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By Steven Shepard, Contributing Columnist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about evolution. Not the Darwinian type, nor even the evolution of business (such a common theme today among business strategists), but rather about the evolution of the market — and most specifically about the changing demands of the market as its choices become richer and more varied in the face of remarkable technological change.

Since 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid into his lap, causing him to call out to his colleague, “Come here Watson, I need you,” thus starting the communications revolution that would change the world (Watson unexpectedly heard Bell’s voice through the speaker on the device they had invented), telephone companies have prided themselves on the quality of the service they have offered to their customers.

Over the years they have come up with a host of quantitative measures to determine the degree to which they have reached their desired levels of delivered quality, including Mean Time Between Failures, Mean Time to Repair, Delay, Jitter, Percentage of Packets Lost, Hold Time, Five Nines of Reliability, Carrier-Grade Service, Toll-Quality Voice, and so on. These are excellent measures of network performance, yielding significant insight into the operational efficiency of the network.

Quality Metrics: An Outside-In Perspective

These measures are important, but they do have one flaw: They are exclusively inward-looking. They examine network performance, which is only one half of an increasingly important equation — and the reason that most service providers are now shifting their focus from quality-of-service (QoS) to quality-of-experience (QoE).

QoE is an interesting metric, because it is exclusively outward-looking — meaning that it is a customer-focused measure, rather than a network-oriented one. Customers really don’t care about the inner workings of network performance, nor should they have to. Increasingly, particularly in light of the much more media-rich services that service providers are being asked to transport, QoE is the coin of the telecom realm. It is, however, fraught with complexity.

Whereas QoS is sublimely easy to gauge — it is, after all, a numerical measure of some aspect of network performance — QoE is an entirely different beast. How do we measure, “Was it good for me?” This is the challenge that the industry faces today, and it is a serious and significant one, particularly in the mobile space.

The most obvious measure we have, of course, is subscriber churn rate: After all, if a customer fails to receive the level of service that they expect, if they fail to have a memorable experience when engaging with the network, they will vote with their wallets and leave, taking their spend to a different carrier — because they can.

This is the challenge that lies before the modern telecom service provider. Today, network traffic is growing at a precipitous rate and is becoming increasingly media-intensive thanks to the popularity of such free services as iTunes, YouTube, Pandora, and others. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, by 2015 (that’s four years away), total network traffic will exceed 7 million terabytes — that’s a seven followed by 18 zeroes — and more than 65% of that will be video.

As a consequence, the revenue-per-transported bit is in sharp decline, which means that service providers must find other ways to make up the difference if they wish to remain profitable.

Progressive ICT Policies Include All Stakeholders

One of the biggest challenges they face in the U.S. (and, to a large extent, in other developed nations) is the fact that they are operating under a regulatory structure that was conceived and put into place in 1996, with few changes since. Let’s take a moment to examine what DIDN’T exist in 1996, starting with the Internet.

OK, it existed, but had only been in the public domain for a few years. What definitely did not exist was iTunes, YouTube, Yahoo!, NetFlix, Pandora, Slacker Radio, or Google. So what we now have is an industry that is governed by a regulatory model that is woefully inadequate, resulting in the regulatory equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Change is needed, and it can’t come soon enough. Everybody deserves a place at the telecom table, and a well thought-out regulatory regime will help a great deal. Furthermore, customers will accept nothing less than a rich experience; we owe it to them.

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