Rural triple play opportunities, hurdles remain

Rural telcos rightly get a lot of credit for being more aggressive with triple play strategies than other service providers. About 48 percent of rural ILECs have launched some kind of triple play service package, according to Bernie Arnason, founder and managing partner of consulting firm Pivot Media. Arnason hosted a webinar as part of Pivot's ongoing Rural IP Transformation series. It was called "Beyond the Technology: The Marketing Opportunity for Triple Play," and also included presentations by Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst at Parks Associates, and Glen Butler, director of technology planning at rural telco nTelos.

Arnason noted that triple play service launched by those telcos still have a long way to go to reach all of their eligible homes. Scherf said rural consumers that his firm has surveyed are very picky about broadband downstream speeds and very sensitive about service quality and customer service. Butler backed up these notions, saying that rural telcos need to worry about filling out their existing footprints with bundled services before think of triple play or a new service like video as a greenfield expansion play. He added nTelos customers have proved more sensitive about quality of video service than that of other triple play services.

"When you enter the video business, there is pent-up demand, but people are also much less patient with their video connection than with the voice connection," Butler said. "The number of calls we get about video are much higher than when voice goes out."

For rural telcos that already have launched triple play services, the remaining hurdles aren't limited to speed and service quality. Arnason and Scherf both pointed out how these firms need to immerse themselves in content, offering more video options like DVR service and high-definition programming. Those applications are specifically the ones where cable TV companies have an edge over the rural telco triple play. That matters because 70% of the time, a rural triple play provider's biggest direct competition is a national cable TV company, Arnason said. Scherf said rural consumers also have shown a preference for local--sometimes hyper-local--content.

The key to overcoming these hurdles appears to be marketing with a more direct customer focus in mind. Butler joked that the triple play concept actually has been around since the days of ISDN. "I remember talking in 1987 about how ISDN was going to integrate voice, data and video. The problem is that it wasn't a consumer service-it was a vendor technology. The triple play today must be about customer convenience."--Dan O'Shea