Category Archives: Internet Bandwidth

Questioning Cisco’s CES Presence

In a recent piece at Forbes, Roger Kay complained that parasitic vendors are killing the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the 2012 edition of which kicks off next week. When Kay refers to parasites, he means vendors that avail themselves of nearby hotel suites, where they host and entertain a select audience of invitation-only customers and partners, while evading the time-sucking clutches of the hoi polloi that pack the show floor.

As a vendor strategy, Kay allows, the hotel-suite gambit might make sense, but he’s concerned about the effect of the big-vendor exodus from the show floor. Among the industry players Kay calls on the carpet are Microsoft (exhibiting for the last time at CES this year), Dell, Acer, and Cisco.

Avoiding the Floor, Not the Show

Cisco? Yes, that Cisco. The networking titan that was supposed to be refocusing away from consumerist distractions has decided to hole up in a Las Vegas hotel suite next week on the periphery of a consumer-oriented electronics trade show. Unlike Kay, my problem with Cisco at CES is not that it prefers a sumptuous hotel suite to the lesser glories of the show floor, but that it will be there at all.

In the long-ago spring of 2011, when Cisco announced that it was immolating its Flip video camcorder business, the company stated that it was refocusing around five key technology areas: routing, switching, and services; collaboration; data center virtualization and the cloud; architectures; and video. Despite the apparent contradiction that Cisco was killing the Flip video camcorder while strategically prioritizing video, it seemed pretty clear Cisco’s denotation of “video” encompassed enterprise-related video, such as telepresence and videoconferencing, rather than the consumer-oriented video represented by the defunct Flip.

Belated Acknowledgment

Or did it? After all, Cisco kept its consumer-oriented umi telepresence systems even as it binned Flip. Then again, Cisco belatedly acknowledged that particular error of omission, recently shuttering the umi business, such as it was.

That means Cisco finally is getting itself aligned with its strategic mandate — except, of course, when it isn’t. You see, Cisco still has its home-networking offerings, represented by the Linksys product portfolio, and, unless the company is exceptionally free with its definitions and interpretations, it would encounter great difficulty reconciling that business with its self-proclaimed strategic priorities.

Last year, Cisco said it would attempt to align the Linksys business with its core network-infrastructure business, though that would appear more a theoretical than a practical exercise. Meanwhile, some analysts expected Cisco to divest its low-growth, low-margin consumer businesses, but Cisco’s home-networking group, which definitely checks those divestiture-qualifying boxes, remains in the corporate fold.

Still, speculation persists about a potential sale of the Linksys unit, even as representatives of that unit attempt to portray it as a “key part” of Cisco’s strategy.  According to that defiant narrative, Linksys’ solutions are supposed to be the centerpiece of a master plan that would put Cisco at the forefront of home-entertainment networks that distribute Internet-based video throughout the home to devices such as television sets and BluRay players. But with Cisco’s recent retreat from its umi videoconferencing, the company has decided that it will refrain from handling at least one type of video content in the home.

More Strategic Rigor Required

Look, I understand why Cisco likes video. It consumes a lot of bandwidth, and that means Cisco’s customers, including telcos and cable MSOs as well as enterprises, will need to spend more on network infrastructure to accommodate the rising tide of video traffic. I get the synergies with its core businesses, I really do.

But is Cisco truly equipped as a vendor and a brand that can win the hearts and minds of consumers and cross the threshold into the home? The company’s track record would suggest that the answer to that question is an emphatic and resounding no. Furthermore, does Cisco really need to be in the home to capture its “fair share” of video-based revenue? Again, the answer would seem to be negative.

When I read that Cisco was ramping up for CES, even though it doesn’t have a booth on the show floor, I was reminded that the company still needs to apply more rigor to its refocusing efforts. In the big picture, perhaps the resources expended to stage a consumer-oriented promotional blitz in Las Vegas next week do not distract significantly from Cisco’s professed strategic priorities. Nonetheless, I would argue that its CES excursion doesn’t help, and that an opportunity cost is still being incurred.

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Attention Shifts to Cavium After Broadcom’s Announced Buy of NetLogic

As most of you will know by now, Broadcom announced the acquisition of NetLogic Microsystems earlier this morning. The deal, expected to close in the first half of 2012, involves Broadcom paying out $3.7 billion in cash, or about $50 per NetLogic (NETL) share. For NetLogic shareholders, that’s a 57-percent premium on the company’s closing share price on Friday, September 9.

