STL Partners

Telco 2.0 Growth & Innovation

Mobile Broadband 2.0: The Top Disruptive Innovations

Summary: Key trends, tactics, and technologies for mobile broadband networks and services that will influence mid-term revenue opportunities, cost structures and competitive threats. Includes consideration of LTE, network sharing, WiFi, next-gen IP (EPC), small cells, CDNs, policy control, business model enablers and more.(March 2012, Executive Briefing Service, Future of the Networks Stream).

Trends in European data usage

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Below is an extract from this 44 page Telco 2.0 Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service and Future Networks Stream here. Non-members can subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT for UK buyers), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003. We'll also be discussing our findings and more on Facebook at the Silicon Valley (27-28 March) and London (12-13 June) New Digital Economics Brainstorms.

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Introduction

Telco 2.0 has previously published a wide variety of documents and blog posts on mobile broadband topics – content delivery networks (CDNs), mobile CDNs, WiFi offloading, Public WiFi, network outsourcing (“'Under-The-Floor' (UTF) Players: threat or opportunity? ”) and so forth. Our conferences have featured speakers and panellists discussing operator data-plan pricing strategies, tablets, network policy and numerous other angles. We’ve also featured guest material such as Arete Research’s report LTE: Late, Tempting, and Elusive.

In our recent 'Under the Floor (UTF) Players' Briefing we looked at strategies to deal with some of of the challenges facing operators' resulting from market structure and outsourcing

Under The Floor (UTF) Players Telco 2.0

This Executive Briefing is intended to complement and extend those efforts, looking specifically at those technical and business trends which are truly “disruptive”, either immediately or in the medium-term future. In essence, the document can be thought of as a checklist for strategists – pointing out key technologies or trends around mobile broadband networks and services that will influence mid-term revenue opportunities and threats. Some of those checklist items are relatively well-known, others more obscure but nonetheless important. What this document doesn’t cover is more straightforward concepts around pricing, customer service, segmentation and so forth – all important to get right, but rarely disruptive in nature.

During 2012, Telco 2.0 will be rolling out a new MBB workshop concept, which will audit operators’ existing technology strategy and planning around mobile data services and infrastructure. This briefing document is a roundup of some of the critical issues we will be advising on, as well as our top-level thinking on the importance of each trend.

It starts by discussing some of the issues which determine the extent of any disruption:

  • Growth in mobile data usage – and whether the much-vaunted “tsunami” of traffic may be slowing down
  • The role of standardisation , and whether it is a facilitator or inhibitor of disruption
  • Whether the most important MBB disruptions are likely to be telco-driven, or will stem from other actors such as device suppliers, IT companies or Internet firms.

The report then drills into a few particular domains where technology is evolving, looking at some of the most interesting and far-reaching trends and innovations. These are split broadly between:

  • Network infrastructure evolution (radio and core)
  • Control and policy functions, and business-model enablers

It is not feasible for us to cover all these areas in huge depth in a briefing paper such as this. Some areas such as CDNs and LTE have already been subject to other Telco 2.0 analysis, and this will be linked to where appropriate. Instead, we have drilled down into certain aspects we feel are especially interesting, particularly where these are outside the mainstream of industry awareness and thinking – and tried to map technical evolution paths onto potential business model opportunities and threats.

This report cannot be truly exhaustive – it doesn’t look at the nitty-gritty of silicon components, or antenna design, for example. It also treads a fine line between technological accuracy and ease-of-understanding for the knowledgeable but business-focused reader. For more detail or clarification on any area, please get in touch with us – email mailto:contact@stlpartners.com or call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Telco-driven disruption vs. external trends

There are various potential sources of disruption for the mobile broadband marketplace:

  • New technologies and business models implemented by telcos, which increase revenues, decrease costs, improve performance or alter the competitive dynamics between service providers.
  • 3rd party developments that can either bolster or undermine the operators’ broadband strategies. This includes both direct MBB innovations (new uses of WiFi, for example), or bleed-over from adjacent related marketplaces such as device creation or content/application provision.
  • External, non-technology effects such as changing regulation, economic backdrop or consumer behaviour.

The majority of this report covers “official” telco-centric innovations – LTE networks, new forms of policy control and so on,

External disruptions to monitor

But the most dangerous form of innovation is that from third parties, which can undermine assumptions about the ways mobile broadband can be used, introducing new mechanisms for arbitrage, or somehow subvert operators’ pricing plans or network controls. 

