Category Archives: Over-the-top services

SMS is here to stay

Many commentators have noted the rise of messaging applications such as Facebook messenger, Google hangouts, WhatsApp and the granddaddy of them all, Skype – and predicted the demise of SMS.  This graph, from Irish regulator COMREG’s Q4 2014 market report, shows it clearly.  However, the last two quarters show the decline slowing and even reversing.  Future reports will show whether Q4 2014 is a blip or the steep decline of SMS is over.

Comreg Q4 volumes

However, most of us still use SMS every day.

It seems that SMS is here to stay.  Why is this?  Well, SMS offers some unique advantages:

  • SMS is ubiquitous. If your friend has a mobile number, then you know they can receive an SMS.  That’s not true of any other messaging application.
  • Whereas the OTT messaging apps all require mobile data coverage, SMS doesn’t.  There are plenty remote places with coverage but no mobile data.
  • SMS works on the poorest mobile signal.  In fact, an SMS will often get through where a voice call won’t.  In  the UK, the emergency services have set up a 999 / 112 SMS service.
  • SMS is the communication method of choice for most companies offering 2-factor authentication.  The Next Web has a useful article on why SMS is widely used for A2P (Application-to-person) messaging.

These are among the reasons why SMS has a bright future. Sure, usage will continue to decline for a while as messaging apps gain penetration – but SMS is here to stay.

This post first appeared on the Idiro blog.

The end of the telco as we know it?

The telcos and the blow-in giants of the internet (Facebook, Apple and Google) are shaping up for a battle royal, and whatever the outcome, the world of telecoms will change for good.  Will we soon see the end of the telco as we know it?

Right now, the giants of the internet already have control of most of the devices that we use for our mobile communications.   They are building a portfolio of internet-based communications services (Google Voice, Apple Facetime…) – or buying them (Whatsapp).  These ‘over the top’ services are eating into telcos’ revenues, but the telcos retain control of their key assets – the phone number and the cellular network.

The end of the telco?The giants of the internet are active at the other end of the seven-layer model too – investing in infrastructure like subsea fibre-optic cables.  Moreover, Google has launched ‘Google Fiber‘, providing broadband service to homes in the USA – initially to Kansas City, and now rolling out to another 34 other cities in the USA. Interestingly the basic connectivity service is free – you just pay the $300 or so installation cost.  Imagine a fixed line telco in Ireland offering that!

But wait, there’s more. Yesterday (24th April) it was reported that Google are considering offering free wi-fi in those same cities.  It is already (just about) possible to port your US  landline number to Google Voice – so with an Android smartphone, a VoIP app and a landline number you can have cordless (though not truly cellular) coverage over public wi-fi.  Calls might even be free of charge.

The easy way into full mobile service is by becoming a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO.  Google is reported to have been in MVNO talks with US mobile operators Verizon and Sprint.  It is of course only a matter of time before a mobile operator breaks ranks and does a deal with Google.  Like Diarmait Mac Murchada’s pledge of allegiance to Henry II of England in exchange for support in his attempt to regain the Kingship of Leinster, such a deal is likely to be the thin end of the wedge. Already we see the integration of a SMS interface into Google Hangouts – encouraging the customer to to choose the more feature-rich and lower cost Hangout IM instead of sending an SMS.  Will we see the same with voice calls over wifi?  While the Irish MVNOs are owned by the likes of Tescos, the MNOs will sleep soundly.  But Google as an MVNO?  Be afraid, mobile operators.

It used to be said that the telecoms industry had succeeded by sacrificing functionality for ubiquity – if the computer industry had invented the telephone, we would have all had colour videophones 30 years ago… but most of them would be unable to communicate with each other.  The telecoms industry, however has achieved something very special – any phone number in the world owned by any phone company using any technology can be called from any other phone on the planet. What a great and unique achievement!  However, if an intelligent terminal can handle a multiplicity of standards, perhaps this lack of functionality has become the Achilles’ heel of the telcos?

Of course, there are many things that telcos do well that the internet companies can’t – like providing (almost) nationwide connectivity.  However, their business is being eaten into by the Internet behemoths.  The end of the telco as we know it is, if not nigh, then at least a likely scenario in the long term, perhaps even in Ireland.  Interesting times ahead.

How television in Ireland is changing

Television in Ireland is changing fast.  In a few years the TV that we now know will be completely changed.  Here are some of the key changes ahead:

4K TV.  After the failure of 3D TV to capture the imagination (i.e. to sell many units), the next big thing from the broadcast industry is 4K resolution.    As the graphic from Wikimedia commons shows, 4K resolution will deliver a massive increase in picture quality over existing HDTV.  While some commentators debate the real value of it – and just like with cameras, the marginal benefit to the human eye of of each increase in the number of pixels certainly becomes less and less – 4K is certainly coming.

