Convergence – 2008 TAG Forum on Leading Technologies

May 15, 2008

April 25, 2008

Atlanta, GA. Last month, I attended the 2008 Annual MITEF/TAG Forum on Leading Technologies The topic was a timely one – Convergence. They had a good panel of industry experts: Jim Straight, SVP Consumer Product, Verizon; Mark Taylor, SVP, Product Delivery, Business Markets for Level 3; Bob Schukai, VP Wireless and Broadband Technologies & Platform R&D, Turner; Allen Weiner from Gartner; and Dr. Neale Martin
It was a little, actually a lot, like the blind man/men describing the part of the elephant that they were touching.  Or, more to the point, the part of the elephant that they wanted you to see and they way in which they wanted you to see it.  That said, the presentations and discussions were useful and informative.
 The title of the forum was ‘Convergence’, but the theme that I kept hearing was the need for all of the various players to find/make new ways of doing business.

Allen Weiner’s keynote touched on a wide range of topics:  from TV on your cell phone and social casting, to what he described as ‘Super Enablers’ (Amazon and Google Business Apps), to opportunities presented by the elections and the Olympics.  However, in all of the topics was a clear message that Convergence was going to drive the creation of new business strategies and relationships.

Jim Straight talked at length about the need for Verizon and their partners to develop and implement new business models:  core business capabilities, partner relationships and value propositions.

Mark Taylor described how Level 3 had to completely re-architect their network to be able to double  the amount of bandwidth that they can deliver (every year), and, at the same time, lower the cost of their services.

Bob Schukai’s (Turner) presentation focused, not surprisingly, on media and content delivery. He is one of the few presenters that I have heard recently who asked the audience to ‘turn on your phones and let them ring’.   The tagline for Bob’s talk was ‘brands without borders’ – the delivery of media and content, and, of course, advertising, without regard for networks, technologies or devices.  The second theme was ‘no experience in isolation’ – being able to link media and content from one source to another (i.e. use TV to promote mobile content and vice versa).  In the end, it is all about finding/making new ways of linking content, channels and  networks, experiences, and devices (to drive subscription and advertising revenue). 
One of the key issues presented was ‘openness/access to cellular networks and
creation of services/applications that can run on those networks’. Jim Straight talked at some length about the need to embrace new business models and their [Verizon’s] plans to open up their wireless network. However, he gave few specifics or details about their plans.
During the Q/A session, I asked Jim Straight a direct question about their support for Google’s open mobile software project (Open Handset Alliance), but all I got were general statements about their commitment to ‘openness’ (he even started talking about Linux, not sure where that was coming from).  I did not come away from all that with a ‘warm/fuzzy’ about their open network plans. I talked to a couple of the other presenters about their take on Verizon’s plans to open their network.  One presenter was somewhat (guardedly) positive – “yea, open, but open in Verizon’s terms”. However, another presenter was quite negative – “a cold day in hell”.  That person reminded me that the FCC mandated an open cable standard five years ago, and then asked if I could see any evidence of an open cable network [open to 3-rd parties] – I could not think of any such evidence.
I believe that the meaningful innovation in this space is likely to come from some number (possibly all) of the following scenarios:

 – There will be a strong push from the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Cisco and others with real muscle to get carriers to open up their cell networks – any applications, any devices.  The open platform provisions from the recent 700M auction are a good starting point; but, as always, ‘the devil will be in the details’.
– One of the more innovative carriers is going to embrace some new/radical business models that are inherent to this new, open network – possibly a T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile or Sprint (the Clearwire deal may have potential).
– The openness of the European carriers (Vodafone, T-Mobile, O2, Orange) and Asian countries (Japan and Korea) will put pressure on ATT and Verizon.
– Clever innovation from players in the eCommunication space (i.e. VoIP capabilities imbedded in Adobe Flex).
– Clever individuals will find workarounds to the restrictions of the cell networks (i.e. iPhone hacking).