Why and how to go telco cloud native: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten

The telco business is being disaggregated

Telcos are facing a situation in which the elements that have traditionally made up and produced their core business are being ‘disaggregated’: broken up into their component parts and recombined in different ways, while some of the elements of the telco business are increasingly being provided by players from other industry verticals.

By the same token, telcos face the pressure – and the opportunity – to combine connectivity with other capabilities as part of new vertical-specific offerings.

Telco disaggregation primarily affects three interrelated aspects of the telco business:

  1. Technology:
    • ‘Vertical’ disaggregation: separating out of network functions previously delivered by dedicated, physical equipment into software running on commodity computing hardware (NFV, virtualisation)
    • ‘Horizontal’ disaggregation: breaking up of network functions themselves into their component parts – at both the software and hardware levels; and re-engineering, recombining and redistributing of those component parts (geographically and architecturally) to meet the needs of new use cases. In respect of software, this typically involves cloud-native network functions (CNFs) and containerisation
    • Open RAN is an example of both types of disaggregation: vertical disaggregation through separation of baseband processing software and hardware; and horizontal disaggregation by breaking out the baseband function into centralised and distributed units (CU and DU), along with a separate, programmable controller (RAN Intelligent Controller, or RIC), where all of these can in theory be provided by different vendors, and interface with radios that can also be provided by third-party vendors.
  2. Organisational structure and operating model: Breaking up of organisational hierarchies, departmental siloes, and waterfall development processes focused on the core connectivity business. As telcos face the need to develop new vertical- and client-specific services and use cases beyond the increasingly commoditised, low-margin connectivity business, these structures are being – or need to be – replaced by more multi-disciplinary teams taking end-to-end responsibility for product development and operations (e.g. DevOps), go-to-market, profitability, and technology.

Transformation from the vertical telco to the disaggregated telco

3. Value chain and business model: Breaking up of the traditional model whereby telcos owned – or at least had end-to-end operational oversight over – . This is not to deny that telcos have always relied on third party-owned or outsourced infrastructure and services, such as wholesale networks, interconnect services or vendor outsourcing. However, these discrete elements have always been welded into an end-to-end, network-based services offering under the auspices of the telco’s BSS and OSS. These ensured that the telco took overall responsibility for end-to-end service design, delivery, assurance and billing.

    • The theory behind this traditional model is that all the customer’s connectivity needs should be met by leveraging the end-to-end telco network / service offering. In practice, the end-to-end characteristics have not always been fully controlled or owned by the service provider.
    • In the new, further disaggregated value chain, different parts of the now more software-, IT- and cloud-based technology stack are increasingly provided by other types of player, including from other industry verticals. Telcos must compete to play within these new markets, and have no automatic right to deliver even just the connectivity elements.

All of these aspects of disaggregation can be seen as manifestations of a fundamental shift where telecoms is evolving from a utility communications and connectivity business to a component of distributed computing. The core business of telecoms is becoming the processing and delivery of distributed computing workloads, and the enablement of ubiquitous computing.

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Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation

Telco industry disaggregation is part of a broader evolution in the domains of technology, business, the economy, and society. This evolution comprises ‘computerisation’. Computing analyses and breaks up material processes and systems into a set of logical and functional sub-components, enabling processes and products to be re-engineered, optimised, recombined in different ways, managed, and executed more efficiently and automatically.

In essence, ‘telco disaggregation’ is a term that describes a moment in time at which telecoms technology, organisations, value chains and processes are being broken up into their component parts and re-engineered, under the impact of computerisation and its synonyms: digitisation, softwarisation, virtualisation and cloud.

This is part of a new wave of societal computerisation / digitisation, which at STL Partners we call the Coordination Age. At a high level, this can be described as ‘cross-domain computerisation’: separating out processes, services and functions from multiple areas of technology, the economy and society – and optimising, recombining and automating them (i.e. coordinating them), so that they can better deliver on social, economic and environmental needs and goals. In other words, this enables scarce resources to be used more efficiently and sustainably in pursuit of individual and social needs.

