BARCELONA, Spain—Telecoms have notoriously rocky relationships with Facebook and others when it comes to their “pipes” and letting tech companies push data-heavy content like video through them while consumers don’t have the data plans necessary to watch them. But as mobile phones become the predominant way that consumers access the internet in parts of the world, some carriers are seeing a sizable shift in video consumed on mobile phones.
Lucy Quist, CEO of Ghana-based mobile carrier Airtel Ghana said she was astonished by the magnitude that consumers watched Facebook Live videos during the country’s general elections in December and indicated that her company’s ties with Facebook will be more important in the years to come as other major events play out online.
“The majority of people in Ghana found out about what was going on with the elections on Facebook—you had every major network in Ghana livestreaming their TV content on Facebook,” Quist said during a Mobile World Congress panel about mobile content and operators. “All of the sudden, we went from [thinking], ‘OK, we know people are doing livestreaming and it’s growing’ to December where it completely took over the entire market.”
She added, “It was the first time in the country’s history that an entire election had been conducted electronically and communicated in that way.”
As Facebook Live opened new ways for people to watch content, Quist said she was surprised that her consumers were willing to fork over data to watch the clips from a mobile phone.
“I was completely taken aback—it’s an interesting way to discover that your customers have changed, but I wish I knew more before it happened,” she explained.
Facebook in general “is massive in our market,” Quist said as Facebook is often the only platform that consumers use to access internet content. She added that Airtel Ghana has a friendly relationship with Facebook and partnered with the social giant to launch programs offering free access to Facebook.
“When you survey customers, you will find that there are more customers who say ‘yes’ to using Facebook than say ‘yes’ to using the internet,” Quist said. “I know [that] doesn’t sound right, but [for] some of these customers, their first point of interaction with the internet is Facebook so they assume that it’s not the internet, it’s Facebook.”
On the opposite side of the carrier spectrum, U.S.-based AT&T is betting big on the over-the-top streaming DirecTV app that targets cord-cutters with more than 100 channels of content for $35 a month.
As part of that transition, “We’re not a phone company anymore, we’re evolving to a media company,” said Tony Goncalves, entertainment group svp of strategy and business development for Otter Media, which is the joint venture between AT&T and Chernin Group tasked with creating digital content.
About 60 percent of AT&T’s network data is video, and Goncalves said the strategy behind DirecTV Now is working—though he declined to share any numbers on new subscribers.
“The idea was that we’d be able to attract folks into the ecosystem that historically may not have considered that ecosystem—that younger demographic and entice people,” Goncalves said. “We’ve seen that.”
For the time, DirecTV Now is both a subscription and ad-supported product. That means that the app streams the same commercials that also air on TV: Typically 30-second spots that run a few times during one piece of content, but Goncalves hinted that the model is likely to change in the future because consumers can find back-to-back long video ads particularly annoying on mobile.
“We are all going to have to evolve the model in a data-driven, innovative ad format kind of way,” he said. “That’s just not a model that works today—it doesn’t mean that it’s the right model. So, from a small-screen perspective, we’re going to have to get to less advertising, much more relevant in a much more mobile-friendly format.”