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Has the French Telco Market derailed, again?

Let’s wind back the clock.

70’s – France’s young president elect Giscard d’Estaing comes to office and realizing that the French Telephone system is years behind those of other countries. Huge investment is ploughed into the state owned PTT. During the decade, France moved from an antiquated system to a state-of-the-art Signaling System 7 (SS7) Telephone network.

When I came to France as a boy in 1974 it took months for our family to get our first phone line installed – that was already a vast improvement over the previous decade’s standard 2-year waiting list. By our second move in 1977 it was just a few days, which seemed a bit like science fiction at the time and vastly impressed family and friends back home in the UK.

Before most people had heard of the Internet or IP, we were busy in France discovering online services with the Minitel system which saw it usage boom in the 80s and early 90s. The leading edge was taken off French Telecoms as there was then much hesitation of how to best react to the emerging Internet in the 90’s, embrace it or try to impose that national Mintel standard? By the time it became clear that the Web would replace the Minitel, other countries got to catch-up with the network savvy French and the European ISP business from the mid-90’s seemed relatively balanced although we were all trailing behind the US.

A combination of a sound regulatory approach and French business acumen the French Telco sector back on track in the second half of the 90’s.

Competition was introduced effectively without bringing the incumbent to its knees. Compared to the UK where BT was almost killed off by Thatcher or Germany where DT’s stranglehold on access networks is still to be fully broken, the French seemed to have got a pretty good balance.

So when Free, a new entrant in the ISP business built from a Mintel empire (ILIAD) aggressively launched their first triple-play offer in 2003, France Telecom was able to reciprocate and the other challengers like 9-Cegetel and Club Internet were also able to follow suite.

The French Telecoms subscribers saw the most incredible decade until about 2010 with always more services for a fixed price of about 30€. But Iliad/Free surreptitiously broke the 29,99€ rule it had forced on the industry, by removing a few standard features that became add-ons (like €1,99 for TV service). This improved ARPU and although detailed figures are hard to come by, it is no secret that ILIAD/Free make significant profit from their ADSL ISP-Business (a 40% margin is often cited).

This profit and a favourable regulatory approach (Free bought the 4th mobile 3G operator licence at a discount in 2009 paying just 240 M€ where the other 3 operators had paid 619M in 2000) meant that Free was able to launch a very aggressive mobile offering in January 2012. The success was immediate with about a million clients by the end of that month alone.

Despite being a free market economy, most French commentators agree that the 1000 layoffs competitor SFR announced in 2013 can be clearly attributed to Free’s price “dumping”. As an independent consultant based in Paris and focussed on new services, I’ve seen I’ve seen many operator projects canned this year due to innovation budgets being cut at Orange, Bouygues Telecom and SFR. French 4G is at least a 2-year behind what US operators have already deployed.

 

So what’s going wrong?

Too much of anything – even a good thing – can be bad. After proving that a balanced approach to (de)regulation really does work, France seems to have lost its unique touch.

The three incumbent Mobile operators were hoping that 4G would help fight off the low-cost battering from Free. But Free has entered the 4G market with a bang, announcing that 4G services would be provided at the same price as with 3G. All operators have had to follow suit ruining the basic tenet of Telco strategy, where superior services requiring significant Capex can bring in extra revenues. The only way forward seems to be lowering costs.

This situation of all-out war has led Bouygues Telecom to announce seriously low-cost ISP services to be detailed in January 2014, with as-much-as-you-can-eat triple-play offerings going for 15€ per month (compared to Free’s current 30-37€).

The price war has got out of hand to the extent that the French government has become involved in the industry-wide slanging match, although it’s not at all clear what it can actually do except maybe give the regulator some more power. If the situation keeps on escalating, subscriber glee will be short-lived in 2014 as one of the 4 operators is bound to go bust and maybe two other merge.

But if subscribers have so far only won out from this situation, shareholder prospects are less clear.

ILIAD-ORANGE-STOCK-2YRS-TO-EOY2013
In the 2 years to December 24th 2013, Iliad’s share price rose well over 50% (red) while Orange’s (blue) dropped more than 25%

The situation is almost reversed if you look just at the last 6 months

ILIAD-ORANGE-STOCK-6MONTHS-TO-EOY2013
In the 6 months to December 24th 2013, Iliad’s share price was stable, but recently dropped 12% (red) while Orange’s (blue) grew 20%

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CDN 3.0 White Paper

CDNs have improved in leaps and bounds in the last decade. This white paper asks if mainstream suppliers are now struggling to deliver the next big improvement. We look into whether there could be a window of opportunity for network operators to get back into the game. Live OTT streaming is considered a great catalyst for this opportunity.We finish by looking into what the future of CDN's might look like in the next few years.

