it launched what it called “5G Evolution” in a handful of markets. But really, this was AT&T’s marketing term for what had been referred by most in the industry as Gigabit LTE. Notwithstanding the fact that Gigabit LTE delivers performance akin to early 5G services, AT&T took some modest heat for slapping the 5G moniker on what is, in actuality, an advanced LTE service. Then, in the waning days of 2018, AT&T rather quietly launched Mobile 5G in parts of 12 cities. This very controlled market launch was to a handful of hand-picked customers (i.e. you cannot walk into a store and buy the service). Although this is actual 5G, using the company’s mmWave spectrum and 5G new radio (NR) equipped cell sites, it’s really more of a large commercial market test than a generally available service, at this point. (see the column I wrote here)

But the gloves came off this week. AT&T stirred the hornet’s nest by announcing that it would change the indicator on its phones from ‘LTE’ to ‘5G e’ in its 5G Evolution markets. Verizon responded more expensively and corporately, with a print and social media onslaught, including a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal, both taking the high road (‘what’s good for the industry and consumers’) while calling out AT&T (“we won’t take an old phone and just change the 4 in the status bar into a 5”). T-Mobile responded more characteristically, with a series of John Legere tweets, including this hysterical video.

So before things get even uglier, I recommend setting some ground rules at this early stage of 5G. There are three broad things to consider here: what can be officially called 5G; what is fair to call a 5G launch; and what the 5G experience is going to look like.

What Can Be Officially Called 5G? There are two essential components: a cell site must be equipped with 5G New Radio (5G NR), as defined by the 3GPP(!) Standards body; and the device must have a 5G modem (such Qualcomm’s X50 5G NR or Intel’s XM 8160 5G). In an ideal world, the combination would include the 5G Chipset (like the Snapdragon 855 system that Qualcomm introduced in October). A service like AT&T’s 5G+ that uses a 5G hotspot like the NETGEAR Nighthawk qualifies as 5G in under this definition. One nuance here is that Verizon’s 5G Home (the fixed wireless access it has launched in parts of 4 cities) uses a proprietary standard called 5G TF. But we expect any Verizon rollout of mobile 5G and using a 5G smartphone would employ the 3GPP version going forward.

What Can Be Fairly Deemed a 5G ‘Launch’? On December 21, 2018, AT&T announced its 5G+ service, using its 39 GHz mmWave spectrum, in 12 markets. The service itself qualifies as 5G, even though the only device available at this point is the NETGEAR Nighthawk 5G hotspot. However, I do not consider this to be a commercially available 5G service, because a customer cannot actually buy the service at this time. It’s only being made available to “selected businesses and consumers” – that is, those that AT&T selects. It’s different than Verizon’s 5G Home service, since if a home is in an area covered by Verizon’s mmWave service in the four launch cities, they can get the service.

During 2019 and into 2020 especially, it is going to be important to consider what really qualifies as an available 5G market, despite what the operator press releases tell us. My rules of thumb are:

  • It must use 5G radios and 5G chipset enabled equipment (see above)
  • It must be commercially available. In other words, if you live in an area the operator says is ‘covered’ by 5G, you can buy a 5G device (hotspot or phone) and a 5G service plan. By that definition, AT&T’s 5G+ service is not commercially available today.
  • It must cover some critical mass of a launch market. My standard here is relatively generous, but an operator cannot launch 5G on a handful of sites in a major city and call that service ‘launched’. Everyone will have their opinion here, but I think a good rule of thumb is that 5G coverage is available in at least 25% of the footprint of that market. And not total Swiss cheese, either. So, if AT&T says 5G is launched in downtown Dallas, I’d expect that 5G light to be on in a reasonable swath of the downtown core.

I call on operators to be more transparent on 5G coverage. This does not mean they have to specify exactly where or how many cell sites. But something on the order of ‘we have 30%, or 50% of downtown Atlanta covered’. Or if the guy in the store can draw a rough boundary line. It is only when some sort of metric like this is available that anyone could be reasonably advised to pay a premium price for a 5G phone and/or 5G service plan.

What Will the 5G Experience Look Like? The best 4G LTE services in the United States today, generically called Gigabit LTE, can deliver some pretty killer speeds: I’ve seen 300 Mbps and better. It’s achieved by an alphabet soup combination of carrier aggregation (up to 6 CA now!), LAA, 4×4 MIMO, and 256 QAM. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are already delivering this in many cities – each of them marketing and branding the service slightly differently. These are the markets AT&T calls ‘5G Evolution’.

Truth be told, AT&T can sort of be forgiven for wanting to put a sexier brand around these Gigabit LTE markets, because with 60 MHz of new spectrum being deployed (AWS, WCS, FirstNet) and the alphabet soup above, the speed and capacity improvements are measureable. It is very possible that Gigabit LTE services, in many instances, will be as good as or better than 5G, at least for the next couple of years. In fact, if I was advising a customer who wanted the best overall data experience, I’d tell them to choose the operator with the combination of largest Gigabit LTE footprint and best capacity situation. Who that actually is varies from one market to another at this point.

The bottom line is threefold: First, we need to have an accepted definition of what qualifies as a 5G service. Otherwise, operators, and the industry, bear the risk of turning off customers and negatively impacting 5G adoption. Second, operators should be more transparent about 5G coverage. Don’t announce a market as ‘launched’ for the sake of a press release, especially if it’s only a handful of sites and customers cannot actually buy the service. Third, we all need to understand that for the next couple of years at least, there will be overlap between the best ‘4G LTE’ experience and early 5G services. Some 4G will look like 5G, and some 5G will look like 4G. A little confusing, yes, but that’s the new reality.

What To Expect From the First 5G Phones

Over the next several weeks and months, the first ‘mobile’ 5G services will be introduced by AT&T and then subsequently by the other major U.S. operators. The initial devices will be 5G mobile ‘hotspots’ (or ‘pucks’), manufactured by Netgear and inseego. But during the first half of 2019, we will also see the first 5G phones from Samsung and Motorola, with several other leading Android OEMs expected to introduce 5G phones before the end of the year. What will these phones look like, and what should we expect?

From a design standpoint, there won’t be anything earth-shattering here. Since 5G will largely be in ‘experiment’ mode, given the early days of standards-based equipment and limited initial deployments, I’m expecting the OEMs to be relatively conservative with regard to their first wave of 5G-enabled devices. These initial 5G phones will look like many premium or flagship phones sold today. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor will be lightning fast, and the phones will undoubtedly sport high-end photo and video capabilities that will help to showcase 5G in some way.

The initial 5G experience will be sort of like ‘Super Wi-Fi’, in that there will be islands of 5G coverage within a city, with the phone then defaulting to 4G LTE when not in a 5G zone. 5G will be initially be available in a handful of cities (AT&T’s list here, Sprint’s list here), and we expect the 5G-specific coverage in those cities to cover a modest footprint, initially (the operators have been very cagey about specifying the extent of initial 5G coverage). When in an area of 5G coverage, there will be a special indicator on the device, and the speed difference will be noticeable. It will be sort of like the difference between a good 4G LTE connection today (~50 Mbps) and then getting home and noticing the speed and latency lift of a super speedy home broadband service (~150 Mbps or more). That type of experience will be available on ‘islands’ of 5G coverage within cities, again sort of like a super Wi-Fi hotspot. It will work best in a stationary situation, might work when walking, and will certainly switch over to 4G when driving.

There might also be a difference in the experience depending on the operator, though hard to peg exactly because deployments will vary by operator and by market, especially in the early days. But as one generalization, expect AT&T and Verizon’s mmWave-based 5G services to be speedier than their rivals, but coverage to be most ‘hotspot’-esque. Sprint’s won’t be as fast, but coverage within a city might be more predictable. T-Mobile is going for broader coverage by focusing on 600 MHz for its initial 5G service, but the speed won’t be as dramatically different than 4G. TMO is also a bit of a wildcard, on two fronts: the uncertainty of outcome and timing of the proposed Sprint deal, which has a huge bearing on its 5G strategy; and the fact that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip doesn’t support 600 MHz has certainly thrown T-Mobile a curve ball.

For those who recall the rollout of 4G LTE in the 2010-2012 era, there will be similarities. Even with all the hype around 5G, the 4G roadmap is pretty compelling. ‘Gigabit’ LTE is available in an increasing number of cities, as operators deploy a mix of 4×4 MIMO, carrier aggregation, 256 QAM, and LAA. The Snapdragon 855 chip, in addition to its 5G capabilities, supports 2 gigabit LTE.