Sharp Premium

The sharp premium suggests a couple possibilities. One is that Broadcom had competition for NetLogic. Given that Frank Quattrone’s investment bank, Qatalyst Partners, served as an adviser to NetLogic, it’s certainly possible that a lively market existed for the seller. Another possibility is that Broadcom wanted to make a preemptive strike, issuing a bid that it knew would pass muster with NetLogic’s board and shareholders, while also precluding the emergence of a competitive bid.

Either way, both companies’ boards have approved the deal, which now awaits regulatory clearance and an approbatory nod from NetLogics’ shareholders.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Broadcom provided an official rationale for the move:

Deal Rationale

“The acquisition meaningfully extends Broadcom’s infrastructure portfolio with a number of critical new product lines and technologies, including knowledge-based processors, multi-core embedded processors, and digital front-end processors, each of which offers industry-leading performance and capabilities. The combination enables Broadcom to deliver best-in-class, seamlessly-integrated network infrastructure platforms to its customers, reducing both their time-to-market and their development costs.”

Said Scott McGregor, Broadcom’s president and CEO:

“This transaction delivers on all fronts for Broadcom’s shareholders — strategic fit, leading-edge technology and significant financial upside. With NetLogic Microsystems, Broadcom is acquiring a leading multi-core embedded processor solution, market leading knowledge-based processors, and unique digital front-end technology for wireless base stations that are key enablers for the next generation infrastructure build-out. Broadcom is now better positioned to meet growing customer demand for integrated, end-to-end communications and processing platforms for network infrastructure.”

“Today’s transaction is consistent with Broadcom’s strategic portfolio review process and with our focus on value creation through disciplined capital allocation while delivering best-in-class platforms for customers in the fastest growing segments of the communications industry.”

Sensible Move for Broadcom

Indeed, the transaction makes a lot of sense for Broadcom. Even though obtaining NetLogic’s technology for wireless base stations undoubtedly was a key business driver behind the deal, NetLogic addresses other markets that will be of value to Broadcom. Some of NetLogic’s latest commercial offerings are applicable to data- plane processing in large routers, security appliances,  network-attached storage and storage-area networking, next-generation cellular networks, and other communications equipment. The deal should Broadcom bolster its presence with existing customers and perhaps help it drive into some new accounts.

NetLogic’s primary competitors are Cavium Networks (CAVM) and Freescale Semiconductor (FSL). Considering Broadcom’s strategic requirements and the capabilities of the prospective acquisition candidates, NetLogic seems to offer the greatest upside, the lowest risk profile, and the fewest product overlaps.

Now the market’s attention will turn to Cavium, which was valued at $1.51 billion as of last Friday, before today’s transaction was announced, but whose shares are up more than seven percent in early trade this morning.

After F5 Backs Off, Whither Allot?

The strategic disposition of deep-packet inspection specialist Allot Communications has been open to interpretation lately.

In July, rumors and reports suggested that F5 Networks had been in months-long negotiations to acquire Allot. Those talks broke down, with F5 reportedly backing away from the table to reconsider its options. On that score, it’s worth noting that F5 struck a partnership early this year with Allot competitor Procera Networks.

No Deal with F5

Allot is a publicly listed company, traded on NASDAQ under the ALLT symbol. The company currently sports a market capitalization of about $275 million. In its aforementioned acquisition negotiations with F5, Allot apparently was asking for something in the salubrious neighborhood of half a billion dollars, a significant premium on its current valuation.

Since talks with F5 apparently collapsed, Allot chose to change course and announced plans to raise about $72 million through a secondary stock offering. The proceeds from that offering were to be used for “general corporate purposes, including acquisitions, investments in companies or products, or to buy use rights to complementary technologies.”

Course Correction

In what the company seems to perceive as a buy-or-be-bought world, it had reversed its role to the former from the latter. Then, early this month, Allot scrapped those its plans for a secondary offering, citing adverse market conditions.

All of which leaves Allot . . . where, exactly? The company obviously reserves the right to resuscitate its plans for a secondary offering, but it’s also possible that Allot will go in a different direction. Perhaps, in fact, Allot remains receptive to acquisition, by F5 Networks or by somebody else.

