May 2006 Issue By Justin J. Junkus, Telephony Editor Cable telephony needs the quad play. And not for the reasons you might think. I was scratching my brain (less hair, a lot easier to reach nowadays) for the subject of this month’s column, when the thought driving the opening sentences hit me. Both cable and telcos are furiously engaged in developing ways to deliver mobile phone service, in addition to the triple play of video, data and landline phone. Seamless mobility is usually what comes to mind as the driver. “Always on” begins to pertain to the consumer, rather than to the device, when one phone number is all it takes to instantly ring George or Sally, wherever they may be. But that word “ring” popped up, and it raised a flag. No matter how good we get at location tracking, we still have to notify our subscribers about “incoming,” and the usual method today for voice is to ring the phone. Ringers then and now Like video displays, the technology of ringers has changed substantially. In the ancient world when regulated monopolies walked the earth, the ringer was an electromechanical heavyweight. Ringing current can knock you off your feet because it takes a substantial amount of energy to activate an electromechanical ringer. The original ringers were two physical gongs about an inch in diameter, rung by a clapper. The clapper was moved by the magnetic field created by an alternating current flowing through a set of two coils. In terms of energy consumption, these old-style ringers are so demanding that they actually limit the number of station sets that can be connected to a telephone line. To guarantee the phone will ring without increasing ringing current to the point where it would cause arcing or otherwise damage the phone system, the industry set a maximum of five of the old style ringers as the limit. The term REN (ringer equivalent number) survives today as a reminder of the constraints imposed by early technology. But so does an installed base of fixed, landline telephone sets. Think about the features that have generated tons of revenue for the cellular industry. At the top of the pile are custom ringtones and personalized ringing (the part that feeds back to you). One of the first things I did when I got my second-generation cellular phone was to make calls from my wife play “Leichte Kavallerie,” a snappy overture that commands “pick this up now.” One of my daughters got “The Entertainer.” With the next generation cellphone AP is two words, I added a picture. Of course, caller ID is the network magic that makes this possible, but the other half is the electronic ringer and display, which comes “for free” with the cellular phone (as does caller ID, by the way). That clunker on the desk in my house can provide a readout on an adjunct caller ID unit, but the best audible it can give is a combination of long and short rings. True, that phone does not have the old clapper and gong, but it also does not have an electronic ringer with the range to play customized ringtones, nor a display. Without these capabilities on landline station sets, a service provider loses the potential for feature revenue. Time to upsell? We’ve been able to penetrate the telephony market because we offer a transparent transition. The fact that we work with any phone, just like the telco, is a great selling point. Maybe now, however, it’s time to think about upselling beyond an included package of custom calling features (caller ID, call forwarding, call waiting, and conferencing), just like the cellular industry. As my 14-year-old observed: “There really aren’t any cell phones that don’t ring with special tones, Dad.” This disparity between what we can do and what our telephony customer premises equipment (CPE) allows us to do reminds me of where we were with TV sets and video content less than 10 years ago. It may be useful to do some parallel thinking about how the humble 36-inch screen in a box went to a 60-inch flat screen on the wall, which is such a great vehicle for selling enhanced services like high definition (HD). First off, it’s unlikely the government will set a date for the demise of old ringers, so don’t get your hopes up for help from big brother. Unlike video, there’s no spectrum to resell if the country goes to all electronic “HD” ring tones. But, then again, spectrum availability is not what is selling new TV sets. What is driving new sales of both TV sets and applications is a set of benefits the consumer can understand without thinking about them. The consumer electronics industry created an environment where there was direct benefit to the consumer to migrate. The first step was to market the clarity of a program stored on digital media and displayed in HD. (So what if the consumer didn’t understand that HD wasn’t synonymous with digital?) Similarly, we need to think of the phone set as part of the package that sells new services, the same as we think of the TV set, program content, and storage. Possible options Perhaps we could begin by offering a whole house phone upgrade as part of the seamless mobility quad play. Buy the quad, get new phones with a basic ringtone two words? package for caller ID. Then it’s basic marketing to add revenue for new features every month. Tired of your tone? This month’s special can be $1.00 per phone changeouts for each phone in the house. But why stop there? Once the cable company has added phone ringing to its monthly package, we could begin to sell (or give away with contract) multimedia-capable phones, fully compatible with network resident features. Suddenly, our customer has an easy way to combine voice mail and electronic mail, without opening the laptop. Oh, by the way, you’ll still be able to sell him the feature for his computer, as well as for his landlines or his cell phone, on a per device basis, if you choose. The point is that we miss an opportunity if we leave the phone set and its potential features outside our marketing and technology plans. It can become another tool to make the cable company a valuable asset to the consumer, if the consumer isn’t tied to obsolete CPE. The time to begin the plan is now. Justin J. Junkus is president of KnowledgeLink and telephony editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at [email protected].