Remember that for a time, AT&T and T-Mobile marketed their 3.5G (HSPA+) services as ‘4G’, as they were arguably as fast as some of the initial LTE services (especially that introduced by MetroPCS using only a 5 MHz channel). We might see that playbook repeated, since the best of 4G LTE will be nearly as good as, or even better than, early 5G, in some instances.

There are some other quirks and question marks. All voice services, at least for the next few years, will use the LTE bearer (VoLTE in most instances). There’s no great incentive to migrate to “Voice over 5G” until 5G Standalone (SA) networks are built (DISH, anyone?). Handoff is going to be another interesting matter. Although the control plane is through LTE, it will be interesting to see whether inter-carrier handovers from 5G to 4G are handled smoothly. I’m most intrigued by what the experience will be going from a high-band mmWave session to LTE. I’m hoping the process will be smoother and more seamless than the earlier days of VoLTE/Voice over Wi-Fi. As another plot-thickener, add Wi-Fi to the mix here, and there’s likely to be some quirkiness moving between 5G, LTE, and Wi-Fi.

Battery life is another question mark. The big litmus test will be how phones deal with mmWave signals. We all know that battery drain accelerates when one is further from a site and the phone has to ‘work harder’ to get a signal. New methods are being employed to account for the shorter range of mmWave-based so as not to overly affect power consumption, but this nevertheless bears watching.

5G smartphones will become more differentiated and compelling in the 2020-2021 time frame, as coverage becomes more broadly available and we see some of the capabilities of the ‘next wave’ of 5G, such as ultra-low latency, introduced. This is when we’ll see the development of apps and content that harness some of the true capabilities of 5G, such as in the AR/VR and gaming spaces. One can also expect AT&T to increasingly leverage its DTV and Warner Media assets as part of its 5G strategy, for example offering attractive video bundles, HD content, and more generous allowances for rich media that reflect the lower cost to deliver data in a 5G world.

The expected availability of a 5G from Apple in 2020 will also galvanize the developer community to create apps and content that will showcase 5G phones and help create the justification for what will likely be premium prices for those devices.

Let’s Stop Politicizing the Data-Privacy Issue

This has been a year when significant light has been shed on how technology companies such as Facebook and Google leverage customer data for financial gain. Some of this should not be surprising, since little in life, after all, is free. The grand bargain has been that we get to use Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, in exchange for their accessing and using some aspect of our data – the modern day version why broadcast TV has always been ‘free’. Things went wrong when these companies abused that privilege, have not been transparent, and have been slow or resistant to implement change. At the least, the transgressors (a pretty long list) have shown remarkably poor judgment, with the worst offenders acting immorally and perhaps illegally.

That said, I’ve been bothered by how some of the companies who reckon themselves as the ‘good guys’ have been using this opportunity pile on their Silicon Valley brethren for competitive gain. Tim Cook has publicly vilified Facebook on several occasions, most recently in a high-profile speech in Europe. This week, Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, joined Tim Cook and others in criticizing some companies’ abuse of consumer data.

I find this behavior somewhat hypocritical. Google, Apple, Facebook, especially, are hugely inter-related. None of them would be what they are, and as profitable as they are, without each other. With so much that is politicized these days, I don’t think most of us are anxious to see Silicon Valley polarized as well. And while Apple hasn’t ventured into the same territory as Facebook, I can’t exactly see Tim Cook as tech’s White Knight, given Apple’s at the very least indirect role in fomenting the modern day near health crisis of screen addiction.

So here’s an idea. Rather than more useless Congressional hearings or the development of regulations that will take years to develop and implement (the debate about which will also be undoubtedly politicized), how about the Silicon Valley brain trust coming together to fix this? These are the folks who can be proactive in developing some ‘rules of the road’ that could protect consumers and mollify regulators, while ensuring that their primary means of making money is not significantly compromised.

It is not any one company that is going to fix this. We might be able to come up with some basic minimum standards regarding the use of consumer data. But there are many other elements to a successful implementation. One is transparency. This will go a long way in restoring trust. And by the way, part of this might involve tiers of relationships with consumers. For example, would some consumers be prepared to pay a modest fee to use some of these apps free of ads or data utilization, in the same way there are different subscription options for Hulu?

Another key aspect of this is defining a common standard for consumers to see how their data is used and settings for various levels of opt-in. Facebook has done some of this in reaction to all the hullabaloo this year, but the settings are still somewhat buried and the interface is not intuitive. It will not be helpful if the experience and UI is completely different from one company to the next. I’d love to see a common Dashboard that cuts across the major consumer applications. This could be a great output of some collective work by some of Silicon Valley’s leaders.

And here’s an opportunity for Apple, especially in the U.S., where they still own the majority of the smartphone market. They clearly have deep expertise in software and user-friendly design. The ‘screen time’ settings are a good initial effort at addressing that issue…why not offer to port that development to a ‘consumer data settings dashboard’.

If Tim Cook and Ginny Rometty want to be Silicon Valley’s white knights, why not stop vilifying their colleagues and, instead, say to their tech brethren: “Guys, we have a problem. Let’s use our collective resources (software, UI, AI) to head this thing off at the pass”. By heading this off at the pass, I mean not leaving it to Washington, and not developing something quite as overwrought as GDPR, which might not fully fly in the more market-oriented U.S.of A.

Several key tech company execs have already said they would be open to some form of regulation. So perhaps it would be more effective to initiate this from the Valley rather than the Beltway. Call it the ‘Consumer Data Privacy Task Force’, deputize a couple of senior execs from each of the major players, and have them come up with a plan to present to Congress. Address the three key issues: Rules for what consumer data can be shared, how and by whom; How this get communicated to consumers; and what’s the optimal way to give users some visibility into and control over their data in a standardized, intuitive fashion.

We’re at a fork in the road on this issue. It has become politicized, and is in danger of falling into the hands of regulators, who are ill-equipped, on numerous fronts, to effectively address it (see: Facebook Congressional hearings). The big question is, can Silicon Valley step up?

Amazon’s HQ2 Search Has Catalyzed An Important Thought Process

In the end, Amazon’s announcement of Queens and Crystal City as the two new HQ locations was anti-climactic. In part because of the decision to split HQ2 after a year of breathless media coverage, and in part because many believe that the D.C. area choice was already a foregone conclusion given Jeff Bezos’ already substantial ties to the region. Cynics believe that the choice was typically Amazonian – where the company could get the best deal, rather than it necessarily being the best location for the company or, heaven forbid, embracing something slightly more altruistic by helping an up-and-coming tech city like Pittsburgh or Atlanta move to the top tier.

More importantly, this highly public process prompted a year-long thought process of how cities must compete for business and talent in the 21st century economy. The Bay area and Seattle are already overheated, and the infrastructure (affordable housing, transport) to support much more is inadequate. In my hometown of Boston, which was one of the finalists, there was a collective feeling of relief at having not been selected, given already sky-high housing prices, clogged roads, and an overburdened public transport system. And it is both sad and a poor reflection on our current leadership when it takes the prospects of an Olympics or major new corporate headquarters to catalyze the type of strategic thinking and investment for any city that wants to be competitive in the 21st century economy.

In my view, there are five key elements necessary to be in the game:

  • Talent. Both extant and potential via a good educational system and strong universities.
  • Diversity of economy. You don’t want to be too dependent on any one industry or economic sector. Pittsburgh is a great example. Whereas the collapse of the steel industry nearly killed Pittsburgh 1.0, Pittsburgh 2.0 has a much greater diversity of vibrant industries, fueled by a unique level of cooperation among its private, public, and educational sectors.
  • Infrastructure. An adequate road system and a viable public transportation system. It’s becoming clear that 21st century workers don’t want to spend their lives sitting in cars. For certain types of employers/employees, proximity of a decent airport is also a factor.
  • Affordable Housing & Livability. If you’re earning $100,000 and can’t afford a pleasant one-or two- bedroom apartment/condo in the city or a modest home in a close-in suburb, it’s a problem. There’s also the slightly more amorphous concept of ‘livability’, such as a city’s walkability, and the presence/proximity of culture and other amenities. Something I’ve always thought is important is ‘what’s a tank away’?, in other words are there nice places you can easily get to for a day trip or a weekend (beach, mountains, etc.).
  • Progressive Local Leadership. Given the dysfunction on the national level and lack of strategic, long-term investment in education and infrastructure, cities and states with strong local leadership are breaking through. Examples: Nashville, Tulsa, and Los Angeles.

