So it is not that Easy after all…

Yesterday was a big news day for telecoms and I think I did a fairly good job in blogging about the biggest stories (DT’s new CEO, BT in India, ntl buying ITV). But it seems you cannot keep everyone happy. Christo Kuniewicz of Level 3 has moaned at me today that I did not write about some tiny VMNO that disappeared yesterday in the UK. OK – you got me on that one. But to make up I will try to link this to (1) revenue assurance, (2) why you cannot trust entrepreneurs, and (3) the strategic stuff I blogged about yesterday.

Easymobile, the UK VMNO with 80,000 subscribers announced yesterday it will stop providing service within a month http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6145628.stm. TDC, the Danish network licenced to use the “easy” brand in the UK will pull the plug on 13th December. The motivation behind TDC’s decision is obvious – it will invest in activities where it can actually make some decent money. But whilst the news is full of reassurance that customers will be fully refunded for any excess credits, the question in my mind is who is going to make sure this really does happen?

Anyone with a passing knowledge of revenue assurance might suspect that a business closure would be just the time for a meltdown in handling customers and correctly managing customer accounts. Even if there are enough employees to sort out the mess whilst handling the deluge of customers that will be trying to get in touch, there is no guarantee that these employees will feel motivated to do their job properly because some of them will be more worried about their next job than their current one. Unfortunately, the extreme over-regulation of billing accuracy in the UK also manages to provide no meaningful protection to any of those 80,000 Easymobile customers. When confronted with a choice in 2001 about whether to implement broad and simple controls over the whole industry very quickly, or to implement extremely demanding and deep controls and to roll them out across the industry at a snail’s pace, the UK regulator opted for as slow a process as possible. The last time they did research on the topic, the regulator concluded that 7% of the UK public (after prompting) were aware of the regulations to protect customers from incorrect charging – so presumably Ofcom can be looking forward to 80,000*7% = 5,600 Easymobile customers getting in touch today to find out why they have not been protected so far and asking how they will be protected now. I wonder if Ofcom has a good answer ;)

For those of you not familiar with the British love of self-promoting entrepreneurs, I need to tell you a little about the “brains” behind Easymobile. Stelios Haji-Ioannou describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. I would describe him as a fat Greek man who always seems to be smiling, was born very rich and has got a lot richer by selling things more cheaply than rivals whilst pretending to be a consumer champion. He is very popular because of the success of his low-fare airline, which was very successful in busting up that market. His other ventures, of which there are many, have not been as successful, and often have generated very many complaints despite Stelio’s insistence that he is a consumer champion. But all have a few things in common: they are all called Easy-something, everything tends to be painted bright orange and there are many pictures of Stelios smiling and promising to be a consumer champion and lower prices. Presumably the reason why TDC have pulled out of this venture is that calling giving a phone service the name Easy-mobile, colouring it orange, selling it cheap and having Stelios smile a lot is just not enough to persuade many customers to swap suppliers. Because unlike airlines, Stelios was this time launching a service into a market that was already highly competitive whilst having absolutely nothing new to offer. I suspect that Stelios’ claims in the newspapers that he will find alternative partners to help him relaunch his Easymobile brand will come to nothing. If he had an alternative partner he would have lined them up already, and I cannot see why anyone would want a partner whose best chance at growth is through cannibalising revenues on the same network. So Stelios, the self-styled consumer champion, has let his customers down by promising them services he could not deliver. Lucky for him that nobody is looking over his shoulder to check if he keeps his other promises to pay everyone back promptly. Stelios kept pointing out in the news he was intending to sue TDC. So that explains how he intends to make some money out of this mess – but I am not sure how this helps his customers or makes him more likely to keep his promises :|

All of this must come as a relief to Orange, of course. After getting mighty upset and probably paying big fees to its lawyers, it seems they will not be needing to continue their fight with Stelios over whether Easymobile is allowed to use the colour orange as well :)