In the voice communications world, there are often regulations in place to protect service providers – such as banning the use of “SIM boxes” to terminate calls and reduce interconnection payments. But in the data environment, it is far less obvious that many work-arounds can either be seen as illegal, or even outside the scope of fair-usage conditions. That said, we have already seen some attempts by telcos to manage these effects – such as charging extra for “tethering” on smartphones.

It is not really possible to predict all possible disruptions of this type – such is the nature of innovation. But by describing a few examples, market participants can gauge their level of awareness, as well as gain motivation for ongoing “scanning” of new developments.

Some of the areas being followed by Telco 2.0 include:

  • Connection-sharing. This is where users might link devices together locally, perhaps through WiFi or Bluetooth, and share multiple cellular data connections. This is essentially “multi-tethering” – for example, 3 smartphones discovering each other nearby, perhaps each with a different 3G/4G provider, and pooling their connections together for shared use. From the user’s point of view it could improve effective coverage and maximum/average throughput speed. But from the operators’ view it would break the link between user identity and subscription, and essentially offload traffic from poor-quality networks on to better ones.
  • SoftSIM or SIM-free wireless. Over the last five years, various attempts have been made to decouple mobile data connections from SIM-based authentication. In some ways this is not new – WiFi doesn’t need a SIM, while it’s optional for WiMAX, and CDMA devices have typically been “hard-coded” to just register on a specific operator network. But the GSM/UMTS/LTE world has always relied on subscriber identification through a physical card. At one level, it s very good – SIMs are distributed easily and have enabled a successful prepay ecosystem to evolve. They provide operator control points and the ability to host secure applications on the card itself. However, the need to obtain a physical card restricts business models, especially for transient/temporary use such as a “one day pass”. But the most dangerous potential change is a move to a “soft” SIM, embedded in the device software stack. Companies such as Apple have long dreamed of acting as a virtual network provider, brokering between user and multiple networks. There is even a patent for encouraging bidding per-call (or perhaps per data-connection) with telcos competing head to head on price/quality grounds. Telco 2.0 views this type of least-cost routing as a major potential risk for operators, especially for mobile data – although it also possible enables some new business models that have been difficult to achieve in the past.
  • Encryption. Various of the new business models and technology deployment intentions of operators, vendors and standards bodies are predicated on analysing data flows. Deep packet inspection (DPI) is expected to be used to identify applications or traffic types, enabling differential treatment in the network, or different charging models to be employed. Yet this is rendered largely useless (or at least severely limited) when various types of encryption are used. Various content and application types already secure data in this way – content DRM, BlackBerry traffic, corporate VPN connections and so on. But increasingly, we will see major Internet companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft using such techniques both for their own users’ security, but also because it hides precise indicators of usage from the network operators. If a future Android phone sends all its mobile data back via a VPN tunnel and breaks it out in Mountain View, California, operators will be unable to discern YouTube video from search of VoIP traffic. This is one of the reasons why application-based charging models – one- or two-sided – are difficult to implement.
  • Application evolution speed. One of the largest challenges for operators is the pace of change of mobile applications. The growing penetration of smartphones, appstores and ease of “viral” adoption of new services causes a fundamental problem – applications emerge and evolve on a month-by-month or even week-by-week basis. This is faster than any realistic internal telco processes for developing new pricing plans, or changing network policies. Worse, the nature of “applications” is itself changing, with the advent of HTML5 web-apps, and the ability to “mash up” multiple functions in one app “wrapper”. Is a YouTube video shared and embedded in a Facebook page a “video service”, or “social networking”?

It is also really important to recognise that certain procedures and technologies used in policy and traffic management will likely have some unanticipated side-effects. Users, devices and applications are likely to respond to controls that limit their actions, while other developments may result in “emergent behaviours” spontaneously. For instance, there is a risk that too-strict data caps might change usage models for smartphones and make users just connect to the network when absolutely necessary. This is likely to be at the same times and places when other users also feel it necessary, with the unfortunate implication that peaks of usage get “spikier” rather than being ironed-out.

There is no easy answer to addressing these type of external threats. Operator strategists and planners simply need to keep watch on emerging trends, and perhaps stress-test their assumptions and forecasts with market observers who keep tabs on such developments.

The mobile data explosion… or maybe not?

