Digital Signage, News

All Choked Up

Digital signage systems are designed to devour data like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yet they are basically limited to selling sandwiches these days in the United States. Who’s to blame?

Look no further than AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. They botched the implementation of their recent 4G LTE data system rollouts around 2011, forcing them to constrain bandwidth and functionality to the end customer until the limitations are sorted.

Want unlimited 4G LTE in South Korea? No problem.

Want it in Los Angeles? Only T-Mobile has a viable option.

The majority of consumers tire of the games played by America’s wireless providers. They seem intent on putting the stupid back into smartphones by limiting access to data. Their lack of investment into their networks is hindering our country’s technological development. Case in point: They are killing the digital signage business. One wonders how many other businesses are impacted, as well.

Ideally, digital signs would be connected to wireless cell data services to provide up to the moment news, weather, sports, retail sales, corporate dashboards and a whole host of other timely information. The Digital Signage Industry would explode.
Why is this an issue?

Video eats through data plans, especially the HD video that our digital signs require to be effective. Yet, the aforementioned cell vendors seem intent on selling us data through a drinking straw rather than the fire hose we need. It’s getting worse, too: Two years ago, all three offered unlimited data!

They’ve even cut services they used to provide. My first smartphone came with built-in software to stream movies. I wouldn’t even consider downloading a movie via cell tower today, the way they’ve monetized their new wares. Moreover, they’ve cranked down data rates to the point of uselessness.

A decent unlimited cell data network would untether our digital signage systems from hardwired data networks. Realistically, pumping data through someone else’s corporate network to your signs is impractical right now, due to a reasonable fear of hackers accessing their network via your signage network.

Combining digital signage with unlimited-bandwidth mobile hotspots would, indeed, be fortuitous, but AT&T, Sprint and Verizon underestimated the growth in data needs and did not expand their networks accordingly. My cursory review came up with this snapshot in time as I write this as the highest data plans available from our local carriers near Los Angeles: AT&T: 5GB/$50 month; Sprint: 12GB/$80 month; T-Mobile: Unlimited/$80 month; Verizon: 8GB/$50 month.

T-Mobile clearly made the investments that its competitors did not.

Without the clever use of caching and compression bandages, this implies a ratio of one digital signage video monitor per wireless hotspot with three of the four vendors. AT&T and Verizon had a combined net income of $30 billion last year. It’s time for them to spend more on their data networks and less on everything else.

What is surprising is that the worst data deals come from the most profitable companies on this list. Sprint’s financials are so bad they are unlikely to permit the necessary investment.

Frankly, our digital signage world deserves better. We understand that the typical consumer uses 26 more times the data they did during the 3G days. We get that the typical teenager texts 3399 times a month. We understand that mobile carriers don’t like Americans watching torrents, making video cell calls and streaming music. But we do, and they should have anticipated our needs and grown their network capacity accordingly. T-Mobile has figured it out.

Most of Los Angeles was unable to watch the Dodgers play on television this last season due to a contract dispute between cable and satellite television providers. Much of the city ended up watching the games from online data streams as a result. Although the streams aren’t quite as good as satellite or cable video quality yet, they were good enough for a baseball game.

Local cable and satellite essentially shot themselves in the foot during the Dodgers’ pennant stretch, and lost an enormous amount of future business. The genie was let out of the bottle, and no one is going to willingly hand Time Warner or DirecTV hundreds of dollars to watch the Dodgers annually again. Hopefully, our cell data vendors learned the lesson, as well.

It is one thing to talk about the future as one centered on mobility. It is entirely another to offer mobile data plans that can’t possibly support such a future.

Cell data vendors must provide the functionality their consumers want at a reasonable rate and stop hampering meaningful and useful developments. There will be no automated cars, homes or mobile medical until this is sorted out.

Nor any decent digital signage content.

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