It's safe to say that most Americans probably wouldn't recognize the names Scala, MediaTile or Wireless Ronin, names familiar to anyone inside the digital signage industry.
But it's also safe to say that almost all Americans would recognize the names AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, names that could become much more familiar to those inside the digital signage sector.
Digital signage may well be just about everywhere in American life, but it's still a largely unknown quantity to most, and brands and companies are still figuring out how to use it to their best advantage.
And while digital signage solution providers have been making tremendous inroads in making a case for the utility and efficacy of their products and solutions for a wide spectrum of business use-cases ... what could it mean to have some of the most recognizable brands in the country turn around and lend their voices to the cause?
It's already starting to happen, if still somewhat under the radar, as all three of the largest wireless carriers in the U.S. already have started marketing digital signage solutions to their customers.
All in, but Sprint pushing hard
Wireless carrier Sprint is both emblematic of the overall telco push into DOOH space and one that comes across as the most gung-ho, pushing the pace to sell digital signage to potential data plan customers.
Sprint is already known as a business provider, and it has been aggressive in going after more business clients. Lately, the company has been hosting webinars, stressing digital signage to its sales force, and it has created a page on its website to promote digital signage to business customers that is a step beyond what either of the other two have done — or at least a step more obvious. The website takes potential deployers on a semi-animated tour of several different kinds of digital signage deployments, and a Sprint spokeswoman said the company is targeting both existing and new customers for digital signage.
Verizon promotes digital signage on its site as one of a number or solutions to business verticals, for retailers or insurance agents. And AT&T offers digital signage as an enterprise business solution for content delivery, and it's been in the space since 2008. AT&T also offers DSL, DS1/T1, Ethernet and Wi-Fi VSAT connections, in addition to 3G Cellular.
Sprint is working to position itself as a "trusted partner" to companies in the digital signage space, as well as it is to potential digital signage customers, said Lisa-Anne Uhmacher, senior manager – business development for Sprint's Emerging Solutions Group and the business development manager for Sprint's digital signage segment.
"I call it 'Beyond the Blackberry,'" Uhmacher said. "Because traditionally your wireless carrier just sells you a phone; now we're looking at other things we can provide our customers, and digital signage just feels like a good fit."
The wireless carriers are marketing, specifically, wirelessly-connected digital signage, or cellular digital signage, and pointing out the stability of their networks and the benefits of using wireless connections to deliver content to screens, like the ability to easily move displays around a store without the need to move cabling or wiring around.
And it's only going to get busier — and better for the digital signage space — as the telcos continue to work to expand the bandwidth and data usage of their clients, since the individual cell phone market itself is largely stable, and largely tapped out.
"As a market, the voice lines, the phones, the individuals who buy the phones, is pretty much a zero-sum game for them now," said Mike Foster, CMO and co-founder of digital signage kiosk software company MediaTile, which is closely involved with all three major U.S. carriers and Canadian carrier Telus. "And they're all looking for new ways to sell more lines. It's all about lines."
The digital signage push is part of Sprint's overall strategy to set itself apart as a leading provider of embedded M2M solutions with a centralized, secure, self-service portal offering control over machine-to-machine devices and services.
But some in the digital signage space are quick to point out that Verizon has been a longtime supporter of digital signage and is just as active as the lately-flashier Sprint:
"At the very least it (Sprint's newly aggressive push into the space) is further evidence of continued industry growth when visible brands get into the game, but just as important is that it's a testament to the success of their competitors like Verizon who have been working and supporting the industry for years," said an industry observer who works with several digital signage firms. "[Verizon} has been supporting the industry from both sides — as a service provider to the networks and as a DOOH advertiser — for years."
Grabbing new market share, adding data
So while it's not clear from the outside that any of the carriers is necessarily more supportive of the digital signage space than another, Sprint does seem to be the one trying to make the most noise at the moment.
That could be, of course, because it is less established in the market than the other two, and has to work harder to compete.
