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Telecoms is too important to leave up to traditional fixed and mobile operators. Thanks to the "democratisation" of shared spectrum, virtualised networks, fibre and cloud – plus the demands of industry, government and local communities – a plethora of new service providers are emerging to fill the gaps. This report is intended as a "spotter's guide" to the categories of network owners and operators.
The traditional industry view is that “telcos” are a well-defined and fairly cohesive group. Industry associations like GSMA, ETNO, CTIA and others have typically been fairly homogeneous collections of fixed or mobile operators, only really varying in size. The third-ranked mobile operator in Bolivia has not really been that different from AT&T or Vodafone in terms of technology, business model or vendor relationships.
Our own company, STL Partners used to have the brand “Telco 2.0”. However, our main baseline assumption then was that the industry was mostly made up the same network operators, but using a new 2.0 set of business models.
This situation is now changing. Telecom service providers – telcos – are starting to emerge in a huge variety of new shapes, sizes and backgrounds. There is fragmentation in technology strategy, target audiences, go-to-market and regional/national/international scope.
This report is not a full explanation of all the different strategies, services and technological architecture. Instead of analysing all of the “metabolic” functions and “evolutionary mechanisms”, this is more of a field-guide to all the new species of telco that the industry is starting to see. More detail on the enablers – such as fibre, 5G and cloud-based infrastructure – and the demand-side (such as vertical industries’ communications needs and applications) can be found in our other output.
The report provides descriptions with broad contours of motivation, service-offerings and implications for incumbents. We are not “taking sides” here. If new telcos push out the older species, that’s just evolution of those “red in tooth and claw”. We’re taking the role of field zoologists, not conservationists.
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Field guides are collections/lists of natural & human phenomena
Source: Amazon, respective publishers’ copyright
The historical landscape
The term “telco” is a little slippery to define, but most observers would likely agree that the “traditional” telecoms industry has mostly been made up of the following groups of CSPs:
- MNOs: Countries usually have a few major mobile network operators (MNOs) that are typically national, or sometimes regional.
- Fixed operators: Markets also have infrastructure-based fixed telcos, usually with one (or a small number) that were originally national state-owned monopolies, plus a select number of other licensed providers, often with greenfield FTTX fibre. Some countries have a vibrant array of smaller “AltNets”, or competitive carriers (originally known as CLECs in the US).
- Converged operators: These combine fixed and mobile operations in the same business or group. Sometimes they are arms-length (or even in different countries), but many try to offer combined or converged service propositions.
- Wholesale telcos: There is a tier of a few major international operators that provide interconnect services and other capabilities. Often these have been subsidiaries (or joint ventures) of national telcos.
In addition to these, the communications industry in each market has also often had an array of secondary connectivity or telecom service providers as a kind “supporting cast”, which generally have not been viewed as “telecom operators”. This is either because they fall into different regulatory buckets, only target niche markets, or tend to use different technologies. These have included:
- Internet Exchanges
- Satellite operators
Some of these have had a strong overlap with telcos, or have been spun-out or acquired at various times, but they have broadly remained as independent organisations. Importantly, many of these now look much more like “proper telcos” than they did in the past.
Why are “new telcos” emerging now?
To some extent, many of the classes of new telco have been “hiding in plain sight” for some time. MVNOs, towercos and numerous other SPs have been “telcos in all but name”, even if the industry has often ignored them. There has sometimes been a divisive “them and us” categorisation, especially applied when comparing older operators with cloud-based communications companies, or what STL has previously referred to as “under the floor” infrastructure owners. This attitude has been fairly common within governments and regulators, as well as among operator executives and staff.
However, there are now two groups of trends which are leading to the blurring of lines between “proper telcos” and other players:
- Supply-side trends: The growing availability of the key building blocks of telcos – core networks, spectrum, fibre, equipment, locations and so on – is leading to democratisation. Virtualisation and openness, as well as a push for vendor diversification, is helping make it easier for new entrants, or adjacent players, to build telecom-style networks
- Demand-side trends: A far richer range of telecom use-cases and customer types is pulling through specialist network builders and operators. These can start with specific geographies, or industry verticals, and then expand from there to other domains. Private 4G/5G networks and remote/underserved locations are good examples which need customisation and specialisation, but there are numerous other demand drivers for new types of service (and service provider), as well as alternative business models.
Taken together, the supply and demand factors are leading to the creation of new types of telcos (sometimes from established SPs, and sometimes greenfield) which are often competing with the incumbents.
While there is a stereotypical lobbying complaint about “level playing fields”, the reality is that there are now a whole range of different telecom “sports” emerging, with competitors arranged on courses, tracks, fields and hills, many of which are inherently not “level”. It’s down to the participants – whether old or new – to train appropriately and use suitable gear for each contest.
Virtualisation & cloudification of networks helps newcomers as well as existing operators
Source: STL Partners
Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?
Most new telcos tend to focus initially on specific niche markets. Only a handful of recent entrants have raised enough capital to build out entire national networks, either with fixed or mobile networks. Jio, Rakuten Mobile and Dish are all exceptions – and ones which came with a significant industrial heritage and regulatory impetus that enabled them to scale broadly.
Instead, most new service providers have focused on specific domains, with some expanding more broadly at a later point. Examples of the geographic / customer niches for new operators include:
- Enterprise private 4G/5G networks
- Rural network services (or other isolated areas like mountains, offshore areas or islands)
- Municipality / city-level services
- National backbone fibre networks
- Critical communications users (e.g. utilities)
- Wholesale-only / shared infrastructure provision (e.g. neutral host)
This report sets out…
..to through each of the new “species” of telcos in turn. There is a certain level of overlap between the categories, as some organisations are developing networking offers in various domains in parallel (for instance, Cellnex offering towers, private networks, neutral host and RAN outsourcing).
The new telcos have been grouped into categories, based on some broad similarities:
- “Evolved” traditional telcos: operators, or units of operators, that are recognisable from today’s companies and brands, or are new-entrant “peers” of these.
- Adjacent wireless providers: these are service provider categories that have been established for many years, but which are now overlapping ever more closely with “traditional” telcos.
- Enterprise and government telcos: these are other large organisations that are shifting from being “users” of telecoms, or building internal network assets, towards offering public telecom-type services.
- Others: this is a catch-all category that spans various niche innovation models. One particular group here, decentralised/blockchain-based telcos, is analysed in more detail.
In each case, the category is examined briefly on the basis of:
- Background and motivation of operators
- Typical services and infrastructure being deployed
- Examples (approx. 3-4 of each type)
- Implications for mainstream telcos
Table of contents
- Executive Summary
- New telco categories and service areas
- Recommendations for traditional fixed/mobile operators
- Recommendations for vendors and suppliers
- Recommendations for regulators, governments & advisors
- The historical landscape
- Why are “new telcos” emerging now?
- Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?
- Structure of this document
- “Evolved” traditional telcos
- Greenfield national networks
- Telco systems integration units
- “Crossover” Mobile, Fixed & cable operators
- Extra-territorial telcos
- Adjacent wireless providers
- Neutral host network providers
- FWA Fixed Wireless Access (WISPs)
- Satellite players
- Enterprise & government telcos
- Industrial / vertical MNOs
- Utility companies offering commercial telecom services
- Enterprises’ corporate IT network service groups
- Governments & public sector
- New categories
- Decentralised telcos (blockchain / cryptocurrency-based)
- Other “new telco” categories
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