Few technologies have been as eagerly anticipated as broadband, yet many resellers are still unclear about what it will mean for them. Is it primarily going to be the vehicle for video-streaming? Will it just be one of many currently undeveloped applications? Most importantly, will there be opportunities for VARs and integrators to embrace it as a new revenue source in their portfolios?
Complicated by standards and political issues, it seems that general adoption of broadband technology has been delayed endlessly. Some in the channel are even quietly asking whether its full potential will ever be realised. However, most pundits are now convinced that broadband offers plenty for those in the channel, provided that they don't wait until it arrives before starting to think what it might mean for them.
Video-streaming is poised to be the first big killer-app for broadband. Interest from consumers and business users is there. The recent success of www.bigsister.co.uk (over 10,000 hits per day to be a fly-on-the-wall) and other similar sites, demonstrates that when more users have access and more firms are putting content out, demand will justify applications and investment.
Inevitably, the revenues of those involved with selling, setting up and maintaining broadband-based systems and solutions will boom. However, fully integrated broadband is not going to come overnight. It will take time to install all the necessary local networks with receivers, and develop new applications which utilise broadband.
This accords with the experience of David Hughes, COO of Servecast, a pan-European on-line broadcasting network dedicated to the delivery of streamed media content. He says: "Our 16 points-of-presence emphasise our dominance throughout Europe, but the facts are misleading. The reality is that unless the client is a top city trader, the IT products which can take on the full capabilities of Servecast will not be widely available for a number of years." Even privileged consumers won't see it for another three years, Hughes reckons.
"Broadband's delay has hindered the move to the market of many great innovations," he says. "This is mainly due to selfish politics which govern line rental and the costs. It doesn't just affect the providers and the integrators who want to use it in applications. Resellers and consumers may never be able to enjoy the technology. There is the risk that legislation and vested interests will always be a suppressing hand, holding down the digital age."
Hughes points to Servecast's 'video-to-phone' technology, which already has some providers and solutions in place. "The concept is hampered by giant institutional obstacles," he says. Working with integrators and their clients, Servecast provides a 'player agnostic' network that complements most of the media players now available. "As a solution provider, Servecast is endeavouring to make the best of the current lack of bandwidth. By utilising different software including Microsoft Windows Media, Real Player and Apple QuickTime, streamed audio-visual information can already reach a wide audience," says Hughes.
The range of applications for which broadband could potentially be used, is - to use a cliché - only limited by your imagination. For example, Servecast already has applications which include live Web casts ranging from football matches to events of political or cultural interest. Others, like BT, are also working on impressive applications available in deals which include various levels of partners and resellers.
The massive boom in digital media is obviously only the thin end of the wedge and once broadband is widely available the number of virtual off-the-shelf applications will grow. Integrators and resellers will be able to include broadband services in their portfolio and technical and support skills will be at a premium for an appreciable length of time. Broadcasters will want to open additional channels and will be looking for more business clients. The role of the integrator as an IT supplier to enterprises will be key both for the broadcasters, the technology companies and the enterprise and business clients who will want to provide streamed content to their customers.
However this could in turn lead to a massive new skills shortage as resellers and integrators seek to find staff experienced in a technology that is still in its infancy. Martin Kirke, general manager of 3G business at service provider Exi Telecoms, says: "Firms in the channel need to have a strategy ready to overcome the inevitable manpower shortage." He predicts that these will mainly appear in logistics and supply chain management, multi-vendor integration (when a new range of vendors and products start involving fresh channel players) and international system load-balancing and resource management.
Resellers and integrators will also be developing new skills and services linked with broadband for inclusion in their portfolio. These might include: marketing communications services which include an element of streamed media: the development of clients' internal education and training courses to incorporate streamed media: technology and content for product demonstrations and technical information for clients to influence and persuade their customers' purchasing choice. All of these will require new skills within the channel business.
One problem for users and consequently a possible revenue stream for resellers is, predictably, security. Clients are likely to express concerns about the security of always-on technology which the reseller can counter with products and services. Thus, broadband application security can become another item in the portfolio.