Now, let’s take a look at a few of the cities that were not only finalists in the Amazon hunt, but would be viable contenders at least for the ‘next Amazon’. How do they stack up on the above criteria?

Boston. Educational institutions, diversity of economy, livability, and talent are its strengths. But the city’s housing prices have become Bay-area-esque, and its infrastructure is overburdened and crumbling, with no long-term plan in place. It’s like a city that’s over-touristed and is saying, ‘no more’.

Dallas. Yes, it’s economy is on fire, but my sense is that this is a place that people move to once their career is established rather than being a preferred location for younger talent. And while it’s affordable compared to a lot of other cities, Dallas lacks top tier educational institutions that are feeders to tech companies, and remains too auto-centric, despite some recent investments in public transport.

Austin. This city has a lot of the right ingredients in place and has attracted a lot of tech companies already. A much younger, more vibrant feel than Dallas, in part because of the giant University of Texas at Austin. But growth has outpaced infrastructure investment, with sprawl and traffic impacting the quality of life factors that made this city attractive after Dell helped put it on the map.

Atlanta. Has many of the same attributes and challenges as Dallas, but is a notch above in terms of top tier educational institutions. I think traffic/sprawl/infrastructure challenges are what kept it out of the running for Amazon.

Pittsburgh. Here’s a city that has done and is doing a lot of things right to become a 2.0 version of itself. A quite livable place. Not yet a major league city on a global scale, and needs to substantially invest in its transport infrastructure if current growth trajectory continues.

Nashville. Has a lot of the same ingredients as Pittsburgh, and has used its assets to become a major healthcare/tech center. A progressive mayor has courted companies and made the right investments and strategic decisions to make the city much more livable (new park & bike trails, better roads/transport, tons of new housing).

Los Angeles. The highly progressive mayor Eric Garcetti is making huge investments in infrastructure and affordable housing and doing real things to address the homeless issue, tackle inequality, and diversify the economy. This fascinating, diverse place has the potential to be a revitalized global city for the 21st Century…or it could get crushed under the weight of its size and years of under-investment.

I should also mention three Canadian cities that are already seriously on the map:

Toronto. Now North America’s third largest city, Toronto (and the tech epicenter of nearby Waterloo) was a contender for Amazon HQ. And not just because of the idea of ‘Trump Snub’ that the media loved writing about. This city is culturally and economically diverse, has strong educational institutions, and is very livable. It does suffer from U.S.-like problems of traffic and sprawl and inadequate rapid transit outside the city core. And housing prices are among the highest in North America. But you will be hearing more about Toronto in the coming years.

Vancouver. Incredible quality of life, if you can get past the Seattle-esque six months of gloominess. This will be a major 21st century city, given its setting, strong educational institutions, and diversity. The huge run up in real estate prices (mainly due to foreign investment) and lack of good rapid transit are challenges…that are actually being addressed. V

Montreal. This city has all the right ingredients: already a tech and creative hub, strong educational institutions and tons of talent, still relatively affordable, and a high quality of life. Montreal is also making a significant investment in improving its roads and expanding its transport system. Its brutal winters are a factor for some, and still restrictive language laws keep some companies (and people) away.

And finally, here’s a few more from among the major North America cities:

Getting to the Next Stage: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland (OR), Phoenix, Detroit, Philadelphia.

Not Progressing/Worry Button: Chicago, Miami, Orlando, Charlotte, Baltimore…and San Francisco.

Cities shouldn’t be overdoing the post-mortem about why they didn’t get Amazon HQ2. Instead, they should be thinking about what’s needed for them to land the ‘next HQ’.

The Next Two Years Will be Pivotal for Wireless and Telecom

The conventional wisdom is that the wireless industry has sort of stagnated. Differences in wireless coverage, data capabilities, and pricing have narrowed. Most smartphones are good, if not great, and even the latest flagship phones show more ‘small i’ than ‘big I’ innovation. It’s been awhile since there was a real blockbuster app. And IoT, while growing modestly, is still waiting for its breakout.

But fasten your seatbelts, because the 2019-2020 are going to be the most pivotal years in telecom in some time, setting the stage for the next phase of connectivity. Of course, 5G will be the headline story. Although we’ll see a handful of deployments before the end of this year, 2019 is when 5G gets going in earnest. That’s when 5G New Radio (NR) becomes commercially available, and true, standards-based 5G services are launched by all major U.S. operators. Additionally, during the first half of 2019, we’ll see the introduction of several 5G smartphones, although it will likely be 2020 before Apple announces a 5G iPhone.

By a year from now, all major U.S. operators will have rolled out 5G to a healthy number of major cities – each of them with a slightly different approach/strategy. There will also be 5G launches in several other countries – notably South Korea, Japan, China, and a handful in Europe. So we  should have a pretty good idea of what this first wave of 5G looks like, and whether there are any breakout business cases.

In the U.S., I’m expecting two flavors of initial 5G services: hot spots in cities that will deliver more of a wow factor on speed; and ‘coverage’ oriented 5G, such as what T-Mobile is planning with its 600 MHz-based launch, which will cover a broader geography but will look more like 4G Plus or 5G Minus. Also by this time next year, Verizon will have launch its fixed wireless access service in a multitude of cities, some of them on standards-based equipment, and we’ll have a much better sense of how well 5G mmWave works as an option for fixed wireless access and whether Verizon’s service is taking any meaningful share from the incumbent broadband providers.

And finally with respect to 5G, mmWave spectrum auctions are starting in November and will continue in waves through much of 2019. We’ll see if it’s just the rich getting richer or whether there are any potentially viable new entrants. There are also a large number of 5G spectrum auctions scheduled to occur in Asia and Europe. These will be pivotal in their own right, but will also influence the development of a ‘global’ 5G band and will put pressure on the U.S. to move on mid-band spectrum.

There will also be several developments next year that will set the tone for years to come. The 3GPP is expected to approve Release 16 in the 3Q-4Q timeframe. There are many key aspects here, among the most notable being Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC, say that five times quickly). This will be among the anchors for exciting new applications leveraging 5G, such as AR/VR, plus the other ‘pillars’ of 5G beyond Enhanced Mobile Broadband, such as industrial IoT and autonomous vehicles.

The launch of CBRS will also be an exciting development. In addition to introducing an innovative spectrum sharing infrastructure that could be a model for other countries and future spectrum auctions, we could also see a new model for indoor coverage and services. The PAL auctions for CBRS will occur later next year or in early 2020. This is also an area where there could be new market entrants, such as cable companies, wireless internet service providers (WISPs), and perhaps some of the more influential Silicon Valley types.

During 2019, we will also see further definition of the industry’s future structure, starting with the likely approval the T-Mobile/Sprint deal will be approved. This could trigger some other M&A activity, more broadly focused on the future of broadband than just relegated to the wireless sector. DISH will also figure in here. Even as it builds its NB-IoT network, we will know over the next 12-18 months whether its spectrum assets are acquired by another operator or whether it plans to build a wholesale 5G network, for which an anchor tenant (Amazon?) is needed.

If you’re not already out of breath, our eyes are also on the following:

  • The launch of T-Mobile’s Mobile TV service based on the Layer3 acquisition. The OTT TV space is pretty crowded already, so T-Mobile will have to do something characteristically disruptive to make a mark.
  • AT&T’s project AirGig. There have been some interesting trials. We’ll know more within a year or so as to the potential commercial viability of this technology.
  • Small cell siting. A Battle Royale is shaping up between the feds and the municipalities regarding new rules on small cell siting (pricing and shot clock). The results here will have important implications on further 4G densification and how quickly high-band 5G is rolled out. The “U.S. Competitiveness” card could be a factor here, as other countries such as China and South Korea are able to get small cells deployed at a much more rapid clip due to a different model of ‘government involvement’.

Most importantly, within 12-18 months we’ll have a much better sense of what 5G really is and can do. This will set the stage for the development of other use cases beyond enhanced mobile broadband. The fixed wireless access piece is important as well. If 5G wireless can be a viable option for broadband, there could be a shakeup of cable’s near monopoly in that market. Who knows – maybe by 2025, a fair number of households will only have to pay for one broadband connectivity solution.