It is an undisputed fact that mobile data is growing exponentially around the world. Or is it?

A J-curve or an S-curve?

Telco 2.0 certainly thinks that growth in data usage is occurring, but is starting to see signs that the smooth curves that drive so many other decisions might not be so smooth – or so steep – after all. If this proves to be the case, it could be far more disruptive to operators and vendors than any of the individual technologies discussed later in the report. If operator strategists are not at least scenario-planning for lower data growth rates, they may find themselves in a very uncomfortable position in a year’s time.

In its most recent study of mobile operators’ traffic patterns, Ericsson concluded that Q2 2011 data growth was just 8% globally, quarter-on-quarter, a far cry from the 20%+ growths seen previously, and leaving a chart that looks distinctly like the beginning of an S-curve rather than a continued “hockey stick”. Given that the 8% includes a sizeable contribution from undoubted high-growth developing markets like China, it suggests that other markets are maturing quickly. (We are rather sceptical of Ericsson’s suggestion of seasonality in the data). Other data points come from O2 in the UK , which appears to have had essentially zero traffic growth for the past few quarters, or Vodafone which now cites European data traffic to be growing more slowly (19% year-on-year) than its data revenues (21%). Our view is that current global growth is c.60-70%, c.40% in mature markets and 100%+ in developing markets.

Figure 1 – Trends in European data usage

 Trends in European Data Usage
 

Now it is possible that various one-off factors are at play here – the shift from unlimited to tiered pricing plans, the stronger enforcement of “fair-use” plans and the removal of particularly egregious heavy users. Certainly, other operators are still reporting strong growth in traffic levels. We may see resumption in growth, for example if cellular-connected tablets start to be used widely for streaming video. 

But we should also consider the potential market disruption, if the picture is less straightforward than the famous exponential charts. Even if the chart looks like a 2-stage S, or a “kinked” exponential, the gap may have implications, like a short recession in the economy. Many of the technical and business model innovations in recent years have been responses to the expected continual upward spiral of demand – either controlling users’ access to network resources, pricing it more highly and with greater granularity, or building out extra capacity at a lower price. Even leaving aside the fact that raw, aggregated “traffic” levels are a poor indicator of cost or congestion, any interruption or slow-down of the growth will invalidate a lot of assumptions and plans.

Our view is that the scary forecasts of “explosions” and “tsunamis” have led virtually all parts of the industry to create solutions to the problem. We can probably list more than 20 approaches, most of them standalone “silos”.

Figure 2 - A plethora of mobile data traffic management solutions

A Plethora of Mobile Data Traffic Management Solutions

What seems to have happened is that at least 10 of those approaches have worked – caps/tiers, video optimisation, WiFi offload, network densification and optimisation, collaboration with application firms to create “network-friendly” software and so forth. Taken collectively, there is actually a risk that they have worked “too well”, to the extent that some previous forecasts have turned into “self-denying prophesies”.

There is also another common forecasting problem occurring – the assumption that later adopters of a technology will have similar behaviour to earlier users. In many markets we are now reaching 30-50% smartphone penetration. That means that all the most enthusiastic users are already connected, and we’re left with those that are (largely) ambivalent and probably quite light users of data. That will bring the averages down, even if each individual user is still increasing their consumption over time. But even that assumption may be flawed, as caps have made people concentrate much more on their usage, offloading to WiFi and restricting their data flows. There is also some evidence that the growing numbers of free WiFi points is also reducing laptop use of mobile data, which accounts for 70-80% of the total in some markets, while the much-hyped shift to tablets isn’t driving much extra mobile data as most are WiFi-only.

So has the industry over-reacted to the threat of a “capacity crunch”? What might be the implications?

The problem is that focusing on a single, narrow metric “GB of data across the network” ignores some important nuances and finer detail. From an economics standpoint, network costs tend to be driven by two main criteria:

  • Network coverage in terms of area or population
  • Network capacity at the busiest places/times

Coverage is (generally) therefore driven by factors other than data traffic volumes. Many cells have to be built and run anyway, irrespective of whether there’s actually much load – the operators all want to claim good footprints and may be subject to regulatory rollout requirements. Peak capacity in the most popular locations, however, is a different matter. That is where issues such as spectrum availability, cell site locations and the latest high-speed networks become much more important – and hence costs do indeed rise. However, it is far from obvious that the problems at those “busy hours” are always caused by “data hogs” rather than sheer numbers of people each using a small amount of data. (There is also another issue around signalling traffic, discussed later). 

