Cloud gaming: What’s the telco play?

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Drivers for cloud gaming services

Although many people still think of PlayStation and Xbox when they think about gaming, the console market represents only a third of the global games market. From its arcade and console-based beginnings, the gaming industry has come a long way. Over the past 20 years, one of the most significant market trends has been growth of casual gamers. Whereas hardcore gamers are passionate about frequent play and will pay more to play premium games, casual gamers play to pass the time. With the rapid adoption of smartphones capable of supporting gaming applications over the past decade, the population of casual/occasional gamers has risen dramatically.

This trend has seen the advent of free-to-play business models for games, further expanding the industry’s reach. In our earlier report, STL estimated that 45% of the population in the U.S. are either casual gamers (between 2 and 5 hours a week) or occasional gamers (up to 2 hours a week). By contrast, we estimated that hardcore gamers (more than 15 hours a week) make up 5% of the U.S. population, while regular players (5 to 15 hours a week) account for a further 15% of the population.

The expansion in the number of players is driving interest in ‘cloud gaming’. Instead of games running on a console or PC, cloud gaming involves streaming games onto a device from remote servers. The actual game is stored and run on a remote compute with the results being live streamed to the player’s device. This has the important advantage of eliminating the need for players to purchase dedicated gaming hardware. Now, the quality of the internet connection becomes the most important contributor to the gaming experience. While this type of gaming is still in its infancy, and faces a number of challenges, many companies are now entering the cloud gaming fold in an effort to capitalise on the new opportunity.

5G can support cloud gaming traffic growth

Cloud gaming requires not just high bandwidth and low latency, but also a stable connection and consistent low latency (jitter). In theory, 5G promises to deliver stable ultra-low latency. In practice, an enormous amount of infrastructure investment will be required in order to enable a fully loaded 5G network to perform as well as end-to-end fibre5G networks operating in the lower frequency bands would likely buckle under the load if lots of gamers in a cell needed a continuous 25Mbps stream. While 5G in millimetre-wave spectrum would have more capacity, it would require small cells and other mechanisms to ensure indoor penetration, given the spectrum is short range and could be blocked by obstacles such as walls.

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A complicated ecosystem

As explained in our earlier report, Cloud gaming: New opportunities for telcos?, the cloud gaming ecosystem is beginning to take shape. This is being accelerated by the growing availability of fibre and high-speed broadband, which is now being augmented by 5G and, in some cases, edge data centres. Early movers in cloud gaming are offering a range of services, from gaming rigs, to game development platforms, cloud computing infrastructure, or an amalgamation of these.

One of the main attractions of cloud gaming is the potential hardware savings for gamers. High-end PC gaming can be an extremely expensive hobby: gaming PCs range from £500 for the very cheapest to over £5,000 for the very top end. They also require frequent hardware upgrades in order to meet the increasing processing demands of new gaming titles. With cloud gaming, you can access the latest graphics processing unit at a much lower cost.

By some estimates, cloud gaming could deliver a high-end gaming environment at a quarter of the cost of a traditional console-based approach, as it would eliminate the need for retailing, packaging and delivering hardware and software to consumers, while also tapping the economies of scale inherent in the cloud. However, in STL Partners’ view that is a best-case scenario and a 50% reduction in costs is probably more realistic.

STL Partners believes adoption of cloud gaming will be gradual and piecemeal for the next few years, as console gamers work their way through another generation of consoles and casual gamers are reluctant to commit to a monthly subscription. However, from 2022, adoption is likely to grow rapidly as cloud gaming propositions improve.

At this stage, it is not yet clear who will dominate the value chain, if anyone. Will the “hyperscalers” be successful in creating a ‘Netflix’ for games? Google is certainly trying to do this with its Stadia platform, which has yet to gain any real traction, due to both its limited games library and its perceived technological immaturity. The established players in the games industry, such as EA, Microsoft (Xbox) and Sony (PlayStation), have launched cloud gaming offerings, or are, at least, in the process of doing so. Some telcos, such as Deutsche Telekom and Sunrise, are developing their own cloud gaming services, while SK Telecom is partnering with Microsoft.

