Even if You Want To, Can You Price Apps by Gigabyte?

It seems a virtual certainty that investors will change the way they evaluate telecom access provider assets in the future, as they have done in the past. The reason is that the older metrics provide less value in assessing service provider prospects.

Once upon a time, access lines were a predictable indicator of telco performance, globally. With no competition and set prices, the primary variable was the number of access lines in service.

Once upon a time, basic video subscriptions likewise were a reliable indicator of how well a cable TV provider was doing or was expected to do.

That began to change with the advent of IP-based services, competition and multiple product lines. Because of competition, no provider formerly used to having 70 percent to 95 percent take rates could make those assumptions any longer. Instead, business plans had to be based on take rates as low as 20 percent to 30 percent, for any single product.

Also, with multiple products being sold, revenue per unit, or revenue per account, became more relevant than sheer numbers of accounts in service. Overall, “lines” or “subscribers” have become less meaningful measures.

At some point, especially as the IP transition continues, it is likely that newer metrics will start to emerge. Specific services, such as voice or messaging, might, or might not, be “revenue” sources in the same way.

When “bandwidth” begins to be an underpinning for all the other applications and services, it might be desirable, or necessary, to devise new metrics that correlate use of the network with revenue.

Some might argue that is a mere application of value based pricing to communications products, where retail prices are set based on customer perception of the value, not the cost of creating the products or the historical prices paid for those products.

Value-based pricing is predicated upon an understanding of customer value, a concept that will not be especially common for telecom executives, who for legacy reasons have set prices based on “cost.” In the monopoly period of industry operations, carriers made profits based on a cost-plus basis, so that made sense.

These days, matters are more complex. “Today, everything is about pricing, not cost,” says CHR Solutions SVP Kent Larsen. What he means is that “customer experience” now underpins the ability to price and sell products. One reason triple play offers work is that consumers rightly consider that they are getting a discount.

In other cases, offering free features is an obvious way to boost perceived value, even if, in fact, there is full cost recovery overall. But costs are an issue.

Here’s a really scary way of looking at how mobile and fixed network operating metrics might have to change: “costs per gigabyte must decrease by 90 percent every three to four years” just to keep service provider revenues and costs in the same relationship as they are now, according to Norman Fekrat, former IBM Global Business Services partner and VP.

And the bad news, says Fekrat, is that, at the moment, service provider costs are “increasing when it needs to decrease.”

“The cost structures need to be reduced significantly,” not incrementally, he says. And that will not be easy, Fekrat argues.

He thinks service providers will have to move to an alternative notion of “profit per gigabyte per service type,” where the actual cost of delivering a service is matched to the bandwidth consumed, for example.

That will be challenging. Consider the problem of pricing for consumption of video entertainment, the most bandwidth-intensive service. Though a two-hour movie might consume 3.8 Gbytes, the consumer might expect to pay about $5 for a viewing, or about $1.31 per gigabyte of revenue.

On the other hand, a month’s worth of voice might consume only hundreds of megabytes. Even if a user talks on the phone for 24 hours per day, every day for a month, using a high-quality codec, it would consume about a gigabyte each day, or perhaps 45 Mbytes for an hour.

If a user talks for an hour a day, that might represent consumption of about 1.35 Gbytes a month. On a flat rate $30 a month voice plan, that would work out to revenue of about $22 per gigabyte.

Messaging consumes almost no bandwidth, and could represent revenue of $800 a gigabyte.
That shows only one aspect of value-based pricing. Some of the applications have high value, but consume little bandwidth. Other apps consume lots of bandwidth, but have only moderate value.

Simple pricing based on bandwidth consumed will not work, in a value-based scenario. As logical as it might be to charge for apps based on "network resources consumed," that will meet huge consumer resistance, if one compares video entertainment to voice or messaging.


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