Yes, there is a generally positive correlation between network-wide volume growth and costs, but it is far from perfect, and certainly not a direct causal relationship.

So let’s hypothesise briefly about what might occur if data traffic growth does tail off, at least in mature markets.

  • Delays to LTE rollout – if 3G networks are filling up less quickly than expected, the urgency of 4G deployment is reduced.
  • The focus of policy and pricing for mobile data may switch back to encouraging use rather than discouraging/controlling it. Capacity utilisation may become an important metric, given the high fixed costs and low marginal ones. Expect more loyalty-type schemes, plus various methods to drive more usage in quiet cells or off-peak times.
  • Regulators may start to take different views of traffic management or predicted spectrum requirements.
  • Prices for mobile data might start to fall again, after a period where we have seen them rise. Some operators might be tempted back to unlimited plans, for example if they offer “unlimited off-peak” or similar options.
  • Many of the more complex and commercially-risky approaches to tariffing mobile data might be deprioritised. For example, application-specific pricing involving packet-inspection and filtering might get pushed back down the agenda.
  • In some cases, we may even end up with overcapacity on cellular data networks – not to the degree we saw in fibre in 2001-2004, but there might still be an “overhang” in some places, especially if there are multiple 4G networks.
  • Steady growth of (say) 20-30% peak data per annum should be manageable with the current trends in price/performance improvement. It should be possible to deploy and run networks to meet that demand with reducing unit “production cost”, for example through use of small cells. That may reduce the pressure to fill the “revenue gap” on the infamous scissors-diagram chart.

Overall, it is still a little too early to declare shifting growth patterns for mobile data as a “disruption”. There is a lack of clarity on what is happening, especially in terms of responses to the new controls, pricing and management technologies put recently in place. But operators need to watch extremely closely what is going on – and plan for multiple scenarios.

Specific recommendations will depend on an individual operator’s circumstances – user base, market maturity, spectrum assets, competition and so on. But broadly, we see three scenarios and implications for operators:

  • “All hands on deck!”: Continued strong growth (perhaps with a small “blip”) which maintains the pressure on networks, threatens congestion, and drives the need for additional capacity, spectrum and capex.
    • Operators should continue with current multiple strategies for dealing with data traffic – acquiring new spectrum, upgrading backhaul, exploring massive capacity enhancement with small cells and examining a variety of offload and optimisation techniques. Where possible, they should explore two-sided models for charging and use advanced pricing, policy or segmentation techniques to rein in abusers and reward those customers and applications that are parsimonious with their data use. Vigorous lobbying activities will be needed, for gaining more spectrum, relaxing Net Neutrality rules and perhaps “taxing” content/Internet companies for traffic injected onto networks.
  • “Panic over”: Moderating and patchy growth, which settles to a manageable rate – comparable with the patterns seen in the fixed broadband marketplace
    • This will mean that operators can “relax” a little, with the respite in explosive growth meaning that the continued capex cycles should be more modest and predictable. Extension of today’s pricing and segmentation strategies should improve margins, with continued innovation in business models able to proceed without rush, and without risking confrontation with Internet/content companies over traffic management techniques. Focus can shift towards monetising customer insight, ensuring that LTE rollouts are strategic rather than tactical, and exploring new content and communications services that exploit the improving capabilities of the network.
  • “Hangover”: Growth flattens off rapidly, leaving operators with unused capacity and threatening brutal price competition between telcos.
    • This scenario could prove painful, reminiscent of early-2000s experience in the fixed-broadband marketplace. Wholesale business models could help generate incremental traffic and revenue, while the emphasis will be on fixed-cost minimisation. Some operators will scale back 4G rollouts until cost and maturity go past the tipping-point for outright replacement of 3G. Restrictive policies on bandwidth use will be lifted, as operators compete to give customers the fastest / most-open access to the Internet on mobile devices. Consolidation – and perhaps bankruptcies – may ensure as declining data prices may coincide with substitution of core voice and messaging business

To read the note in full, including the following analysis...

