5G standalone (SA) core: Why and how telcos should keep going

Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays…

There is a widespread opinion among telco industry watchers that deployments of the 5G Standalone (SA) core are taking longer than originally expected. It is certainly the case that some of the world’s leading operators, and telco cloud innovators, are taking their time over these deployments, as illustrated below:

  • AT&T: Has no current, publicly announced deadline for launching its 5G SA core, which was originally expected to be deployed in mid-2021.
  • Deutsche Telekom: Launched an SA core in Germany on a trial basis in September 2022, having previously acknowledged that SA was taking longer than originally expected. In Europe, the only other opco that is advancing towards commercial deployment is Magenta Telekom in Austria. In 2021, the company cited various delay factors, such as 5G SA not being technically mature enough to fulfil customers’ expectations (on speed and latency), and a lack of consumer devices supporting 5G SA.
  • Rakuten Mobile: Was expected to launch an SA core co-developed with NEC in 2021. But at the time of writing, this had still not launched.
  • SK Telecom: Was originally expected to launch a Samsung-provided SA core in 2020. However, in November 2021, it was announced that SK Telecom would deploy an Ericsson converged Non-standalone (NSA) / SA core. By the time of writing, this had still not taken place.
  • Telefónica: Has carried out extensive tests and pilots of 5G SA to support different use cases but has no publicly announced timetable for launching the technology commercially.
  • Verizon: Originally planned to launch its SA core at the end of 2021. But this was pushed back to 2022; and recent pronouncements by the company indicate a launch of commercial services over the SA core only in 2023.
  • Vodafone: Has launched SA in Germany only, not in any of its other markets; and even then, nationwide SA coverage is not expected until 2025. An SA core is, however, expected to be launched in Portugal in the near future, although no definite deadline has been announced. A ‘commercial pilot’ in three UK cities, launched in June 2021, had still not resulted in a full commercial deployment by the time of writing.

…but other MNOs are making rapid progress

In contrast to the above catalogue of delay, several other leading operators have made considerable progress with their standalone deployments:

  • DISH: Launched its SA core- and open RAN-based network in the US, operated entirely over the AWS cloud, in May 2022. The initial population coverage of the network was required to be 20%. This is supposed to rise to 70% by June 2023.
  • Orange: Proceeding with a Europe-wide roll-out, with six markets expected to go live with SA cores in 2023.
  • Saudi Telecom Company (STC): Has launched SA services in two international markets, Kuwait (May 2021) and Bahrain (May 2022). Preparations for a launch in Saudi Arabia were ongoing at the time of writing.
  • Telekom Austria Group (A1): Rolling out SA cores across four markets in Central Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia), although no announcement has been made regarding a similar deployment in its home market of Austria. In June 2022, A1 also carried out a PoC of end-to-end, SA core-enabled network slicing, in partnership with Amdocs.
  • T-Mobile US: Has reportedly migrated all of its mobile broadband traffic over to its SA core, which was launched back in 2020. It also launched one of the world’s first voice-over-New Radio (VoNR) services, run over the SA core, in parts of two cities in June 2022.
  • Zain (Kuwait): Launched SA in Saudi Arabia in February 2022, while a deployment in its home market was ongoing at the time of writing.
  • There are also a number of trials, and prospective and actual deployments, of SA cores over the public cloud in Europe. These are serving the macro network, not edge or private-networking use cases. The most notable examples include Magenta Telekom (Deutsche Telekom’s Austrian subsidiary, partnering with Google Cloud); Swisscom (partnering with AWS); and Working Group Two (wgtwo) – a Cisco and Telenor spin-off – that offers a multi-tenant, cloud-native 5G core delivered to third-party MNOs and MVNOs via the AWS cloud.
  • The three established Chinese MNOs are all making rapid progress with their 5G SA roll-outs, having launched in either 2020 (China Telecom and China Unicom) or 2021 (China Mobile). The country’s newly launched, fourth national player, Broadnet, is also rolling out SA. However, it is not publicly known what share of the country’s reported 848 million-odd 5G subscribers (at March 2022) were connected to SA cores.
  • At least eight other APAC operators had launched 5G SA-based services by July 2022, including KT in South Korea, NTT Docomo and SoftBank in Japan and Smart in the Philippines.

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Many standalone deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines

So, 5G standalone deployments are definitely a mixed bag: leading operators in APAC, Europe, the Middle East and North America are deploying and have launched at scale, while other leading players in the same regions have delayed launches, including some of the telcos that have helped drive telco cloud as a whole over the past few years, e.g. AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Rakuten, Telefónica and Vodafone.

In the July 2022 update to our Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, which contained a ‘deep dive’ on 5G core roll-outs, we presented an optimistic picture of 5G SA deployments. We pointed out that the number of SA and converged NSA / SA cores. We expect to be launched in 2022 outnumbered the total of NSA deployments. However, as illustrated in the figure below, SA and converged NSA/SA cores are still the minority of all 5G cores (29% in total).

We should also point out that some of the SA and converged NSA / SA deployments shown in the figure below are still in progress and some will continue to be so in 2023. In other words, the launch of these core networks has been announced and we have therefore logged them in our tracker, but we expect that the corresponding deployments will be completed in the remainder of 2022 or in 2023, based on a reasonable, typical gap between when the deployments are publicly announced and the time it normally takes to complete them. If, however, more of these predicted deployments are delayed as per the roll-outs of some of leading players listed above, then we will need to revise down our 2022 and 2023 totals.

Global 5G core networks by type, 2018 to 2023

 

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays
    • …but other MNOs are making rapid progress
    • Many SA deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines
  • What is holding up deployments?
    • Mass-market use cases are not yet mature
    • Enterprise use cases exploiting an SA core are not established
    • Business model and ROI uncertainty for 5G SA
    • Uncertainty about the role of hyperscalers
    • Coordination of investments in 5G SA with those in open RAN
    • MNO process and organisation must evolve to exploit 5G SA
  • 5G SA progress will unlock opportunities
    • Build out coverage to improve ‘commodity’ services
    • Be first to roll out 5G SA in the national market
    • For brownfield deployments, incrementally evolve towards SA
    • Greenfield deployments
    • Carefully elaborate deployment models on hyperscale cloud
    • Work through process and organisational change
  • Conclusion: 5G SA will enable transformation

    Related research

    Previous STL Partners reports aligned to this topic include:

  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive
  • Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain
  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

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Pursuing hyperscale economics

The promise of hyperscale economics

Managing demands and disruption

As telecoms operators move to more advanced, data intensive services enabled by 5G, fibre to the X (FTTX) and other value-added services, they are looking to build the capabilities to support the growing demands on the network. However, in most cases, telco operators are expanding their own capabilities in such a way that results in their costs increasing in line with their capabilities.

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This is becoming an increasingly pressing issue given the commoditisation of traditional connectivity services and changing competitive dynamics from within and outside the telecoms industry. Telcos are facing stagnating or declining ARPUs within the telecoms sector as price becomes the competitive weapon and service differentiation of connectivity services diminishes.A

The competitive landscape within the telecoms industry is also becoming much more dynamic, with differences in progress made by telecoms operators adopting cloud-native technologies from a new ecosystem of vendors. At the same time, the rate of innovation is accelerating and revenue shares are being eroded due to the changes in the competitive landscape and the emergence of new competitors, including:

  • Greenfield operators like DISH and Rakuten;
  • More software-centric digital enterprise service providers that provide advanced innovative applications and services;
  • Content and SaaS players and the hyperscale cloud providers, such as AWS, Microsoft and Google, as well as the likes of Netflix and Disney.

We are in another transition period in the telco space. We’ve made a lot of mess in the past, but now everyone is talking about cloud-native and containers which gives us an opportunity to start over based on the lessons we‘ve learned.

VP Cloudified Production, European converged operator 1

Even for incumbents or established challengers in more closed and stable markets where connectivity revenues are still growing, there is still a risk of complacency for these telcos. Markets with limited historic competition and high barriers to entry can be prone to major systemic shocks or sudden unexpected changes to the market environment such as government policy, new 5G entrants or regulatory changes that mandate for structural separation.

Source:  Company accounts, stock market data; STL Partners analysis

Note: The data for the Telecoms industry covers 165 global telecoms operators

Telecoms industry seeking hyperscaler growth

The telecoms industry’s response to threats has traditionally been to invest in better networks to differentiate but networks have become increasingly commoditised. Telcos can no longer extract value from services that exclusively run on telecoms networks. In other words, the defensive moat has been breached and owning fibre or spectrum is not sufficient to provide an advantage. The value has now shifted from capital expenditure to the network-independent services that run over networks. The capital markets therefore believe it is the service innovators – content and SaaS players and internet giants such as Amazon, Microsoft or Apple – that will capture future revenue and profit growth, rather than telecoms operators. However, with 5G, edge computing and telco cloud, there has been a resurgence in interest in more integration between applications and the networks they run over to leverage greater network intelligence and insight to deliver enhanced outcomes.

Defining telcos’ roles in the Coordination Age

Given that the need for connectivity is not going away but the value is not going to grow, telcos are now faced with the challenge of figuring out what their new role and purpose is within the Coordination Age, and how they can leverage their capabilities to provide unique value in a more ecosystem-centric B2B2X environment.

Success in the Coordination Age requires more from the network than ever before, with a greater need for applications to interface and integrate with the networks they run over and to serve not only customers but also new types of partners. This calls for the need to not only move to more flexible, cost-effective and scalable networks and operations, but also the need to deliver value higher up in the value chain to enable further differentiation and growth.

Telcos can either define themselves as a retail business selling mobile and last mile connectivity, or figure out how to work more closely with demanding partners and customers to provide greater value. It is not just about scale or volume, but about the competitive environment. At the end of the day, telcos need to prepare for the capabilities to do innovative things like dynamic slicing.

Group Executive, Product and Technology, Asia Pacific operator

Responding to the pace of change

The introduction of cloud-native technologies and the promise of software-centric networking has the potential to (again) significantly disrupt the market and change the pace of innovation. For example, the hyperscale cloud providers have already disrupted the IT industry and are seen simultaneously as a threat, potential partners and as a model example for operators to adopt. More significantly, they have been able to achieve significant growth whilst still maintaining their agile operations, culture and mindset.

With the hyperscalers now seeking to play a bigger role in the network, many telco operators are looking to understand how they should respond in light of this change of pace, otherwise run the risk of being relegated to being just the connectivity provider or the ‘dumb pipe’.

Our report seeks to address the following key question:

Can telecoms operators realistically pursue hyperscale economics by adopting some of the hyperscaler technologies and practices, and if so, how?

Our findings in this report are based on an interview programme with 14 key leaders from telecoms operators globally, conducted from June to August 2021. Our participant group spans across different regions, operator types and types of roles within the organisation.

Related research

Fibre for 5G and edge: Who does it and how to build it?

Opportunities for fibre network operators

4G/5G densification and the growth in edge end points will place fresh demands on telecoms network infrastructure to deliver high bandwidth connections to new locations. Many of these will be sites on the streets of urban centres without existing connections, where installation of new fibre cables is costly. This will require careful planning and optimum selection of existing infrastructure to minimise costs and strengthen the business cases for fibre deployment.