Smart TVs.  This is all about integrating the internet – particularly web 2.0 – into TVs.  Faced with the threat of competition from the internet, TVs are turning into internet devices.  Many TVs now allow you to play YouTube videos, interact with a Neflix account, and so on.  Expect services offered to multiply and expect the user interfaces to become less clunky as they evolve.

TV leaves the house.  For many of us, TV viewing is no longer confined to the sitting room, with TVs in bedrooms and kitchens.  Increasingly we will see TV viewing (if indeed, we should call it that) leaving the house.  Faster wi-fi and LTE mobile networks are delivering the bandwidth to allow much higher quality video streaming to the mobile user (though data tariffs will have to fall before most can afford it over mobile).

Triple and quad-play. Remember the good old days when banks were banks, building societies were building societies were building societies and insurance companies were insurance companies? Those days are gone, and for television in Ireland they’re going too. The big buzzword (and the main reason that this blog covers TV) is convergence – that is, offering TV, landline and broadband (and maybe mobile, too) in a bundle to the customer.  Telcos and pay-TV companies have found that the more products you offer your customers, the more money you make, so it’s coming. Vodafone’s CEO has stated his intention to offer “unified, converged, multiscreen services in all countries” and is threatening to follow BT into the pay TV market in the UK. Both Sky and UPC each has a broadband & home phone offering and UPC has been rumoured (albeit a little while ago) to be launching a mobile service on Three’s network. Eircom of course has a quad-play offering, eVision.

Streaming replacing broadcast. In the old days we watched what the TV companies showed us, when they wanted to show it, even if we had a pay-TV service like Sky or UPC (71% of Irish TV-owning households use some sort of pay-TV according to the latest COMREG report). If you missed the Late Late show on a Friday night, tough. Then came VCRs and then PVRs, which allowed us to save programmes to watch later, as long as we remembered in advance. Now we have Netflix (over 150,000 subscribers in Ireland) and its competitors like LoveFilm allowing us to watch what we want, when we want it, without buying DVDs or recording the programme.  And so we can watch eight episodes of the The Borgias (or, for Guardian readers, Borgen) at a sitting.  Welcome to this month’s buzzword: binge-watching.

User interface challenges.  All new telly stuff brings complexity.  The Sky box is a paragon of usability and compatibility, but some of its competitors fall short, and even with Sky, users will need a separate box for DVDs or Netflix.  Many of us have multiple boxes and multiple remote controls. Your author has five such devices: the TV, a Ferguson Ariva combo box for decoding free satellite & RTE signals, a blu-ray player, a cinema sound amplifier and a WDTV box for playing stored movies. Each has its own remote control.  It’s hardly intuitive.

Original content from Pay-TV companies.  We are used to pay-TV companies such as Sky and now BT securing exclusive rights to sports programming and early viewing to movies at home.  Now Netflix and Sky are creating their own programme content.  If their exclusive content is good enough, then they will attract subscribers based on the content itself.  Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ and its takeover of the the award-winning series ‘Arrested Development‘ seems to be starting to do just that.  Sky Atlantic is following a similar path, commissioning documentary and drama content.  Because viewers of television in Ireland depend so much on pay TV, this provider-specific content will become a significant factor in the battle for market share.

A change in the TV licence:  The number of households without a television in Ireland seems to increasing, as families turn away from broadcast TV and turn to the internet for their viewing.  (When is a TV not a TV? When it is a computer monitor without a TV tuner in the back).  Recognising this, the government is planning a levy on every household, whether or not it has a TV, to replace the TV licence. A brave and logical move.

Interesting times ahead for the television in Ireland.  Stay tuned.

French regulator sees Skype as a telco – and why not?

ARCEP, the French telecoms regulator,has decided that it wants to regulate Skype as a telco.  See the link here and scroll down to the press release of 15th March.

So, how should a telco be defined? Originating & terminating voice calls? Issuing numbers for receiving voice calls? Deploying switching & billing infrastructure? Market share of calls above x%? Deploying last-mile infrastructure?

Which definition is in the best interests of Sean citizen?  It seems to me that if MVNOs are regulated, then OTT players should be as well.

French SMS traffic slumps in Q3 – an outlier or the shape of things to come in Europe?

SMS traffic volumes in France have slumped in the third quarter of 2012, according to this news report.

Will this happen in Ireland anytime soon? Personally I can’t see it. In the longer term, yes, sure – but just not yet – the penetration of OTT services isn’t great enough – yet. But when it does come, it’ll be irreversible.