5G is Going to be Really, Really Different Than 4G

It is the eve of 5G. Over the next several months, all major U.S. operators will launch some flavor of 5G (Verizon has already quietly rolled out fixed wireless access in select neighborhoods in four cities). During 2019, we’ll also see some limited rollouts in South Korea, Japan, possibly China and possibly a couple of countries in Europe. You’ve all seen the hyperbole from one industry analyst or wireless trade organization or another – 5G will contribute X trillion to the economy, create X million jobs, catalyze entire new industries such as autonomous vehicles, and perhaps cure cancer while doing wireless remote surgery. While I’m optimistic about the prospects for 5G in the longer term, I think we’re in a particular period of pre-5G hype cycle, where a dose of reality is needed.  A key to understand is that it’s going to be very, very different than 4G.

First, a bit of history.  2G allowed for very basic data, and some services such as text messaging. 3G revolved around e-mail, limited web access, and some rudimentary applications/content such as ringtones and games, where operators were really the kings of the hill. But the beauty of 4G LTE, especially after a couple of iterations when one could count on getting 10 MB or better in most locations, was that it allowed for the near replication of the home or office broadband experience, with the beauty of mobility. It also unleashed a wave of innovative applications that leveraged mobile broadband with some of the unique aspects of the phone, such as ‘always with you/always on’, location, and so on. Uber wouldn’t exist without 4G, and companies such as Facebook and Google would be shells of their highly valued and very profitable selves.

But it’s going to be hard to justify the $150+ billion in planned investment in 5G over the next five years in the U.S. (spectrum plus capex) if it’s just a faster, better, more spectrally efficient version of 4G. Let’s face it: a typical 4G connection today (and the average is about 20-30 Mbps) allows you to do pretty much anything you would want to do on a mobile device. And the LTE roadmap in and of itself is highly compelling, with the kitchen sink of carrier aggregation/LAA/CBRS/MIMO/256 QAM firing on all cylinders. The gating issues, really, are coverage, congestion, and economics (throttling typically kicks in at 20-30 GB of usage/month).

So, here are some of the ways 5G is going to be different than 4G.

  1. There are going to be multiple flavors of 5G. Initial mmWave deployments are going to be ‘5G hotspots’, sort of like a super Wi-Fi, focused on particular venues or geographic zones. 5G in the lower bands, such as that being rolled out by T-Mobile at 600 MHz, will be ‘coverage 5G’. I see this as extending the best of today’s 4G services, outside of cities – think ‘underserved’ locations for mobile broadband. The sweet spot is in the 2.5-4.0 GHz spectrum range, where over time and with additional spectrum allocations, could offer the holy grail of coverage and performance. Major operators will of course own assets across multiple bands, and over time there will be devices that support all these bands.
  2. Operator Strategies are Less Monolithic. 4G evolved to, essentially, a mobile version of fixed broadband: $50 per month for unlimited service with an asterisk. 5G will allow the operators to differentiate. Verizon is using mmWave to compete more directly in broadband. AT&T has important DirecTV and content assets that are surely part of their 5G strategy. One can envision Sprint or ‘New T-Mobile’ offering a creative metro-oriented service leveraging their 2.5 GHz holdings.
  3. Pricing Will be More Dynamic. It will be difficult to justify the 5G spend in order to merely maintain what has, essentially, been flat-ish revenue per subscriber (ARPU) for several years. As I mentioned in a recent column, operators will have to find a way to charge a premium price for premium services, particularly once certain milestones for coverage and performance are reached. There will be app-specific opportunities to offer variable pricing. Network slicing presents one of the most dynamic opportunities for 5G differentiation.
  4. 5G Coverage Will Not Be As Ubiquitous as 4G. Today, some 90% of the U.S. population has access to LTE. The economics don’t work to build out 5G as broadly, particularly in the mid- and mmWave bands. LTE will be the primary coverage layer for the foreseeable future. The aspects of 5G that seem really different from 4G will be very hotspot- or limited geography – centric
  5. There Will Be Overlap Between 4G and 5G. Continued advances in the LTE roadmap mean that the higher end of LTE performance (up to 2 GB) will feel very much like low to mid flavors of 5G, at a minimum. Repeating some history of 4G, operators might market the best of 4G LTE as 5G — certainly there will be overlap between the two ‘Gs’.
  6. 5G Cannot Rely on Enhanced Mobile Broadband Alone. Operators mainly monetized 4G by getting the vast majority of smartphone users onto a mobile broadband plan. We will need new market segments to develop as 5G gets rolled out: IoT of various flavors, more specific enterprise solutions, machine connectivity – each with potentially substantial revenue streams. In fact, the ability to connect millions of IoT devices with different power and bandwidth requirements is one of key differentiators of 5G versus 4G.
  7. Operators Will Have to Take Ownership. In 3G, operators sold Blackberries. In 4G, they sold mobile broadband data plans. For 5G, operators will have to build a sales, and marketing, and partner ecosystem to develop and grow the new market segments that will drive 5G. They’ll also have to be more proactive in developing applications, or working closely with partners, that will help them sell 5G ‘plans’. For example, while an operator might be able to sell you a higher speed data plan for a $10 per month premium, selling a ‘low latency’ plan or feature is a much tougher nut. Instead, operators will have to sell apps or experiences, such as a hot AR/VR capability, multi-player game, etc. that requires this ‘low latency’ capability.
  8. 5G is being rolled out much more in phases than 4G was. Many of the most important 5G capabilities, embodied in 3GPP Release 16 (which is not expected to be finalized until late next year), won’t be commercially viable until the early-to-mid 2020s. These are some of the features that will allow for some of the newer and ambitious market opportunities, such as massive MTC, industrial IoT, or autonomous vehicles, where the new 5G core network is required.

5G will evolve very differently than 4G. It will come in phases, in a staggered fashion, in various flavors, and won’t be ubiquitous. I urge folks to not rush to judgement, or declare 5G a ‘failure’ if they’re not getting 10 GB on their smartphones in two years. Patience and a long view will be needed.

Comcast’s Impressive Evolution

It was not long ago that Comcast was being regularly and quite publicly lambasted for poor customer service, high prices, and outdated technology, vulnerable to the growing wave of OTT options. But the company deserves a lot of credit for what I think is a successful turnaround of its Xfinity TV-Internet-Phone business (this column mainly pertains to Xfinity – rather than Comcast’s broader business that includes NBC Universal, Sky, etc.)

Now, most tech reviews are focused on new gadgets, such as the latest iPhones, or innovative new services, such as 5G. But every once in a while, it’s useful to check in on an established service provider, especially when the market is changing so much around them. As an industry analyst and consultant, I follow Comcast as a company, and have done some work with them in the past. But my recent personal experience as a returning Xfinity customer provides a window into a company that has improved on numerous fronts, and also made some smart strategic moves.

Two years ago, after many years as a modestly dissatisfied subscriber, I ditched Comcast in the Boston market for a competitor called RCN. They offered a classic Triple Play service — competitive channel lineup, Showtime and HBO thrown in to hook me, TiVo interface, and 150 MB internet — for an attractive initial price of $119 per month, all in. Well, as these things do, the promotion period ended, random fees kicked in, $119 became $209, customer service deteriorated, and the technology platform felt increasingly antiquated. So, time to re-evaluate.

I really thought I’d end up with a Millennial-esque broadband-plus-OTT package. Options have massively multiplied and improved, right? So I went through the usual time-consuming evaluation of “these guys offer this but not that” matrix that one must painfully and time consumingly subject oneself to when evaluating OTT (sorry, vMPVD) options. Will I be able to watch the baseball playoffs? Will my spouse get her beloved [Comcast-owned] New England Cable News? Etc., etc. Well, it turns out that the yawning gaps and compromises of OTT Phase I have shored up considerably over the past couple of years, with DirecTV Now and YouTube TV being the best of the bunch, in my view. But yet, these services are in the $40-50 per month range, added to the now unbundled $70-80 Broadband Internet (where are you Starry?), plus Netflix plus HBO, plus, plus…and all of the sudden you’re in $160-170 per month territory. And you still have to sort of piece things together, the UI isn’t great, and things tend to glitch out periodically.

So where did I land after this several-week ‘research’ process? Comcast! (sorry, Xfinity). Huhh?

It was striking to me how these guys have upped their game, in a relatively short period of time, across many aspects of the customer experience, while becoming more competitive on price. It started with customer service.  I spoke several times with a very knowledgeable rep, at a call center not just in the good ‘ol U.S. of A, but in New England! He knows what NESN and NECN are! I could leave him a voicemail…and he would call me back! He was super-knowledgeable about the landscape, liked working at Comcast, and was really impressed with the company. How much shock will be registered when I say that my recent customer service experience has been way better with Comcast than with Apple?