While much of the growth in deployment of small cells and edge end points will be on private sites, their deployment in public areas, in support of public network services, will pose specific challenges to providing the broad bandwidth connectivity required. This includes both backhaul from cell sites and edge end points to the fibre transport network, plus any fronthaul needs for new open RAN deployments, from baseband equipment to radio units and antennas. In almost all cases this will entail installing new fibre in areas where laying a new duct is at its most expensive, although in a few cases fixed point-to-point radio links could be deployed instead.

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Global deployments of small cells and non-telco edge end points
in public areas

Source: Small Cell Forum, STL research and analysis

In addition, operators of 5G small cells and public cloud edge sites will require access to fibre links for backhaul to their core networks to provide the high bandwidths required. In some cases, they may need multiple fibres, especially if diverse paths are needed for security and resilience purposes.

Many newer networks have been built for a specific purpose, such as residential or business FTTP. Others are trunk routes to connect large businesses and data centres, and may serve local, regional, national or international areas. In addition, changing regulations have encouraged the creation of new businesses such as neutral hosts (also called “open access” for wholesale fibre) and, as a result, the supply side of the market is composed of an increasing variety of players. If this pattern were to continue, then it would very likely prove uneconomic to build dedicated networks for some applications, such as small cell densification or some standalone edge applications.

However, provided build qualities meet the required standard and costs can be contained there is no reason why networks deployed to address one market cannot be extended and repurposed to serve others. For new fibre builds being planned, it is also important to consider these new FTTX opportunities upfront and in some detail, rather than as an afterthought or just a throw-away bullet point on investor slide-decks.  

This report looks at the opportunities these developments offer to fibre network operators and considers the business cases that need to be made. It looks at the means and scope for minimising costs necessary to profitably satisfy the widest range of needs.

The fibre market is changing

FTTH/P has been largely satisfied in many countries, and even in slower markets such as the UK and Germany, the bulk of the network is expected to be in place by 2025/6 for most urban premises, at least on the basis of “homes passed”, if not actually connected.

By contrast the requirement of higher bandwidth connectivity for mobile base stations being upgraded from 3G to 4G and 5G is current and ongoing. Demand for links to small cells needed to support 5G densification, standalone edge, and smart city applications is only just beginning to appear and is likely to develop significantly over the next 10 years or more. In future high speed broadband links will be required to support an increasing range of applications for different organisations: for example, autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle (V2X) applications operated by government or city authorities.

Both densification and edge will need local connections for fronthaul and backhaul as well as longer connections to provide backhaul to the core network. Building from scratch is expensive owing to the high costs associated with digging in the public highway, especially in urban centres. Digging can be complex, depending on the surfaces and buried services encountered, and extensions after the initial main build can be very expensive.

Laying fibre and ducts are a long-term investment and can usually be amortised over 15 to 20 years.  Nevertheless, network operators need to be sure of a good return on their investment and therefore need to find ways to minimise costs while maximising revenues. In markets with multiple players, there will also be a desire by potential acquisition targets to underscore their valuations, by maximising their addressable market, while reducing any post-merger remedial or expansion costs. Good planning, including watching for new opportunities and trends and the smart use of existing assets to minimise costs, can help ensure this.

  • Serving multiple markets through good forecasting and planning can help maximise revenues.
  • Operators and others can make use of various infrastructure assets to reduce costs, including incumbents’ physical duct/pole infrastructure sewers, disused water and hydraulic pipes, neutral hosts’ networks, council ducts, and traffic management ducts. Obviously these will not extend everywhere that fibre is required, but can make a meaningful contribution in many situations.

The remaining sections of this report examine in more detail the specific opportunities offered to fixed network operators, by densification of mobile base stations and growth of edge computing. It covers:

  • Market demand, including drivers of demand, and end users’ and the industry’s needs and options
  • The changing supply side and regulation
  • Technologies, build options and costs
  • How to maximise revenues and returns on investment.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The fibre market is changing
  • Small cell and edge: Demand
    • Demand for small cells
    • Demand for edge end points
  • Small cell and edge: Supply
    • The changing network supply structure
  • Build options
    • Pros and cons of seven building options
  • How do they compare on costs?
  • Impact of regulation and policy
  • How to mitigate unforeseen costs
  • The business case
  • Conclusions
  • Index

Related Research

 

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Will web 3.0 change the role of telcos?

Introduction

Over the past 12 months or so, the notion that the Internet is about to see another paradigm shift has received a lot of airtime. Amid all the dissatisfaction with way the Internet works today, the concept of a web 3.0 is gaining traction. At a very basic level, web 3.0 is about using blockchains (distributed ledgers) to bring about the decentralisation of computing power, resources, data and rewards.

STL Partners has written extensively about the emergence of blockchains and the opportunities they present for telcos. But this report takes a different perspective – it considers whether blockchains and the decentralisation they embody will fix the public Internet’s flaws and usher in a new era of competition and innovation. It also explores the potential role of telcos in reinventing the web in this way and whether it is in their interests to support the web 3.0 movement or protect the status quo.

Our landmark report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms explained how reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources. In the case of web 3.0, telcos could help develop solutions and services that can help bridge the gap between the fully decentralised vision of libertarians and governments’ desire to retain control and regulate the digital world.

As it considers the opportunities for telcos, this report draws on the experiences and actions of Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Vodafone. It also builds on previous STL Partners reports including:

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What do we mean by web 3.0?

The term web 3.0 is widely used to refer to the next step change in the evolution of the Internet. For some stakeholders, it is about the integration of the physical world and the digital world through the expansion of the Internet of Things, the widespread use of digital twins and augmented reality and virtual reality. This concept, which involves the capture and the processing of vast amounts of real-time, real-world data, is sometimes known as the spatial web.

While recognising the emergence of a spatial web, Nokia, for example, has defined web 3.0 as a “visually dynamic smart web” that harness artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). It describes web 3.0 as an evolution of a “semantic web” with capacity to understand knowledge and data. Nokia believes that greater interconnectivity between machine-readable data and support for the evolution of AI and ML across “a distributed web” could remake ecommerce entirely.

Note, some of these concepts have been discussed for more than a decade. The Economist wrote about the semantic web in 2008, noting then that some people were trying to rebrand it web 3.0.

Today, the term web 3.0 is most widely used as a shorthand for a redistribution of power and data – the idea of decentralising the computation behind Internet services and the rewards that then ensue. Instead of being delivered primarily by major tech platforms, web 3.0 services would be delivered by widely-distributed computers owned by many different parties acting in concert and in line with specific protocols. These parties would be rewarded for the work that their computers do.

This report will focus primarily on the latter definition. However, the different web 3.0 concepts can be linked. Some commentators would argue that the vibrancy and ultimate success of the spatial web will depend on decentralisation. That’s because processing the real-world data captured by a spatial web could confer extraordinary power to the centralised Internet platforms involved. Indeed, Deloitte has made that link (see graphic below).

In fact, one of the main drivers of the web 3.0 movement is a sense that a small number of tech platforms have too much power on today’s Internet. The contention is that the current web 2.0 model reinforces this position of dominance by funnelling more and more data through their servers, enabling them to stay ahead of competitors. For web 3.0 proponents, the remedy is to redistribute these data flows across many thousands of different computers owned by different entities.  This is typically accomplished using what is known as decentralised apps (dapps) running on a distributed ledger (often referred to as a blockchain), in which many different computers store the code and then record each related interaction/transaction.

The spatial web and web 3.0 – two sides of the same coin?

Spacial-web-Web3-Deloitte

Source: Deloitte

For many commentators, distributed ledgers are at the heart of web 3.0 because they enable the categorisation and storage of data without the need for any central points of control. In an article it published online, Nokia predicted new application providers will displace today’s tech giants with a highly distributed infrastructure in which users own and control their own data. “Where the platform economy gave birth to companies like Uber, Airbnb, Upwork, and Alibaba, web 3.0 technology is driving a new era in social organization,” Nokia argues. “Leveraging the convergence of AI, 5G telecommunications, and blockchain, the future of work in the post-COVID era is set to look very different from what we’re used to. As web 3.0 introduces a new information and communications infrastructure, it will drive new forms of distributed social organisation…Change at this scale could prove extremely challenging to established organisations, but many will adapt and prosper.”

Nokia appears to have published that article in March 2021, but the changes it predicted are likely to happen gradually over an extended period. Distributed ledgers or blockchains are far from mature and many of their flaws are still being addressed. But there is a growing consensus that they will play a significant role in the future of the Internet.

Nokia itself is hoping that the web 3.0 movement will lead to rising demand for programmable networks that developers can harness to support decentralised services and apps. In June 2022, the company published a podcast in which Jitin Bhandari, CTO of Cloud and Network Services at Nokia, discusses the concept of “network as code” by which he means the creation of a persona of the network that can be programmed by ecosystem developers and technology application partners “in domains of enterprise, in domains of web 2.0 and web 3.0 technologies, in domains of industry 4.0 applications, in scenarios of operational technology (OT) applications.”  Nokia envisions that 5G networks will be able to participate in what it calls distributed service chains – the interlinking of multiple service providers to create new value.

Although blockchains are widely associated with Bitcoin, they can enable much more than crypto-currencies. As a distributed computer, a blockchain can be used for multiple purposes – it can store the number of tokens in a wallet, the terms of a self-executing contract, or the code for a decentralised app.

As early as 2014, Gavin Wood, the founder of the popular Ethereum blockchain, laid out a vision that web 3.0 will enable users to exchange money and information on the web without employing a middleman, such as a bank or a tech company. As a result, people would have more control over their data and be able to sell it if they choose.

Today, Ethereum is one of the most widely used (and trusted) blockchains. It bills itself as a permissionless blockchain, which means no one controls access to the service – there are no gatekeepers.

Still, as the Ethereum web site acknowledges, there are several disadvantages to web 3.0 decentralisation, as well as advantages. The graphic below which draws on Ethereum’s views and STL analysis, summarises these pros and cons.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Three ways in which telcos can support web 3.0
    • Challenges facing web 3.0
  • Introduction
  • What do we mean by web 3.0?
    • Transparency versus privacy
    • The money and motivations behind web 3.0
    • Can content also be unbundled?
    • Smart contracts and automatic outcomes
    • Will we see decentralised autonomous organisations?
    • Who controls the user experience?
    • Web 3.0 development on the rise
  • The case against web 3.0
    • Are blockchains really the way forward?
    • Missteps and malign forces
  • Ironing out the wrinkles in blockchains
  • Could and should telcos help build web 3.0?
    • Validating blockchains
    • Telefónica: An interface to blockchains
    • Vodafone: Combining blockchains with the IoT
  • Conclusions

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Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive

Deep dive: 5G core deployments 

In this July 2022 update to STL Partners’ Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, we present granular information on 5G core launches. They fall into three categories:

  • 5G Non-standalone core (5G NSA core) deployments: The 5G NSA core (agreed as part of 3GPP Release in December 2017), involves using a virtualised and upgraded version of the existing 4G core (or EPC) to support 5G New Radio (NR) wireless transmission in tandem with existing LTE services. This was the first form of 5G to be launched and still accounts for 75% of all 5G core network deployments in our Tracker.
  • 5G Standalone core (5G SA core) deployments: The SA core is a completely new and 5G-only core. It has a simplified, cloud-native and distributed architecture, and is designed to support services and functions such as network slicing, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) and enhanced Machine-Type Communications (eMTC, i.e. massive IoT). Our Tracker indicates that the upcoming wave of 5G core deployments in 2022 and 2023 will be mostly 5G SA core.
  • Converged 5G NSA/SA core deployments: this is when a dual-mode NSA and SA platform is deployed; in most cases, the NSA core results from the upgrade of an existing LTE core (EPC) to support 5G signalling and radio. The principle behind a converged NSA/SA core is the ability to orchestrate different combinations of containerised network functions, and automatically and dynamically flip over from an NSA to an SA configuration, in tandem – for example – with other features and services such as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing and the needs of different network slices. For this reason, launching a converged NSA/SA platform is a marker of a more cloud-native approach in comparison with a simple 5G NSA launch. Ericsson is the most commonly found vendor for this type of platform with a handful coming from Huawei, Samsung and WorkingGroupTwo. Albeit interesting, converged 5G NSA/SA core deployments remain a minority (7% of all 5G core deployments over the 2018-2023 period) and most of our commentary will therefore focus on 5G NSA and 5G SA core launches.

