Service Provider Business Models are About to Change, Really

Since about 2009, U.S. cable TV companies might have gained about 10 million high speed access accounts, while losing about five million video subscriptions, according to researchers at Moodys.

In 2014, cable high speed access and video units sold are about even, at about 50 million units of each.

In fact, by about 2015, U.S. cable operators might find that high speed access is the product that represents the most accounts or units sold.

That would be a first for the cable TV industry, which began life selling just one product, namely TV channels.

Cable operators will not be alone in seeing such transformations. At some point, tier-one telcos will likewise find high speed access is their anchor product as well. Mobile operators will someday make more money from Internet access than voice or text messaging.

To some extent, that trend already is appearing in other ways, as well. Even if it now is a truism that a consumer services provider sells a triple play or quadruple play package of services, even that conventional wisdom might reverse, in some cases.

Small independent telcos in the United States have different economic models than tier-one service providers--either of the cable TV, mobile or fixed line sort.

Some of the difference flows directly from scale. There are just some lines of business a small provider cannot reasonably expect to undertake, because scale is required. Mobile service, video entertainment or services for enterprises provide examples.

Without scale--both lots of customers and wide geographic scope--those businesses have tough business models. In fact, for years, small telco executives have said, either in private or in public, that they do not actually make money selling linear video entertainment.

Linear video is a business with substantial shared costs. And, by definition, better economics are obtained when a service provider can spread fixed costs over a large base of customers. A tier-one provider can do so; a small provider cannot do so.

The potential customer base also dictates and limits business models. Larger national or regional providers actually have viable enterprise segment opportunities, many small and mid-sized customer possibilities and lots of consumer accounts to chase.

Small providers, operating in rural areas, have few, if any, enterprise customers or prospects. They have smaller number of opportunities to serve small and mid-sized firms as well.

And population densities are much lower in rural areas.

Without in any way intending to demean, there actually is not a sustainable business model for many small telcos in rural areas. That is why universal service funds exist. Without the support funds, actual profitably or self-sustaining operations might not be possible for a fixed network or mobile service provider.

So even if it is quite clear that the triple play or quadruple play now is the offer sold to consumers by tier-one providers, that might not be feasible for at least some rural providers.

Whether a sustainable business model exists for high speed access, with voice, and without video entertainment, by fixed line operators in rural areas, is not yet possible to ascertain with certainty.

The key issue is that universal service funding now goes only to service providers who offer high speed access and voice. And if universal service funding is the difference between sustainability and failure, then it sort of makes sense that some executives would decide to get out of the costly and typically money-losing subscription video business altogether.

They won't be alone. Nearly all business models will change, over the next decade.
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