What telcos can learn from Shadow’s cloud gaming proposition

The rest of this report explores the business models being pursued by cloud gaming providers. Specifically, it looks at cloud gaming company Shadow and how it fits into the wider ecosystem, before evaluating how its distinct approach compares with that of the major players in online entertainment, such as Sony and Google. The second half of the report considers the implications for telcos.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Cloud gaming: a complicated ecosystem
    • The battle of the business models
    • The economics of cloud gaming and pricing models
    • Content offering will trump price
    • Cloud gaming is well positioned for casual gamers
    • The future cloud gaming landscape
  • 5G and fixed wireless
  • The role of edge computing
  • How and where can telcos add value?
  • Conclusions

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Telco Cloud: Why it hasn’t delivered, and what must change for 5G

Related Webinar – 5G Telco Clouds: Where we are and where we are headed

This research report will be expanded upon on our upcoming webinar 5G Telco Clouds: Where we are and where we are headed. In this webinar we will argue that 5G will only pay if telcos find a way to make telco clouds work. We will look to address the following key questions:

  • Why have telcos struggled to realise the telco cloud promise?
  • What do telcos need to do to unlock the key benefits?
  • Why is now the time for telcos to try again?

Join us on April 8th 16:00 – 17:00 GMT by using this registration link.

Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered

A network running in the cloud

Back in the early 2010s, the idea that a telecoms operator could run its network in the cloud was earth-shattering. Telecoms networks were complicated and highly-bespoke, and therefore expensive to build, and operate. What if we could find a way to run networks on common, shared resources – like the cloud computing companies do with IT applications? This would be beneficial in a whole host of ways, mostly related to flexibility and efficiency. The industry was sold.

In 2012, ETSI started the ball rolling when it unveiled the Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) whitepaper, which borrowed the IT world’s concept of server-virtualisation and gave it a networking spin. Network functions would cease to be tied to dedicated pieces of equipment, and instead would run inside “virtual machines” (VMs) hosted on generic computing equipment. In essence, network functions would become software apps, known as virtual network functions (VNFs).

Because the software (the VNF) is not tied to hardware, operators would have much more flexibility over how their network is deployed. As long as we figure out a suitable way to control and configure the apps, we should be able to scale deployments up and down to meet requirements at a given time. And as long as we have enough high-volume servers, switches and storage devices connected together, it’s as simple as spinning up a new instance of the VNF – much simpler than before, when we needed to procure and deploy dedicated pieces of equipment with hefty price tags attached.

An additional benefit of moving to a software model is that operators have a far greater degree of control than before over where network functions physically reside. NFV infrastructure can directly replace old-school networking equipment in the operator’s central offices and points of presence, but the software can in theory run anywhere – in the operator’s private centralised data centre, in a datacentre managed by someone else, or even in a public hyperscale cloud. With a bit of re-engineering, it would be possible to distribute resources throughout a network, perhaps placing traffic-intensive user functions in a hub closer to the user, so that less traffic needs to go back and forth to the central control point. The key is that operators are free to choose, and shift workloads around, dependent on what they need to achieve.

The telco cloud promise

Somewhere along the way, we began talking about the telco cloud. This is a term that means many things to many people. At its most basic level, it refers specifically to the data centre resources supporting a carrier-grade telecoms network: hardware and software infrastructure, with NFV as the underlying technology. But over time, the term has started to also be associated with cloud business practices – that is to say, the innovation-focussed business model of successful cloud computing companies

Figure 2: Telco cloud defined: New technology and new ways of working

Telco cloud: Virtualised & programmable infrastructure together with cloud business practices

Source: STL Partners

In this model, telco infrastructure becomes a flexible technology platform which can be leveraged to enable new ways of working across an operator’s business. Operations become easier to automate. Product development and testing becomes more straightforward – and can happen more quickly than before. With less need for high capital spend on equipment, there is more potential for shorter, success-based funding cycles which promote innovation.

Much has been written about the vast potential of such a telco cloud, by analysts and marketers alike. Indeed, STL Partners has been partial to the same. For this reason, we will avoid a thorough investigation here. Instead, we will use a simplified framework which covers the four major buckets of value which telco cloud is supposed to help us unlock:

Figure 3: The telco cloud promise: Major buckets of value to be unlocked

Four buckets of value from telco cloud: Openness; Flexibility, visibility & control; Performance at scale; Agile service introduction

Source: STL Partners

These four buckets cover the most commonly-cited expectations of telcos moving to the cloud. Swallowed within them all, to some extent, is a fifth expectation: cost savings, which have been promised as a side-effect. These expectations have their origin in what the analyst and vendor community has promised – and so, in theory, they should be realistic and achievable.

The less-exciting reality

At STL Partners, we track the progress of telco cloud primarily through our NFV Deployment Tracker, a comprehensive database of live deployments of telco cloud technologies (NFV, SDN and beyond) in telecoms networks across the planet. The emphasis is on live rather than those running in testbeds or as proofs of concept, since we believe this is a fairer reflection of how mature the industry really is in this regard.

