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We’re getting there with BT’s Quad-play and Google’s Project Fi

I am pleased to see the mobile operator trend toward commoditisation. Long term readers will recognise that I have a rather binary view on the mobile operator industry: Either innovate, or get out of the way.

Sadly — and yes, I’m using broad brush strokes here — we’ve seen next to zero innovation in recent years. The time to really set the marketplace alight has almost passed. The mobile operator used to be a key player in the ecosystem.

Across most of the planet now — with a few notable exceptions — operators are an utter irrelevance.

Yes, in many markets, they play a basic distribution role for handsets and associated accessories. In the UK for example, they’re relied upon as a source of cheap, easy ‘off the books’* consumer finance (for the latest iDevice or Samsung). And of course, they provide connectivity. In many Western markets that connectivity is virtually ubiquitous. To the point that in the UK, whether you use O2, Vodafone, Three or EE — or any number of MVNOs — it doesn’t really matter. It’s difficult to tell the difference.

Indeed that’s what I’m pleased to see: The continuing indifference of the mobile operator. The total lack of innovation has got us all to the point where it’s difficult to tell the difference between an operator brand and an electricity supplier.

Oh we rely on them. Definitely. In the same way we rely on our water, gas and electricity suppliers. But beyond a cursory glance at the bill and an annual ‘check’ on the price comparison websites, it’s ‘job done’.

The descent into commodity is one that I have bemoaned. It could have been so exciting. The operators could be underpinning everything today. The whole Internet of Things explosion could have been driven through the operator. I could have a virtual sim card in my FitBit by now.

The obsession over minutes, texts and data buckets — and trying to bring back the glory days where we all willingly paid £0.10 per 160 characters — those days are long, long gone. We’re still having to buy packages in the same stupid, restricted, boxed way.

This is fine — because when you rely on the status quo remaining so, that’s when other more enlightened individuals come along and eat your lunch.

Now and again, a press release lands in my inbox describing how ABC company has signed a deal with ABC operator to preinstall ABC app or service. When that happens, you know both parties are dreaming. It will help get another round of investment, but it’ll go nowhere. If you can’t get the attention of consumers over-the-top, independent of the operator, then you don’t deserve the attention in the first place. In years gone by the operator was the kingmaker.

Now we’re at a position in the market where phrases like ‘over the top’ aren’t relevant any more. There’s only one way nowadays and it’s independent of the operator entirely.

I’m particularly excited to see how Google gets on with it’s Google Fi project. It could certainly end up like ‘Google Wave’. However it could equally break out. Either way, it’s a great example of the utter irrelevance of the operator. Google has got Sprint and T-Mobile (“Two of the biggest operators in the USA” — i.e. the bottom two, hungry enough to experiment) together along with a large number of WiFi hotspots tested for quality (i.e. better than 10k/sec throughput on average) to deliver a single package for Nexus 6 users.

Google Fi pricing is transparent and simple. $20 for everything and then $10 per GB. You can buy in advance and if you don’t use up all the GBs, then they’ll credit the spend back. There’s a school of thought that says this is a wee bit expensive. I’m more interested in what it demonstrates to the rest of the market. Wherever you find Google, you’ll probably find a team from Apple experimenting too.

I’m keen to see where Fi goes. Theoretically anyone fanboy enough to buy a Nexus has a bit of disposable income to mess about with.

Back in the UK I’ve been watching with interest the various quad-play or pseudo-quad-plays doing what amounts to a reasonably good stab at price innovation.

Witness, for example, BT’s pleasing £5/month offering for existing BT customers. That will get you 500mb of 4G data, 200 minutes and unlimited texts/unlimited BT WiFi hotspot access. That isn’t that bad!

There’s a £12/month option that gives you 2GB, 500 minutes and unlimited everything else. You have to skip up to £20/month to get the (virtually) unlimited option with 20GB data. This is all on the basis of a 12 month contract.

At these price levels I could easily imagine ordering a few sims. One for the car. One for the other car. Another for  testing other handsets.

In terms of quad-play, I’ve got a landline from BT that I don’t use. I need that to get the internet connection (Infinity) which I do most certainly use. I then decided to check out their £5/month BT TV offering. The additional £5 for a basic mobile connection chimes nicely from a price standpoint. It feels ‘easy’.
However it doesn’t compete with the new offering from TalkTalk which offers unlimited everything for £12/month on a 30-day rolling contract. You have to be an existing TalkTalk customer to qualify — and there are fair use policies to review. For the average user though, that’s quite extraordinary. I do wonder what pressure these kinds of price plans will put on the likes of Vodafone. You need to step up to a 12-month contract at between £30-40 a month before you qualify for virtually unlimited plans… at the moment.

So it’s exciting to see more price innovation happening in the UK marketplace.

What’s totally disheartening is … that’s it. The only thing the various providers appear to be able to do is compete on price. I think I need to finally accept that flipping cool mutli-sim or virtual-sim arrangements complete with all sorts of exciting network-enabled funky services will always be a pipe dream in the UK.

You never know. I am holding out for Dan Lane’s who have introduced a series of APIs to enable some very smart operator services. That requires a series of geeks to get busy and bring some services to market on top of that platform before it’s usable for the likes of you and me.

I still hold a slightly melted candle for or (Truphone as they were known) who continue to do great work… it’s just never been quite appropriate for me as an individual to swap to them.

Beyond those organisations I think we’ll need to sit back and watch the bigger players as the race to zero continues (TalkTalk already have a £3.95/month 30-day price plan!) — whilst we wait for Google, Amazon, Apple or someone else to bring us something new.

* Off the books: Your credit rating doesn’t show a balance owed to an operator for a contract commitment. If you borrowed £700 from a bank to buy an iPhone, that would appear on your credit rating as an outstanding balance.

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