CDN 3.0 White Paper

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IP&TV World Forum 2012 preview

If last years theme was OTT (after a Multi-Screen show in 2010), how are we going to put 2012 into a nice neat box?
I'll gamble on the 2012 theme being something like "IPTV is dead long live OTT!"
I doubt the never-ending rumor mill on AppleTV will have an impact yet in 2012, so Apple Google & Microsoft will wait for 2013 to be main themes...
Back to the present: see you here in a few weeks to find out if I was right for 2012 at least.

 

2012 is set to be a very full and well attended event judging by the number of people I know that will  be there. The conference tracks have become so dense that you need a day to study the program before deciding where to go. I'll just play it by ear on the day. The number of companies to see on the exhibition floor is so big anyway, that I might not be able to attend much.

 

IPTV has grown into a big show so there are getting to be more parties and extra add-on events.

I’ll be going to the 
Verimatrix "English Breakfast" on the first day which has a mini-conference on advanced video deployment (but at least I admit it it’s the English sausages that attract me).

Mariner Partner are a Canadian IPTV quality-monitoring specialist. They have a drinks party just after the first day, this year I won’t need to gate-crash as I was actually invited.

The Red Bull event later in the evening will probably be packed as usual and I’ve only got one of the tickets that are valid “until capacity is reached”, so maybe not…

On day two Irdeto is hosting a morning OTT strategy event. But I probably won’t make that one, not least because they didn’t invite me )-:

Of course day two wraps up with the glitzy prizes, this year at the London Film Museum. I went to the first 3 events as a judge, but there’s no way I will fork out £300 needed when you don’t have an invite.

I’m sure there are many more events but that’s what I’ve spotted so far.

 

From the list of speakers and potential prize-winners, it is clear that there will be plenty of Operators in London.

I’ll be looking to catch up with some news from Malaysia Telecom that are one of the first Huawei IPTV customers outside of China.

There’s a wrath of interesting people from Orange so I’ll be looking to get the latest form some ex-colleagues there. Also from France, I’ll try to catch up with Bouygues Telecom, which has had an amazing success story as a mobile challenger getting towards a million subs in three years. 
Swisscom is one of the European Telcos that is still happy with the Microsoft’s IPTV solution
 so I’ll tray and get some of the story there.

Paul Berriman, the veteran CTO of PCCW who launched one of the worlds first IPTV deployments in Hong Kong

 will be there too and it's a while since I've caught up with him.

From the trade floor my selection of vendors whose product demos I want to see include:

  • Whoever has cool Android boxes to show (Echostar who impressed in last year don't seem to be present).
  • Then Harmonic & Envivio to try and really understand how they differ.
  • Rovi, to actually see the demos of what I’ve been talking about for a while.
  • Then there is
 Siemens, where I want to see how their video flicking solution has fared in the market.
  • Zappware is a middleware alternative to NDS & Nagra. As I missed the later two at IBC I’ll try to see those demos that everyone was raving about in 2011.
  • Red Bee have acquired TV Genius since last year so I’ll try and find out how that’s going. There is also a new kid on the block from what I gather with Shazam moving into TV recommendation also.
  • I haven’t been to see Cisco in a while and they seem to have their house in order with Videoscape now so I’ll try and get an update on that too.
  • Ineoquest were talking a lot about ABR for OTT last year, before any of the other monitoring companies and I’d like to learn if they’ve had any success with that (as usual I, then you, will have to read between the lines because they won’t actually say directly).
  • I need an update on the chip maker's roadmap and ambitions in the STB space so I’ll be visiting one or more of Intel, Sigma Designs & / or STM.
  • I suppose you can’t blog on an event like this without talking to some of the connected TV app developers like WizzTivi.
  • The OTT market is already showing some results in the diaspora market so I’ll also catch up with Live Asia TV if possible.
  • Finally I’m due for an update on what SoftAtHome are doing.

I have some catching up, discovering to do with people that will be there without a booth. I hope to meet MediaMelon a US based CDN supplier specialized in OTT and my friends from 3 Vision, thebrainbehind, MediaTVCom, OnCubed, AppMarket.tv, etc.

Now I need to go to sleep for a couple of days, to charge up the batteries so I will actually be able to get through at least some of that  ... report coming soon.

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Could France, the birthplace of mass IPTV adoption, also be its resting place?

Operators seem to all copy each other in any given market; in France it is blatant.

Since Free created the 29,99€ “as much as you can eat” price-point in 2001, adding TV in 2003 content has been one of the main messages behind most ad campaigns for triple-play bundles. At least this was true until this year.

Two years ago, Bouygues Telecom came out with one of the world’s first quad play offers priced at 44,90€ per month 2 years ago, but they still only have a small TV footprint.

After a long battle, Orange, the incumbent here, gained regulatory authorization to also launch quad-play this summer.