Plenty of opportunities
Steve Kennedy, head of technology futures with interactive services and communications company Thus, agrees that broadband potentially presents plenty of opportunity at all levels of the channel, despite the fact that the UK broadband market is currently dominated by BT. "Their margins to ISPs and telcos are modest, and since everyone is offering the same basic service there is not much opportunity for differentiation or variations in pricing," explains Kennedy. "In fact, in the current market, there is very little that the local reseller can offer at the access level to broadband." Instead, the opportunities lie in associated products and services.
He agrees that security products and services are likely to be a strong area for the channel. "Because broadband is 'always on' and users are permanently connected to the Internet," Kennedy says, "security is a real risk and clients are potentially open to remote attacks. If you are permanently connected, hackers are more likely to find you. So there is a market for securing LANs and offering firewalls, and the security area generally is likely to flourish alongside broadband-based applications."
Like many pundits Kennedy believes that broadband will revolutionise the way people use the Internet, with plenty of chances for integrators to develop their own always-on applications. This could apply to retail vendors, theatres and cultural facilities, service and product vendors.
"Ultimately, we can start to make the science fiction come to life, with appliances at home permanently connected to mobile phones, for example, meters continually connected to suppliers and real 'push technology' being used to reach existing and potential customers," Kennedy says.
Kennedy expects consumer habits to change dramatically as the result of new broadband applications. "There will be a surge in - for example - buying theatre tickets on-line through an application that allows them to see the view they'll have of the stage, or to remotely program their home video," he says. "The technology will be used for information as well as transactions, and video-streaming is a part of that." This in turn will stimulate the market for resellers and integrators to include broadband skills and services in their offerings.
Ready for take-up
Clive Lindop, TMT strategist with Internet consultancy Framfab, predicts that at most levels many enterprises in the channel are reasonably ready to take up broadband connectivity. He says: "Most resellers and integrators need to concentrate on the applications they are going to sell and leave the underlying technology to the telecoms specialists."
He continues: "The applications themselves need to be flexible and adaptable and that requires good programming and integration skills. The main applications currently centre around entertainment, audio-visual services, content on demand and information systems. The truth of the situation is that the nature and details of specific applications are closely guarded by those developing them. This is because broadband offers an opportunity for enterprises to break through as market leaders in interactive content and delivery systems provision."
Lindop adds: "The next twelve months will see everyone with poker faces, holding their cards close to their chest. As soon as broadband becomes widely available, all players will suddenly show their aces."
David Soares, European marketing director of Netgear recommends that resellers and integrators start by thinking through what impact broadband will have on users and what they will want. Reinforcing Servecast's David Hughes' view that the really big firms will absorb broadband more easily, Soares says: "Broadband will have the biggest impact on small businesses since it will give them the kind of access to the Internet that only large companies have been able to afford until now."
Resellers will need to promote the benefits of always-on technology and the competitive advantages of top performance and high resilience at low prices to the SMEs, says Soares. He adds: "Broadband could open up the SME market for the ASPs in the channel."
Consequently broadband could have the biggest impact on channel players who target the SME market. According to Soares: "Sales of networking kits will soar, so users can share a broadband connection."
Broadband is likely to have as much impact on the way that resellers do business as the applications and solutions they supply to their customers. The technology can be used to train firms on developing content, on compiling educational and sales material, and providing interactive help-desk support via video-conferencing that works without the jerky movements we have to tolerate today.
As such, it creates many new opportunities and demands new strategies and business plans. Because of the delay in widespread availability, channel enterprises have time to consider how broadband will change their business and portfolio. They have time to re-train staff or recruit new ones, and they can think how existing customers can be approached with a refinement of their current solution extended to take advantage of broadband.
Broadband could be the chance to widen and remodel entire channel businesses, and most will take it in their stride.
Exi Telecoms: www.exitelecoms.com .
Framfab: www.framfab.co.uk .
Netgear: www.netgear.com .
Servecast: www.servecast.com .
Thus: www.thus.net .