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75% of 5G cores are still Non-standalone (NSA)

Global 5G core deployments by type, 2018–23

  • There is renewed activity this year in 5G core launches since the total number of 5G core deployments so far in 2022 (effective and in progress) stands at 49, above the 47 logged in the whole of 2021. At the very least, total 5G deployments in 2022 will settle between the level of 2021 and the peak of 2020 (97).
  • 5G in whichever form now exists in most places where it was both in demand and affordable; but there remain large economies where it is yet to be launched: Turkey, Russia and most notably India. It also remains to be launched in most of Africa.
  • In countries with 5G, the next phase of launches, which will see the migration of NSA to SA cores, has yet to take place on a significant scale.
  • To date, 75% of all 5G cores are NSA. However, 5G SA will outstrip NSA in terms of deployments in 2022 and represent 24 of the 49 launches this year, or 34 if one includes converged NSA/SA cores as part of the total.
  • All but one of the 5G launches announced for 2023 are standalone; they all involve Tier-1 MNOs including Orange (in its European footprint involving Ericsson and Nokia), NTT Docomo in Japan and Verizon in the US.

The upcoming wave of SA core (and open / vRAN) represents an evolution towards cloud-native

  • Cloud-native functions or CNFs are software designed from the ground up for deployment and operation in the cloud with:​
  • Portability across any hardware infrastructure or virtualisation platform​
  • Modularity and openness, with components from multiple vendors able to be flexibly swapped in and out based on a shared set of compute and OS resources, and open APIs (in particular, via software ‘containers’)​
  • Automated orchestration and lifecycle management, with individual micro-services (software sub-components) able to be independently modified / upgraded, and automatically re-orchestrated and service-chained based on a persistent, API-based, ‘declarative’ framework (one which states the desired outcome, with the service chain organising itself to deliver the outcome in the most efficient way)​
  • Compute, resource, and software efficiency: as a concomitant of the automated, lean and logically optimal characteristics described above, CNFs are more efficient (both functionally and in terms of operating costs) and consume fewer compute and energy resources.​
  • Scalability and flexibility, as individual functions (for example, distributed user plane functions in 5G networks) can be scaled up or down instantly and dynamically in response to overall traffic flows or the needs of individual services​
  • Programmability, as network functions are now entirely based on software components that can be programmed and combined in a highly flexible manner in accordance with the needs of individual services and use contexts, via open APIs.​

Previous telco cloud tracker releases and related research

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

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Enterprise Wi-Fi 6/7 is here to stay: 5G is not enough

Overview of Wi-Fi 6/7 for enterprises

This report is not a traditional analyst report on Wi-Fi covering market segments, shares and forecasts. Numerous peer organisations have a long tradition of quantitative marketing modelling and prediction; we are not intending to compete with them. For illustration purposes, we have used a couple of charts with the kind permission of Chris DePuy from 650 Group presented at a recent Wi-Fi Now conference, during a joint panel session with the author of this report.

Instead, this report looks more at the strategic issues around Wi-Fi and the enterprise – and the implications and recommendations for CIOs and network architects in corporate user organisations, opportunities for different types of CSPs, important points for policymakers and regulators, plus a preview of the most important technical innovations likely to emerge in the next few years. There may be some differences in stance or opinion compared to certain other STL reports.

The key themes covered in this report are:

  • Background to enterprise Wi-Fi: key uses, channels and market trends
  • Understanding “Wi-Fi for verticals”
  • Decoding the changes and new capabilities that come with Wi-Fi 6, 6E and 7
  • How and where public and private 5G overlaps or competes with Wi-Fi
  • CSP opportunities in enterprise Wi-Fi
  • Wi-Fi and regulation – and the importance of network diversity.

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Wi-Fi’s background and history

Today, most readers will first think of Wi-Fi as prevalent in the home and across consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, TVs, game consoles and smart speakers. In total, there are over 18 billion Wi-Fi devices in use, with perhaps 3-4bn new products shipping annually.

Yet the history of Wi-Fi – and its underlying IEEE802.11 technology standards – is anchored in the enterprise.

The earliest incarnations of “wireless ethernet” in the 1990s were in sectors like warehousing and retail, connecting devices such as barcode scanners and point-of-sale terminals. Early leaders around 2000-2005 were companies such as Symbol, Proxim, 3Com and Lucent, supplying both industrial applications and (via chunky plug-in “PCMCIA” cards) laptops, mostly used by corporate employees.

During the 2003-2010 period, Wi-Fi exploded for both enterprises and (with the help of Apple and Intel) consumer laptops, and eventually early smartphones based on Windows and Symbian OS’s, then later iOS and Android.

The corporate world in “carpeted offices” started deploying more dedicated, heavyweight switched systems designed for dense networks of workers at desks, in meeting rooms and in cubicles. Venue Wi-Fi grew quickly as well, with full coverage becoming critical in locations such as airports and hotels, both for visitors and for staff and some connected IT systems. A certain amount of outdoor Wi-Fi was deployed, especially for city centres, but gained little traction as it coincided with broader coverage (and falling costs) of cellular data.

A new breed of enterprise Wi-Fi vendors emerged – and then quickly became consolidated by major networking and IT providers. This has occurred in several waves over the last 20 years. Cisco bought Airespace (and later Meraki and others), Juniper bought Trapeze and Mist Systems, and HP (later HPE) acquired Aruba. There has also been some telecom-sector acquisitions of Wi-Fi vendors, with Commscope acquiring Ruckus, and Ericsson buying BelAir.

While telcos have had some important roles in public or guest Wi-Fi deployments, including working with enterprises in sectors such as cafes, retail, and transport, they have had far less involvement with Wi-Fi deployed privately in enterprise offices, warehouses, factories, and similar sites. For the most part that has been integrated with the wired LAN infrastructure and broader IT domain, overseen by corporate IT/network teams and acquired via a broad array of channels and systems integrators. For industrial applications, many solution providers integrate Wi-Fi (and other wireless mechanisms) directly into machinery and automation equipment.

Looking to the future, enterprise Wi-Fi will coexist with both public and private 5G (including systems or perhaps slices provided by telcos), as well as various other wireless and fibre/fixed connectivity modes. Some elements will converge while others will stay separate. CSPs should “go with the grain” of enterprise networks and select/integrate/operate the right tools for the job, rather than trying to force-fit their preferred technical solution.

Roles and channels for enterprise Wi-Fi

Today, there are multiple roles for Wi-Fi in a business or corporate context. The most important include:

  • Traditional use in offices, both for normal working areas and shared spaces such as meeting and conference rooms. There is often a guest access option.
  • Small businesses use Wi-Fi extensively, as many workers rely on laptops and similar devices, plus vertical-specific endpoints such as payment terminals. Often, they will obtain Wi-Fi capabilities along with their normal retail business broadband connection from a service provider. This may include various types of guest-access option. Common use of shared buildings such as multi-tenant office blocks or retail malls means there may be a reliance on the landlord or site operator for network connectivity.
  • Working from home brings a wide range of new roles for Wi-Fi, especially where there is an intersection of corporate applications and security, with normal home and consumer demand. A growing range of solutions targets this type of converged situation.
  • Large visitor-led venues such as sports stadia, hotels and resorts are hugely important for the Wi-Fi industry. They often have guests with very high expectations of Wi-Fi reliability, coverage, and performance – and also often use the infrastructure themselves for staff, displays and various IoT and connected systems.
  • Municipal and city authorities have gone through two or more rounds of Wi-Fi deployments. Initial 2010-era visions for connectivity often stalled because of a mismatch between usage at the time (mostly on laptops, indoors) and coverage (mostly outdoors). Since then, the rise of smartphone ubiquity, plus a greater array of IoT and smart city devices has made city-centre Wi-Fi more useful again. Increasingly, it is being linked to 5G small cell deployments, metro fibre networks – and made more usable with easier roaming / logon procedures. Some local authorities’ scope also covers Wi-Fi use within education and healthcare settings.
  • Public Wi-Fi hotspots overlap with various enterprise sectors, most notably in transport, cafes/restaurants and hospitality sectors. Where organisations have large venues or multiple sites, such as chain of cafes or retail outlets, there is likely to be some wider enterprise proposition involved.
  • The transport industry is a hugely important sector for enterprise Wi-Fi solutions. Vehicles themselves (buses, planes, trains, taxis) require connectivity for passengers, while transport hubs (airports, stations, etc.) have huge requirements for ease-of-access and performance for Wi-Fi.
  • Wi-Fi technology is also widely used as the basis for fixed-wireless access over medium-to-wide areas. Sometimes using vendor-specific enhancements, it is common to use unlicenced spectrum and 802.11-based networks for connectivity to rural businesses or specific fixed assets. A new version of Wi-Fi technology (802.11ah HaLow) also allows low-power wide area applications for sensors and other IoT devices, which can potentially compete against LoRa and 4G NB-IoT, although it is very late to the market.
  • Niche applications for Wi-Fi technology also exist, for example backhauling other wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, for in-building sensing and automation. There are also emerging propositions such as using high-capacity 60GHz Wi-Fi to replace fibres and cabling inside buildings, especially for rapid installation or in environments where drilling holes in walls requires permits.

Enterprise Wi-Fi solutions cover a broad range of contexts and uses

Given the range of Wi-Fi enterprise market sectors and use cases, it is unsurprising that there are also multiple ways for companies and organisations to obtain the infrastructure, as well as operate the connectivity functions or services.

Some of the options include:

  • Self-provision: Many large organisations will source, install, and operate their own Wi-Fi networks via their IT and networking teams, as they do for fixed LAN and sometimes WAN equipment. They may rely on vendor or outsourced support and specific tasks such as wiring installation.
  • Broadband CSP: Especially for smaller sites, Wi-Fi is often obtained alongside business broadband connectivity, perhaps from an integrated router managed by the ISP.
  • Enterprise MSP: Larger businesses may use dedicated enterprise-grade service providers for their Internet connections, UCaaS services, SD-WAN / SASE networks and so on. These organisations may also provide on-site Wi-Fi installation and management services, or work with sub-contractors to deliver them.
  • Solution providers: Various IT and OT systems, such as building management systems or industrial automation solutions, may come with Wi-Fi embedded into the fabric of the proposition.
  • Managed Wi-Fi specialists: Especially for visitor-centric locations like transport hubs, Wi-Fi coverage and operation may be outsourced to a third party managed service operator. They will typically handle the infrastructure (and any upgrades), authentication, security and backhaul on a contractual basis. They will also likely provide staff/IoT connections as well as guest access.
  • Network integrators: Enterprises may obtain Wi-Fi installations as a one-off project from a network specialist (perhaps with separate maintenance / upgrade agreements). This may well be combined with fixed LAN infrastructure and other relevant elements. This may also be a channel for hybrid Wi-Fi / private cellular in future.
  • Vertical specialists: Various industries such as hotels, aviation, hospitals, mining and so on will often have dedicated companies catering to sector-specific needs, standards, regulations, or business practices. They may tie together various other technology elements, such as IoT connections, asset tracking, voice communications and so forth, using Wi-Fi where appropriate.
  • In-building wireless specialists: Various companies specialise in both indoor cellular coverage systems and Wi-Fi. Often linked to tower companies or neutral-host business models.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Structure and objectives of this report
    • Background and history
    • Roles and channels for enterprise Wi-Fi
    • Recent enterprise Wi-Fi market trends
    • Note on terminology
  • The evolution of “Wi-Fi for verticals”
    • Understanding Wi-Fi “verticals”
    • Existing vertical-specific Wi-Fi solutions
    • Wi-Fi in industry verticals – building ecosystems
  • Wi-Fi 6, 6E & 7: Rapid cadence or confusion?
    • Continual evolution of Wi-Fi capabilities: 6, 6E, 7
    • Wi-Fi 7 may be a game-changer for enterprise
    • The long-term future: Wi-Fi 8 and beyond
    • Other Wi-Fi variants: 60GHz and HaLow
  • Where do Wi-Fi and 5G overlap competitively?
    • Does private 5G change the game?
    • Convergence / divergence
  • The political and regulatory dimensions of enterprise wireless
    • 6GHz spectrum
  • CSPs and enterprise Wi-Fi
    • CSPs and large enterprise / industrial Wi-Fi
    • Wi-Fi service value-adds
    • Wi-Fi and edge compute
  • Conclusions

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6G: Hype versus reality

What is 6G and why does it matter?

Who’s driving the 6G discussion?

There already are numerous 6G visions, suggested use-cases and proposed technical elements. Many reflect vendors’ or universities’ existing specialist research domains or IPR in wireless, or look to entrench and extend existing commercial models and “locked-in” legacy technology stacks.

Others start from broad visions of UN development goals and policymakers’ desires for connected societies, and try to use these to frame and underpin 6G targets, even if the reality is that they will often be delivered by 5G, fibre or other technologies.

The stakeholder groups involved in creating 6G are wider than for 5G – governments, cloud hyperscalers / tech-co’s, industrial specialists, NGOs and many other groups seem more prominent than in the past, when the main drivers came from MNOs, large vendors and key academic clusters.

Over time, a process of iteration and “triangulation” will occur for 6G, initially starting with a wide funnel of ideas, which are now starting to coalesce into common requirements – and then to specific standards and underlying technical innovations. By around 2024-25 there should be more clarity, but at present there are still many directions that 6G could take.

What are they saying?

Discussions with and available material from parties interested in 6G discusses a wide range of new technologies (e.g. ultra-massive MIMO) and design goals (e.g. speeds of 1Tbps). These can be organised into six categories to provide a high-level set of futuristic statements that underpin the concept of 6G,  as articulated by the various 6G consortia and governing bodies:

  1. Provision of ultra-high data rate and ultra-low latency: Provision of up to 1Tbps speeds and as low as 1 microsecond latency – both outdoors and – implicitly at least – indoors.
  2. Use of new frequencies and interconnection of new network types: Efficient use of high, medium, and low-frequency bands, potentially including visible light and >100GHz and even THz spectrum. This will include possible coordination between non-terrestrial networks and other existing networks, and new types of radio and antenna to provide ubiquitous coverage in a dispersed “fabric” concept, rather than traditional discrete “cells”.
  3. Ultra-massive MIMO and ultra-flexible physical and control layers: The combination of ultra-large antenna arrays, intelligent surfaces, AI and new sensing technologies working in a range of frequency bands. This will depend on the deployment of a range of new technologies in the physical and control layers to increase coverage and speed, while reducing cost and power consumption.
  4. High resolution location: The ability to improve locational accuracy, potentially to centimetre-level resolutions, as well as the ability to find and describe objects in 3D orientation.
  5. Improved sensing capabilities: Ability to use 6Gradio signals for direct sensing applications such as radar, as well as for communications.
  6. General network concepts: A variety of topics including the concept of a distributed network architecture and a “network of networks” to improve network performance and coverage. This also includes more conceptual topics such as micro-networks and computing aware networks. Finally, there is discussion on tailoring 6Gfor use of / deployment by other industries beyond traditional telcos (“verticals”), such as enhancements for sectors including rail, broadcast, agriculture, utilities, among others, which may require specific features for coverage, sector-specific protocols or legacy interoperability.

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How is 6G different to 5G?

In reality, the boundaries between later versions of 5G and 6G are likely to be blurred, both in terms of the technology standards development and in the ways marketers present network products and services. As with 5G, the development of 6G will take time to reach many of the goals above. From 3GPP Release 18 onwards, 5G is officially being renamed as “5G Advanced”, mirroring a similar move in the later stages of 4G/LTE development. Rel18 standards are expected to be completed around the end of 2023, with preliminary Rel19 studies also currently underway. Rel20 and Rel21 will continue the evolution.

Figure 1: Roadmap for 6G

Source: Slides presented by Bharat B Bhatia President, ITU-APT Foundation of India at WWRF Huddle 2022

However, from 2024 onwards, the work done at 3GPP meetings and in its various groups will gradually shift from enhancing 5G to starting the groundwork for 6G – initially defining requirements in 2024-25, then creating “study items” in 2025-26. During that time, new additions to 5G in Rel20/21/22 will get progressively thinner as resources are devoted to 6G preparations.

The heavy lifting efforts on “work items” for 6G will probably start around 2026-27, with 5G Advanced output then dwindling to small enhancements or maintenance releases. It is still unclear what will get included in 5G Advanced, versus held over until 6G, but the main emphasis for 6G is likely to be on:

  • Greater performance and efficiency for mobile broadband, with attention paid to MIMO techniques, better uplink mechanisms and improved cell-to-cell handover
  • Additional features for specific verticals, as well as V2X deployments and IoT
  • Support of new spectrum bands
  • Improvements in mapping and positioning
  • Enhanced coverage and backhaul, for instance by establishing “daisy-chains” of cell sites and extensions and repeaters, including using 5Gfor backhaul and access
  • More intelligence and automation in the 5Gnetwork core, including improvements to slicing and orchestration
  • Better integration of non-terrestrial networks, typically using satellites or high-altitude platforms
  • Capabilities specifically aimed at AR/VR/XR
  • Direct device-to-device connections (also called “sidelink”) that allow communication without the need to go via a cell tower.

We can expect these 5G Advanced areas to also progress from requirements, to study, and then to work items during the period from 2022-27.

However, these features will mostly be an evolution of 5G, rather than a revolution by 5G. While there may be a few early moves on areas such as wireless sensing, Releases 18-21 are unlikely to include any radical breakthroughs. The topics we discuss elsewhere in this report, such as potential use of terahertz bands, blending of O-RAN principles of disaggregation, and new technology domains such as smart surfaces, will be solidly in the 6G era.

An important point here is that the official ITU standard for next-gen wireless, likely to be called IMT2030, is not the same as 3GPP’s branding of the cellular “generation”, or individual MNOs service names. There may well be early versions of 6G cellular, driven by market demand, that don’t quite match up to the ITU requirements. Ultimately 3GPP is an industry-led organisation, so may follow the path of expediency if there are urgent commercial opportunities or challenges.

In addition, based on the experience of 4G and 5G launches, it is probable that at least one MNO will try to call a 5G Advanced launch “6G” in their marketing. AT&T caused huge controversy – and even lawsuits – by calling a late version of LTE “5Ge” (5G evolution), even including the icons on some phones’ screens, while Verizon’s early 5G FWA systems were actually a proprietary pre-standard version of the technology.

If you’re a purist about these things – as we are – prepare to be howling in frustration around 2027-28 and describing new services as “fake 6G”.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What is 6G?
    • Key considerations for telcos and vendors around 6G
    • What should telcos and vendors do now?
    • 6G capabilities: Short-term focus areas
    • Other influencing factors
  • What is 6G and why does it matter?
    • Who’s driving the 6G discussion?
    • What are they saying?
    • The reality of moving from 5G Advanced to 6G
    • Likely roll out of 6G capabilities
  • Regulation and geopolitics
    • The expected impact of regulation and geopolitics
    • Summary of 6G consortiums and other interested parties
  • 6G products and services
  • Requirements for 6G
    • AI/ML in 6G
    • 6G security
    • 6G privacy
    • 6G sustainability
  • Drivers and barriers to 6G deployment
    • Short-term drivers
    • Short-term barriers
    • Long-term drivers
    • Long-term barriers
  • Conclusion: Realistic expectations for 6G
    • The reality: What we know for certain about 6G / IMT2030
    • Possibilities: Focus areas for 6G development
    • The hype: Highly unlikely or impossible by 2030

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Four goals for the data-driven telco

Becoming a data-driven telco

There have been many case studies over the last five years demonstrating the disruption caused by “data-driven businesses”, i.e. those using insights to understand customers, automate processes, change their business models and drive new revenues. In the future, this concept will become an integral part of what it takes to compete successfully, allowing organisations to understand and run all parts of their operations, work with their customers and partners and take part in external activities in new ecosystems. This applies to telecoms operators as much as any other industry.

This research builds on a range of reports STL Partners has previously published on strategic topics related to telcos’ use of data, including:

This research turns to the practical topics of delivering on these strategic goals. The diagram below offers an overview of the drivers and barriers affecting delivery areas such as telco data management and machine learning (ML) in the short and longer term.

Drivers and barriers to being a data-driven telco

Source: STL Partners

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What capabilities should telcos develop?

Telcos are reasonably sophisticated users of data, but their particularly complex web of legacy systems requires a good deal of work around data management and governance to enable the extraction of data sets to give 360-degree view of the customer – and increasingly to provide training data for algorithms.

In the mid-term, telcos that are successful in selling IoT and becoming ecosystem players will require new A3 to deal with the increasing number of services, devices, price points and parties involved in providing service to a customer. Our research suggests that there is a range of new A3 technologies that can provide the automation and intelligence for this, as well as for the underlying data management processes.