SFR, part owned by Vodafone, is ready to launch a quad play offer, but so far has just added a VoIP to mobile option to its existing triple play and is still waiting to see how things pan out.

It has become more and more evident that Orange is moving out of content in the big exclusive way it had been pushing since 2004. In September 2010, all of Orange's 5 exclusive cinema/series channels and its Sports channel were officially put up for sale. We still don't know the outcome.

So now, as if in unison, the 3 major operators have dropped content and TV related messages from their 2010 multi-play ad campaigns.

SFR is focusing on customer service with a free Hotline. Free has also focused on a message about getting more and more service for always the same price as well as a second message about how much more (geeky) fun Free is.

Whereas Orange used to aggressively promote its own content and interactive TV features, they now only mention TV as one of many features.

Quad play ad from France's incumbent Orange
IPTV is just one of many messages

The immediate conclusion to draw is that IPTV has become a commodity here. Most other mass-market commodities like water and electricity are delivered by monopolies despite the government’s best efforts to create a competitive environment. Could that mean that IPTV is one of those water-like “natural monopolies”?

But wondering about delivering say water or electricity to a household, are there any conceivable situations under which they are delivered at a loss? The answer is clearly no.

The land-grab rush for IPTV is now over and it seems we’re entering a cost control period. The official reason Orange’s new CEO Stéphane Richard gave for pulling out of exclusive living room cinema and sports, is that his company was loosing 150M€ a year on each.

What will a period of cost cutting do to IPTV? The future is all of a sudden looking a lot less clear for IPTV in France. Anyone who has actually built an IPTV business model knows that to make it float, a little creativity is required. Cost-cutters are not creative people!

It’s a moot point as to whether or not turning back is an option. Is it possible to pose the un-thinkable question for many in the industry: “could a triple-play provider, simply pull out of TV?”

One small reason for hope has a little sting in the tail.

French fibre rollout has been stopping and starting for almost five years. About a million homes are now passed. Yet only 10% of those homes are taking up a fibre service. It seems the culprit is a sluggish commercial approach from the operators. Indeed, I know there is fibre in my street in the west of Paris, but I have had no luck finding somewhere to subscribe. French operators are milking the DSL cash cow and more significantly, they haven’t yet figured how to sell fibre more expensively than DSL except to a few geeks.

The sting here is that instead of becoming the great USP to justify higher prices, the TV component for triple-play is now perceived as an expensive commodity operators have to provide, but haven’t been able to get any money from. Fibre was supposed to change all that with multiple full HD channels galore, but the wind seams to no longer be powering the sails of that dream.

We are in the age of OTT with devices available over-the-shelf that people can pick-up in the high street. France is still the most innovative IPTV market place. Despite the global 3D flop, which I saw coming before the summer (see here), the first-ever commercial 3D IPTV service was just announced in France by Dorcel for adult on demand content.

Clever operators will be those that stop trying to do it all themselves, recognize their weaknesses and concentrate on their strengths. This means building an ecosystem of suppliers where the end customer is no longer someone representing just ARPU or churn, but a stakeholder with a say in the ecosystem. It’s her living room everyone is fighting over, so give her a say. If she wants to add say an Apple-TV to her cable subscription, then make sure you help her do that. If she asks you for a hybrid box that has all the home networking features bar coffee-making, make sure you have a partner to provide one. If she only wants access to FTA channels, have a deal ready with the cheapest zapper box maker for your market.

It’s is not official yet, but my clear vision is that IPTV, as a walled garden service delivered by Telcos into the living room, is indeed dying a slow death here in France. But long live TV over IP in its many new forms. As it’s getting to be quite a jungle out there with the likes of Google entering the fray, an ISP, satellite operators or phone company close to home might be just the person needed to help cope in this brave new TV world.

[UPDATE March 11 2011] After a really interesting debate on this topic on LinkedIn, good news from the IP&TV World Forum organizers (Gavin Whitechurch). We have a slot to discuss this over breakfast in person at Olympia, Thursday 24th March 8AM. Hope you can make it.

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Why Iid invest in TV monitoring if I were a banker

When Justin Lebbon, the guy behind videonet, read my latest blog post on the significance of Ineoquest’s winning a deal with France Télévisions, he pointed out that to get onto Videonet, posts have to be longer. It probably wasn’t meant that way, but it felt a bit condescending.

Hmmpf! So I started wondering why I'd felt the urge to write just a short post on a seemingly run-of-the-mill press release about yet another sale.

I had written about the customer being a TV station and the vendor being the leader in head-end monitoring from the IPTV space, so that maybe we were going towards a global leader in the IP TV (notice the space) monitoring space. So with just one small point to make I had one short blog entry to post.

But Justin’s point has been irking me to dig a bit deeper.

It turns out I wrote about a tree that was hiding a forest.