On price, Comcast has adjusted their Pay TV offers in order to be more competitive with vMPVDs. One can more easily change services without wacky fees. And there is more flexibility vis a vis contracts – one can pay $10 more a month for no contract, or within contract there is more flexibility to switch services/plans. And with the rise of Smart TVs, one can save on the $10 per month cable box rental by downloading the Xfinity app (although it’s still a bit rough and one loses some of the benefits of the X1 interface). So, my all-in price: $156 – for 400 MB internet, phone, plus all major TV channels, including Showtime and Netflix. Now, maybe that’s $10-20 more than OTT land, but for many it’s worth the modest premium for some other benefits such as better technology, UI, and less hassle factor than vMPVDs. There are some additional benefits, such as the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots, and the opportunity to buy discounted wireless service through their MVNO with Verizon.

But what strikes me most is that this has become more of an ecosystem play. Xfinity is moving closer to resembling the Apple model than it is the cable/telco model. Their X1 interface is, bar none, the best overall UI. Theirs is the real TV OS, not Apple’s.  So much so that cable companies worldwide are licensing it. It is intuitive, features cloud DVR, and an excellent search capability, integrating content across platforms into a single view. The customer increasingly gets the sense that is a premium service — from the X1 interface to advanced DVR, to some of the most advanced router/modem products available. In my mind, it’s worth the extra $20-ish a month for the UI and technology.

I’m also impressed with how Comcast has recognized the new world they’re in with regard to OTT. They’ve done a great job of integrating Netflix and other OTT services (Hulu, YouTube, and, soon Amazon) into X1, which vastly improves search and provides the most straightforward approach for a customer to wade through the vast TV content landscape. Heck, Netflix is even included in some bundles. They’re also playing the other side, offering Xfinity as an app for those with smart TVs. The idea is, Comcast wants you as a customer, and is more flexible about how that actually happens.

Now, cable still finds ways to sorta piss you off. Like the ridiculous ‘surcharges’ for Broadcast TV, Entertainment, and Sports. Umm…isn’t that what I’m buying? Does one incur a ‘baseball playing’ surcharge when at a ball game, or a ‘movie content’ fee when attending a film? Why don’t they just bundle it in?  Other random, fees, or the need to buy ‘X plus’ something in order to just get ‘X’ remind you that these guys still can’t, upon occasion, help themselves. Or little gotchas, such as the need to have Xfinity internet in order to access their streaming service on platforms such as Roku.

So, it still isn’t perfect. But after a few years on hiatus as a customer, it was impressive to see how much has changed. Leading-edge, technically. Better customer service. More competitive on price. Embraced and leveraged OTT rather than fought it. Saw the writing on the wall with Pay TV and made it more about the customer experience and the ecosystem. Overall, some impressive moves in an industry that’s experiencing a lot of changes.

Key Takeaways and Coolest Items from Last Week’s Mobile Conference

Last week, more than 20,000 people descended on Los Angeles for the Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) Congress – the second year of a partnership with the CTIA to stage a signature annual mobile event in the United States. While Apple stole some of the spotlight with its own, Cupertino-based event on September 12, this year’s MWCA was really a preview of some major ‘what’s next’ themes in mobile. Here are a few of my key takeaways, and some of the more interesting new products/services I saw at the show.

The über theme was that this is the “eve of 5G”. All major U.S. operators are expected to launch a version of commercial 5G services in the coming months. Verizon surprised many with the launch of its Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) service, branded Verizon 5G Home. Verizon is taking orders in its four initial launch cities. The service targets 300 Mbps, is priced at $50 per month, with all the equipment free, including an Apple TV or Google Chromecast and free YouTube TV for 3 months. This is exciting because it is the world’s first launch of a mmWave-based service. Verizon is taking on established broadband providers – not launching ‘wireless as a last resort’ Internet, which has been the province of most FWA offerings to date. Though all eyes will be on Verizon here — will the performance of mmWave be reliable, and can Verizon take meaningful share in broadband — bear in mind that this initial launch is little more than a large market trial. It’s based on non-standards based equipment. Initial coverage at will be modest, and the ‘white glove’ installation service won’t scale to a larger deployment. Still, this is the most anticipated new wireless service launch in some time.

Although 5G dominated the headlines at MWCA, I was equally excited about developments on the LTE roadmap, which will bring greater capacity and faster speeds – rivaling initial 5G, in fact. In addition to broader rollout of gigabit LTE, we’re also seeing some significant deployments of LAA by T-Mobile and AT&T. There was also substantive news about CBRS (the 3.5 GHz band), where we’re likely to see some commercial launch of GAA service in the coming months. Successfully combining LAA and CBRS can get an operator over the capacity hump as 5G gets built out, and can also achieve speeds of up to 2 Gbps.  Developments in the 3.5 GHz band will also hasten discussion of mid-band spectrum, and over time could bring some new players into the space.

There was also significant emphasis on edge computing. The narrative from operators, vendors, and even some of the sports/media/entertainment entities that are driving this need was remarkably consistent. Those with fiber and data center assets appear to be well positioned, given the processing going on at the baseband. Immersive entertainment and hyper local ad tech are driving the development of a services layer at the RAN.

I was also pleased to see a more positive outlook from two of the industry’s major network equipment vendors, Ericsson and Nokia. Both announced major 5G contracts, and have taken important steps toward addressing new opportunities in IoT and edge computing, while also rationalizing targeted business segments. They are also investing and hiring substantially in the United States. And this was their show to shine, given the relative absence of Chinese vendors from the North America equipment business. I also came away with the impression that Samsung (network side) and Intel will be much more significant players in 5G than they were in 4G.

One area of disappointment was IoT. Not a lot of detail was shared on network deployments or major customers. It seems like the NB-IoT ecosystem is still maturing, and there has been some shakeout among the LoRaWAN community. We’re still waiting for a larger number of significant deployments in IoT needed to drive greater investments on the network side. There’s a growing number of IoT companies that are treading water, waiting for this market to pop.

At the end of the day, even with the increased media/entertainment focus given the venue of the show, this is still largely an infrastructure event. Some of the most exciting stuff a this show, such as MIMO antennas, won’t exactly grab Wall Street Journal headlines. One standout was Pivotal Commware, which is doing some interesting work on software designed antennas and beam forming technology. It also appears that small cell deployments are accelerating. I was also encouraged to see discussion at a couple of the high-profile regulatory sessions about smoothing the way for small cell approvals. This is critical, given that 200,000-300,000 new sites will be required for 5G (the approximate equivalent of today’s installed base).

Amidst all the focus on data, some of the coolest new products centered around good ‘ol voice and messaging! An exciting company called Orion Labs showed a push-to-talk service on speed, adding a host of messaging functionality, a platform to develop OTT apps and messaging services, and a standalone device called Synch that I could see being quite useful in certain verticals. There was also excellent discussion about rich communication services (RCS), where an increasing number of brands are using the mobile platform for the next generation of customer engagement. It also appears that Google and Facebook are determined to play in a major way here.

On the downside, there was very little in the way of headline grabbing news at the show. There were few significant device-related announcements, perhaps due to Apple’s event and its outsized share of the North America market. But it’s surprising there was so little news about 5G devices — even dongles, pucks, or 5G ready laptops. And not much exciting on the IoT device front, either.

On a side note, I also have to say that downtown L.A. is less than desirable as a conference venue. Overpriced and not very good hotels, poor transport, and a convention center that is far from world class — even though it was built in the early 1990s. The contrast to Barcelona is quite remarkable. Downtown L.A. itself is improved, but still very much a work in progress. The number of homeless and street people was disheartening.

A final takeaway is that this show was really a set up for what is looking to be a landmark year for mobile in 2019: real 5G network and device launches, spectrum auctions, CBRS, NB-IoT, outcome of T-Mobile/Sprint, and likely other M&A on the heels of that. We’re going to know a lot more about 5G’s prospects a year from now, and will have a pretty good gauge on whether FWA can take meaningful share in broadband.

The ‘Post-PC Era’ Never Really Happened…and Likely Won’t

As we head toward Apple’s annual device announcement-palooza, it’s an interesting exercise to consider where we are in Steve Jobs’ vaunted, much quoted ‘Post-PC Era’. The fact of the matter is, that era never fully arrived, and it doesn’t look like it will, in the near- to medium- term future.

Much was made last year of the iPhone X, celebrated as Apple’s 10th anniversary iPhone model. But in just 18 months, we’ll be commemorating the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPad. Initially met with skepticism by many analysts and tech reviewers, the iPad’s quick out-of-the gate success led to Jobs’ famous ‘post-PC era’ quote a mere two months later.