What we find is that, after a slow start, telcos have really taken to telco cloud since 2017, where we have seen a surge in deployments:

Figure 4: Total live deployments of telco cloud technology, 2015-2019
Includes NFVi, VNF, SDN deployments running in live production networks, globally

Telco cloud deployments have risen substantially over the past few years

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

All of the major operator groups around the world are now running telco clouds, as well as a significant long tail of smaller players. As we have explained previously, the primary driving force in that surge has been the move to virtualise mobile core networks in response to data traffic growth, and in preparation for roll-out of 5G networks. To date, most of it is based on NFV: taking existing physical core network functions (components of the Evolved Packet Core or the IP Multimedia Subsystem, in most cases) and running them in virtual machines. No operator has completely decommissioned legacy network infrastructure, but in many cases these deployments are already very ambitious, supporting 50% or more of a mobile operator’s total network traffic.

Yet, despite a surge in deployments, operators we work with are increasingly frustrated in the results. The technology works, but we are a long way from unlocking the value promised in Figure 2. Solutions to date are far from open and vendor-neutral. The ability to monitor, optimise and modify systems is far from ubiquitous. Performance is acceptable, but nothing to write home about, and not yet proven at mass scale. Examples of truly innovative services built on telco cloud platforms are few and far between.

We are continually asked: will telco cloud really deliver? And what needs to change for that to happen?

The problem: flawed approaches to deployment

Learning from those on the front line

The STL Partners hypothesis is that telco cloud, in and of itself, is not the problem. From a theoretical standpoint, there is no reason that virtualised and programmable network and IT infrastructure cannot be a platform for delivering the telco cloud promise. Instead, we believe that the reason it has not yet delivered is linked to how the technology has been deployed, both in terms of the technical architecture, and how the telco has organised itself to operate it.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted primary research with fifteen telecoms operators at different stages in their telco cloud journey. We asked them about their deployments to date, how they have been delivered, the challenges encountered, how successful they have been, and how they see things unfolding in the future.

Our sample includes individuals leading telco cloud deployment at a range of mobile, fixed and converged network operators of all shapes and sizes, and in all regions of the world. Titles vary widely, but include Chief Technology Officers, Heads of Technology Exploration and Chief Network Architects. Our criteria were that individuals needed to be knee-deep in their organisation’s NFV deployments, not just from a strategic standpoint, but also close to the operational complexities of making it happen.

What we found is that most telco cloud deployments to date fall into two categories, driven by the operator’s starting point in making the decision to proceed:

Figure 5: Two starting points for deploying telco cloud

Function-first "we need to virtualise XYZ" vs platform-first "we want to build a cloud platform"

Source: STL Partners

The operators we spoke to were split between these two camps. What we found is that the starting points greatly affect how the technology is deployed. In the coming pages, we will explain both in more detail.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered
    • A network running in the cloud
    • The telco cloud promise
    • The less-exciting reality
  • The problem: flawed approaches to deployment
    • Learning from those on the front line
    • A function-first approach to telco cloud
    • A platform-first approach to telco cloud
  • The solution: change, collaboration and integration
    • Multi-vendor telco cloud is preferred
    • The internal transformation problem
    • The need to foster collaboration and integration
    • Standards versus blueprints
    • Insufficient management and orchestration solutions
    • Vendor partnerships and pre-integration
  • Conclusions: A better telco cloud is possible, and 5G makes it an urgent priority

Telcos and GAFA: Dancing with the disruptors

Introduction

Across much of the world, the competing Internet ecosystems led by Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have come to dominate the consumer market for digital services. Even though most telcos continue to compete with these players in the service layer, it is now almost a necessity for operators to partner with one or more of these ecosystems in some shape or form.

This report begins by pinpointing the areas where telcos are most likely to partner with these players, drawing on examples as appropriate. In each case, it considers the nature of the partnership and the resulting value to the telco and to the Internet ecosystem. It also considers the longer-term, strategic implications of these partnerships and makes recommendations on how telcos can try to strengthen their negotiating position.

This research builds on the findings of the Digital Partnerships Benchmarking Study conducted between 26th September and 4th November 2016 by STL Partners and sponsored by AsiaInfo. That study involved a survey of 34 operators in Europe and Asia Pacific. It revealed that whereas almost all operators expected to grow their partnerships business in the future, they differed on how they expected to pursue this growth.

