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Consolidation in air at Broadband World Forum 2016

Bonding touted as solution to boost bandwidth for fixed and mobile services

Major trade shows can provide useful bell weathers of a given industry and the recent Broadband World Forum 2016 highlighted two notable trends embracing both the fixed and mobile space, one business related and the other technical. For the former, consolidation was a major theme that will only be accentuated by the announcement of AT&T’s bid for Time Warner coming after the show had ended. But there was also a sentiment that consolidation should not be allowed to proceed so far that it inhibits competition and consumer choice, which are essential for any thriving market in our mixed global economy.

At one panel debate we heard James Ryan, Chief Strategy Officer at Liberty Global, which knows a thing or two about mergers as the largest international broadband operator, opine that while in the USA there were just four mobile giants in Europe there were 100 vying for position. Of course this ignores the obvious differences between the two markets but does highlight the scope for consolidation within Europe’s mobile sector. After all in the fixed broadband space there has already been a lot of consolidation in Europe led by Liberty Global itself, along with Sky, Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica. In the mobile arena Vodafone has been leading the consolidation charge as one of the few pan European players, but with a long way to go.

It was then down to Gary McLaren, CTO and co-owner of the ISP Hong Kong Broadband Network, coming from a country still at the cradle of capitalism despite Chinese rule, to caution against consolidation proceeding too far. He pointed out that private monopolies have no more reason to invest than public ones and can keep shareholders happy just by milking their own assets, snuffling out the innovation needed to drive services and growth. The implication was that regulators must be vigilant both at the national and regional level to contain consolidation at healthy levels and it is possible this sentiment may yet derail the proposed AT&T/Time Warner merger.

On the technical front there was a clear pre-occupation with bandwidth at BBWF, which might seem strange at a time when there is more of it than ever before. But the concern was not so much about total bandwidth but its equitable distribution between all consumers wherever they live. This is a concern for both fixed and mobile services. In the case of fixed broadband, bandwidth is reduced for households a long way from the nearest exchange, while for mobile it is remote areas not covered, as well as susceptibility both to subscriber density at peak times and obstruction from obstacles like buildings and mountains.

While various techniques have evolved including multipath propagation for mobile and vectorization for fixed, bonding has emerged as a common solution to slightly different issues in each case. For the fixed case the solution ironically is to recruit mobile bandwidth and combine with the fixed network in the hope this yields adequate aggregate bandwidth for the services like premium video consumers now expect. For mobile, bonding multiple links together can enable services, such as streaming HD video from outside broadcasts, which cannot be sustained by a single connection. On the fixed front there was considerable interest from major Telcos such as BT and Orange in an innovative solution offered by a young Belgian company, Tessares. This can in principle bond any two IP based links but at present is being pitched primarily at Telcos serving a given footprint with both fixed and mobile services. It is then logistically and commercially straightforward to combine these for a household. The firm has adopted the Multipath TCP technology which works well when combining two networks of very different characteristics, given that mobile networks are much less stable with bandwidth sometimes fluctuating wildly.

There was also interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) with some Telcos, including Swisscom, attempting to douse enthusiasm by arguing that the case for IoT is only really clear on the B2B side. However Orange took a more nuanced view, agreeing that home automation looked promising for the near future. This distinction is not surprising given that Orange is already enabling subscribers to manage some IoT devices in the home from its New Livebox featuring an intuitive app to control the home network. This was developed in conjunction with a partner it has a large stake in, SoftAtHome, which is equally “at home” at broadband or pay TV events.  SoftAtHome is bullish about IoT prospects as witnessed by its main announcement at BBWF being that it has joined the fast expanding Z-Wave Alliance, a global organization dedicated to advancing the Z-Wave wireless smart home protocol.

SoftAtHome argues that broadband operators should prepare for IoT to take off now given that this will be a major battleground in years to come with a lot of revenue at stake. It is also likely to be fertile ground for future consolidation as players from different vertical sectors including retail, security and energy all pile in to battle for control of the digital home.