Getting it right on mobile broadband

Alcatel-Lucent chief Ben Verwaayen speaks the truth when he admits the telecom industry has "missed everything" in the digital boom.

"We missed email. We missed SMS. Some people have made a lot of money with ringtones...[we] think technology; we don't think end-users," he told an industry conference in September.

This is a guy who's worked both sides of the industry fence, previously holding BT's top post and before that was a senior exec at pre-merger Lucent.

Can the industry learn? I hope so, because the good times just don't last the way they used to.

It wasn't long ago we were celebrating the arrival of mobile broadband. Now a lot of people are fretting about the coming mobile data flood.

A US consultancy, Chetan Sharma, expects global mobile data traffic will pass 1 exabyte (EB) - a million terabytes - for the first time this year. In the next year both North America and Western Europe will top the 1 EB mark in mobile data traffic.

To put that into context, Cisco says that mobile data traffic will grow from a petabyte per month to an exabyte month in half the time it took fixed data traffic to do so. Cisco's Visual Network Index (VNI) predicts that mobile data volume will double every year between 2008 and 2013. 

And here's an arresting stat: a single high-end phone like the iPhone or BlackBerry generates more data traffic than 30 basic or feature phones. A laptop aircard generates more data traffic than 450 basic-feature cell phones.

(For what it's worth, Cisco thinks most of the growth will come from video. In four years it will account for 64% of total mobile traffic.)

Huawei Technologies says that 3G dongles and smartphones have driven up mobile data usage by 10 to 15 times prior volume.
Mobile data is already a big chunk of revenue for many operators; in the case of NTT DoCoMo, the world's biggest mobile data carrier, 45%. 

It's contributing to ARPU, but is it enough to halt its decline?

The problem is, as we all know, many operators have moved to flat-rate plans with large monthly allowances of data.  Huawei puts it as only a vendor could: "If operators simply expand capacity to keep up with demand... including everything from streaming video to P2P downloads, they will never be able to achieve profitable operations."

Few operators that have experienced increase in overall ARPU, Chetan Sharma's survey concludes.

Indeed, DoCoMo's current numbers are scary, although they are as much to do with the pounding it's getting from its competitors, and the tough financial conditions, as mobile data alone.

In Q2 revenue was down 7.3% and income down 15%. Subscribers to its Pake-hodai service grew 43% - but that's a flat-rate data product. Voice revenue dived 80 billion yen ($882 million), or 29% compared with Q2 last year, while data sales were up just 25.2 billon yen. Ouch.

At the other end of the scale is Verizon Wireless, which is right in the sweet spot. Verizon is the world's fastest growing mobile data provider and according to Chetan Sharma, will overtake DoCoMo in the next few quarters.

It boosted data revenue 33% and data ARPU by 23%. Net effect on total ARPU? A measly 0.6%. If Verizon isn't minting cash, what hope is there the rest of us?

One part of the solution is what operators measure. Chetan Sharma suggests that instead of ARPU, operators should track performance and profitability by average margin per subscription (AMPS), average connections per user (ACPU), or "customer lifetime value" that maximizes profits across all connections of a user or his or her family.

That will get people looking at the right things.

Technology - femtos or Wi-Fi, for example - is another part of the solution.

But the biggest part will be to take Verwaayen's admonition to heart. Don't miss anything. Whether it's new price structures, app stores, fixed-mobile bundling, or partnerships with apps or handset firms, the mobile industry has to get ahead of the game. Or it really will become the land of bit pipes.