I had the misfortune to hear Stelios speak on the topic of telecoms once. It was unfortunate because the man obviously knew nothing about telecoms. Please understand this point carefully. It was not just that he knew nothing about how telcos worked – lots of telco execs know nothing about how telcos work. Energis recruited a team of execs because none of them knew how telcos worked, and the Cable & Wireless board thought that was such a good idea they recruited the same bunch at the cost of buying the whole of Energis (presumably the C&W board thought it would be too hard to get random people who knew nothing about how telcos worked and wanted to pick a team within a proven track record of not knowing how telcos work). The C&W share price has gone up since so obviously shareholders agree that not knowing how telcos work is the way forward. So not knowing how telcos work is not what I am complaining about. Stelios obviously knew nothing about telecoms at all. I mean, he had nothing to say on the topic at all, not even about strategy or a marketing vision or something like that. I mean literally nothing. He must be a very eager salesman to have the guts to get in front of an audience of thousands of telco workers when all he has to say is that he likes running businesses, he is keen on the colour orange and was going to beat Orange if they went to court, he has been very successful running an airline and wanted a show of hands on who had flown to the conference on his airline – that kind of thing. Even then, he only had material for half of his slot, kept making excuses that he would need to leave early and ended up taking questions from the floor to fill out the remaining time. Not surprisingly most of these questions had something to do with why people were at the conference – telecoms. And not surprisingly he was unable to answer the questions. My advice is never ever go to a TeleManagement World conference on the strength of the speakers they get. You get some boring techie people and you get some boring sales people but never anyone worth listening to. Apart from when I speak, of course ;) Anyhow, Keith Willetts deserves to be shot for trying to sell conference tickets on the strength of that Stelios speaking at TeleManagement World Nice earlier this year. I thought the point of TeleManagement World was promoting lean operations for sustained results. A few months on, and Easymobile has taken lean to a new level – by not even existing :)

The good news for Easymobile customers is that they have the option to switch to Carphone Warehouse’s “Fresh” mobile service. I have no idea why this option is preferable to swapping to any other supplier, but that is what Easymobile are offering anyhow. In the notes provided to Easymobile customers it says that they will be able to migrate customers to Carphone Warehouse, but they only promise to “do our best” when it comes to porting to another provider. Hopefully their best is enough to comply with their obligation to do so – so why pretend they are doing the customer a favour when the regulator compells them to do this? :| But those customers that do migrate to Carphone Warehouse had better be on guard. Because if a mistake is made whilst transferring the account balance, nobody will be checking because – you guessed it – Carphone Warehouse’s Fresh mobile is not covered by the UK regulations on charging accuracy either. On top of that Carphone Warehouse also fails to comply with the UK regulation on comparable indicators. This means they fail to provide the public with 5 simple measures of performance, one of which – can you guess? – is the number complaints they get about the accuracy of billing :| On the plus side, the good people at Carphone Warehouse are at least sane. They kindly pointed out earlier this year that the charging accuracy expectations in the UK were nonsense – take a look at pages 3 and 4 of this: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/metering/responses/cpwh. I am glad they are sane, because they are in for a big challenge. On top of migrating a lot of extra customers in a short period they were already planning a UK£30m project (US$57m) to consolidate their billing – see http://www.financeweek.co.uk/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=4501&d=11&h=24&f=254.

So coming back to yesterday’s topic, the question remains whether you can make good money by selling telcos like a commodity. If anyone is able to do it, it should be Stelios. His entire Easygroup is predicated on the idea of selling basic no-frills services to a mass market and making a profit by keeping costs ultra low whilst beating competitors on price. But despite the very high public recognition factor for Stelios, and his personal popularity as one of the best recognised and most loved businessmen in Britain, his low-cost mobile offering simply never got any meaningful market penetration. And his failure may well discourage some of the other unrealistic marketing plans being dreamt other by other businesses wanting to turn a fast buck from leveraging their brands as virtual operators. Even the most successful virtual network in the UK, Virgin, got bought by ntl more because of their overall value as a brand (compared to ntl’s dismal reputation for poor customer service) than because of the relatively low number and value of customers they had actually signed up. That is why ntl are intending to spend again and buy a TV network. In Herzberg terms, good customer service, good brand etc is just hygiene – you need content to really motivate customers to move in large numbers or to remain loyal in the face of cheaper competitors. In contrast, DT have been using mobile as a cash cow for a long time now, without worrying about the inevitable erosion to their market from the entrance of players who can offer a lot more than commodity communications. Promoting the head of T-Mobile to CEO just shows how short of ideas they are. If DT’s play is to be best at offering a commodity, the question remains as to how they will compete with those who opt for vertical integration. To take another example, 3 are incredibly cheap, and have taken the ultimate step in selling voice as a commodity – to the point of paying customers a share of the revenues they receive from call termination – but they also earn very high ARPUs because they sell so much additional content. So the question for all businesses right now is whether they intend to make money from just being a commodity provider, or will offer the commodity as a loss leader and instead try to make money from selling the extra content on top. Remember, if there is ever insufficient competition, then the price of communications is regulated in a way the price of content never will be. The problem for those providers that go down the commodity-only route, is how to adapt their strategy when their rivals can afford to charge rock-bottom prices for commodity products because they have the vertical integration to make their real money from the selling of additional content. Every time the commodity-only providers cut their costs, they will be in danger of destroying their value through poor service, damaged reputation or direct loss of revenues. So if your only advantage is cutting costs, it means balancing the returns of the business on a razor’s edge.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

2 Comments on "So it is not that Easy after all…"

  1. Fantastic rant – I did hear about EasyMobile this morning, but the quickly forgot about it…but it is important, because the approach of EasyMobile underpins my point that mobile telecoms is, essentially, a commodity – by virtue of the entrance of an MVNO (even the fact that you *can* MVNO is proof of commoditisation!) to this space, in particular a brand renowned for price disrupting in mature markets.