  • Introduction
  • Telco-driven disruption vs. external trends
  • External disruptions to monitor
  • The mobile data explosion… or maybe not?
  • A J-curve or an S-curve?
  • Evolving the mobile network
  • Overview
  • LTE
  • Network sharing, wholesale and outsourcing
  • WiFi
  • Next-gen IP core networks (EPC)
  • Femtocells / small cells / “cloud RANs”
  • HetNets
  • Advanced offload: LIPA, SIPTO & others
  • Peer-to-peer connectivity
  • Self optimising networks (SON)
  • M2M-specific broadband innovations
  • Policy, control & business model enablers
  • The internal politics of mobile broadband & policy
  • Two sided business-model enablement
  • Congestion exposure
  • Mobile video networking and CDNs
  • Controlling signalling traffic
  • Device intelligence
  • Analytics & QoE awareness
  • Conclusions & recommendations
  • Index

...and the following figures...

  • Figure 1 – Trends in European data usage
  • Figure 2 - A plethora of mobile data traffic management solutions
  • Figure 3 – Not all operator WiFi is “offload” – other use cases include “onload”
  • Figure 4 – Internal ‘power tensions’ over managing mobile broadband
  • Figure 5 – How a congestion API could work
  • Figure 6 – Relative Maturity of MBB Management Solutions
  • Figure 7 – Laptops generate traffic volume, smartphones create signalling load
  • Figure 8 – Measuring Quality of Experience
  • Figure 9 – Summary of disruptive network innovations

...Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service and Future Networks Stream can download the full 44 page report in PDF format hereNon-Members, please subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT for UK buyers), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Organisations, geographies, people and products referenced: 3GPP, Aero2, Alcatel Lucent, AllJoyn, ALU, Amazon, Amdocs, Android, Apple, AT&T, ATIS, BBC, BlackBerry, Bridgewater, CarrierIQ, China, China Mobile, China Unicom, Clearwire, Conex, DoCoMo, Ericsson, Europe, EverythingEverywhere, Facebook, Femto Forum, FlashLinq, Free, Germany, Google, GSMA, H3G, Huawei, IETF, IMEI, IMSI, InterDigital, iPhones,Kenya, Kindle, Light Radio, LightSquared, Los Angeles, MBNL, Microsoft, Mobily, Netflix, NGMN, Norway, NSN, O2, WiFi, Openet, Qualcomm, Radisys, Russia, Saudi Arabia, SoftBank, Sony, Stoke, Telefonica, Telenor, Time Warner Cable, T-Mobile, UK, US, Verizon, Vita, Vodafone, WhatsApp, Yota, YouTube, ZTE.

Technologies and industry terms referenced: 2G, 3G, 4.5G, 4G, Adaptive bitrate streaming, ANDSF (Access Network Discovery and Selection Function), API, backhaul, Bluetooth, BSS, capacity crunch, capex, caps/tiers, CDMA, CDN, CDNs, Cloud RAN, content delivery networks (CDNs), Continuous Computing, Deep packet inspection (DPI), DPI, DRM, Encryption, Enhanced video, EPC, ePDG (Evolved Packet Data Gateway), Evolved Packet System, Femtocells, GGSN, GPS, GSM, Heterogeneous Network (HetNet), Heterogeneous Networks (HetNets), HLRs, hotspots, HSPA, HSS (Home Subscriber Server), HTML5, HTTP Live Streaming, IFOM (IP Flow Mobility and Seamless Offload), IMS, IPR, IPv4, IPv6, LIPA (Local IP Access), LTE, M2M, M2M network enhancements, metro-cells, MiFi, MIMO (multiple in, MME (Mobility Management Entity), mobile CDNs, mobile data, MOSAP, MSISDN, MVNAs (mobile virtual network aggregators)., MVNO, Net Neutrality, network outsourcing, Network sharing, Next-generation core networks, NFC, NodeBs, offload, OSS, outsourcing, P2P, Peer-to-peer connectivity, PGW (PDN Gateway), picocells, policy, Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF), Pre-cached video, pricing, Proximity networks, Public WiFi, QoE, QoS, RAN optimisation, RCS, remote radio heads, RFID, self-optimising network technology (SON), Self-optimising networks (SON), SGW (Serving Gateway), SIM-free wireless, single RANs, SIPTO (Selective IP Traffic Offload), SMS, SoftSIM, spectrum, super-femtos, Telco 2.0 Happy Pipe, Transparent optimisation, UMTS, 'Under-The-Floor' (UTF) Players, video optimisation, VoIP, VoLTE, VPN, White space, WiFi, WiFi Direct, WiFi offloading, WiMAX, WLAN.