In mid-February, I was in London to deliver a project read-out and attend a few pre-MWC analyst events. At one of these analyst events, the vendor took some time to talk about LTE Broadcast, confirming their support for the technology. They then brought up a Qualcomm exec to give some background on the technology (AKA eMBMS, enabling a broadcast capability over LTE networks, without "nailing up" bandwidth) and provide a quick momentum update, proudly talking up the two launches promised in 2014 with eight trials expected by year-end.
The response from analysts at the event was surprisingly unified. That is, the analysts gathered were unified in their overwhelmingly negative outlook on LTE Broadcast. Instead of an update on the technology's progress, things quickly devolved into an awkward game of 20 questions.
· "Didn't your FLO technology go nowhere? Why are you trying again?"
· "Haven't we already seen MBMS go nowhere?"
· "In a world where linear TV is reserved for the elderly and unemployed, who would actually pay for a package of it on their phone?"
· "If you're not monetizing your eMBMS rollout – just using it to offload video traffic – how often do you actually expect multiple people in the same cell to be watching the same content?"
Analysts being overly cynical or skeptical, if only to create a controversy or prove their ability for critical thought? I know, what a shocker! And, while I'm not necessarily saying that this is what happened, it's also not uncommon to see viewpoints shaped by herd mentality. After all, if it seems like someone has put solid thought (analysis) into a viewpoint, it's often too difficult to disagree. It's kind of like trying to remember the melody of any other song while your kid is playing the Frozen soundtrack for the umpteenth time. (be honest, you know you've tried)
Personally, I just didn't have the energy to argue. But I also couldn't ignore the central problems with the anti-LTE Broadcast bias being expressed. One centers on a fallacy in understanding the business model. One is a fundamental hypocrisy in how we (as an industry) think about service provider innovation.
Let's start with the business model. Yes, it seems like the only people who still watch linear TV programming are my wife and I (WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE THAT AREN'T WATCHING SURVIVOR AS SOON AS IT AIRS?). And, yes, the promises of LTE Broadcast as a solution for video traffic across the broader macro-cell network is somewhat suspect. If this is where the business case begins and ends, the technology may well be doomed. Luckily, current thinking around LTE Broadcast has evolved past these somewhat simplistic use cases. Qualcomm, which has driven a lot of the LTE Broadcast messaging, has been smart to shift the thinking toward use cases such as media distribution at live events along with data traffic offload. I've seen enough operator and vendor presentations pointing to network traffic spikes timed with platform and application update cycles to understand the data offload logic. Oh, and anyone remember the planned blocking of streaming video from NFL.com and Fox Sports inside MetLife Stadium during the Super Bowl? What does that tell you about the opportunity for delivering content packages at special events?
Ultimately, my bigger issue concerns the implications of a negative bias against LTE Broadcast when it comes to the thinking around service provider innovation. How many times have we heard that operators need to behave more like the OTT players they are increasingly competing with? How many times have we heard that service providers need to embrace an ability to "fail fast" in order to roll out new, compelling, revenue-generating services? These are rhetorical questions; don't feel a need to respond.
Against this backdrop, how can we abide an argument that operators shouldn't take LTE Broadcast seriously because we're not certain that the use cases attached to it will be successful? This one isn't rhetorical; shout out your answers, even if you're at work.
If, years into its development, the industry was still brainstorming over LTE Broadcast business models, ignoring the technology would make complete sense. Ditto if the technology required a massive network overlay or the introduction of new network standards. This just isn't the case. As part of the LTE ecosystem, LTE Broadcast shouldn't require significant changes to the RAN or an operator's device portfolio. Sure, use cases around automatically delivering content to devices WILL require back-end investments. And use cases around special events WILL require working closely with the event organizers and potentially even new content ecosystems. No one, however, said business innovation would be easy – just necessary and not to be judged against a half-understanding of any technology or its use cases.
Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.