By Steve Mackay
First, a disclosure. For years – some of the best years of my career – I was involved in persuading (we called it ‘educating’) the telcos to adopt new infrastructure and to run new and exciting services on top of it. Correction – new, exciting AND profitable services.
That infrastructure was based on the Internet Protocol and now, of course, all the telcos have it. And they are offering new services, are able to change and upgrade those services more easily, and more profitably.
Looking at it today, it is as obvious to telcos that it made sense to switch to IP as it was once to switch from horses to cars. (Interestingly, someone recently tried to persuade me that the biggest benefit to that switch was that cars produce no manure. Hmmm.)
However, at the time the telephone companies were ENORMOUSLY reluctant to even look at IP. “‘You guys don’t understand how we Telcos work.” “You’ll never replace our Class 5 Switch. ”You can’t even spell echo cancellation.” And if they did get to look at it – or look at a leaflet – it was unstable. Unreliable. Didn’t support over-subscription. Couldn’t support round robin. The list of “why we won’t speak to you” goes on. Being on the outside of telco trying to get in was frustrating.
During the white heat of the Internet revolution, selling to telcos was the second prize. Selling to enterprise — or government, or health, utilities, education, anyone else — was more fun. Less frustrating. Earned more money. Meant hanging out with customers and people that ‘got it’.
So folks who went through that experience can, I think, be forgiven if they look forward to the day, or the thing, when telcos don’t get it until it’s too late. And smart city networks could be it!
Smart cities are building out narrowband comms infrastructures that will carry tiny packets of data at a terrifically reasonable (read: cheap CHEAP) price. Some of these are legacy, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth beacons – and some are exciting NEW comms technologies such as LoRaWAN and Sigfox. There are many others – maybe too many. Some are being built out by the cities and councils themselves: ‘Do It Yourself’ networks. Others are being supplied by carriers such as Sigfox or National Narrowband Network Company (NNNCo)
Meantime the telcos are looking at this 99 different ways, with 106 different excuses not to do anything. They’re saying: “Do you really need narrowband networks?” “Why don’t we start charging for Wi-Fi?” “Surely it could just ride on our existing LTE [4G] infrastructure?” “Of course, we can’t possibly charge those low, low prices. It would cannibalise our existing business”.”
These are all good questions – well, some of them are – but at the same time they really go back to the old heart of telco culture, which is: “Why should we look at something new and exciting? – We know our business and would rather stick with it.”
The telcos today tell anyone who listens to wait for them to deploy narrowband LTE or one of its variants as this will give everyone what they need. But will they offer the dollar-per-sensor-per-year type of service that the emerging providers are offering today?
Yes of course, this is unfair to telcos. Yes, this is simplifying the situation. (And yes, I will do a blog on why “old and boring” is sometimes best). But it does allow folk like me – and there are many of us – to rub our hands and say: “Ha ha! Maybe THIS time the telcos will miss the boat!”