Inside The Akamai and AT&T Deal and Why Akamai May Have Paid Too Much

The media is spending a lot of time regurgitating the Akamai and AT&T press release but from what I’ve seen, none are digging under the surface to see what’s really going on. Some like the WSJ even said that as a result of the new deal, AT&T and Akamai will now “end competition” amongst each other, which is laughable. Anyone who follows the CDN space, which clearly the WSJ doesn’t, knows that AT&T was never competing with Akamai, or anyone else for that matter when it came to their failed CDN business. The simple fact that the WSJ and other sites don’t even mention what AT&T or Akamai’s CDN revenues are shows they really don’t get the market. Others have made comments like, “the deal eliminates AT&T as a rival” which is also not true. Based on numbers Akamai has given out in the past, and the AT&T numbers I know of, AT&T is doing around 1% of Akamai’s CDN revenue. How is that a “rival”?

Reuters said that the AT&T deal, “follows Akamai’s similar agreement with France Telecom’s Orange last month”, which is not accurate. Akamai’s deal with AT&T is not a licensed CDN deal. It’s a straight reseller deal. Akamai’s announcement with Orange is for a licensed CDN deal where Orange licenses Akamai’s software to run on the Orange network. AT&T is not deploying any software from Akamai on their network, so the two deals are not at all alike, something that Akamai confirmed with me on a call with them this morning.

I’ve also seen a couple of telco bloggers say this deal isn’t good for EdgeCast, which isn’t the case at all. While none would go on the record for this piece regarding numbers, I talk often with executives at all three companies and one critical fact that’s missing from every story so far is that Akamai committed $100M to AT&T to secure a resale deal. That might seem smart on the surface but if you know the space well, you know that it’s just not a scalable strategy. It doesn’t surprise me that this deal would be applauded by shareholders but most don’t have any insight into AT&T’s CDN business and to date, I have never seen a single report that even says what AT&T’s CDN revenue is, aside from the number they used from my blog, which was $10M last year and less than $20M this year.

While EdgeCast is nowhere near the size of Akamai, I expect they will do about $75M in 2012, EdgeCast is years ahead of Akamai in the carrier space and have vastly more white-label resellers overall. By my last count I think it is more than 60, including telcos like DT and large web hosts such as Softlayer. EdgeCast earned millions from AT&T in licensing fees (my sources estimate the amount at $25-50 million) and they will continue to do so for some time. Meanwhile, Akamai is spending $100M partly to try to stop their momentum and also get access to AT&T’s network. Sure, that’s a much cheaper way to buy into the telco space than acquiring EdgeCast would be, but it’s a staggering price to pay to pick up a reseller. Committing eight and nine figure sums to resellers is simply not a repeatable model, especially since EdgeCast already has deep relationships with many of the largest resellers.

Yet many are suggesting that what Akamai is doing with AT&T is a blueprint for what they will do with other carriers when it’s not. Akamai only has a few hundred million in cash, so they definitely can’t afford to buy their way into all these resellers and operators, especially for a service like CDN, which has low margins. And most telcos and carriers have been actively building out their own CDNs, or using licensed and managed CDN products, which is a business Akamai has only just entered, years behind others. Most telcos, carriers and MSO don’t want to simply resell services, but rather have more control over them since they own the network.

Some have suggested to me that once Akamai’s LCDN product is out of beta that AT&T could buy out their EdgeCast contract and replace EdgeCast’s LCDN solution with Akamai’s, but that’s not likely. I’ve also heard some say that Akamai bought Verivue to try to get an LCDN product to market faster so they could try and get it into AT&T and push out EdgeCast, but that’s not happening. Remember that Juniper spent $100M buying Ankeena just to please AT&T and then AT&T didn’t end up going with them. Akamai’s deal with AT&T is not around LCDN and won’t be any time soon.

So, what will be left when the dust settles? There will be AT&T’s wholesale CDN platform, with hundreds of servers running EdgeCast software and delivering paid customer traffic for massive brands that AT&T services today on their CDN. None of these big brand customers that I speak with are interested in having their production traffic moved off a stable platform and onto a new one. So AT&T is at risk of churning the CDN business they do have if they try to force their customers onto a third-party platform they don’t operate.

As for the growing federated traffic being sent to AT&T by EdgeCast and Pacnet, clearly that cannot migrate to Akamai’s platform under the newly announced deal since this is not a licensed CDN (LCDN) agreement with AT&T and right now, Akamai has no LCDN product outside of what’s currently in beta. So AT&T can either keep their wholesale platform up, or go back on their commitments to the global carrier community (via OCX, etc.) to promote CDN Federation.

There will also be the interesting drama of AT&T trying to figure out how to resell Akamai services to AT&T enterprise customers, a large number of which are already Akamai customers. One final fact is that the CDN that AT&T launched (at the cost of well over $100M) before they signed with EdgeCast is still running. Now they are going to add an Akamai CDN to this mix, which means running three separate CDNs until they shut down their own and migrate over to Akamai. That’s a lot to ask for a company that has never shown any expertise with their CDN business or strategy.

As I wrote last year, the way AT&T could get serious about CDN would be to acquire a CDN operator, but they don’t seem interested in doing this. One could suggest they don’t want to acquire low-margin CDN products, but they also had the right of first refusal to acquire Cotendo, who had high-margin value add services, and they passed on that before Akamai acquired them, even though AT&T told me that Cotendo’s services were very important to the company with, “40-60% of all new customers in their sales pipeline” needing such a solution. So AT&T is not really serious about this business if all they want to do is resell it. Some would suggest the opposite by saying that AT&T can now rely on Akamai to help them do it right, but if AT&T could not sell a simple CDN service that they owned, how are they going to resell CDN services they no longer control? It’s asking a lot from AT&T.