Tablets have had a good run, but sales have tailed off of late. I’d say they’ve had greater influence on the evolution of the smartphone and the PC, rather than leading to a significantly different nomenclature for what most of us carry around today. My Techpinions colleague Ben Bajarin says that  Creative Strategies surveys indicate that only about 10% of tablet users have ‘replaced their PC’ — a number that has held steady for several years. And that 10% is concentrated in a handful of industries, such as real estate and construction. PC sales aren’t exactly surging, but they’re steady. Your average white collar professional today still carries around a smartphone and a laptop, with the tablet being an ancillary device, used primarily for media/content consumption.

Tablets have had a significant influence on the design of smartphones and PCs. They ushered in an era of smartphone screen upsizing, led primarily by Samsung, and now reinforced by the iPhone X and the expected announcement next week of a 6.5 inch iPhone model. For those who don’t want to swing both a smartphone and tablet, we have ‘Phablets’, most personified in the successful Galaxy Note series, and alternative-to-keyboard input devices such as the S Pen and the Apple Pencil. We’ve also seen the development of some hybrid tablet/PC devices, the most innovative and successful of which is Microsoft’s Surface line. But that product is competing more in the tablet category than in the PC category, with the exception of a few market segments. And, the growing number of portable PCs that feature touch screens and other tablet-like capabilities are eating a bit into tablet sales, particularly among the student set. The other personification of some aspect of the ‘post-PC’ area, I suppose, is the successful Chromebook line, which is more a reflection of the Cloud and near-pervasiveness of broadband connectivity.

It even appears that Apple doesn’t believe in the ‘post-PC’ mantra in the same way, given the steadily narrowing delta between the largest iPhone and the smallest iPad. Mainly, this is an effort to convince more users to have both an iPhone and an iPad, since I doubt that most users who have both would have a big phone and a small tablet.

So, the question is, what will change in 3 to 5 years? There will be tons of innovation of course, but I’m not expecting the average consumer or business professional to be carrying with them a dramatically different mix of device types or # of devices in the medium term. Even with pens that recognize and convert handwriting better and continual improvements in voice input, there’s still nothing that really beats the good ‘ol keyboard for productivity. And we’re still very locked into the Big Three of word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software. The main difference has been the move to the cloud, improved collaboration, and competitive products from Google.

There’s a lot of excitement around foldable screens, but that’s initially likely to be more about coolness of form factor and the admission that the largest phones/phablets are becoming unwieldy. There are also steady improvements in mirroring type capability, where the idea is that your portable device upsizes to a big screen when at home or work. But it still requires a fair bit of effort, plus ancillary devices (and their associated cables and chargers) to make it all really work. And among many business professionals, there’s still too much time spent in locations other than home or the office where PC-type functionality is required.

It is likelier that innovation in each category will continue to influence the other categories, just as there’s more touch capability on PCs, and more input options on tablets. But looking out to the early 2020s, I don’t see any dramatic shift in what the average person will be carrying with them on a day-to-day basis. A bunch more of us will have smartwatches or some other wearable. And if anything, the tablet segment might fall off somewhat, squeezed by bigger and more functional phones on one end, and by more versatile laptops on the other end. But among the market share leaders in each category (and there’s a fair bit of overlap), none are planning for any form of product obsolescence anytime soon. When we celebrate the 10th anniversary iPad in April 2020, we’ll be marveling at the significant improvements in speed, display, wireless connectivity, and so on. But PCs will continue to be the workhorse for most of us.

The Great Tech Questioning

The past year has been a challenging one for tech, what with #metoo moments, security and privacy breaches, unseemly use of power, and certainly some missteps in the ‘fake news’/Russia meddling arena. And despite the seeming incongruity between these incidents/actions/behaviors and tech company earnings and sky-high valuations, there has started to be a reckoning, of sorts.

But I think there’s a bigger issue in play, one with greater potential long-term consequences. I call it the “Great Tech Questioning”. For the past 10-15 years, going back perhaps to the advent of the smartphone circa 2005, the talk has been about industries that have been ‘disrupted’. At first it was more about substitution, such as cellular replacing landlines, broadband smartphones replacing cameras and GPS units, digital media replacing physical media, and so on. Then it became more about entire industries being disrupted: photography, newspapers and magazines, retail, and so on. But more recently, the types of changes we’re seeing as a result of some of the most successful and fastest-growing companies in history are starting to have far broader business and societal consequences. And we’ve been caught largely flat-footed in terms of the longer-term ramifications and how to deal with them.

Let’s take four companies as examples. First, Uber. It plunged into a space that was ripe for disruption and rife with corruption. And though most of us love the service, Uber and its ilk grew so fast and so unchecked that we failed to assess the consequences: the significant increase in congestion in some cities, thus hampering one of ride-sharing’s key selling points of making it easier (and cheaper) to get from A to B. Another incongruity is that while Uber was initially hailed as a more favorable model for drivers, we underestimated the bottom falling out on medallion prices, which has affected hundreds of thousands of hard-working individuals.

Second, AirBnB. Still a great thing in many respects, but its rapid and largely unregulated growth resulted in its straying from its mission – and not really from any corporate wrongdoing. My wife and I were the initial ‘target’ AirBnB hosts. Sitting right between Boston College and Boston University, we’d rent a room out for $100 per night on our top floor, which was a godsend to parents visiting their kids in under-hoteled and over-priced Boston. This was the problem AirBnB was trying to solve. But then, developers, speculators, and opportunists swept in, killing rental inventory and disrupting the housing industry in already tight and expensive cities.

Third, Apple — as the poster child for the smartphone and its ‘ecosystem’. This wireless broadband pocket computer is indeed a modern marvel. It’s high level of usefulness was hugely evident on a recent vacation: helping us navigate our way, record beautiful places, stay in touch with work, friends and family, and enjoy media of many sorts. But this has also been a year where there have been serious questions about the effects of ‘screen addiction’. Many people have a really hard time applying the ‘everything in moderation’ mantra to their phones.

Finally, Facebook. Similar to the three examples cited above, it’s valuable and useful to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But its unchecked growth, pursuit of profit, and poor corporate judgement have led to abuses of its platform, by the company itself and by myriad third party actors.

As a visceral reaction to this, we’ve seen a lot of questions being asked in 2018, and a giant ‘hey, slowdown’ come from numerous directions: Europe’s fining Google and implementing GDPR; the Zuckerberg hearings in Washington; the caps being placed on ride-sharing licenses in New York, and the various skirmishes being waged daily in locations worldwide; the backlash on ‘over-tourism’ and the attempt by some cities to impose some regulations on AirBnB; the stunning letter in January by two of Apple’s largest investors, reflecting concerns about the effects of technology and social media; and questions about IP theft, figuring into Qualcomm/Broadcomm, Huawei, ZTE, and so on.

The acceleration of big data and AI, combined with a turn toward the autocratic and authoritarian in some countries, are amplifying some of these concerns. This stuff can go from merely creepy to downright Orwellian in a hurry. In our heated conversation about immigration, for example, how long will it be before ICE snoops on individuals’ location data and messaging content?

I’m hoping that all this is the catalyst for some important conversations about the long-term effects of tech acceleration on the future of how we live, work, and get around. Some 27 million Americans are employed in the ‘gig economy’, according to a report I recently read…what happens to these people’s livelihoods, health care, and retirement, long term? Can ride sharing services become more of a conversation about the future of transportation than just ‘cheaper than a cab and better than a bus’?  Will the disruption being caused by AirBnB catalyze a conversation about the future of housing in the many cities facing a severe housing crunch? And can we adopt an ‘everything in moderation’ mantra on smartphones, and re-learn (or learn for the first time) some of the people navigation and long-form attention skills that were so essential before the crutch of our phones and e-everything?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But we might look back on 2018 as the year that some of these important conversations started in earnest.

Mobile Operators Need to Reconfigure Themselves to Sell 5G

Starting later this year, early 5G services are going to become available in the United States. It will be rolled out in phases, and some versions will be more ‘marketing 5G’ than actual 5G. Mobile operators have a lot at stake here. Subscriber and revenue growth have stagnated, yet operators are spending big sums on spectrum and gear for the 5G upgrade.

But success in 5G is going to be different than success in 4G (LTE). Whereas 4G sort of sold itself, I think success in 5G is going to require a quite different sales/marketing structure and mindset at the operators.