In the longer-term, A3 will speed up decision making, impacting company strategy, new product and service creation, and customer experience. Humans will increasingly be supported by AI-, ML- and automation-powered tools in their decision-making. A similar progression will occur among competitors in telecoms, and in adjacent markets, increasing the complexity and speed of doing business. Besides integrating A3 into human workflows, working at increasing speed will depend on getting richer insights out of the available data with techniques such as small data and creation of synthetic data.

Capabilities for a data-driven telco

Source: STL Partners

 

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Capabilities telcos should develop over the medium term
    • What will telcos focus on in the mid-term?
    • Next steps
  • Becoming a data-driven telco
    • Short term drivers
    • Barriers in the short term
    • Long term drivers
    • Barriers in the long term
  • Availability of data
    • Use of data fabrics
    • Better data labelling
    • Rise of synthetic data
    • More intelligent data selection
    • Telco strategies for cloud usage
  • Equipping people
    • Augmented analytics and business intelligence
    • Decision intelligence
  • Work on governance
    • Governance across the telco
    • Agility in governance
    • Governance for AI and machine learning
    • Ethical governance
    • Improved measurement of governance
    • Governance in ecosystems
  • Index

Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain

Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?

Over a number of years – starting in around 2014, and gathering pace from 2016 onwards – telcos have invested a large amount of money and effort on the development and deployment of their ‘telco cloud’ infrastructure, virtualised network functions (VNFs), and associated operations: long enough to expect to see measurable returns. As we set out later in this report, operators initially hoped that virtualisation would make their networks cheaper to run, or at least that it would prevent the cost of scaling up their networks to meet surging demand from spiralling out of control. The assumption was that buying commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and running network functions as software over it would work out less costly than buying proprietary network appliances from the vendors. Therefore, all things being equal, virtualisation should have translated into lower opex and capex.

However, when scrutinising operators’ reported financials over the past six years, it is impossible to determine whether this has been the case or not:

  • First, the goalposts are constantly shifting in the telecoms world, especially in recent years when massive 5G and fibre roll-outs have translated into substantial capex increases for many operators. But this does not mean that what they buy is more (or less) expensive per unit, just that they need more of it.
  • Most virtualisation effort has gone into core networks, which do not represent a large proportion of an operator’s cost base. In fact, overall expenditure on the core is dwarfed by what needs to be spent on the fixed and mobile access networks. As a ballpark estimate, for example, the Radio Access Network (RAN) represents 60% of mobile network capex.
  • Finally, most large telco groups are integrated operators that report capex or opex (or both) for their fixed and mobile units as a whole; this makes it even more difficult to identify any cost savings related to mobile core or any other virtualisation.

For this reason, when STL Partners set out to assess the economic benefit of virtualisation in the first half of 2022, it quickly became apparent that the only way to do this would be through talking directly to telcos’ CTOs and principal network engineers, and to those selling virtualisation solutions to them. Accordingly, STL Partners carried out an intensive interview programme among leading operators and vendors to find out how they quantify the benefits, financial or otherwise, from telco cloud.

What emerged was a complex and nuanced picture: while telcos struggle to demonstrate RoI from their network cloudification activities to date, many other benefits have accrued, and telcos are growing in their conviction that further cloudification is essential to meet the business, innovation and technology challenges that lie ahead – many of which cannot (yet) be quantified.

The people we spoke to comprised senior, programme-leading engineers, executives and strategists from eight operators and five vendors.

The operators concerned included: four Tier-1 players, three Tier-2 and one Tier-3. These telcos were also evenly split across the three deployment pathways explained below: two Pathway 1 (single-vendor/full-stack); three Pathway 2 (vendor-supported best-of-breed); and three Pathway 3 (DIY best-of-breed).

Four of the vendors interviewed were leading global providers of telco cloud platforms, infrastructure and integration services, and one was a challenger vendor focused on the 5G Standalone (SA) core. The figure below represents the geographical distribution of our interviewees, both telcos and vendors. Although we lacked interviewees from the APAC region and did not gain access to any Chinese operators, we were able to gain some regional insight through interviewing a new entrant in one of the major Asian markets.

Geographical distribution of STL Partners’ telco cloud benefit survey

 

Source: STL Partners

Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways

This process of telco cloudification has already gone through two phases and is entering a third phase, as illustrated below and as decribed in our Telco Cloud Manifesto, published in March 2021:

Phases of telco cloudification

Source: STL Partners

Effectively, each of these phases represents an approximately three to five-year investment cycle. Telcos have begun these investments at different times: Tier-1 telcos are generally now in the midst of their Phase 2 investments. By contrast, Tier-2s and -3s, smaller MNOs, and Tier-1s in developing markets are generally still going through their initial, Phase 1 investments in virtualisation.

Given that the leading Tier-1 players are now well into their second virtualisation investment cycle, it seems reasonable to expect that they would be able to demonstrate a return on investment from the first phase. This is particularly apt in that telcos entered into the first phase – Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) – with the specific goal of achieving quantifiable financial and operational benefits, such as:

  • Reduction in operational and capital expenditures (opex and capex), resulting from the ability to deliver and run NFs from software running on COTS hardware (cheaper per unit, but also more likely to attract economies of scale), rather than from expensive, dedicated equipment requiring ongoing, vendor-provided support, maintenance and upgrades
  • Greater scalability and resource efficiency, resulting from the ability to dynamically increase or decrease the capacity of network-function Virtual Machines (VMs), or to create new instances of them to meet fluctuating network capacity and throughput requirements, rather than having to purchase and maintain over-specified, redundant physical appliances and facilities to guarantee the same sort of capacity and resilience
  • Generation of new revenue streams, resulting from the ability that the software-centricity of virtualised networks provides to rapidly innovate and activate services that more closely address customer needs.

Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation

Some of the leading telco advocates of virtualisation have claimed variously to have achieved capex and/or opex reductions, and increases in top-line revenues, thanks to their telco cloud investments. For example, in January 2022, it was reported that some technical modelling had vindicated the cost-reduction claims of Japanese greenfield, ‘cloud-native’ operator Rakuten Mobile: it showed that Rakuten’s capex per cell site was around 40% lower, and its opex 30% lower, than the MNO incumbents in the same market. Some of the savings derived from automation gains related to virtualisation, allowing cell sites to be activated and run remotely on practically a ‘plug and play’ basis.

Similarly, Vodafone claimed in 2020 that it had reduced the cost of its mobile cores by 50% by running them as VNFs on the VMware telco cloud platform.

The problem is that the few telcos that are willing to quantify the success of their virtualisation programmes in this way are those that have championed telco cloud most vocally. And these telcos have also gone further and deeper with cloudification than the greater mass of the industry, and are now pushing on with Phase 3 virtualisation: full cloud-native. This means that they are under a greater pressure to lay claim to positive RoI and are able to muster data points of different types that appear to demonstrate real benefits, without being explicit about the baseline underpinning their claims: what their costs and revenues would, or might, have been had they persisted with the old physical appliance-centric model.

But this is an unreal comparison. Virtualisation has arisen because telco networks need to do more, and different things, than the old appliance-dependent networks enabled them to do. In the colourful expression of one of the industry experts we interviewed as part of our research, this is like comparing a horse to a computer.

In the first part of this report, we discuss the reasons why telcos generally cannot unequivocally demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date. In the second part, we discuss the range of benefits, actual and prospective, that telcos and vendors have observed from network cloudification, broken down by the three main pathways that telcos are following, as referred to above.

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?
    • Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways
    • Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation
  • Why do operators struggle to demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date?
    • For some players, it is clear that NFV did not generate RoI
    • It has also proved impossible to measure any gains, even if achieved
  • Is virtualisation so important that RoI does not matter?
  • Short-term pain for long-term gain: Why telco cloud is mission-critical
    • Cost savings are achievable
    • Operational efficiencies also gather pace as telcos progress through the telco cloud phases
    • Virtualisation both drives and is driven by organisational and process change
    • Cloud-native and CI/CD are restructuring telcos’ business models and cost base
  • Conclusion: Telco cloud benefits are deferred but assured
  • Index

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The three telco Metaverse strategies

The Metaverse offers opportunities beyond connectivity for telcos

The Metaverse is the increasingly accepted term for a set of interconnected virtual worlds. One way to think about the Metaverse is to see it as a 3D version of the world wide web in which organizations operate their own virtual 3D worlds, rather than 2D web sites. Represented by avatars, visitors to a virtual world can interact with other users or with avatars controlled by artificial intelligence. The term Metaverse entered the popular consciousness when Facebook renamed itself Meta in October 2021.

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The renaming of Facebook sparked a surge of interest in the Metaverse

Source: Google Trends

Whereas the existing Internet is essentially a 2D digital overlay of the world, composed of text, voice, images and video, the Metaverse will provide a 3D digital overlay. This is the way Nvidia’s CEO Jensen Huang, portrayed the Metaverse in a speech in November 2021. As a leading provider of graphics chips, Nvidia is thinking deeply about how to build a business case for the Metaverse, which could drive rapid growth in demand for its products.

For a fully immersive experience, the Metaverse will need to be accessed through virtual reality (VR) headsets, but it could also be explored by moving through 3D environments using a conventional handset, laptop or television. Indeed, it is important to stress that the fortunes of the Metaverse won’t necessarily depend on the fortunes of VR. Hundreds of millions of people already play video games in 3D, interacting with each other, without wearing headsets.

The Metaverse looks set to host both entirely fictional virtual spaces where people can socialise, play and enjoy entertainment, as well as simulations of the real world, where people can test new product designs, learn new skills or watch concerts and sports events they can’t attend in person.

The first part of this report considers how the Metaverse could create value and the obstacles that lie in its way. It also outlines the strategies of Improbable, Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft and Nvidia – four companies developing many of the key enabling technologies.

The second part explores the Metaverse strategies of telcos. Broadband networks and related telco services are fundamental to the smooth running of digital environments today, and will be the building blocks of the Metaverse. We believe that telcos could play a coordination role that will help prevent the Metaverse from fragmenting into silos that are unable to interoperate with each other.

Our landmark report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms explained how reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources. In the case of Metaverse, telcos can help people and businesses to interact and transact with each other safely and securely in 3D environments.

As it considers the opportunities for telcos, this report draws on the experiences and actions of SKT, Telefónica and Verizon, which are each deploying strategies to help coordinate the development of the Metaverse.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • What is the Metaverse for?
    • The lure of the virtual road
    • Corporate worlds take over from web sites
    • Dominance or democracy?
    • The non-fungible flexibility paradox
    • Facebook pursues metamorphosis
    • Microsoft has most of the pieces
  • What will the Metaverse mean for telcos?
    • Recreating the real world is challenging
    • Traffic implications for telcos
    • Opportunities for telcos
    • SK Telecom – the full stack standard bearer
    • Telefónica looks to play coordination role
    • AT&T and Verizon – connectivity plus edge
  • Conclusions
  • Index

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How video analytics can kickstart the edge opportunity for telcos

Processing video is a key use for edge computing

In our analysis and sizing of the edge market, STL Partners found that processing video will be a strong driver of edge capacity and revenues. This is because a huge quantity of visual data is captured each day through many different processes. The majority of the information captured is straightforward (such as “how busy is this road?”), therefore it is highly inefficient for the whole data stream to be sent to the core of the network. It is much better to process it near to the point of origin and save the costs, energy and time of sending it back and forth. Hence “Video Analytics” is a key use for edge computing.

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The edge market is evolving rapidly

Edge computing is an exciting opportunity. The market is evolving rapidly, and although still fairly nascent today, is expected to scale significantly over the next 2-3 years. STL partners has estimated that the total edge computing addressable market was worth $10bn in 2020, and that this will grow to $534bn in 2030. This is driven by the increasing number of connected devices, and the rising adoption of IoT, Industry 4.0 and digital transformation solutions. While cloud adoption continues to grow in parallel, there are cases where the increasingly stringent connectivity demands of new and advanced use cases cannot be met by cloud or central data centres, or where sending data to the cloud is too costly. Edge answers this problem, and offers an alternative option with lower latency, reduced backhaul and greater reliability. For the many enterprises who are adopting a hybrid and multi-cloud strategy – strategically distributing their data across different clouds and locations – running workloads at the edge is a natural next step.

Developments in the technologies enabling edge computing are also contributing to market growth. For example, the increased agility of virtualised and 5G networks enables the migration of workloads from the cloud to the edge. Compute is also developing, becoming more lightweight, efficient, and powerful. These more capable devices can run workloads and perform operations that were not previously possible at the edge.

Defining different types of edge

Edge computing brings processing capabilities closer to the end user or end-device. The compute infrastructure is therefore more distributed, and typically at smaller sites. This differs from traditional on-premise compute (which is monolithic or based on proprietary hardware) because it utilises the flexibility and openness of cloud native infrastructure, i.e. highly scalable Kubernetes clusters.

The location of the edge may be defined as anywhere between an end device, and a point on the periphery of the core network. We have outlined the key types of edge computing and where they are located in the figure below.

The types of edge computing

It should be noted that although moving compute to the edge can be considered an alternative to cloud, edge computing also complements cloud computing and drives adoption, since data that is processed or filtered at the edge can ultimately be sent to the cloud for longer term storage or collation and analysis.

Telcos must identify which area of the edge market to focus on

For operators looking to move beyond connectivity and offer vertical solutions, edge is an opportunity to differentiate by incorporating their edge capabilities into solutions. If successful, this could result in significant revenue generation, since the applications and platforms layer is where most of the revenue from edge resides. In fact, by 2030, 70% of the addressable revenue for edge will come from the application, with only 9% in the pure connectivity. The remaining 21% represents the value of hardware, edge infrastructure and platforms, integration, and managed services.

Realistically, operators will not have the resource and management bandwidth to develop solutions for several use cases and verticals. They must therefore focus on key customers in one or two segments, understand their particular business needs, and deliver that value in concert with specific partners in their ecosystem. As it relates to MEC, most operators are selecting the key partners for each of the services they offer – broadcast video, immersive AR/VR experiences, crowd analytics, gaming etc.

When selecting the best area to focus on, telcos should weigh up the attractiveness of the market (including the size of the opportunity, how mature the opportunity is, and the need for edge) against their ability to compete.

Value of edge use cases (by size of total addressable market by 2030)

Source: STL Partners – Edge computing market sizing forecast

We assessed the market attractiveness of the top use cases that are expected to drive adoption of edge over the coming years, some of which are shown in the figure above. This revealed that the use cases that represent the largest opportunities in 2030 include edge CDN, cloud gaming, connected car driver assistance and video analytics. Of these, video analytics is the most mature opportunity, therefore represents a highly attractive proposition for CSPs.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Processing video is a key use for edge computing
    • The edge market is evolving rapidly
    • Defining different types of edge
    • Telcos must identify which area of the edge market to focus on
  • Video analytics is a large and growing market
    • The market for edge-enabled video analytics will be worth $75bn by 2030
  • Edge computing changes the game and plays to operator strengths
    • What is the role of 5G?
  • Security is the largest growth area and operators have skills and assets in this
    • Video analytics for security will increasingly rely on the network edge
  • There is empirical evidence from early movers that telcos can be successful in this space
    • What are telcos doing today?
    • Telcos can front end-to-end video analytics solutions
    • It is important to maintain openness
    • Conquering the video analytics opportunity will open doors for telcos
  • Conclusion
  • Index

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VNFs on public cloud: Opportunity, not threat

VNF deployments on the hyperscale cloud are just beginning

Numerous collaboration agreements between hyperscalers and leading telcos, but few live VNF deployments to date

The past three years have seen many major telcos concluding collaboration agreements with the leading hyperscalers. These have involved one or more of five business models for the telco-hyperscaler relationship that we discussed in a previous report, and which are illustrated below:

Five business models for telco-hyperscaler partnerships

Source: STL Partners

In this report, we focus more narrowly on the deployment, delivery and operation by and to telcos of virtualised and cloud-native network functions (VNFs / CNFs) over the hyperscale public cloud. To date, there have been few instances of telcos delivering live, commercial services on the public network via VNFs hosted on the public cloud. STL Partners’ Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker contains eight examples of this, as illustrated below:

Major telcos deploying VNFs in the public cloud

Source: STL Partners

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Telcos are looking to generate returns from their telco cloud investments and maintain control over their ‘core business’

The telcos in the above table are all of comparable stature and ambition to the likes of AT&T and DISH in the realm of telco cloud but have a diametrically opposite stance when it comes to VNF deployment on public cloud. They have decided against large-scale public cloud deployments for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They have invested a considerable amount of money, time and human resources on their private clouddeployments, and they want and need to utilise the asset and generate the RoI.
  • Related to this, they have generated a large amount of intellectual property (IP) as a result of their DIY cloud– and VNF-development work. Clearly, they wish to realise the business benefits they sought to achieve through these efforts, such as cost and resource efficiencies, automation gains, enhanced flexibility and agility, and opportunities for both connectivityand edge compute service innovation. Apart from the opportunity cost of not realising these gains, it is demoralising for some CTO departments to contemplate surrendering the fruit of this effort in favour of a hyperscaler’s comparable cloud infrastructure, orchestration and management tools.
  • In addition, telcos have an opportunity to monetise that IP by marketing it to other telcos. The Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) marketed by Rakuten Symphony is an example of this: effectively, a telco providing a telco cloud platform on an NFaaS basis to third-party operators or enterprises – in competition to similar offerings that might be developed by hyperscalers. Accordingly, RCP will be hosted over private cloud facilities, not public cloud. But in theory, there is no reason why RCP could not in future be delivered over public cloud. In this case, Rakuten would be acting like any other vendor adapting its solutions to the hyperscale cloud.
  • In theory also, telcos could also offer their private telcoclouds as a platform, or wholesale or on-demand service, for third parties to source and run their own network functions (i.e. these would be hosted on the wholesale provider’s facilities, in contrast to the RCP, which is hosted on the client telco’s facilities). This would be a logical fit for telcos such as BT or Deutsche Telekom, which still operate as their respective countries’ communications backbone provider and primary wholesale provider

BT and Deutsche Telekom have also been among the telcos that have been most visibly hostile to the idea of running NFs powering their own public, mass-market services on the public and hyperscale cloud. And for most operators, this is the main concern making them cautious about deploying VNFs on the public cloud, let alone sourcing them from the cloud on an NFaaS basis: that this would be making the ‘core’ telco business and asset – the network – dependent on the technology roadmaps, operational competence and business priorities of the hyperscalers.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: VNF deployments on the hyperscale cloud are just beginning
    • Numerous collaboration agreements between hyperscalers and leading telcos, but few live VNF deployments to date
    • DISH and AT&T: AWS vs Azure; vendor-supported vs DIY; NaaCP vs net compute
  • Other DIY or vendor-supported best-of-breed players are not hosting VNFs on public cloud
    • Telcos are looking to generate returns from their telco cloud investments and maintain control over their ‘core business’
    • The reluctance to deploy VNFs on the cloud reflects a persistent, legacy concept of the telco
  • But NaaCP will drive more VNF deployments on public cloud, and opportunities for telcos
    • Multiple models for NaaCP present prospects for greater integration of cloud-native networks and public cloud
  • Conclusion: Convergence of network and cloud is inevitable – but not telcos’ defeat
  • Appendix

Related Research

 

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Telco plays in live entertainment

Enhancing live entertainment

Live entertainment spans everything from a handful of people enjoying stand-up comedy in a pub to a football match attended by 100,000 fans. Although there are many different forms and formats of live entertainment, they share three inter-related characteristics – immediacy, interactivity and immersion. The performers make things happen and people tend to react, by clapping, shouting, singing or gesticulating at the performers or by interacting with each other. A compelling event will also be immersive in the sense that the spectators will focus entirely on the action.

For telcos, live events present specific challenges and opportunities. Simultaneously providing millions of people with high quality images and audio from live events can soak up large amounts of bandwidth on networks, forcing telcos to invest in additional capacity. Yet, it should be feasible to make a return on that investment: live events are an enormously popular form of entertainment on which people around the world are prepared to spend vast sums of money. This is a market where demand often outstrips supply: tickets for top tier sports events or music concerts can cost US$150 or more.

With the advent of 5G and Wi-Fi 6E, telcos have an opportunity to improve spectators’ enjoyment of live events both within a venue and in remote locations. Indeed, telcos could play a key role in enabling many more people to both participate in and appreciate live entertainment, thereby helping them to enjoy more fulfilling and enriching lives.

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The opportunities to use new technologies to enhance live events

Live entertainment

Source: STL Partners

More broadly, telecoms networks and related services have become fundamental to the smooth running of our increasingly digital economy. Our landmark report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms explained how reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources. In the case of live entertainment, telcos can help people to make better use of their leisure time – a precious and very finite resource for most individuals.

This report begins by providing an overview of the live entertainment opportunity for telcos, outlining the services they could provide to support both professional and amateur events. It then considers the growing demand for high-definition, 360-degree coverage of live events, before discussing why it is increasingly important to deliver footage in real-time, rather than near real-time. Subsequent sections explore the expanding role of edge computing in facilitating live broadcasts and how augmented reality and virtual reality could be used to create more immersive and interactive experiences.

This report draws on the experiences and actions of AT&T, BT, NTT and Verizon, which are all very active in the coverage of live sports. It also builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Opportunities to enhance live entertainment
    • Amateur entertainment – a B2C play
  • Delivering high-definition/360-degree video
    • New broadcast technologies
    • Real-time encoding and compression
    • Traffic management and net neutrality
  • Real real-time coverage and stats
    • More data and more stats
    • Personalised advertising and offers
  • Edge computing and the in-event experience
    • Refereeing automation/support
    • In-venue security and safety
    • Wi-Fi versus 5G
  • Augmented reality – blurring the lines
  • Conclusions
    • Tech can enrich people’s experience of live events
    • The role of telcos
  • Index

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Convergence, coexistence or competition: How will 5G and Wi-Fi 6 interact?

Introduction: Wi-Fi vs cellular

The debate around Wi-Fi and cellular convergence is not new. However, the introduction of next generation mobile and cellular technologies, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, has once again reignited this debate. Further impetus for discussion has been provided by industry bodies, including the Wi-Fi Alliance, IEEE, Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) and 3GPP, developing standards to enable the convergence between 5G and Wi-Fi.

