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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Fixed wireless access growth: To 20% homes by 2025

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Fixed wireless access growth forecast

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks use a wireless “last mile” link for the final connection of a broadband service to homes and businesses, rather than a copper, fibre or coaxial cable into the building. Provided mostly by WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) or mobile network operators (MNOs), these services come in a wide range of speeds, prices and technology architectures.

Some FWA services are just a short “drop” from a nearby pole or fibre-fed hub, while others can work over distances of several kilometres or more in rural and remote areas, sometimes with base station sites backhauled by additional wireless links. WISPs can either be independent specialists, or traditional fixed/cable operators extending reach into areas they cannot economically cover with wired broadband.

There is a fair amount of definitional vagueness about FWA. The most expansive definitions include cheap mobile hotspots (“Mi-Fi” devices) used in homes, or various types of enterprise IoT gateway, both of which could easily be classified in other market segments. Most service providers don’t give separate breakouts of deployments, while regulators and other industry bodies report patchy and largely inconsistent data.

Our view is that FWA is firstly about providing permanent broadband access to a specific location or premises. Primarily, this is for residential wireless access to the Internet and sometimes typical telco-provided services such as IPTV and voice telephony. In a business context, there may be a mix of wireless Internet access and connectivity to corporate networks such as VPNs, again provided to a specific location or building.

A subset of FWA relates to M2M usage, for instance private networks run by utility companies for controlling grid assets in the field. These are typically not Internet-connected at all, and so don’t fit most observers’ general definition of “broadband access”.

Usually, FWA will be marketed as a specific service and package by some sort of network provider, usually including the terminal equipment (“CPE” – customer premise equipment), rather than allowing the user to “bring their own” device. That said, lower-end (especially 4G) offers may be SIM-only deals intended to be used with generic (and unmanaged) portable hotspots.
There are some examples of private network FWA, such as a large caravan or trailer park with wireless access provided from a central point, and perhaps in future municipal or enterprise cellular networks giving fixed access to particular tenant structures on-site – for instance to hangars at an airport.

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FWA today

Today, fixed-wireless access (FWA) is used for perhaps 8-9% of broadband connections globally, although this varies significantly by definition, country and region. There are various use cases (see below), but generally FWA is deployed in areas without good fixed broadband options, or by mobile-only operators trying to add an additional fixed revenue stream, where they have spare capacity.

Fixed wireless internet access fits specific sectors and uses, rather than the overall market

FWA Use Cases

Source: STL Partners

FWA has traditionally been used in sparsely populated rural areas, where the economics of fixed broadband are untenable, especially in developing markets without existing fibre transport to towns and villages, or even copper in residential areas. Such networks have typically used unlicensed frequency bands, as there is limited interference – and little financial justification for expensive spectrum purchases. In most cases, such deployments use proprietary variants of Wi-Fi, or its ill-fated 2010-era sibling WiMAX.

Increasingly however, FWA is being used in more urban settings, and in more developed market scenarios – for example during the phase-out of older xDSL broadband, or in places with limited or no competition between fixed-network providers. Some cellular networks primarily intended for mobile broadband (MBB) have been used for fixed usage as well, especially if spare capacity has been available. 4G has already catalysed rapid growth of FWA in numerous markets, such as South Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy and the Philippines – and 5G is likely to make a further big difference in coming years. These mostly rely on licensed spectrum, typically the national bands owned by major MNOs. In some cases, specific bands are used for FWA use, rather than sharing with normal mobile broadband. This allows appropriate “dimensioning” of network elements, and clearer cost-accounting for management.

Historically, most FWA has required an external antenna and professional installation on each individual house, although it also gets deployed for multi-dwelling units (MDUs, i.e. apartment blocks) as well as some non-residential premises like shops and schools. More recently, self-installed indoor CPE with varying levels of price and sophistication has helped broaden the market, enabling customers to get terminals at retail stores or delivered direct to their home for immediate use.

Looking forward, the arrival of 5G mass-market equipment and larger swathes of mmWave and new mid-band spectrum – both licensed and unlicensed – is changing the landscape again, with the potential for fibre-rivalling speeds, sometimes at gigabit-grade.

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Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • FWA today
    • Universal broadband as a goal
    • What’s changed in recent years?
    • What’s changed because of the pandemic?
  • The FWA market and use cases
    • Niche or mainstream? National or local?
    • Targeting key applications / user groups
  • FWA technology evolution
    • A broad array of options
    • Wi-Fi, WiMAX and close relatives
    • Using a mobile-primary network for FWA
    • 4G and 5G for WISPs
    • Other FWA options
    • Customer premise equipment: indoor or outdoor?
    • Spectrum implications and options
  • The new FWA value chain
    • Can MNOs use FWA to enter the fixed broadband market?
    • Reinventing the WISPs
    • Other value chain participants
    • Is satellite a rival waiting in the wings?
  • Commercial models and packages
    • Typical pricing and packages
    • Example FWA operators and plans
  • STL’s FWA market forecasts
    • Quantitative market sizing and forecast
    • High level market forecast
  • Conclusions
    • What will 5G deliver – and when and where?
  • Index

5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

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5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat