Telcos get hip to the service factor

With prices so similar, it's overall quality that will set providers apart

I've got to admit it, whenever I hear the word "wholesale" in a business discussion, I tune out. Wholesale to me conjures up unseen middlemen hauling bulk quantities of undifferentiated stuff -- no innovation, all commodity. The Internet will cut them out eventually, I figure.

So my pulse didn't exactly rise when I heard about Yankee Group's latest U.S. Wholesale Data Services Survey, which basically ranks large telecom companies based on customer ratings. Until I got to the part about how their prices and offerings are so similar that they're starting to realize they need to improve network performance, which, after price, is what customers care most about. "Differentiation has become very difficult for providers," says John Romagnoli, senior analyst at Yankee.

Funny this should come out the week after a huge public brouhaha on the consumer side, an emerging battle between ISPs on one hand and providers of services such as VoIP and multimedia downloads on the other. The ISPs want a bigger piece of the action and are making noises about charging premiums for preferential network performance (QoS) to specific content providers (Google, Vonage, Yahoo, and so on). The content folks are saying, "Hey wait, we thought the consumer was already paying you for that."

I'm no data transport expert, but after years of dropped cell phone calls I do hanker for some kind of market mechanism to encourage the faster development of data QoS tiers and more advanced services such as videoconferencing. The one-size-fits-all method isn't getting us there. Remember "I want my MTV!" in the '80s? Well, how about "I want my packets latency free!"

Currently, the Internet is one big tangled web of spaghetti and wholesale peering. Why shouldn't data transport vendors be able to charge for differentiated routing and service, not just to the recipients of packets but also to the senders? The current conflict is because many telcos want to provide these same premium data services -- such as VoIP -- themselves and aren't exactly known for having a level-playing-field attitude. But that's OK -- having a clearer menu of prices and services will make it easier to avert bad-boy telco behavior while encouraging more fruitful investment in the network.

Take this job and keep it: IT workers are slightly less confident than U.S. workers overall about both the economy and their personal employment situation, says a new report by Spherion using data collected by Harris Interactive. The IT Employment Confidence Index, according to the report, was 52.4 last fall, compared with 55.6 for all U.S. employees. Most interestingly, 40 percent of IT workers plan on finding a new job this year, higher than 37 percent for the overall workforce. I can't tell if this is shockingly high or shockingly low. Of course we all want a new job (and car, and iPod, and so on), but are that many of us really going to go out and try?

For those IT workers who do go job hunting, Spherion says, the news is good. "I foresee optimism picking up as jobs continue to be added and job seekers have multiple offers to consider," explains Eric Archer, who heads the company's professional services division. The report specifically cites rising demand for specialized skills such as project management, and in hot areas such as help desk and call center.

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