5G, introduced by 3GPP’s release 15 in 2018, and deployed internationally by telecoms operators since 2019, is considered a significant upgrade to 4G and LTE. Its improved capabilities such as increased speed, coverage, reliability, and security promise to enable a host of new use cases in a wide range of industries.

Simultaneously, Wi-Fi has evolved into its 6th generation, with Wi-Fi 6 technology emerging in 2019. This new evolution of Wi-Fi can provide speeds that are 40% higher than its predecessor, as well as improved visibility and transparency for better network control and management. Some of the key enhancements of the new generation are detailed in the table below.

Figure 1: There are a number of key differences between next generation Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity

key-differences-next-generation-wifi-cellular-activity

Source: STL Partners

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The market context for convergence

Industry bodies have been promoting convergence

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) produced a joint report in 2021 promoting the future convergence between Wi-Fi and 5G. The report highlights the merits of convergence, noting a number of use cases and verticals that could stand to benefit from closer alignment between the two technologies. Further, the 3GPP have increasingly sought to include standards with each new release that enable convergence between Wi-Fi and cellular. 3GPP’s release 8 introduced the concept of ‘access network discovery and selection function’ (ANDSF) which allowed user equipment to discover non-3GPP access networks, including Wi-Fi. In 2018, release 15 included optional 3GPP access for native 5G services via these non 3GPP access networks. Most recently, release 16 introduced ‘access traffic steering, splitting and switching’ (ATSSS), allowing both 3GPP and non-3GPP connectivity to multiple access networks, which is a key enabler of the resilience model of convergence. Similarly, the IEEE, sponsored by the Wi-Fi Alliance has been discussing the potential pathways to convergence for a number of years. However, these bodies are less vocal about future convergence possibilities, likely given Wi-Fi’s current dominance in the provision of enterprise wireless connectivity.

Spectrum auctions

The possibility of convergence has been further supported in recent years by releases of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use in the USA, UK, South Korea and other major markets. Spectrum in the same 6GHz range can also be used to support 5G connectivity in addition to the existing 5GHz band. With the ability to share the same spectrum, this could theoretically promote closer coupling of 5G and Wi-Fi. However, given similar propagation characteristics for each technology, it remains to be proven as to whether the increasing availability of spectrum will help to push convergence forward.

There is a disconnect between theory and practice

While standards define what is possible, the purpose of industry bodies is to be future-focused, paving the way for the rest of the ecosystem to follow. What is possible in theory must be supported in practice, and the supply-side ecosystem, including network operators, system integrators (SIs), network equipment providers (NEPs) and hardware manufacturers have a role to play if convergence is to become more widespread.

Similarly, for devices to access converged networks, they must be equipped with 5G and Wi-Fi chips. While mobile phones support both connectivity types, the vast majority of connected devices that enterprises deploy are Wi-Fi only. Until 5G chips or modules become more widely available, and used in a greater number of devices, convergence will likely remain relegated to specific use cases. For example, use cases that depend on the mobility afforded by being able to ‘switch over’ from Wi-Fi to mobile seamlessly, or highly mission critical use cases in verticals such as manufacturing that can justify the investment in (private) 5G as a back-up to Wi-Fi. We discuss both of these use cases in more detail in the report. The full ecosystem must ultimately work in concert for convergence to become a realistic possibility for a larger number of enterprises.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Convergence is still immature on both the demand and supply sides
    • What do we mean by co-existence, convergence and competition?
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • The market context for convergence
    • Industry bodies have been promoting convergence
    • Spectrum auctions
    • There is a disconnect between theory and practice
    • There are two key use cases for convergence
  • A future trend towards convergence is still immature
    • Regional differences in the maturity of 5G
    • Inconsistent definitions
    • Who manages convergence?
  • It is still too early to see high levels of demand for convergence from enterprise customers
    • Wi-Fi is the incumbent, 5G must overcome a number of barriers before it can become a genuine partner or alternative
    • Decisions regarding convergence are driven by industry characteristics
    • Supply side players must educate enterprise customers about convergence (if they believe it is beneficial to the enterprise)
  • Conclusion

Related research

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The new telcos: A field guide

Introduction

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

animal-species-telcos-stl-partners

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:

  • MVNOs
  • Towercos
  • Internet Exchanges
  • (W)ISPs
  • 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

virtualisation-cloudification-networks-STL-Partners

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
    • Overview
    • New telco categories and service areas
    • Recommendations for traditional fixed/mobile operators
    • Recommendations for vendors and suppliers
    • Recommendations for regulators, governments & advisors
  • Introduction
    • 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
    • TowerCos
    • 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
  • Conclusions

Related Research

 

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Revisiting convergence: How to address the growth imperative

Introduction

Significant opportunity, high risk of complacency

The opportunity for communications service providers (CSPs) to provide greater value and innovative services to customers through new technology advancements is well-documented. For example, the network capabilities (and programmability) that 5G and cloud native bring is touted to change the way that CSPs address revenue opportunities with customers and partners in a more ecosystem-centric environment. The emergence of FTTx (fibre to the x) technology can optimise the use of operators’ assets in a way that delivers seamless connectivity to customers. These advancements allow CSPs to better serve customer needs in a more flexible, scalable, sustainable and agile way than ever before.

Part of the imperative to address this opportunity and vision stems from significant market disruption with new entrants and new types of ‘co-opetitors’, such as the hyperscale cloud providers and greenfield operators, that challenge operators’ existing business and operating models. As a result, CSPs face growing pressure to respond much faster to market and customer demands and enhance their capabilities in a way that does not inflate their cost base or undermine their net-zero goals.

Although CSPs have identified these green pastures for growth, there is still a considerable disconnect between the vision (and what is required to fulfil the ambition) and what capabilities CSPs have today to meet it. Today, CSPs are grappling with too much complexity, fragmentation and duplication within their networks, capabilities and systems. This not only means costs are too high, but it also poses a significant barrier to how they can accelerate the beat rate of innovation and serve new revenue-generating opportunities. This is a gap that CSPs need to close urgently or be at risk of their market shares and value eroding as a result of competition.

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The imperative that CSPs can no longer ignore

There is therefore a renewed urgency in building a stronger cost base, scalability, agility and innovation, which could soon become a matter of survival. CSPs are evaluating different strategies and means of making better (and smarter) use of their assets and capabilities in a more agile way and provide the services that customers and partners are increasingly demanding. One such strategy that CSPs have long pursued is network convergence. Although the concept is not new and has been consistently explored and sporadically pursued by operators over the years, the interest has now been reignited to address this imperative. The balance of forces between convergence and divergence has also shifted in favour of the latter in recent years. This has been driven by the adoption of cloud native technologies, which enables operators to deliver new innovative services on top of a common platform (versus siloed islands) and drive for more sustainability & efficiency in the network. This has brought convergence back up to the top of operators’ agendas.

Our report therefore looks to address the following questions:

  • Why and how are CSPs converging their networks to fulfil their growth ambitions?
  • What are the key challenges they face and how can they overcome them?

Evaluating the key drivers for convergence

Cost savings are a priority, but CSPs also want top line growth

The key drivers that CSPs are focused on as part of this renewed pursuit of network convergence are internal and external. Although most operators see capital investment savings and reduction of total cost of ownership (TCO) as an essential priority, the majority of interviewees we spoke to also emphasised the need to support greater innovation with customers and ecosystem development. We describe the main drivers we found through our research with operators below:

Four key drivers that CSPs are focused on

Source: STL Partners

Reducing TCO through network simplification and consolidation

Many operators we spoke to cited network simplification and convergence in addressing the need to ‘do more with less’ and the ability to drive economies of scale and serve market requirements. Convergence can address different disparate sub-systems and siloes that don’t interact with one another (e.g. performance management and inventory management, IP and optical). This fragmentation creates unnecessary complexity for network operations teams to run, manage and assure their networks and introduce potential human errors and associated costs. CSPs have an opportunity to move towards having common infrastructure and management toolset to serve multiple needs, reduce overall TCO and to achieve better control and ubiquitous visibility across their networks. This is particularly important for larger and/or multi-service, multi-country operators. The decommissioning of legacy services (in some cases with government support, for example with PSTN services) is a key opportunity for this.

One European operator described the importance of being able to serve fixed (residential), mobile (consumer), enterprise and wholesale customers with a single backbone and transport network. Inherent in this is greater efficiency, ease of management and less capital spend required to serve multiple types of customers. For example, our interviewee cited the economies of scale they have achieved by putting all of their traffic onto a single IP network that supports all types of customers. This includes greater efficiency and simplicity in not having to run separate IP networks for each type of customer group and less spend on IP routers and lower TCO overall as part of the consolidation.

Creating a sustainable platform for scale and massive data growth

New use cases are projected to increase network traffic and demands. Operators need to prepare for this volume expansion, support more types of fibre connections, provide more flexible capacity and address high performance demands (throughput, latency, error rates). Another European group operator described scale as the main driver for convergence, in being able to seamlessly support thousands of points within the network and offer their portfolio of services across their operations as one package to customers in a simpler way.

Operators need to consider how they can maximise the use of their infrastructure to serve increasingly demanding needs. For example, there is a significant need for CSPs to extract greater synergies from their access fibre: two operators we spoke to – one in North America, the other in Asia – are using fibre originally deployed for residential broadband (Gigabit Passive Optical Network, or GPON) to connect 5G cells. Operators are joining national governments and high-profile corporations in making ‘net-zero’ commitments which is leading them to actively identify and implement strategies that will dramatically reduce their own environmental footprint and play a more active role in reducing their customers’ carbon emissions.

Enabling greater control, resilience and automation

Implicit in these developments is the greater need for automation within the network to ensure not only the greatest cost efficient optimisation of network speeds and processing power, but also the ability to navigate greater network intricacy. One particular European operator we spoke to described the need to enable greater automation across the entire lifecycle, introduce CI/CD pipelines for more agile service development and provide much more granular information and visibility across the entire network. By simplifying and converging the network, operators, operators can address some of the inherent complexity and disparate siloes in their networks and create a unified view of their network. This provides better visibility across the entire network for network operations teams and makes the task of assuring their networks easier. A more unified or common management layer also enables a more granular view and creates scope for AI/ML to deliver further gains in operational simplification and automation. In addition to the benefits for service assurance and lifecycle management, CSPs are also looking to better identify priority areas for improvement and develop more granular cost-benefit analysis for future investment planning.

Enabling greater control, resilience and automation

Implicit in these developments is the greater need for automation within the network to ensure not only the greatest cost efficient optimisation of network speeds and processing power, but also the ability to navigate greater network intricacy. One particular European operator we spoke to described the need to enable greater automation across the entire lifecycle, introduce CI/CD pipelines for more agile service development and provide much more granular information and visibility across the entire network. By simplifying and converging the network, operators can address some of the inherent complexity and disparate siloes in their networks and create a unified view of their network. This provides better visibility across the entire network for network operations teams and makes the task of assuring their networks easier. A more unified or common management layer also enables a more granular view and creates scope for AI/ML to deliver further gains in operational simplification and automation. In addition to the benefits for service assurance and lifecycle management, CSPs are also looking to better identify priority areas for improvement and develop more granular cost-benefit analysis for future investment planning.