The TV world relies more and more heavily on IP for contribution, transport and distribution to and within the home. At the same time, the whole marketplace is also maturing. Different stakeholders are beginning to emerge and a new content economy will eventually stabilize.

We still don’t know if our IPTV world will become a market dominated by vertical or horizontal stakeholders or maybe something in between.

In the vertical world, content would flow from one stakeholder’s environment through another’s to be delivered to customers of yet another network. To catch-up on a missed Channel 4 program you might use a C4 widget on you TV that stream content through a network managed by Cable & Wireless. But for a BBC program you’d use iPlayer. We would seem to be headed in that direction if the Ineoquest - France Télévisions deal is at all significant. Service Level Agreements or SLAs are paramount to remain competitive in such a world. What better than QoE measurement to manage such agreements?

In the second more horizontal world, the same stakeholders would be producing and delivering content-based services to their own customers. Walled garden IPTV or Telco-TV is of this world. TV stations would carry on not caring all that much about IP quality because it wouldn’t be their problem. Although not IPTV, Sky’s products are from this world where the same company produces much of the content and delivers it themselves. Market regulators would hopefully ensure that customers would rarely be more than a click away from the competing service and in this world (looks like Britain pulled a short straw on this), QoE would remain the best metric to work on to control churn.

TV stations are still basically Content producing organisations. When transmitting through traditional broadcast networks they can always ascertain the quality of delivery by the random sampling of a few points. This worked fine for traditional analogue terrestrial and satellite, and also to a certain extent for digital terrestrial, cable and satellite.

IPTV represents extra difficulties because not only do the video streams have to go through many more layers in the network. Operators are still in many cases just learning how to properly configure IP networks for video. Fierce competition is also forcing them to use underlying infrastructure that is at the bleeding-edge of new technology.

However, if IPTV were only about Live TV, it would just be harder to get right, basically playing in the same ball court as before.

What makes quality management so different is that IPTV services have always been about more than live TV. From the source of video signal to TV set we’re moving from a one-to-many to a one-to-one architecture. As soon as VoD, delinearization or Social TV show their scary heads, we shall have to take a whole quantum leap into another level of complexity.

I haven’t seen any reliable and public stats for VoD session quality in managed networks, but you only need to glance at some Web forums to see that things aren’t as rosy as VoD system vendors and operators would have us believe, even in a walled garden environment where QoS is supposedly guaranteed. I’ve been using such a managed service at home for 5 years now and with maybe 60 films rented, I can say that about one time in 10 the VoD viewing experience gets interrupted or even cancelled. If I’m then prepared to spend 10 minutes to half an hour on the phone, I can get a refund.

Now if I ask you where are TV stations focussing their attention at the moment, the BBC’s iPlayer will probably come to mind. With an iPlayer type of service TV stations’ increase the value of their own content by making it available after airtime (I guess a very expensive premium service will one day let you access the content before airtime). Their content is being transmitted over IP on a one-to-one basis using their brand name. So TV stations are getting caught up in the Quality of Experience issues themselves.

But beyond the iPlayer example, as the IPTV ecosystem matures, different stakeholders are emerging. In some markets, one operator will provide head-end services for another competitor. Elsewhere, wholesaling is becoming commonplace. Take for example Cable & Wireless in the UK who can carry IPTV streams from a third party head end to someone else’s DSLAM. Their responsibility - enshrined in an SLA - is to deliver the content with the same quality the received it. Traditional network QoS metrics don’t always capture the whole picture. If the TV service is also monitored end-to-end wholesalers can commit to SLA’s.

Here in France one sees some pretty complex setups with for example a Bouygues Telecom IPTV customer having a service delivered through an SFR network when the video head end service is provided by Canal+. In this case Bouygues Telecom would also have an agreement with Orange to rent the last mile.

Over-the-Top or OTT content has mainly been associated with free YouTube like services; that too is changing. Even in the unlikely event that it does stay totally free, there’s only one YouTube so the quality of service delivered to people’s sitting rooms will be a key differentiator.

The emerging playing field forces the larger content creators like France Télévisions to look further down the distribution line. Even as far down as the person in front of  the screen. Their distribution possibilities are also exploding while presenting differing technical challenges in terms of Quality of Experience. In the IP space, should they concentrate their efforts on Telco-TV distribution or should they be putting more effort into their own OTT distribution? TV widgets present one of the greatest threats and opportunities they have seen for years.

To remain relevant and retain their independence TV stations will seek means of leverage to control or at least to influence different distribution channels or sometimes just to be able to make an informed choice as to which one to use. Their content represents their fundamental value so it’s only not surprising that they’ll want to protect both its quality and its integrity.

That’s why – Justin- I believe the Ineoquest deal is significant. Now will you post this?

Benjamin Schwarz