As telecoms operations become increasingly softwarised, network functions are getting broken down into their individual parts, and reassembled as an essential part of the IT stack for industry-specific applications and services. In this disaggregated telco value chain, is there anything left that is distinctively 'telco'?
The telco business is being disaggregated
Telcos are facing a situation in which the elements that have traditionally made up and produced their core business are being ‘disaggregated’: broken up into their component parts and recombined in different ways, while some of the elements of the telco business are increasingly being provided by players from other industry verticals.
By the same token, telcos face the pressure – and the opportunity – to combine connectivity with other capabilities as part of new vertical-specific offerings.
Telco disaggregation primarily affects three interrelated aspects of the telco business:
- ‘Vertical’ disaggregation: separating out of network functions previously delivered by dedicated, physical equipment into software running on commodity computing hardware (NFV, virtualisation)
- ‘Horizontal’ disaggregation: breaking up of network functions themselves into their component parts – at both the software and hardware levels; and re-engineering, recombining and redistributing of those component parts (geographically and architecturally) to meet the needs of new use cases. In respect of software, this typically involves cloud-native network functions (CNFs) and containerisation
- Open RAN is an example of both types of disaggregation: vertical disaggregation through separation of baseband processing software and hardware; and horizontal disaggregation by breaking out the baseband function into centralised and distributed units (CU and DU), along with a separate, programmable controller (RAN Intelligent Controller, or RIC), where all of these can in theory be provided by different vendors, and interface with radios that can also be provided by third-party vendors.
- Organisational structure and operating model: Breaking up of organisational hierarchies, departmental siloes, and waterfall development processes focused on the core connectivity business. As telcos face the need to develop new vertical- and client-specific services and use cases beyond the increasingly commoditised, low-margin connectivity business, these structures are being – or need to be – replaced by more multi-disciplinary teams taking end-to-end responsibility for product development and operations (e.g. DevOps), go-to-market, profitability, and technology.
Transformation from the vertical telco to the disaggregated telco
3. Value chain and business model: Breaking up of the traditional model whereby telcos owned – or at least had end-to-end operational oversight over – . This is not to deny that telcos have always relied on third party-owned or outsourced infrastructure and services, such as wholesale networks, interconnect services or vendor outsourcing. However, these discrete elements have always been welded into an end-to-end, network-based services offering under the auspices of the telco’s BSS and OSS. These ensured that the telco took overall responsibility for end-to-end service design, delivery, assurance and billing.
- The theory behind this traditional model is that all the customer’s connectivity needs should be met by leveraging the end-to-end telco network / service offering. In practice, the end-to-end characteristics have not always been fully controlled or owned by the service provider.
- In the new, further disaggregated value chain, different parts of the now more software-, IT- and cloud-based technology stack are increasingly provided by other types of player, including from other industry verticals. Telcos must compete to play within these new markets, and have no automatic right to deliver even just the connectivity elements.
All of these aspects of disaggregation can be seen as manifestations of a fundamental shift where telecoms is evolving from a utility communications and connectivity business to a component of distributed computing. The core business of telecoms is becoming the processing and delivery of distributed computing workloads, and the enablement of ubiquitous computing.
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Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation
Telco industry disaggregation is part of a broader evolution in the domains of technology, business, the economy, and society. This evolution comprises ‘computerisation’. Computing analyses and breaks up material processes and systems into a set of logical and functional sub-components, enabling processes and products to be re-engineered, optimised, recombined in different ways, managed, and executed more efficiently and automatically.
In essence, ‘telco disaggregation’ is a term that describes a moment in time at which telecoms technology, organisations, value chains and processes are being broken up into their component parts and re-engineered, under the impact of computerisation and its synonyms: digitisation, softwarisation, virtualisation and cloud.
This is part of a new wave of societal computerisation / digitisation, which at STL Partners we call the Coordination Age. At a high level, this can be described as ‘cross-domain computerisation’: separating out processes, services and functions from multiple areas of technology, the economy and society – and optimising, recombining and automating them (i.e. coordinating them), so that they can better deliver on social, economic and environmental needs and goals. In other words, this enables scarce resources to be used more efficiently and sustainably in pursuit of individual and social needs.
NFV has computerised the network; telco cloud native subordinates it to computing
In respect of the telecoms industry in particular, one could argue that the first wave of virtualisation (NFV and SDN), which unfolded during the 2010s, represented the computerisation and digitisation of telecoms networking. The focus of this was internal to the telecoms industry in the first instance, rather than connected to other social and technology domains and goals. It was about taking legacy, physical networking processes and functions, and redesigning and reimplementing them in software.
Then, the second wave of virtualisation (cloud-native – which is happening now) is what enables telecoms networking to play a part in the second wave of societal computerisation more broadly (the Coordination Age). This is because the different layers and elements of telecoms networks (services, network functions and infrastructure) are redefined, instantiated in software, broken up into their component parts, redistributed (logically and physically), and reassembled as a function of an increasing variety of cross-domain and cross-vertical use cases that are enabled and delivered, ultimately, by computerisation. Telecoms is disaggregated by, subordinated to, and defined and controlled by computing.
In summary, we can say that telecoms networks and operations are going through disaggregation now because this forms part of a broader societal transformation in which physical processes, functions and systems are being brought under the control of computing / IT, in pursuit of broader human, societal, economic and environmental goals.
In practice, this also means that telcos are facing increasing competition from many new types of actor, such as:
- Computing, IT and cloud players
- More specialist and agile networking providers
- And vertical-market actors – delivering connectivity in support of vertical-specific, Coordination Age use cases.
Table of contents
- Executive Summary
- Three critical success factors for Coordination Age telcos
- What capabilities will remain distinctively ‘telco’?
- Our take on three pioneering cloud-native telcos
- The telco business is being disaggregated
- Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation
- The disaggregated telco landscape: Where’s the value for telcos?
- Is there anything left that is distinctively ‘telco’?
- The ‘core’ telecoms business has evolved from delivering ubiquitous communications to enabling ubiquitous computing
- Six telco-specific roles for telecoms remain in play
- Radical telco disaggregation in action: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten
- Servco, netco or infraco – or a patchwork of all three?
- AT&T Network Cloud sell-off: Desperation or strategic acuity?
- DISH Networks: Building the hyperscale network
- Rakuten Mobile: Ecommerce platform turned cloud-native telco, turned telco cloud platform provider