The Perennial Need for Speed

Connection speed has long been the marketing hook that operators have used when fishing for broadband customers, but is it now due for replacement?

Several speakers at the recent Ultra-Broadband (UBB) Forum in London believe speed will become less important as ultra-fast networks proliferate, forcing operators to tout other capabilities as they fight for business.

Yet this is not happening in a hurry. "There's been a lot of discussion about this move from speed to services and customer experience, but operators are still promoting themselves on the basis of speed," noted Mark Newman, the chief research officer of Ovum's telecoms research business.

That has clearly rubbed off on customers, who largely think of their broadband service as little more than a fast pipe, judging by the results of an Ovum survey of broadband users in 15 countries. When asked by the market-research firm what they would recommend about their service to a friend or family member -- and asked to choose between speed, customer experience, brand and services -- more than 50% of respondents picked speed.

Vodafone, for one, sounds eager to get away from this obsession with the megabit flow. Matt Beal, the operator's head of technical architecture, envisages a time in the not-too-distant future when speed will be irrelevant and customers will not be able to distinguish between network technologies on that basis. "Customers will solely be focused on the service that we render -- its ability to be agile to their needs, and its ability to be relevant and personalized," he told UBB Forum attendees during his presentation.

But is this really plausible? If there's anything the short history of broadband has told us, it's that the relentless consumption of bandwidth has kept telecoms engineers constantly on their toes. Networks and services have always spurred each other's development, and it's hard to see this changing.

It's even harder to imagine after hearing some of the UBB Forum speakers describing the services that broadband networks may have to support in the years ahead. Besides 4K, 8K and even 16K TV, we have artificial intelligence, virtual reality gaming, robotics and remote-control surgery to look forward to. Operators will surely have to continue investing in their networks to meet this demand, and customers who are slow to adopt newer technologies seem bound to get a poorer quality of service than their more adventurous neighbors, as is the case today.

Operators are fond of telling journalists that customers don't care about the underlying technology they only care about their service experience. In fact, operators have made customers care about the technology by emphasizing its importance to that experience. In the UK, note Virgin Media's heavy promotion of 'fiber optics' when BT was still solely reliant on copper, or EE's plugging of 4G while its rivals were stuck with 3G/UMTS.

Mark Winther, group vice president and consulting partner of worldwide telecoms at IDC, another market-research company, even told UBB Forum attendees of a recent conversation he had in Denver, Colorado, with a coffee-shop barista, who expressed an eagerness to get GPON installed at his home.

Of course, if operators have failed to market capabilities other than speed, it's partly because they've made a feeble stab at developing those capabilities in the first place. Most notably, they have struggled to either compete against or collaborate with OTT players. But what are 'branding' and the 'customer experience' other than the final layers of polish?

In the absence of a coherent OTT strategy, operators foremost have to think about their core competence of pumping bandwidth down a pipe. And that's likely to remain as relevant and visible to customers in the future as it is today.

Iain Morris, Site Editor, Ultra-Broadband

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