Let’s look a bit at the history of wireless data. 3G was basically about mobile e-mail, driven largely by the first smartphones – Blackberry, Treo, and so on. There were also some consumer type applications, where operators were, for a brief time, kings of the content hill, cataloguing ringtones and rudimentary games on the home screen of mobile phones.

4G was really about wireless broadband. For the first time, you could do many of the same things with your pocket computer (AKA the smartphone) as you could from your home computer  — and then some, given GPS and other capabilities on mobile devices. In this 2010-2018 era, operators essentially became purveyors of broadband service plans. Most of the action was driven by the smartphone suppliers and app stores. The challenge for the operators was providing sufficient network to keep up with the data growth, and developing the right mix of profitable/affordable price plans (initially ‘bucket’, then some flavor of ‘unlimited’).

And yes, there will be some aspect of 5G that is akin to your broadband provider selling you faster speeds for $10-20 per month so you can watch Netflix in 4K. But much of the 5G opportunity is in new areas of business for the operators. They have to think about how they will structure to effectively market and sell these services. Let’s look at three of the most promising areas for 5G.

Fixed Wireless Access. This is going to be an exciting area to watch as Verizon and others roll out FWA to select cities later this year and into 2019. 5G FWA is different than previous versions of FWA, which has historically been ‘broadband of last resort’ in areas unserved or underserved by cable or DSL. 5G FWA will mainly be in cities and pockets of denser population, where operators will usually be selling against at least one fixed broadband provider, on the basis of network quality, price/bundle, or some other attribute (i.e. you don’t like your cable company). This is a sales and marketing proposition different than mobile. Plus, many FWA implementations will require professionally installed CPE, so there’s the factor of the user experience and somebody mucking around with the wiring of your home. There are also legacy customer perception humps to get over here, such as the historic ‘variability’ of cell phone service (works here, but not there), issues with indoor coverage, and so on.

IoT. Much of the success of 5G rests on these ‘billions of connected devices’. And while IoT is seeing fairly steady growth, it’s more singles than home runs, and it’s spread across numerous verticals, each with their own ecosystem – smart cities, connected car, smart home, industrial IoT, etc. It is going to take time for the operators to acquire the domain expertise and build the relationships needed to sell into these verticals. It will be difficult for them to go it alone. Operators will have to develop partnerships with firms that are effective solution sellers in some of these IoT segments. 

Enterprise. One issue with Wave One (LTE) of mobile broadband is that it is sort of a one size fits all service. It has been difficult for operators to sell a differentiated, SLA-based 4G service to an enterprise. That changes with 5G. One of the most promising attributes of 5G is network slicing, which allows an operator to parse off specific capacity to sell in a virtually dedicated way to a particular customer. For example, an operator might be able to sell a specific swath of capacity, at a guaranteed level of service (speed, latency, etc.) to an enterprise customer. This is one of the more promising areas of incremental revenue opportunity likely to come from 5G. It will also require the operators to develop a larger and more capable enterprise sales force. It’s not just going in and selling a bunch of devices and a discounted price plan. It requires a specific understanding of needs of the enterprise, and a fair bit of back office integration to monitor what is being delivered to the customer. Operators are at a very early stage of configuring themselves to sell network slices.

There are certainly some customers who will pay a price premium for 5G just because it’s faster, in the same way that customers pay Comcast an extra $10 per month for a boost from 150 Mbps to 250 Mbps even though they don’t know exactly why. But the most significant incremental opportunities that will come from 5G are in new areas that require a different and more proactive selling proposition. Operators will have to think carefully about how to configure and retool their organizations to most effectively address these opportunities.

OTT Television Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

We are all both loving but are at the same time overwhelmed by the era of ‘peak TV’. A similar thing is happening with the evolution of how we watch TV. This is a landscape that is experiencing a glut of offerings, with more coming – and with it the inevitable fragmentation and customer confusion. If I look at the roadmap over the next couple of years, I see this becoming worse before it gets better. The question is, how might it get better, and who will be the winners (hopefully consumers) and losers?

First, how did we get here? For the 50+ crowd, it started with the VCR. For the 40+ crowd, things changed with DVRs and the whole notion of time shifting. But that landscape was still largely owned by the cable companies, who turned this into a new way to charge you an extra 10-15 bucks a month. The next major shift was the penetration of good enough broadband networks and Netflix’s big shift to online – and the bet on content and concomitant rise of other ‘over the top’ (OTT) options, from Hulu to Amazon to YouTube and a whole bunch of other ones. In recognition, and perhaps semi-capitulation, those who were being disrupted — Comcast, DISH, DirecTV — are also now disrupting themselves with a slew of the industry’s worst acronyms since ‘throttling’: ‘skinny bundles’, ‘vMPVDs’, and the like.

How are they doing it, you ask? In part, by stripping out some of the stuff you don’t want to pay for, but then occasionally want…such as live sports. Remember the Oscar-nominated song, “Blame Canada” from South Park? The Pay TV anthem should be “Blame the NFL! Blame ESPN!” for this whole confusing mess. If a neophyte/technophobe asks you the following question at a cocktail party: “I hear I can cut cable. What are the options?”  G’luck, you’ll be three drinks into it or they’ll have walked off.

And just when you think this might have sorted this itself out….when the vMPVDs (say that one out loud or try typing it ten times) like DirecTV Now and YouTube TV offer a critical mass of channels and functionality, so you only have to make eensey-weensy levels of compromise instead of God-awful [First World Problem-ish] levels of compromises, along come a whole lot of industry perambulations that are going to create a hot mess all over again. Love Netflix? Say goodbye to Disney and Pixar next year, and say hello to Disney’s own branded streaming service. Thought you had sports figured out or chose the vMPVD that had the most sports content? Say hello to ESPN+ (has anyone said hello to ESPN+?). Then, look at the daily headlines — AT&T-Time Warner (please, please, please don’t mess with HBO)! The battle for Viacom/CBS! The bidding war for 21st Century Fox! What’s Apple Gonna Do? — and the 20% – ish of you who have cut the cord, alongside the rest of you who are understandably deer in the headlights on this one, will have rapidly concluded that whatever choice you made isn’t exactly future-proofed.

And then, on your next trip outside the U.S., try to figure out what you can and can’t watch on your tablet (Netflix, mostly yes! Most other stuff, mostly no!).

Actually, what you might conclude, after skinny bundling it, plus the new (surprise!) unbundled price of broadband, plus Netflix, plus Hulu, plus Amazon, plus HBO, plus Showtime, plus some sports, plus the 3-4 things your particular vMPVD inevitably doesn’t have, plus the three sticks for your “not smart TVs”…end up being more expensive and a whole lot more trouble than if you’d just stuck with cable in the first place.  Or, plunge yourself back into the 1970s with an antenna (really, they’re selling like hot cakes) and actually watch This is Us when it’s on and with your family. Or, you could head in the Leave No Trace direction.

Kidding aside, there are some great things happening. Yes, Peak TV with 500+ new scripted shows this year alone, and untold billions being unleashed to create more content. Lots more choice of programming options and bundles. And there are steady improvements in on-screen UIs, programming guides, and even voice integrations such as Alexa to help make all this stuff a bit easier to sort, search for, and figure out.

But the business end of this is going to go through a lot of tumult over the next 3-4 years. First, there are 3-4 major deals involving major media/content companies, with more inevitably coming. Second, there will be landmark battles on rights fees, as the media landscape gets rearranged in this wave of M&A. Prediction: the sports leagues are in for a take down. Third, there’s going to be a shakeout in the whole vMPVD space, with 2-3 emerging as clear winners. How this will all play out, with the move by some properties such as Disney, ESPN, CBS, and so on, to their own direct-to-consumer offerings is anyone’s guess. Parenthetically, I think the direct-to-consumer approach, for all but a few properties, will be a disaster.

The end result, in my view, might be greater emphasis on a la carte, one-of type offerings. Subscribe to FX this month to binge a couple shows, then switch to Showtime next month. Buy a season’s worth of your favorite ball team through MLB, rather than choose the vMPVD that carries your local sports channel. All of this might be made easier by an evolution in the UI, in search, and better integration in the new generation of Smart TVs. This is a great project for the voice-driven assistants, like we’ve started to see with Alexa and Siri (but still has a long way to go). It’s also fun playground for AI, as long as it doesn’t get too creepy on us.

Consumers might save a few bucks along the way, but at the other end, they’ll be a lot more educated on the arcana of rights fees, the industry landscape, and what content is worth paying for. But it’ll be messy along the way. And it will get worse before it gets better.