Approximately half (46%) of the operator respondents wanted to scale up and partner with a large number of digital players, while the other half (49%) wanted to focus in on a few strategic partnerships.  Those looking to partner with a large number of companies were primarily interested in generating new revenue streams or increasing customer relevance, while many of those who wanted to focus on a small number of partnerships also regarded increasing revenues from the core business as a main objective (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The business objectives differ somewhat by partnership strategy

Source: Digital Partnerships Benchmarking Study conducted in late 2016 by STL Partners and sponsored by AsiaInfo

Respondents were also asked to rank the assets that an operator can bring to a partnership, both today and in the future. These ranks were converted into a normalized score (see Figure 2): A score of 100% in Figure 2 would indicate that all respondents placed that option in the top rank.

Figure 2: Operators regard their customer base as their biggest asset

Source: Digital Partnerships Benchmarking Study conducted in late 2016 by STL Partners and sponsored by AsiaInfo

Clearly, operators are aware that the size of their customer base is a significant asset, and they are optimistic that it is likely to remain so: it is overall the highest scoring asset both today and in the future.

In the future, the options around customer data (customer profiling, analytics and insights) are given higher scores (they move up the ranks). This suggests that operators believe that they will become better at exploiting their data-centric assets and – most significantly – that they will be able to monetize this in partnerships, and that these data-centric assets will have significant value.

The findings of the study confirm that most telcos believe they can bring significant and valuable assets to partnerships. This report considers how those assets can be used to strike mutually beneficial deals with the major Internet ecosystems. The next chapter explains why telcos and the leading Internet players need to co-operate with each other, despite their competition for consumers’ attention.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Strategic considerations
  • Delivering bigger, better entertainment
  • Improving customer experience
  • Extending and enhancing connectivity
  • Developing the networks of the future
  • Delivering cloud computing to enterprises
  • Introduction
  • Telcos and lnternet giants need each other
  • Delivering bigger, better entertainment
  • Content delivery networks
  • Bundling content and connectivity
  • Zero-rating content
  • Carrier billing
  • Content promotion
  • Apple and EE in harmony
  • Value exchange and takeaways
  • Improving the customer experience
  • Making mobile data stretch further
  • Off-peak downloads, offline viewing
  • Data plan awareness for apps
  • Fine-grained control for consumers
  • Value exchange and takeaways
  • Extending and enhancing connectivity
  • Subsea cable consortiums
  • Free public Wi-Fi services
  • MVNO Project Fi – branded by Google, enabled by telcos
  • Value exchange and takeaways
  • Developing the networks of the future
  • Software-defined networks: Google and the CORD project
  • Opening up network hardware: Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project
  • Value exchange and takeaways
  • Delivering cloud computing to enterprises
  • Reselling cloud-based apps
  • Secure cloud computing – AWS and AT&T join forces
  • Value exchange and takeaways
  • Conclusions and Recommendations
  • Google is top of mind
  • Whose brand benefits?

Figures:

  • Figure 1: The business objectives differ somewhat by partnership strategy
  • Figure 2: Operators regard their customer base as their biggest asset
  • Figure 3: US Internet giants generate about 40% of mobile traffic in Asia-Pacific
  • Figure 4: Google and Facebook are now major players in mobile in Africa
  • Figure 5: Examples of telco-Internet platform partnerships in entertainment
  • Figure 6: BT Sport uses YouTube to promote its premium content
  • Figure 7: Apple Music appears to have helped EE’s performance
  • Figure 8: Amazon is challenging Apple and Spotify in the global music market
  • Figure 9: Examples of telco-Google co-operation around transparency
  • Figure 10: YouTube Smart Offline could alleviate peak pressure on networks
  • Figure 11: Google’s Triangle app gives consumers fine-grained control over apps
  • Figure 12: Examples of telco-Internet platform partnerships to deliver connectivity
  • Figure 13: Project Fi’s operator partners provide extensive 4G coverage
  • Figure 14: Both T-Mobile US and Sprint need to improve their financial returns
  • Figure 15: Examples of telco-Internet platform partnerships on network innovation
  • Figure 16: AWS has a big lead in the cloud computing market
  • Figure 17: Examples of telco-Internet platform partnerships in enterprise cloud
  • Figure 18: AT&T provides private and secure connectivity to public clouds
  • Figure 19: Amazon and Alphabet lead corporate America in R&D
  • Figure 20: Telcos need to be wary of bolstering already powerful brands
  • Figure 21: Balancing immediate value of partnerships against strategic implications
  • Figure 22: Different telcos should adopt different strategies