Monday, October 01, 2007

Demand drives FTTH drives separation

FTTH and separation are probably the most important trends in telecom right now. They are also linked.

I believe demand for bandwidth and nations competing for a larger share of the worldwide GDP pie will drive investments in FTTH networks. Telcos feel the heat and are preparing investors for a large capex round.
At the same time, realisation builds that there is value in both networks and services. Telcos are leaning toward the latter, and are preparing for their new roles by introducing sharing, outsourcing and separation.

Below I elaborate on these issues.

1. Drivers

1.1 Demand

Demand growth remains high. Statistics from internet exchanges, IPTV, the rising popularity of YouTube, monitoring services, etc. are used to corroborate this point. Add to that the following. As long as there is no true end-to-end connection and bandwidth is shared at some stretch (either on the open internet or in the last few yards), bandwidth should be redundant. So, if you need let’s say 30 Mbps, you really need peak performance of 100 Mbps. Check out Dean’s remarks.

1.2 Competition among nations

A valued reader suggested that there is a race going on between nations. Already, eastern European countries leapfrog places like Germany by building FTTH networks. If you want to maintain your share of the world’s GDP, you better not stay behind. Places ranging from Chattanooga (Tennessee) to Malaysia acknowledge this. No wonder Italy is weighing a massive investment into Telecom Italia’s network, once the company is separated. No wonder also why Ofcom launched a consultation, apparently aimed at paving the way for FTTH.

2. Future proof solution: FTTH

This point hardly needs any back-up, even if your long-term view is that the last few feet will be wireless. You better bring fiber at least to the doorstep of all the places where people like to hang out.
As I have written before, telcos are actually preparing investors for the big plunge.

3. Sharing

I believe sharing is going to gain popularity. Right now it appears to be concentrated in areas where demand or scale is limited. You can find examples in such diverse areas as mobile TV (German operators jointly building a single network), WiMAX (look at this consortium in Malaysia), FTTN/VDSL (altnets in both Australia and Germany) and 3G (in the UK, for instance).
The question remains: which part are you willing to share? The passive (dumb) layer is an obvious candidate, but you want to remain in control of traffic and services. The Vodafone/Orange UK example takes (tower and antenna) sharing one step further than sharing deals elsewhere (including the Sprint/Clearwire deal), which are mainly focused on extending coverage to rural areas. For Vodafone and Orange, sharing means: separating the network from the services. It implies that the network must be redundant (so there will not be an issue over who gets how much capacity), and also that the days of network coverage as an USP are behind us.

4. Outsourcing and separation

4.1 Outsourcing

The next logical step seems to be outsourcing. If you decide to sacrifice full network control, why not let some third party handle the network?
KPN is a case in point, since it started outsourcing many tasks in its fixed network to a whole range of IT providers. To be sure, I do not believe that KPN will save on costs. We all know the ways of IT companies. There will be lots of talk and writing policy documents. I counted at least 7 IT companies involved. IBM will be the lead integrator, but I am unconvinced that this structure will save KPN any opex within the next 3 years. I believe the move is designed to sharpen the focus on services, perhaps even pave the way for more (i.e. core network outsourcing and structural or even ownership separation).

4.2 Separation

The new focus on services opens the gates to (further) separation. In fact, it is already amongst us. First of all, let’s not forget that selling the tower business by mobile operators can be viewed as a form of separation, even if this only sets site sharing apart (and not antenna sharing or any activities ‘higher up’).
But there is much more. In Switzerland, Swisscom Broadcast received a DVB-H license, but it must provide equal access to all operators. Shortly before, TeliaSonera took the unusual step to create a separate infrastructure/wholesale unit in Sweden. Another voluntary action comes out of EchoStar, which proposed to split its satellite fleet (with wholesale operations) form the service provisioning unit (the Dish Network).

Telecom New Zealand will be split along the well known BT Openreach lines, creating a unit in charge of the access network in order to jumpstart LLU.
It remains to be seen if this effectively creates a new stumbling block on the road to FTTH, as the new structure focuses on LLU and therefore on maintaining ADSL(2+). It would be my preference to try and leapfrog intermediary technologies as much as possible and go straight to FTTH.

Some companies are obviously atttracted by the wholesale business model (the NetCo part of the business, as opposed to the higher valued ServiceCo units), providing a ‘natural monopoly’ and ditto cashflows. Consider such diverse players as Reggefiber (the FTTH company in the Netherlands), Frontline Wireless (plans a national safety network in the US, stresses the importance of wholesale access to the new 700 MHz spectrum in order to foster new entrants) and even Gaiacomm International (whose proposed VLF/terahertz network would not compete with exiting service providers).

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