Top Tech Things We Take For Granted

Let’s face it, this has been a crummy year for tech. From the exposition of outright fraud (Theranos), shoddy business practices, numerous examples of inappropriate (and worse) corporate and workplace behavior, data and privacy breaches, concern about the ‘bigness’ and ‘dominance’ of certain companies, worries about about screen addiction…the list goes on. But as we close out the first half of the year and head into the July 4th holiday, perhaps it’s not a bad exercise to step back and recognize some of the good things about tech.

This is not a review of “top apps” or “best gadgets”. Rather, this is my own, admittedly subjective list of some everyday apps, tools and capabilities that are just plain important and useful to most consumers. There are surely downsides to each of these, but a good gauge is how much you would miss them if they suddenly disappeared.

Google Maps. I marvel at just how well Google Maps generally works, and how it just continues to improve, without fanfare. Just think about how generally accurate it is, and how many major and minor features have been introduced that make the Google Maps increasingly useful. There isn’t a huge amount of competition for Google Maps, and nobody really cares.

Smartphones. No doubt there are downsides to the smartphone. But step back and just think about how many different things can be done on this little pocket computer. Even mid-priced smartphones are fantastic. And, given how many hours a day smartphones are used and how many functions they perform, it’s remarkable how generally reliable they are.

WordPress. There are many terrific publishing platforms and content management systems. But WordPress is the granddaddy. It has enabled tens of millions of individuals and small businesses to set up beautiful, highly functional websites with relatively little training. There’s a great ecosystem of add-on tools and features.

Content-a-Looza. We’re all highly aware of how digital and the internet is impacting huge industries, such as print media, publishing, and so on. Not to diminish that at all, but on the opposite side, it’s amazing how low the barriers are to both creating and publishing content across multiple forms of media. Consider how quickly and easily one can publish a long-form story on Medium, upload an innovative clip to YouTube, get a song onto SoundCloud, start a podcast with a colleague, etc. And the hardware and software tools to enable these creations are just so much cheaper and more accessible than they used to be. Sure, there’s a lot of crappy content out there, monetization is challenging, traditional curation and entire industries are being up-ended — but on the other hand, there’s the rise of an entire creative class, be it profession or hobby, that might not have ever been.

Wikipedia. The content might not always be 100% accurate or up-to-date, but Wikipedia is incredibly useful, offering generally good content across a huge number of topics and categories. That it’s a non-profit and exists on average $15/year donations from millions of people is also testament to some of the good things about the Internet. And 99% of people have no idea how the content gets up there…it’s just there.

Travel Apps. On the one hand, the UI of the leading travel apps haven’t changed in, seemingly, a decade. On the other hand, if suddenly a business trip landed in your lap, you could book a flight, hotel, and car – at reliably competitive prices – in less than 10 minutes, and in  fewer than 20 total clicks. Seriously, try it. Consider what has to really happen at the back end to make it all happen. And how frequently things change. Dizzying.

The Cloud. I speak about the Cloud here from a consumer, not a business standpoint. It’s probably the most game-changing framework since the advent of the PC. Consider that, ten years ago, if your PC crashed it was a complete disaster. Now, if you’ve taken the right precautions, the PC itself is practically disposable, since everything is stored elsewhere. The cloud has also helped unleash competition to what were seemingly entrenched businesses: think Quicken to Mint, iTunes to Pandora/Spotify, Outlook to Gmail, and the world of streaming content. All of these would be nearly impossible without the unfathomably steep drop in the price of storage and the industry’s nearly universal embrace of this new business framework.

Crowdfunding. Perhaps this is a personal favorite, but I think crowdfunding represents some of the best possibilities of tech and the internet. Crowdfunding has helped fund millions of people/projects that never would have had a chance of getting financed. The projects tend toward the creative side, which is great. Crowdfunding offers a nearly instant feedback loop on an idea’s viability (and not always correct, on either side, but that’s life, too). I’m also impressed that so many people give to projects when what they get back is relatively minor or nothing at all. We see people’s optimistic, generous, and also gullible sides, exposing among the more human sides of the Internet.

There are downsides to everything, and certainly good cause for conversation about the big picture impact of tech. But it is a useful exercise to occasionally step back and appreciate how effective and useful some of this stuff is, and to applaud the millions of bright, honest, hard-working people who helped create it. Happy 4th.

Telecom and Mobile Implications of the AT&T-Time Warner Deal

Yesterday, Judge Leon ruled that AT&T can acquire Time Warner. In this column, I’d like to discuss the broad implications of the deal, and more specifically what it means for the telecom and mobile landscape.

First off, congratulations to AT&T. They stuck to their guns and didn’t agree to any of the initial —  and unreasonable — DOJ terms to sell off piece parts of Time Warner to get the deal through. Hopefully, AT&T will be more successful with Time Warner than was AOL which, ironically now sits in the hands of arch-rival Verizon’ unfortunately named Oath.

Some of the benefits of the deal will be felt apparent to consumers within a few months. Expect some additional bennies and content bundles for AT&T wireless subscribers. HBO for free, a la T-Mobile Netflix? In the more medium term, marrying the huge Time Warner ad inventory with the insights on AT&T-DTV’s customers will create value. It will be a longer term project to build a more effective ad targeting platform, pulling together the content, ad inventory, and customer data in an effective – and responsible – manner.

AT&T will have to tread carefully. With the tech industry reeling from myriad episodes of inappropriate exposure/use of customer data, the $200 billion AT&T-Time Warner behemoth, which will still be under greater regulatory scrutiny than its Silicon Valley brethren, will have to be both careful and transparent with regard to how that customer data is leveraged. It will also have to abide by the near promises it made during the trial to not discriminate in the provision of Time Warner content to DTV rivals. That said, the TV and rights fees landscape is in turmoil and under pressure, so needles will have to be threaded here.

Against this backdrop, and with uncanny timing, net neutrality was officially repealed this week, smoothing the way for all of the above to be implemented.

The clarity of the ruling and its lack of conditions will help to unleash a wave of M&A activity in the media and content landscape. Most immediately, the bid for 21st Century Fox assets will heat up, with Comcast entering the fray.

I believe this will also ease the path for the T-Mobile/Sprint deal. Just as the TV market has changed hugely with OTT, streaming, and the impact of Netflix, Amazon, Apple, YouTube and so on, so too has the telecom business. Landline is all but dead, broadband is a near monopoly in 50% of the country, and demand for wireless data (driven by video) and the capex to support it remains near insatiable. It is hard to imagine T-Mobile and Sprint competing successfully, independently, and profitably with AT&T and Verizon, long-term. Especially with DISH’s spectrum, Comcast/Charter MVNOs, and possible entry of some Internet/Web giant into the space, as part of the mix.

I think T-Mobile and Sprint can successfully make the argument that the industry landscape has changed significantly since a deal was first broached a few years ago. The biggest benefit of 5G is capacity – in the form of spectrum breadth and depth, and cell site density. T-Mobile and Sprint will be able to do more together than they would do independently (1+1=3, as it were).

5G will be another beneficiary of this evolving telecom/media landscape. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile (Layer 3), and Comcast all have important content and video assets, which in addition to driving traffic growth, will also unleash innovation in apps, games, and so on that will form some of the business cases for 5G, such as in AR and VR. This thinking was on display last week at the AT&T Shape conference, which was held in Los Angeles at  – wait for it –  the Time Warner Studios lot (see my column on that here).

I also think that Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T getting more deeply into content and media will incent some of the major internet players, namely Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix to be more masters of their own domain with regard to telecom and mobile. At the very least, it will drive the development of edge networking (and hence small cells/data centers) and 5G. One could also envision a deal for DISH’s spectrum, their participation in future spectrum auctions, leveraging Wi-Fi/unlicensed/3.5 GHz spectrum, or some level of MVNO relationship — or some hybrid of all of the above.

The telecom landscape will look less homogeneous going forward. Mobile-centric AT&T looks more like broadband-centric Comcast than it does Verizon. Verizon, with its leadership in 5G, emphasis on 5G FWA, and appointment of former Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg as its next CEO, has taken a turn toward re-emphasizing the network. It is still in the early stages of truly leveraging its Oath asset, though if it is going to be a serious player in media/content/advertising, there’s more dealing to be done. T-Mobile and Sprint together look the most like a wireless pure play, though I could certainly see how Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum could be leveraged as a potential competitor to broadband in some markets. And as part of the likely M&A acceleration in the telecom/media arena likely over the next year, one can’t imagine how DISH’s spectrum can lie fallow for much longer.