Separate announcements Tuesday for business conferencing services, one from AT&T and the other from Sprint, highlight the radically changing business models at U.S. wireless carriers.
AT&T is working with Cisco on a cloud-based, video collaboration service that will be available for almost any device when it launches next month. In October, AT&T also announced another video meeting service with Blue Jeans Network.
Separately, Sprint on Tuesday announced a cloud-based audio conference service called UberConference from Switch Communications, which is run by a group of former Google employees, including Craig Walker, the principle creator of Google Voice. With UberConference, Sprint business customers on any device will gain access to Google Apps for Work. Users will also have access to Google Hangouts for up to 100 participants.
The announcements from AT&T and Sprint were short on details, including their cost. What both announcements signal, however, is a continuing push by U.S. wireless carriers to offer services to business customers as a way to generate lucrative future revenues in a radically changing economic climate for carriers.
After spending billions of dollars each year building out their fast LTE networks, the major carriers are focused on pushing business and consumer subscribers to run data over their networks. Added services could distinguish one carrier from the others or highlight a focus on a specific business group.
For instance, Google Apps for Work, as offered by Sprint, is regarded by analysts as a service for small and medium business customers, while AT&T's two video collaboration concepts are directed at just about any size business. Google notes that its Apps for Work is used by more than 600 organizations, including large companies like Woolworths with 200,000 employees, and Chicago Public Schools with 270,000 users.
Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, recently noted that not only are carriers facing revolutionary technology changes with devices and networks, they are facing changes in how they generate revenue and in how they adapt their businesses to do so. If a carrier can move beyond offering merely "dumb pipes" to customers to carry their traffic, then it stands a better chance to be more resilient in the future.
If AT&T or another carrier can offer distinctive software and services, then it also prevents a third party from offering that same service "over-the-top" of their networks, where the carrier has little say and misses the opportunity to reap potential added revenues.
Carriers have tried to find ways to collect revenues from over-the-top services for years.
Because of this over-the-top services debacle, the net neutrality debate takes on greater meaning. If carriers can offer their own content and services on their own networks, they don't have to worry as much about whether they are throttling somebody's else's third party service, and they don't have to levy a higher charge on that third party to give its service greater priority on a busy network.
President Obama has come out hard against throttling by Internet service providers and urged the Federal Communications Commission to treat ISPs like traditional phone companies.
There's no indication that Obama's position on net neutrality, announced last week, has anything to do with the timing of Tuesday's announcements by AT&T and Sprint. Both companies have been on the path toward offering services for a long time. Still, it's a path that makes carriers potentially immune from some FCC regulations. If the carriers are running the service and are not creating capacity for somebody else, they can prioritize their own service as they want. Google has been on that path for a long time by offering both content, with YouTube videos, and with its Google Fiber buildouts of 1 Gbps connections, first started in 2012.
Bill Menezes, an analyst at Gartner, said it's unclear how eventual FCC regulations might treat wireless traffic as it moves from a user's smartphone or tablet to a base station where the traffic joins the wired network.
Still, there's no question that AT&T is trying to cash in on Gartner's forecast of big increases in video collaboration services sold to businesses in the next few years.
For Sprint, there's been a clear focus on adding services for businesses, especially in recent months, as subscriber numbers have declined.
By offering UberConference, "Sprint wants to offer a complete customer care solution, including customer care for the worker," said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZKResearch.com, in an interview. "UberConference comes with a lot of piece parts, and Sprint's offering a full turnkey solution that customers can use and workers can use right away, and that reduces the burden on their IT."
As for AT&T, Kerravala said "it's about time" that AT&T beefed up its videoconferencing capabilities because "video usage is at an all-time high ... AT&T has danced around videoconferencing for a while. It's a big opportunity for AT&T."
In the big picture for all the carriers, "it is strategic for them to find ways to make their networks matter," Kerravala said. Videoconferencing is an especially good service for the carriers to offer because video requires real-time network efficiency and quality.
"With a real-time service like video, the network [from each individual carrier] should matter," he said.