Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Data revenues can go even higher

Over the past few years the telecoms world has experienced number of emerging technologies with a great degree of innovation coupled with intensive research. In the year 1999 when I completed my engineering in electronics and communication, most of the telecomm companies in India were only interested in GSM/GPRS. At that time I had no idea how the technology will evolve, as it has over the period of time.

Initially it was GPRS and then it lead to the major shift towards 3G. Once the 3G found its place further developments were carried out in terms of improving the user experience while on the move. This sole idea of giving the user the best, lead to the emergence of new technologies like HSDPA, HSUP. HSPA+ and LTE. Clearly improved data rates were the key factor for introduction of each technology from GPRS to LTE.

Everybody in the industry realised that if they have to win the customers and to compete with the fixed technology then they have to provide better data rates while the user is on the move. Till today the vendors and operators together with 3GPP has worked very hard to come forward with technologies like HSPA+ etc which can serve plenty of mega bytes per second to the users.
Although the wireless operators insist that we are still in the early stages of wireless data adoption but the data revenues are already playing the major part in the overall revenues of the companies. Recently when the operators announced Q2 data revenues they reported that data revenues account for nearly 25 percent of their average revenue per user (ARPU). Verizon Wireless is the prime example of the above fact which is the data leader in US, with 24.4 percent of its $51.53 ARPU coming from data. AT&T is a close second with 22.9 percent of its ARPU coming from data.

During the earnings calls with analysts, both the above operators together with the likes of Vodafone talked about the continued growth potential for data. There is a clear trend that operators are leaving no stone unturned in order to provide as high data rates as possible to their users. Operators are working feverishly to upgrade their network and the competition is intensifying for the better user experience. Youth and businesses are the main targets for the companies which are always in demand of high data rates for their own reasons.

These days one can easily get access to mobile broadband with reasonable amount of monthly payment. There are so many competitive deals available in the market in order to lure the customers towards browsing and emailing while on the move. There is no doubt that operators are successfully adding the customers and hence increasing their revenues mostly generated by data use. Verizon's data revenue grew 45 percent year over year. AT&T's data revenue grew 52 percent year over year. Vodafone and T-Mobile’s data revenue too grew by more than 50% over the last couple of years. But I'm wondering how high the data revenues can really climb. Is this strong growth rate sustainable?

Executives from the telecomm giants like Vodafone, AT&T etc predict there are still much more growth to come as consumers upgrade to integrated devices and smart phones that can take advantage of the 3G network. The companies say that nearly 20% of their customers has either upgrade or are in the process of upgrading to an integrated device. Meanwhile, Verizon recently said that 60 percent or 40.5 million, of its retail customers have upgraded to 3G data-capable devices.

Analysts believe that the likes of Vodafone, T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon are the clear leader in monetizing data and that it will continue to lead the industry in data ARPU as it increases the number of data applications and data-centric devices.

I think the key to sustaining this growth rate lies not in the number of data-capable devices in consumer hands but in the availability of compelling data applications at reasonable price points. Without the continued push for better, more user friendly applications, data revenues are not going to be able to sustain this current growth trajectory.

Vodafone for example is already taking the necessary steps in that directions and it is looking to boost the usage of 3G data. Vodafone has announced an agreement with the laptop vendor Lenovo that will see its new X200 computer pre-installed with a Vodafone SIM and supporting software. The broadband connectivity comes at no extra cost and, when activated by the purchaser of the laptop, will offer the user a 30-day free trial. "The connection manager will ask for your name and email, but no bank details," said Alec Howard, head of PC connectivity at Vodafone. "Users will be prompted to take out a contract at the end of the free trial and the prices are around £12 a month for broadband, with automatic roaming in Europe at £8.50 a day. But like any other products this also has a disadvantage. Users dissatisfied with the Vodafone service will struggle if they want to connect to another mobile operator thus installing a new SIM and downloading and configuring a new connection manager instead of using the built-in software which only works with Vodafone.

I certainly believe that this embedded 3G initiative would significantly lower the cost of built-in mobile broadband technology across the entire range of laptops. I myself have used a dell laptop with an embedded data card.
Where you just have to put the right SIM and then connect to wireless broadband with the help of a connection manager. I think embedded modems are cool and are fun to use. There is no doubt in my mind that the use of embedded modems for mobile broadband connectivity is set to increase rapidly in the next few years, with sales estimated to grow at a rate of well above 80% per cent from 2008 to 2012. Laptops with an embedded modem are one of the data applications which will enhance the user experience and hence lead to the increase in ARPU.

Most of the vendors are also working in the direction where they can enhance the handset architecture with enhanced multimedia functionalities. Nokia surprised analysts with its Q2 revenues with better-than-expected second-quarter earnings. Nokia thinks inline with some of the operators and firmly believe that the global handset market could grow more than its previous estimate of 10 percent in 2008.

For the new devices, Nokia concentrated a lot on the services front, and hence enriched customers with the handsets supporting next generation multimedia services e.g. supporting Sony BMG Entertainment with Music service. The Nokia Music Store is now available in 10 markets and the company expects to have 14 stores open by year-end. In addition, N-Gage mobile games service, which became available during the quarter, has had more than 406,000 downloads.

So in my view if the companies are innovative just like Nokia has, then there is every possible chance to push the data rates to new high. Vendors with their excellent architecture and high degree of data applications can definitely push the data throughput and hence contribute in high data revenues.

As everyday passes by we are seeing new handset with amazing designs and new architecture. These handsets are designed to perform faster and can support very high data rates. Today’s youth can play online games on these devices, can watch live TV, send and receive multimedia messages and so many other things. The business users can exchange email while on the move. The installation of HSPA+ by vendors will further enhance the experience of the data users. The number of HSPA sunscribers is growing many folds i.e. at the rate of 4 million subscribers a year. Companies like At&T are aggressive towards their HSPA roll out plans and it looks to rollout the HSPA together with the 3G iphone.

Very high speed of up to 20 Mbps in a 5 Mhz channel is already achieved by HSPA and Qualcomm is one of the many to prove this.

At the moment things looks very promising and I strongly believe that industry will keep coming out with bright ideas to generate the increased data revenues. LTE is another step towards more revenue generation with enhanced user experience in view. Let’s see how high the data throughput together with the data revenues will go.

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