NFV has computerised the network; telco cloud native subordinates it to computing

In respect of the telecoms industry in particular, one could argue that the first wave of virtualisation (NFV and SDN), which unfolded during the 2010s, represented the computerisation and digitisation of telecoms networking. The focus of this was internal to the telecoms industry in the first instance, rather than connected to other social and technology domains and goals. It was about taking legacy, physical networking processes and functions, and redesigning and reimplementing them in software.

Then, the second wave of virtualisation (cloud-native – which is happening now) is what enables telecoms networking to play a part in the second wave of societal computerisation more broadly (the Coordination Age). This is because the different layers and elements of telecoms networks (services, network functions and infrastructure) are redefined, instantiated in software, broken up into their component parts, redistributed (logically and physically), and reassembled as a function of an increasing variety of cross-domain and cross-vertical use cases that are enabled and delivered, ultimately, by computerisation. Telecoms is disaggregated by, subordinated to, and defined and controlled by computing.

In summary, we can say that telecoms networks and operations are going through disaggregation now because this forms part of a broader societal transformation in which physical processes, functions and systems are being brought under the control of computing / IT, in pursuit of broader human, societal, economic and environmental goals.

In practice, this also means that telcos are facing increasing competition from many new types of actor, such as:

  • Computing, IT and cloud players
  • More specialist and agile networking providers
  • And vertical-market actors – delivering connectivity in support of vertical-specific, Coordination Age use cases.

 

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Three critical success factors for Coordination Age telcos
    • What capabilities will remain distinctively ‘telco’?
    • Our take on three pioneering cloud-native telcos
  • Introduction
    • The telco business is being disaggregated
    • Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation
  • The disaggregated telco landscape: Where’s the value for telcos?
    • Is there anything left that is distinctively ‘telco’?
    • The ‘core’ telecoms business has evolved from delivering ubiquitous communications to enabling ubiquitous computing
    • Six telco-specific roles for telecoms remain in play
  • Radical telco disaggregation in action: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten
    • Servco, netco or infraco – or a patchwork of all three?
    • AT&T Network Cloud sell-off: Desperation or strategic acuity?
    • DISH Networks: Building the hyperscale network
    • Rakuten Mobile: Ecommerce platform turned cloud-native telco, turned telco cloud platform provider
  • Conclusion

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Microsoft, Affirmed and Metaswitch: What does it mean for telecoms?

What is Microsoft doing, and should telcos be worried?

Over the past two years, Microsoft and its cloud business unit Azure have intensified and deepened their involvement in the telecoms vertical. In 2020, this included the acquisition of two leading independent vendors of cloud-native network software, Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch. This move surprised many industry observers, as it represented an intensification of Microsoft’s involvement in telco networking.

In addition, in September 2020, Microsoft announced its ‘Azure for Operators’ strategy. This packages up all the elements of Microsoft’s and Azure’s infrastructure and service offerings for the telecoms industry – including those provided by Affirmed and Metaswitch – into a more comprehensive, end-to-end portfolio organised around Microsoft’s concept of a ‘carrier-grade cloud’: a cloud that is truly capable of supporting and delivering the distinct performance and reliability that telcos require from their network functions, as opposed to the mainstream cloud devoted to enterprise IT.

In this report, our discussion of Microsoft’s strategy and partnership offer to telcos is our own interpretation based on our research, including conversations with executives from Microsoft, Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch.

We examine Microsoft’s activities in the telecoms vertical in the light of three central questions:

  • What is Microsoft doing in telecoms, and what are its intentions?
  • How should telcos respond to Microsoft’s moves and those of comparable hyperscale cloud providers? Should they consume the hyperscalers’ telco cloud products, compete against the hyperscalers, or collaborate with them?
  • And what would count as success for telcos in relationship to Microsoft and the other hyperscalers? Are there any lessons to be learned from what is happening already?