Supporting greater innovation and ecosystem development

As the industry moves to more ecosystem-centric, B2B2X models, operators need to be more versatile in supporting diverse types of services with different types of customers. As more and more devices become connected throughout the Coordination Age , the network will need to become more responsive to different use case needs. The underlying network infrastructure needs to facilitate the faster development of richer network functionality and the plethora of emerging use cases, in order to support greater innovation. This means the network (and network teams) need to handle fast changing functions and more agile service development, and frequent software updates.

With a resurging interest in more network-enabled applications, from telematics and connected car to different types of location-based services or immersive experiences (AR/VR) that can respond to network performance data, the network needs to become more visible, distributed, programmable and instructible. Operators can leverage and expose these network capabilities to both internal and external parties, including customers and partners such as application developers, to serve new types of revenue opportunities and ecosystem partners . The expansion of 5G will create the risk of added complexity to the network, not least through the increase in access infrastructure including thousands of locations supporting distributed virtualised workloads (both cloud native network functions and other applications). This makes convergence and the simplification of the management layer even more imperative. The ability to dynamically manipulate network functions is just one of many programmable capabilities the network will require but doing this while keeping the network and associated services secured is no simple task.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Preface
  • Introduction
    • Significant opportunity, high risk of complacency
    • The imperative that CSPs can no longer ignore
  • Evaluating the key drivers for convergence
    • Cost savings are a priority, but CSPs also want top line growth
  • Revisiting the concept of convergence
    • Convergence is a multifaceted problem and solution
    • CSPs take different approaches to tackle similar problems
    • Logical convergence
    • Horizontal convergence
    • Vertical convergence
    • The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
  • A matter of how? not why?
    • History and market variance play a role
    • Understanding the key challenges
  • Taking the plunge
    • Convergence is not just a technology decision
    • Incremental steps, not radical change

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IoT security: The foundation for growth beyond connectivity

Introduction

The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) defines the IoT as “a cyber-physical ecosystem of interconnected sensors and actuators, which enable intelligent decision making.” In this ecosystem, the information or data flows among the various components of the IoT enable informed decision making for machines, objects, and the spaces in which they operate. Through this web of tightly interconnected cyber-physical systems, the IoT underpins a variety of applications such as smart cities, smart factories, smart agriculture and so forth.

While these applications touch all the areas of our living and working activities, bringing enormous benefits and possibilities, they also exacerbate system complexities and, in turn, significantly enlarge the domain of threats and risks. As a result, securing the IoT is a very complex task, involving the implementation of highly specialised security measures. In market terms, this complexity translates into rich ecosystems of skills and expertise, where there is not one player in charge of securing the IoT, but it is both a responsibility and an opportunity for all players in the value chain.

Thinking about IoT security, the fundamental objective is ensuring the trust between the provider of an IoT solution and the IoT solution adopter. Microsoft IoT Signals, a well-known survey of 3,000 organisations adopting the IoT, emphasizes this in its 2021 edition, where 91% of the organisations surveyed have security concerns about adopting the IoT. 29% of those organisations do not scale their IoT solution due to security concerns. These concerns hamper the benefits enterprises can gain from IoT solutions. For instance, in the same survey, more than 55% of organisations said they were becoming more efficient adopting the IoT, and 23% claimed that their IoT solution has a direct impact on revenue growth. These benefits come from the variety and volume of data gathered through the IoT to drive better informed operational decisions. The result is that IoT data becomes a fundamental and necessary asset that must be protected.

While managing security risks in IoT is often perceived as a necessary burden, this report will instead highlight securing the IoT as an opportunity. For telecoms operators, this opportunity may not always be directly evident in new revenues, but it is fundamental to the creation of trust between provider and the adopter of IoT services. That trust, built through IoT security services, provides a stronger foundation from which to develop new revenue-generating services beyond connectivity.

This report also argues that by building more comprehensive data insights services into their existing IoT platforms mobile network operators are in a strong position to bring that trust to enterprises. As operators expand their security offers from well-known security functions provided at connectivity level – almost embedded in an operator – to more sophisticated security services across the IoT architecture, they can position themselves as a partner and guide to enterprises as they likewise become more sophisticated in their security needs.

The report is structured in three main parts:

  1. Discussion of the key vulnerabilities in the IoT and responses to those defined by regulators and security bodies such as ENISA, NIST, IoT Security Foundation and others.
  2. Analysis of the roles mobile network operators are playing in the IoTsecurity services market.
  3. Analysis of the opportunities for mobile network operators in security services for the IoT.

The research is based on the author’s extensive experience in IoT security, and enriched by interviews with IoT security experts close to the world of mobile network operators. Finally, an understanding of the most authoritative guidelines and analysis (ENISA, NIST, IoTSF, GSMA, OWASP) on IoT security supports the research.

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Why IoT security is rising up the agenda

In the fervent debates on the development of the IoT, the security aspect is often hidden or avoided. This stems from a common view among IoT solution companies and end-users that security is a heavy point of discussion that hampers business enthusiasm. This perspective is both unhelpful and dangerous, actively hindering greater scale and trust in the IoT. We strongly believe the argument should be flipped around. Although IoT security is a fundamental risk for the development of the IoT, it is also the means through which to develop robust, reliable, and lucrative IoT solutions. Therefore, IoT security should become a priority in IoT strategy and project development.

There are three considerations that are driving a fundamental shift in perceptions of security from a barrier to an enabler of IoT solutions, both among providers and adopters:

  1. Rising frequency and prevalence of avoidable large scale IoT security breaches.  There are plenty of examples of hacking of connected devices and large IoT systems that have dramatically compromised IoT solutions’ functioning, the business case linked to them, and relationships with customers. Recent examples include:
    • In May 2021, Colonial Pipe suffered a ransomware attack that impacted the computerised equipment monitoring the entire pipeline system from Texas to New Jersey, carrying 2.5 million barrel of oil a day. The entire system, based on a vast IoT solution of several sensors along the pipeline, was blocked. To re-boot the system, Colonial Pipeline paid 75 Bitcoin (the equivalent of $4.4 million at the time). (The solution to this type of breach is implementation of a remediation strategy.)
    • Consumer IoT devices are no less attractive than big corporations to hackers. In June 2021, the McAfee Advanced Threat Research identified a potential security vulnerability in the Peleton Bike+: “The ATR team recently disclosed a vulnerability (CVE-2021-3387) in the Peloton Bike+, which would allow a hacker with either physical access to the Bike+ or access during any point in the supply chain (from construction to delivery), to gain remote root access to the Peloton’s tablet. The hacker could install malicious software, intercept traffic and user’s personal data, and even gain control of the Bike’s camera and microphone over the internet.” The Peleton Bike+ vulnerability almost become a matter of national security in the US, considering that President Jo Biden is, apparently, a Peleton Bike+ user. (The security solution to this type of breach is software and system updates.)

2. Regulatory bodies are responding to the increasing incidence of IoT attacks with guidelines and regulations. Realising the danger of connected devices and systems developed with inappropriate security features, regulators worldwide are issuing specific procedures and policies in IoT security. In some cases these are mandatory and in other cases function as guidance and support.

    • Australia has created a voluntary code of practice, Securing the Internet of Things for Consumers, focussing on issues of authorisation, authentication, and access of IoTdata in consumer devices.
    • Singapore has issued the IoT Cyber Security Guide to support enterprises to develop secure IoT systems. Enterprises should also comply to IoT-related standards in sensors, sensor networks, and devices.
    • The United Kingdom has focussed on security around IoT devices with the first Code of Practice for Consumer IoT Security published in 2018.
    • The European Union is focussing on the development of an “IoT Trust” label for IoT consumer devices.
    • The United States launched legislation in 2020 – IoT Cybersecurity Improvements Act – which, through a combination of subsidies and project grants, incentivises companies that build and sell IoT solutions to develop them with a security-by-design

These initiatives are all specifically designed around IoT devices and systems. However, it is important to highlight that the relevant legal framework is wider. For example, in the European Union, the three key regulations applying to the sale and use of IoT devices and ecosystems are CE Marking (health and safety of products sold in the EU), GDPR, and the Network and Information Security Directive (NIS Directive). It is well known, but important to stress it, that violation of GDPR – data breaches and misuses of data – can cost up to EUR20 million. A similar legal framework exists in the United States, in which there are three Acts relevant for IoT devices: Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), the Cyber Security Information Sharing Act (CISA), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Those who violate America’s Federal Trade Commission Act could face fines of $41,484 per violation, per day.

It is also worth noting that many of these regulations focus on the consumer IoT because it has been the weakest in terms of attention to security features, there is a direct link to data privacy (i.e. by hacking into IoT devices malicious actors can gain access to other digital profile data), and most consumers do not have the skill or resources to protect themselves.

3. The increasing business and economic impact of IoT data. Organisations of all kinds are increasingly relying on data for their strategy development, optimisation of processes, increasing engagement with customers and innovating their business models. The data needed for all these activities is increasingly machine generated by an IoT solution. To illustrate this value, there have been several studies on understanding the economic impact of IoT data. For example, in April 2019, GSMA Intelligence estimated that the economic impact of IoT on business productivity was in the order of $175bn, 0.2% of the global GDP. GSMA Intelligence also forecasted that by 2025 the economic impact would increase to $371bn, 0.34% of the global GDP, with IoT companies generating almost a trillion dollar in revenues. Ultimately, if a competitor or malicious actors gets hold of an organisation’s data, then they have accessed one of its most important assets. Therefore, as organisations become ever more data-driven in their strategic decision making, the importance of securing the systems gathering and storing that data will rise.

Defining IoT Security

The US NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) defines cyber-risk as “a function of the probability of a given threat source’s exercising any potential vulnerability and the resulting impact of that adverse event on the organisation.” The IoT security risk is one of many cyber-risks to any organisation and refers to the unforeseen exploitation of IoT system vulnerabilities to gain access to assets with the intent to cause harm.

A major challenge in assessing the IoT system vulnerabilities and threats comes from the technological complexity of an IoT solution and the diversity of applications and environments the IoT solution serves. Therefore, IoT security can be assessed in two levels. The first level regards the IoT architectural stack, which is common to different domains and applications. The second level is solution-specific and requires specialised services depending on the domain of applications.

The starting point of the analysis is a model of IoT architecture, illustrated in a simplified format in the diagram below.

Simplified IoT  architecture

Simplified-IoT-architecture-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

 

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Security can enable MNOs to build beyond connectivity in IoT
    • Next steps: Building on security in the Coordination Age
  • Introduction
    • Why IoT security is rising up the agenda
  • Defining IoT security
    • Key IoT vulnerabilities
    • Enterprises’ view on securing IoT
    • How to meet enterprise needs: Delivering security across three dimensions
  • Mobile operators’ roles in IoT security
    • Telco strategy comparison: IoT security offers vs dedicated business units
    • Assessing operators’ security services by function
    • Takeaways
  • Future growth trends for operators to capitalise on
    • eSIM and integrated eSIM (iSIM) capabilities
    • 5G private network security services
    • Managing encryption requirements
    • Blockchain in telecommunications
    • Secure communication through quantum information and communication technology

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