    Why did it fail? Was it undermarketed? 80,000 is presumably not a sustainable no. of subscribers? I guess your point that it didn’t offer anything new is true – but then they should have priced much lower…maybe there was no price differentiation, and so why would consumers switch?

    Re. 3 making money off content – is this true? They’re certainly being innovative with content – their ‘SeeMe’ customer content/payment arbitrage is a superb (if weirdly priced/marketed) – http://www.three.co.uk/planetthree/detail.omp?cid=1139512467578

    You make a fair point about content creation and vertical integration – but none of the providers have this skillset – it’s not simple…even if ntl merge/buy itv and push content to virgin (t-mobile) handsets…

    Will Murdoch buy a network?

    Does anyone care about live TV on your handset (I’d rather see content of my choosing, than live programming on my commute)

    Actually your previous post hits the nail on the head – the answer is already here in the form of podcasting/timeshifting – and sync is the killer app….fast fixed line pipes will push content to my home device – which syncs enough stuff to my handset (or I sync while I’m walking through a town’s wifi network)

    Who needs a restricted mobile network paid-content orifice?

    Nokia understand this – there’s a very cool podcast player/catcher on my (wifi enabled) e61…

  2. Avatar Eric Priezkalns | 14 Nov 2006 at 8:08 pm |

    Easymobile tried to price lower – but I guess we have discovered how much competition there is at the low-end of the market.

    3 have the highest ARPUs in the UK because of how much added-value stuff they sell. They are not really a good example for my vertical integration argument, as they are not integrated. However, the point with them is that they have a technical lead in providing content which gives them the same kind of exclusivity as owning the content itself. If you erode their advantage in terms of bandwidth and the spec of the handset then it becomes doubtful their ARPUs would remain higher then that of rivals.

    Vertical integration is a funny one, but I think you are unfair when you say nobody has the skillset. Murdoch does. He only buys distribution networks to lever his content, but he does seem to make that pay off. What makes him different is that his strategy is based on owning the content and then ensuring you get value through having the right distribution channel. Most telcos are coming at the problem the other way – they have a distribution channel and are desperate to find content to sell through it. What I guess I mean is that Murdoch is not interested in mobile, fixed-line, satellite etc in themselves, only as vehicles to sell content. And he would also provide communications capabilities if suitable as an additional commodity sale to increase revenues. But he would not buy a mobile network if it gave him no advantage (which it wouldn’t). That is why you have to take interest in everyone now betting quite heavy on broadband as a content distribution channel, and wonder what DT’s global strategy is supposed to be given that they are not doing this in their big markets outside of Germany (the US and UK).

    The question for you is why even sync over wi-fi, when you could just leave your device in its cradle overnight and have hours of high-bandwidth syncing whilst you sleep? It does not even need to be that fast if you have that much time to perform the sync. So all you need is some basic hard drive and a basic CPU and a basic broadband connection – a bit like what Sky and BT are going to push – and so long as you can program them to download whatever, then your device is ready to go each morning with films, music, a news digest, whatever…

    And the Nokia’s of this world are alert to this. They have to integrate capabilities with the phone because the phose is the USP. However, they don’t want you spending part of your disposable income on a second device designed to sync at home. So they are the ultimate enemies of the mobile networks – so long as the handset sells, they will hasten the move away from selling high-end content over mobile. But the danger for them is that Apple & Microsoft & co come at them with PDAs and MP3 players that are also phones…

    In the middle though, the poor mobile network operators have an expensive network with very few advantages that a customer actually wants to take advantage of (hence would be willing to pay a premium for). They are still riding on fact that they justified handset subsidies based on future products, but the future products are often crazy variants of more obvious products but trying to squeeze some advantage out of mobile connectivity. I mean, the mobile telcos are talking about remotely accessing your photo albums and music from a central server using their radio link. But why go for a sometimes unreliable radio connection and pay every time you access your content, when you can just carry a device the same size which has enough flash memory to store the whole lot and which is effectively backed up by the data stored on your PC or set-top box at home?

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