Telco innovation: Why it’s broken and how to fix it

Executive Briefing Service, Telco 2.0 Transformation

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Successful innovation for telcos is important but has proved elusive. We look at some successes and more failures to draw out the common factors required for innovation to succeed.

Telcos have tried innovating in many verticals

Incumbent telecommunications providers have seen their margins fall as basic telecommunications services, both fixed and mobile, have been increasingly commoditised. The need to provide differentiated services to counteract this trend is widely recognised in the industry, yet despite considerable investment and many attempts, too often new services launched by operators have failed to deliver the anticipated results. Yet some, especially in mobile banking and related services, have proved successful. Why is this so?

This report focuses on product and service innovation for customers, rather than on innovation in sales, marketing, finance, operations or networks. It addresses the introduction of new and innovative services and not the repackaging of existing communications services, for example in new pricing and service bundles (see Figure 2).

It looks at examples from a range of services, covering most of the new types of services introduced by MNOs over the past decade. These include:

  • Messaging: RCS and its competitors
  • Mobile financial and insurance services: Orange Money / Orange Bank, Millicom/Tigo’s joint ventures
  • Health: O2 Telehealth, Telenor’s Tonic health service
  • Smart home: AT&T’s Digital Life, Deutsche Telekom’s Qivicon
  • Lifestyle: Turkcell’s range of apps and Vodacom’s Mezzanine

We have covered many of these individually in previous reports, looking at how they were developed and have evolved over time, and whether and why they are (or we expect them to be) successful.

This report seeks to identify the common factors that led to success or failure, in order to establish some best practices for telcos in innovation. While we recognise that there are often several causes of success and failure, in some cases a single failure can undo much good work.

Previous reports this one builds on include:

Product development or true diversification: How ambitious should telcos be?

Historically, telcos have aimed to find new customers for existing telecoms services, where the their market is not yet saturated, or expanding geographically to achieve scale. However, most telecoms markets are now nearly saturated – at least in the areas that telcos can profitably reach – so true service innovation, corresponding to the right hand side on the figure below, is now a crucial component for long term revenue growth.

The seven telco innovations discussed in this report are shown on the figure below. It is worth noting the progression Orange has made in building on its experience with its mobile money service to providing full banking services. This is highlighted in the diagram by the arrow, and is discussed more fully in the body of this report.

Most telcos innovation falls in the product development category on the Ansoff matrix

Telco innovations plotted on the Ansoff matrix

Source: STL Partners. For more on market development opportunity, see STL Partners report Making big beautiful: Multinational telcos need the telco cloud

In theory, one of the most effective ways of maximising the chances of success, and achieving the scale required to make a significant impact on revenues and profitability, is for operators to select services that target a large part of their existing customer base.

However, our analysis of the telco innovations in this report shows that there is actually little correlation between the distance from telcos’ core customer base and level of success. This because by tying new products and services too closely to their existing customer bases, telcos are actually limiting their ability to scale. While this approach is intended to help them compete more effectively against their peers, by increasing loyalty for core telecoms services, in reality, any telco-driven product development innovation is likely to compete with network agnostic service providers. So while it may make sense to offer something only to existing customers at the start, to truly scale telcos need to reach a wider market.

Orange is a good example of this transition. While its mobile money services in Africa remain tied to its telecoms customer base, its move into full-fledge banking in France is separate from telecoms services. As it rolls out full banking services across its footprint, this separation is likely to become more entrenched.

Many of the examples discussed in the main body of the report, including AT&T’s Digital Life, Orange Money and O2’s Telehealth venture were set up as separate businesses, which allowed their initial development to progress well. But this was not enough on their own to make them successful.

How successful have telcos been?

Comparing telcos’ investments into service innovations shows that, too often, they have made bets on areas that seem like natural opportunities for new services, but failed to gain traction because they didn’t do a rigorous enough assessment of the conditions for success.

To succeed in innovation, telcos must evaluate proposed new services or products much more painstakingly across three areas:

  1. User needs and requirements: that the product or service meets a real user need. This breaks down into two points:
    • The product or servicemust be easy to use and fit into users’ lifestyles.
    • And at the right price point. Most consumer products need a free tier to encourage customers to try and engage before paying (if ever). In some cases, the end user might not be the payer, so if that is the case then telcos need to identify the payer and ensure the product is relevant and valuable for them, too.
  2. Market structure and characteristics: clear vision of where the ROI is coming from. There are two main options for ROI – increased customer loyalty and new revenue.
    • For loyalty, telcos need a clear means of measuring whether the product or service is improving retention.
    • If telcos are seeking to build new revenue, they need to be realistic about how long it will take to achieve profitability and the size of the opportunity. Too often, telcos give up because they deem a new venture not valuable enough compared with the core business..
  3. Business structure: deciding on whether to develop something in house, to set up a joint venture, or acquire, and what the relationship is with the core business. The further away a new product or service is from the core business, the more independence it needs to develop and grow.

In this report, we compare the approaches of seven telco innovations, drawing on in-depth analysis from previous STL Partners reports, summarised in the table below.

Strategy is more important that degree of difficult for successful innovation

Assessment of quality of strategy and execution for telco innovationsSource: STL Partners

Our analysis shows that the difficulty of the innovation, i.e. whether it is product development or diversification into a new vertical, is less important to success than doing the difficult strategy and planning work outlined above.

For instance, while RCS is very closely tied to telcos’ existing customers and services, the necessary cooperation between telcos to bring it to market in a way that is valuable to consumers and potential enterprise customers was unrealistic from the start. By constrast, Tonic’s health insurance proposition is very different from Telenor’s core telecoms services, but Tonic’s clear vision and strategy, and ability to adapt to customer needs, have underpinned its early success in Bangladesh.

Read the full report to see a detailed assessment of each innovation across the three categories.