"Sprint is the smaller of the carriers in the states, so Verizon's go-to-market approach could be very much more related to assigning salespeople the job of going into existing customers, because that's where they can get the most leverage, because these are all new lines for existing customers," said one observer who's been watching the telcos' move into digital signage. "If Sprint took that approach they'd still only have the market wedge that they have. I would conclude that Sprint's strategy is to use this as a means to grab more market share from other players."
"Verizon is more active under the covers, whereas Sprint has to focus more on generating leads," said another.
Wireless Ronin is one digital signage player that recently announced a teaming and co-marketing agreement with Sprint to offer customers a comprehensive, fully-hosted digital signage and content management solution.
"We are very excited about this relationship," said Erin Haugerud, manager of Communications and Investor Relations for Wireless Ronin. "For Sprint, their relationship with us exemplifies the type of digital signage breakthroughs achievable through Sprint's 4G network. For Wireless Ronin, the potential to reach market share with different types of customers are greatly enhanced with leveraging Sprint's existing relationships. "
A lot of the push by telcos into digital signage has to do with the carriers broadening their overall business plan and moving from what was essentially a very B2C-focused world into a B2B world, said MediaTile's Foster. The carriers are now looking at their customers' other needs, such as wireless connectivity for branding and advertising.
"They're fundamentally changing their interaction with companies like us," Foster said. "And why? Because we represent more data service lines."
Digital signage represents access to new markets and new services, so the carriers are also looking to provide additional services beyond the data connections, MediaTile CEO Simon Wilson said.
"Digital signage is a new market for them. Digital signage is very pervasive across lots of horizontal subsegments and specific verticals as well, so it's got a long tail on it, and there's a lot of reach for them," Wilson said. "So for all of those reasons, that's why you're seeing this slightly curious thing of all the carriers getting to a lesser or greater extent quite heavily involved in signage."
"One throat to choke"
And Sprint — as well as the other carriers — sees great benefits that wireless connectivity with national 4G networks can provide to the digital signage sector.
With large national deployments, there's a decent chance the network is strung across multiple network and connectivity solutions, Uhmacher said. Using a national wireless provider adds simplicity into that complexity by putting all the digital signage network endpoints on one wireless network. When connectivity problems arise, the deployer only has one call to make, she said.
"We call it having one throat to choke," Uhmacher said. "It's just a simple, easy, one-to-one relationship, and we think that's pretty important because people don't want the complexities of managing multiple connections and multiple networks."
Finally, Sprint sees digital signage "as being a very, very important part of our portfolio moving forward," Uhmacher said. Sprint has devoted technical, engineering and sales resources to digital signage and plans to continue expanding that growth, she said. The company's salespeople are meeting with customers to help explain the complex parts of the digital signage ecosystem to make what can be a very complex transaction less forbidding, she said.
"[Sprint is doing all of that] for a couple of reasons," she said. "One is the amount of bandwidth going across those connections, as you can imagine with interactivity and other things, is starting to become quite high, which is a very nice revenue generation for us, and then we think that with the growth in this space and the marketing emphasis on customer engagement, customer loyalty and customer interaction, we're just going to see this grow more and more."
And digital signage providers are starting to see the high-bandwidth possibilities of wireless connectivity and embrace it, said digital signage consultant Keith Kelsen, who helped pioneer wireless connectivity in the digital signage space.
"Embracing the cellular side of it is going to accelerate deployments; you have the power of telecoms pushing it, so that's a good thing. It's good for the industry," said Kelsen, who added that he has been watching Sprint, Verizon and the other wireless carriers and seeing them increase their advertising in retail and hospitality publications, pushing digital signage.
"And cellular is so much a part of our lives," he said, "in much the same way that digital signage is becoming part of our lives everywhere."
For more information on wireless digital signage connectivity, go to our Cellular Signage research center.
Christopher is the editor of DigitalSignageToday.com. A longtime freelance writer and reporter, he's bringing a fresh perspective and critical take on the industry.