Allot has trod a tortuous strategic path this summer. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Bit-Business Crackup

I have been getting broadband Internet access from the same service provider for a long time. Earlier this year, my particular cable MSO got increasingly aggressive about a “usage-based billing” model that capped bandwidth use and incorporated additional charges for “overage,” otherwise known as exceeding one’s bandwidth cap.  If one exceeds one’s bandwidth cap, one is charged extra — potentially a lot extra.

On the surface, one might suppose the service provider’s intention is to bump subscribers up to the highest bandwidth tiers. That’s definitely part of the intent, but there’s something else afoot, too.

Changed Picture

I believe my experience illustrates a broader trend, so allow me elaborate. My family and I reached the highest tier under the service provider’s usage-based-billing model. Even at the highest tier, though, we found the bandwidth cap abstemious and restrictive. Consequently, rather pay exorbitant overages or be forced to ration bandwidth as if it were water during a drought, we decided to look for another service provider.

Having made our decision, I expected my current service provider to attempt to keep our business. That didn’t happen. We told the service provider why we were leaving — the caps and surcharges were functioning as inhibitors to Internet use — and then set a date when service would be officially discontinued. That was it.  There was no resistance, no counteroffers or proposed discounts, no meaningful attempt to keep us as subscribers.

That sequence of events, and particularly that final uneventful interaction with the service provider, made me think about the bigger picture in the service-provider world. For years, the assumption of telecommunications-equipment vendors has been that rising bandwidth tides would lift all boats.  According to this line of reasoning, as long as consumers and businesses devoured more Internet bandwidth, network-equipment vendors would benefit from steadily increasing service-provider demand. That was true in the past, but the picture has changed.

Paradoxical Service

It’s easy to understand why the shift has occurred. Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., has explained the phenomenon cogently and repeatedly over at his blog. Basically, it all comes down to service-provider monetization, which results from revenue generation.

Service providers can boost revenue in two basic ways: They can charge more for existing services, or they can develop and introduce new services. In most of the developed world, broadband Internet access is a saturated market. There’s negligible growth to be had. To make matters worse, at least from the service-provider perspective, broadband subscribers are resistant to paying higher prices, especially as punishing macroeconomic conditions put the squeeze on budgets.

Service providers have resorted to usage-based billing, with its associated tiers and caps, but there’s a limit to how much additional revenue they can squeeze from hard-pressed subscribers, many of whom will leave (as I did) when they get fed up with metering, overage charges, and with the paradoxical concept of service providers that discourage their subscribers from actually using the Internet as a service.

The Problem with Bandwidth

The twist to this story — and one that tells you quite a bit about the state of the industry — is that service providers are content to let disaffected subscribers take their business elsewhere. For service providers, the narrowing profit margins related to providing increasing amounts of Internet bandwidth are not worth the increasing capital expenditures and, to a lesser extent, growing operating costs associated with scaling network infrastructure to meet demand.

So, as Nolle points out, the assumption that increasing bandwidth consumption will necessarily drive network-infrastructure spending at service providers is no longer tenable. Quoting Nolle:

 “We’re seeing a fundamental problem with bandwidth economics.  Bits are less profitable every year, and people want more of them.  There’s no way that’s a temporary problem; something has to give, and it’s capex.  In wireline, where margins have been thinning for a longer period and where pricing issues are most profound, operators have already lowered capex year over year.  In mobile, where profits can still be had, they’re investing.  But smartphones and tablets are converting mobile services into wireline, from a bandwidth-economics perspective.  There is no question that over time mobile will go the same way.  In fact, it’s already doing that.

To halt the slide in revenue per bit, operators would have to impose usage pricing tiers that would radically reduce incentive to consume content.  If push comes to shove, that’s what they’ll do.  To compensate for the slide, they can take steps to manage costs but most of all they can create new sources of revenue.  That’s what all this service-layer stuff is about, of course.”

Significant Implications

We’re already seeing usage-pricing tiers here in Canada, and I have a feeling they’ll be coming to a service provider near you.

Yes, alternative service providers will take up (and are taking up) the slack. They’ll be content, for now, with bandwidth-related profit margins less than those the big players would find attractive. But they’ll also be looking to buy and run infrastructure at lower prices and costs than did incumbent service providers, who, as Nolle says, are increasingly turning their attention to new revenue-generating services and away from “less profitable bits.”

This phenomenon has significant implications for consumers of bandwidth, for service providers who purvey that bandwidth, for network-equipment vendors that provide gear to help service providers deliver bandwidth, and for market analysts and investors trying to understand a world they thought they knew.