Analysts weigh Bell’s next steps after landline upgrade delayed

Bell Canada‘s plan to expand its landline networks and delve into the IPTV market has stalled, but Canadian IT analysts say that its ExpressVu television offering will tide the firm over while it concentrates on expanding its wireless coverage and improving customer service.

At the end of 2004, Bell launched a five-year, $1.2-billion plan to expand its fibre-optic lines into 4.3 million residences in the Quebec City/Windsor area that would enable faster Internet and IPTV.

According to the weekend Globe and Mail, aregulatory filing revealed that Bell had spent $400-million over the last two years but had only reached a third of its network “nodes” goal and had pushed the completion date of the project back to 2009.

In the story, Bell spokesperson Mark Langton said that the delay is in line with the company’s wanting to invest in projects that can produce revenue faster, including “upgrading its wireless network, improving customer service, and expanding its retail presence.”

Roberta Fox, senior partner with the Mount Albert, Ontario-based Fox Group Telecom Consulting, said that Bell doesn’t have much to lose by delaying the landline project and its thrust into the IPTV space. “They have video distribution (with Bell ExpressVu) already, so, compared to the other carriers, there’s not as much need to go to IPTV,” she said.

Mark Goldberg, head of Thornhill, Ontario-based telecommunications consulting firm Mark H. Goldberg & Associates, said that IPTV may increase Bell’s television offerings, but it’s already doing just fine without it. “People don’t care about whether they buy IPTV-they just want to buy TV. They’re indifferent as to how it gets to them. They just want a wide array of channels, HDTV, and PVRs, and Bell has been able to deliver that using Bell ExpressVu,” said Goldberg.

The Globe and Mail story also pointed out that Bell is waiting on “the development of a key piece of equipment, and a more advanced piece of Microsoft software, in order to launch IPTV.” Goldberg said that, this way, Bell would be able to move forward with the next-generation integrated video experience.

It will also ensure a smooth-running product, according to Fox. “With IPTV, they’re not jumping in until they’re ready. Why do you need to have the network without an application or capabilities?” she said.

“IPTV is not going to be instant salvation for them,” said vice-president and communications research principal analyst with IDC Canada Lawrence Surtees. According to the story, Bell’s IPTV will run over its expanded fibre network, which should hit two million households in 2007.

Goldberg thinks Bell’s decision to concentrate on developing its wireless business is a savvy one. “Wireless is a major growth market right now,” he said.

Fox also sees the move toward providing areas like the GTA with wireless as one that will sustain growth. “There’s not as much business growth in (the targeted Windsor/Quebec City region)…plus, there’s still a lot of capacity available for (Internet services) in (the targeted Windsor/Quebec City region) and if the Windsor area reached capacity, it could be subcontracted at a wholesale rate from the local utility companies,” she said.

However, Surtees a finds the strategy counterproductive. “It’s all about robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said, pointing out that expanding the landlines should be a key part of a Bell’s business. He said, “In the battleground between the cable companies and the telephone companies, it isn’t who has the voice customers anymore — it’s the battle for the converged wallet of the customer.”

Making customer service a key part of its business before could have saved Bell a lot of money — and grief, said Surtees. “Bell’s customer service has been abysmal, a real mess over the last couple of years. Now they have to take their eye off the strategic part of the business,” he said.

Goldbergagreed: “Customer service is their best move to innoculate against thecompetition.”

Goldberg believes that these moves have nothing to do with the recent rumours of the American private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) buying out the company. “I don’t think that any possible financial action (like an influx of private equity) has any influence in their strategy — it doesn’t add up to KKR coming calling. You don’t manage a company based on this type of thing,” Goldberg said.

Surtees, too, doesn’t think that these recent moves stem from any concrete fear of a buyout, although Bell does seem to be in “panic mode.” Said Surtees: “I think there’s a feeling of panic at Bell, which is symptomatic of short-term management. Taking money (from one initiative and putting it into another) is not long-range thinking.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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