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Microsoft’s telecom timeline

The last couple of years has seen Microsoft and Azure increasing their involvement in telecoms infrastructure and software while building partnerships with telcos around the world. This march into telecoms stepped up a level with Microsoft’s acquisition in 2020 of two independent virtual network function (VNF) vendors with a strong presence in the mobile core, among other things: Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch. Microsoft was not previously known for its strength in telco network software, and particularly the mobile domain – prompting the question: what exactly was it doing in telecoms?

The graphic below illustrates some of the key milestones in Microsoft’s steady march into telecoms.

Microsoft’s move on telecoms

Microsoft’s five partnership and service models

Microsoft Azure’s key initiatives over the past two years have been to expand its involvement in telecoms, culminating in Microsoft’s acquisition of Affirmed and Metaswitch, and the launch of the Azure for Operators portfolio.

As a result of these initiatives, we believe there are five models of partnership and service delivery that Microsoft is now proposing to operators, addressing the opportunities arising from a convergence of network, cloud and compute. Altogether, these five models are:

Five business models for partnerships

  • A classic telco-vendorrelationship (e.g. with Affirmed or Metaswitch) – helping telcos to evolve their own cloud-native network functions (CNFs), and cloud infrastructure and operations
  • The delivery and management of VNFs and CNFs as a cloud service, or ‘Network Functions-as-a-Service’ (NFaaS)
  • Enabling operators to pursue a hybrid-cloud operating model supporting the delivery of their own vertical-specific and enterprise applications and services, or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)
  • Rolling out Azure edge-cloud data centres into telco and enterprise edge locations to serve as a cloud delivery platform for third-party application developers providing low latency-dependent and high-bandwidth services, or ‘Network-as-a-Cloud Platform’ (NaaCP)
  • Using such Azure edge clouds – in enterprise and neutral facilities alongside telco edge locations – as the platform for full-fledged ‘net compute’ services, whether these are developed collaboratively with operators or not.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Microsoft wants to be a win-win partner
    • What should telcos and others do?
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
    • What is Microsoft doing, and should telcos be worried?
  • What has Microsoft done?
    • Microsoft’s telecom timeline
  • What is Microsoft’s strategy?
    • Microsoft’s five partnership and service models
    • The ‘Azure for Operators’ portfolio completes the set
    • 5G, cloud-native and net compute: Microsoft places itself at the heart of telco industry transformation
    • Cellular connectivity – particularly 5G – is pivotal
  • Telco-hyperscaler business models: What should telcos do?
    • Different hyperscalers have different telco strategies: comparison between Azure, AWS and Google Cloud
    • What should telcos do? Compete, consume or collaborate?
  • Microsoft’s ecosystem partnership model: What counts as success for telcos?
    • More important to grow the ecosystem than share of the value chain
    • Real-world examples: AT&T versus Verizon
  • Conclusion: Telcos should stay in the net compute game – and Microsoft wants be a partner
  • Appendix 1: Analysis of milestones of Microsoft’s journey into telecoms
  • Appendix 2: Opportunities and risks of different types of telco-hyperscaler partnership
  • Index

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Telco edge computing: How to partner with hyperscalers

Edge computing is getting real

Hyperscalers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google are rapidly increasing their presence in the edge computing market by launching dedicated products, establishing partnerships with telcos on 5G edge infrastructure and embedding their platforms into operators’ infrastructure.

Many telecoms operators, who need cloud infrastructure and platform support to run their edge services, have welcomed the partnership opportunity. However, they are yet to develop clear strategies on how to use these partnerships to establish a stronger proposition in the edge market, move up the value chain and play a role beyond hosting infrastructure and delivering connectivity. Operators that miss out on the partnership opportunity or fail to fully utilise it to develop and differentiate their capabilities and resources could risk either being reduced to connectivity providers with a limited role in the edge market and/or being late to the game.

Edge computing or multi-access edge computing (MEC) enables processing data closer to the end user or device (i.e. the source of data), on physical compute infrastructure that is positioned on the spectrum between the device and the internet or hyperscale cloud.