I’ve also seem some that suggest the CDN business with AT&T isn’t really important as it’s all the “value added services” that AT&T will resell that will bring Akamai revenue. While that’s a nice idea, it’s not the majority of what AT&T will be reselling. Akamai confirmed with me today that AT&T will sell CDN including their media services, software downloads, small object delivery and DSA. But that’s a far cry from the complex, customized, high-margin services Akamai offers that require a lot of professional services. That’s not something AT&T will be able to sell at scale.

The real benefit to Akamai is not what AT&T might be able to resell, it’s the fact that Akamai now gets to place their servers inside AT&T at the regional level. Akamai confirmed for me that before this deal, they didn’t have any of their servers directly within AT&T’s network and had to peer with them instead. So from a QoS and capacity standpoint, this deal is good news for Akamai and AT&T customers but Akamai isn’t saying how much additional capacity it gives them or the difference in QoS. But at the cost of $100M, Akamai paid a lot of money to get inside AT&T’s network, with the hope that AT&T can also bring them a lot of reseller revenue.

Another thing to watch from this deal is Akamai’s costs. While Akamai talks a lot about how many servers they have and how they are at the “edge”, which is a vague term, the deal with AT&T shows that Akamai never actually had servers within AT&T’s network. Now they are spending a lot of money to get that access and this might open them up to other telcos who now see that Akamai is willing to write big checks to get inside telco networks. It will be interesting to see if other telcos now ask Akamai for a large sum to have access inside their network as well. If that happens, and Akamai needs to have more than just peering access, then this could get expensive for Akamai in the long-term. While I don’t know if this will happen, it’s reasonable to think it could, considering Akamai’s deal with AT&T is public for all the other telcos to see.

AT&T has simply never been able to get their CDN act together and now they are going to try another approach, by reselling Akamai, and change their strategy once again. Time will tell, but in two years we could be looking back on this recent agreement between Akamai and AT&T and realize that Akamai picked up the tab for the most expensive deployment inside a carrier in history.

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AT&T In Talks To Re-Sell Akamai or Limelight’s Enterprise CDN Services

After many years of AT&T (T) trying to sell their own CDN services into the enterprise, multiple sources tell me that AT&T has decided that it makes more sense for them to simply re-sell CDN services from either Akamai (AKAM) or Limelight (LLNW). Both vendors are currently in negotiations with AT&T bidding on the business and while AT&T has not yet picked a winner, I’m hearing that even though Limelight had been favored to win the deal, the reseller business is now Akamai’s to lose.

No deal has yet to be finalized and considering this involves AT&T, who doesn’t have a track record of moving quickly, we’ll have to wait and see if they execute on this plan. From the details I have, Limelight has put forth a better offer business wise but AT&T has more confidence in Akamai’s ability to sell into the enterprise market. While Akamai does have the advantage there, the downside is that AT&T will run into a lot of channel conflicts with Akamai since a very large percentage of enterprise customers are already taking services from Akamai. AT&T would have less channel conflict re-selling Limelight’s CDN services, but to date, Limelight hasn’t had a lot of success in growing their enterprise business.

I’m told that as part of this contract with AT&T, the winning vendor would take on some of AT&T’s employees from their digital media group, so Akamai or Limelight would stand to gain some additional headcount with the contract. While many would be quick to assume that a re-seller contract with AT&T would generate a lot of revenue for Akamai or Limelight, it won’t. At least not in the near term. Last year, AT&T did a total of $10M in CDN revenue and right now, no telco is killing it when it comes to selling their own CDN services, or re-selling those from a third-party. There is a good opportunity to grow the CDN business over time, but it’s over many years and it won’t amount to a large amount of revenue for either Akamai or Limelight over the next 24 months.

While many are familiar with the multi-year contract that AT&T already has in place with EdgeCast, that should not be impacted if AT&T goes through with this new strategy. AT&T has always been using EdgeCast’s licensed CDN platform for their wholesale CDN services and federation model, so I would expect AT&T would still manage this portion of their CDN business. Customers who are currently buying this solution from AT&T purchase it from a wholesale division of the company, not from an enterprise sales team, so a new re-seller deal with Akamai or Limelight should not impact AT&T’s wholesale CDN business, which continues to grow. We don’t know exactly how much traffic AT&T is pushing for this portion of their business, but earlier in the year EdgeCast did say that combined, “multiple operators” are “already pushing tens of Gbps via the CDN federation”. So it sounds like any CDN business already running across EdgeCast, wholesale or not, would not see any disruption.

While enterprise customers could also go direct to Akamai, most of AT&T’s large enterprise contracts are for multiple products, including things like co-location, transit and managed services, which are services Akamai does not offer. So AT&T isn’t trying to get CDN only business with a re-seller deal like this, but rather want to use CDN to keep or get them more of the non-CDN business they already have.

We’ll have to wait and see exactly which CDN vendor AT&T teams up, if they follow through on this new strategy, and how long it would take them to execute such a plan. But it seems pretty clear now that AT&T has finally made the decision not operate their own CDN outside of the wholesale business and that by re-selling Akamai or Limelight, it will give them access to a bigger section of content delivery products and a bigger piece of the pie.

Updated: I did not contact any company mentioned in this post asking for them to comment as I know none of them would have been able to talk about a potential pending deal.