Telco edge computing is mainly defined as a distributed compute managed by a telco operator. This includes running workloads on customer premises as well as locations within the operator network. One of the reasons for caching and processing data closer to the customer data centres is that it allows both the operators and their customers to enjoy the benefit of reduced backhaul traffic and costs. Depending on where the computing resources reside, edge computing can be broadly divided into:

  • Network edge which includes sites or points of presence (PoPs) owned by a telecoms operator such as base stations, central offices and other aggregation points on the access and/or core network.
  • On-premise edge where the computing resources reside at the customer side, e.g. in a gateway on-site, an on-premises data centre, etc. As a result, customers retain their sensitive data on-premise and enjoy other flexibility and elasticity benefits brought by edge computing.

Our overview on edge computing definitions, network structure, market opportunities and business models can be found in our previous report Telco Edge Computing: What’s the operator strategy?

The edge computing opportunity for operators and hyperscalers

Many operators are looking at edge computing as a good opportunity to leverage their existing assets and resources to innovate and move up the value chain. They aim to expand their services and revenue beyond connectivity and enter the platform and application space. By deploying computing resources at the network edge, operators can offer infrastructure-as-a-service and alternative application and solutions for enterprises. Also, edge computing as a distributed compute structure and an extension of the cloud supports the operators’ own journey into virtualising the network and running internal operations more efficiently.

Cloud hyperscalers, especially the biggest three – Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google – are at the forefront of the edge computing market. In the recent few years, they have made efforts to spread their influence outside of their public clouds and have moved the data acquisition point closer to physical devices. These include efforts in integrating their stack into IoT devices and network gateways as well as supporting private and hybrid cloud deployments. Recently, hyperscalers took another step to get closer to customers at the edge by launching platforms dedicated to telecom networks and enabling integration with 5G networks. The latest of these products include Wavelength from AWS, Azure Edge Zones from Microsoft and Anthos for Telecom from Google Cloud. Details on these products are available in section.

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From competition to coopetition

Both hyperscalers and telcos are among the top contenders to lead the edge market. However, each stakeholder lacks a significant piece of the stack which the other has. This is the cloud platform for operators and the physical locations for hyperscalers. Initially, operators and hyperscalers were seen as competitors racing to enter the market through different approaches. This has resulted in the emergence of new types of stakeholders including independent mini data centre providers such as Vapor IO and EdgeConnex, and platform start-ups such as MobiledgeX and Ori Industries.

However, operators acknowledge that even if they do own the edge clouds, these still need to be supported by hyperscaler clouds to create a distributed cloud. To fuel the edge market and build its momentum, operators will, in the most part, work with the cloud providers. Partnerships between operators and hyperscalers are starting to take place and shape the market, impacting edge computing short- and long-term strategies for operators as well as hyperscalers and other players in the market.

Figure 1: Major telco-hyperscalers edge partnerships

Major telco-hyperscaler partnerships

Source: STL Partners analysis

What does it mean for telcos?

Going to market alone is not an attractive option for either operators or hyperscalers at the moment, given the high investment requirement without a guaranteed return. The partnerships between two of the biggest forces in the market will provide the necessary push for the use cases to be developed and enterprise adoption to be accelerated. However, as markets grow and change, so do the stakeholders’ strategies and relationships between them.

Since the emergence of cloud computing and the development of the digital technologies market, operators have been faced with tough competition from the internet players, including hyperscalers who have managed to remain agile while building a sustained appetite for innovation and market disruption. Edge computing is not an exception and they are moving rapidly to define and own the biggest share of the edge market.

Telcos that fail to develop a strategic approach to the edge could risk losing their share of the growing market as non-telco first movers continue to develop the technology and dictate the market dynamics. This report looks into what telcos should consider regarding their edge strategies and what roles they can play in the market while partnering with hyperscalers in edge computing.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Operators’ roles along the edge computing value chain
    • Building a bigger ecosystem and pushing market adoption
    • How partnerships can shape the market
    • What next?
  • Introduction
    • The edge computing opportunity for operators and hyperscalers
    • From competition to coopetition
    • What does it mean for telcos?
  • Overview of the telco-hyperscalers partnerships
    • Explaining the major roles required to enable edge services
    • The hyperscaler-telco edge commercial model
  • Hyperscalers’ edge strategies
    • Overview of hyperscalers’ solutions and activities at the edge
    • Hyperscalers approach to edge sites and infrastructure acquisition
  • Operators’ edge strategies and their roles in the partnerships
    • Examples of operators’ edge computing activities
    • Telcos’ approach to integrating edge platforms
  • Conclusion
    • Infrastructure strategy
    • Platform strategy
    • Verticals and ecosystem building strategy

 

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Edge computing: Five viable telco business models

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This report has been produced independently by STL Partners, in co-operation with Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Intel.

Introduction

The idea behind Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) is to make compute and storage capabilities available to customers at the edge of communications networks. This will mean that workloads and applications are closer to customers, potentially enhancing experiences and enabling new services and offers. As we have discussed in our recent report, there is much excitement within telcos around this concept:

  • MEC promises to enable a plethora of vertical and horizontal use cases (e.g. leveraging lowlatency) implying significant commercial opportunities. This is critical as the whole industry is trying to uncover new sources of revenue, ideally where operators may be able to build a sustainable advantage.
  • MEC should also theoretically fit with telcos’ 5G and SDN/NFV deployments, which will run certain virtualised network functions in a distributed way, including at the edge of networks. In turn, MEC potentially benefits from the capabilities of a virtualised network to extract the full potential of distributed computing.

Figure 1: Defining MEC

Source: STL Partners

However, despite the excitement around the potentially transformative impact of MEC on telcos,viable commercial models that leverage MEC are still unclear and undefined. As an added complication, a diverse ecosystem around edge computing is emerging – of which telcos’ MEC is only one part.

From this, the following key questions emerge:

  • Which business models will allow telcos to realise the various potential MEC use cases in a commercially viable way?
  • What are the right MEC business models for which telco?
  • What is needed for success? What are the challenges?

Contents:

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • The emerging edge computing ecosystem
  • Telcos’ MEC opportunity
  • Hyperscale cloud providers are an added complication for telcos
  • How should telcos position themselves?
  • 5 telco business models for MEC
  • Business model 1: Dedicated edge hosting
  • Business model 2: Edge IaaS/PaaS/NaaS
  • Business model 3: Systems integration
  • Business model 4: B2B2X solutions
  • Business model 5: End-to-end consumer retail applications
  • Mapping use cases to business models
  • Some business models will require a long-term view on the investment
  • Which business models are right for which operator and which operator division?
  • Conclusion

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Defining MEC
  • Figure 2: MEC potential benefits
  • Figure 3: Microsoft’s new mantra – “Intelligent Cloud, Intelligent Edge”
  • Figure 4: STL Partners has identified 5 telco business models for MEC
  • Figure 5: The dedicated edge hosting value
  • Figure 6: Quantified example – Dedicated edge hosting
  • Figure 7: The Edge IaaS/PaaS/NaaS value chain
  • Figure 8: Quantified example – Edge IaaS/PaaS/NaaS
  • Figure 9: The SI value chain
  • Figure 10: Quantified example – Systems integration
  • Figure 11: The B2B2X solutions value chain
  • Figure 12: Quantified example – B2B2x solutions
  • Figure 13: Graphical representation of the end-to-end consumer retail applications business model
  • Figure 14: Quantified example – End-to-end consumer retail applications
  • Figure 15: Mapping MEC business models to possible use cases
  • Figure 16: High IRR correlates with low terminal value
  • Figure 17: Telcos need patience for edge-enabled consumer applications to become profitable (breakeven only in year 5)
  • Figure 18: The characteristics and skills required of the MEC operator depend on the business models