Data-driven telecoms: navigating regulations

Regulation has a significant impact on global communications markets

Telco relationships with telecoms regulators and the governments that influence them are very important. For data-driven telecoms, telcos must now also understand the regulation of digital markets, and how different types of data are treated, stored and transferred around the world. Data-driven telecoms is an essential part of telecoms growth strategy. The massive growth enjoyed by the global tech giants, in contrast with the stagnation of growth in the telecoms industry, provides a significant lure for telcos, to harness data and become digital businesses themselves. Of course, this necessitates complying with digital regulations, and understanding their direction.

Additionally, by participating in digital markets, and digitising their own systems, telcos are necessarily working with and sometimes competing against the global digital, for whom this legislation is essential to their ongoing business practices. Political reaction against some practices of these digital giants is leading to some toughened stances on digital regulation around the world, and a tarnished public perception.

Most businesses are impacted by digital regulation to some extent, but it is those most deeply embedded in digital markets that feel it the most, especially the digital hyper-scalers. What do Google, Meta, Microsoft et al need to do differently as digital regulations evolve and new standards come into play? And for telcos, apart from compliance, are there opportunities presented by new digital regulations? How can telcos and the digital giants evolve their relationships with the entities that regulate them? Can they ultimately work together to create a better future based on the Co-ordination Age vision, or will they remain adversarial with lines drawn around profit vs public good?

What is digital regulation?

The report covers two important aspects of digital regulation for telecoms players – data governance and digital market regulations.

It does not cover a third theme in digital regulation – the regulation of potentially harmful content and the responsibilities of digital platforms in this regard. This is a complex and far-reaching issue, affecting global trade agreements, sparking philosophical debates and leading to some tricky public relations challenges for digital platform providers. However, for the purposes of this report we will set aside this issue and focus instead on data governance and the regulation of digital markets which have most direct relevance to telcos in particular.

Data governance is a large topic, covering the treatment, storage and transfer of all kinds of data. Different national and regional regulatory bodies may have different approaches to data governance rules, broadly depending on where they find the balance between prioritising security, privacy and the rights of the individual, against the need for a free flow of data to fuel the growth of digital industries.

Regulation around data governance also naturally splits into two areas, one concerning personal data, and the other concerning industrial data, with greater regulatory scrutiny focused on the former. The regulation of these types of data are necessarily different because concerns about privacy only really apply to data that can be associated with individual people, although there may still be requirements around security, and fair access to industrial data. Examples of data governance regulation are the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) concerning personal data, and The Data Act concerning industrial data, or the Data Privacy and Protection Act in the US. All of these examples will be discussed in greater detail in the main body of the report.

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Significant types of digital regulation

Source: STL Partners

Regulation specific to policing digital markets has emerged when regulatory bodies decide that general competition law is not sufficient to serve digital markets, and that more specific and tailored rules or reparations are needed. Like other forms of competition law, this regulation aims to promote fair and open competition and curb market participants deemed to possess significant market power. Regulations of this nature are always to some degree controversial, because the exact boundaries of what constitutes significant market power have to be defined, and can be argued to be arbitrary or incorrectly drawn. Examples of this type of regulation that will be discussed in depth later in the report are the Digital Markets Act in the EU, and the Innovation and Choice Online Act in the US.

A global perspective

The market for digital services is by its nature global. Digital giants like Google, Meta, Amazon and Apple are offering a wide variety of digital services, both b2b and b2c, all over the world. Those services will be provisioned using storage, compute power, and even human workforce, that may or may not be located in the country or even region in which the service is being consumed. Thus digital regulations, especially those concerning data governance, are globally significant.

A global market

Source: STL Partners

This report places significant focus on the regulatory agendas of the European Union and the United States. This is because these are two of the most significant and influential global powers in setting trends in digital regulation. This significance is gained partly by market size – in a global market such as that for digital services, regulations that cover a large number of potential customers are going to have more weight, and the European Union has a population of roughly 447mn, while the population of the US is around 332mn. The US also maintains its significant role in setting the digital regulatory agenda by actively seeking influence and leadership, while the EU has gained influence by being one of the most proactive, and stringent, regulatory bodies in the world.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Important trends in data governance regulation
    • Regulation of the processing, storage and use of personal data
    • Regulation of industrial data
  • Regulation of digital markets
    • The Digital Markets Act: Governing digital monopolies
    • The US approach to digital market regulation
  • A global perspective – how EU and US digital regulation trends are spreading around the world
    • The Globalisation of the EU Regulation: The Brussels Effect
    • Digital Economy Governance in the US Foreign Policy
    • Digital in the EU-US Transatlantic Relationship
    • A Patchwork of Digital Agreements in Asia
    • A New Global Framework on Cross-Border Data Flows
  • Conclusion
    • Advice for Telcos

Related research

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Telecoms 2023: Meaningful growth in challenging times

The key pillars to change and growth 

Ten years from today, telcos could find themselves growing into national or regional champions of connected technologies, working with enterprises and governments to help the world run better. Or, they may find themselves becoming marginalised, with shrinking relationships with their customers, consigned to corners of the IT market specialising in low-cost connectivity. To establish a clear path to the more desirable option one, and sustainable growth, telcos need to commit to a long-term strategy that will require fundamental changes to their business. A long-term strategy that: 

  • Prioritises service innovation through strong investment in research and development 
  • Funds ongoing innovation by shifting away from the established capex heavy financial model 
  • Re-orientates company systems and culture to become an effective ecosystem player, adaptable and open to multiple ecosystem roles and business models. 

Commitment to this kind of strategy should happen now if it hasn’t already. But current macro-economic and societal challenges may make this focus difficult to achieve. Telcos need to find a way to deal with more immediate turmoil and challenges, and be ready to seize any opportunities they present, while also progressing towards their long-term goals. 

STL believes that the Coordination Age offers telcos a new context for growth. It is built upon demand for more flexible availability and more efficient use of all types of resources (energy, labour, time, etc), combined with multiple new technologies and capabilities (5G, fibre, AI, automation, virtualisation) approaching maturity. The resulting paradigm sees customers demanding coordinated outcomes and experiences, enabled through collaborative ecosystems, with business models spanning the digital and physical world. It is the context within which telcos can hope to become the champions of connected technologies helping the world run better mentioned earlier. 

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Figure 1: The Coordination Age thrives on innovation 

Source: STL Partners 

More immediate concerns – the energy crisis, high inflation, possible recession, the still lurking threat of new covid strains, war, climate change – demand immediate attention. Please see our Beating the crash: What’s coming? report for more details. For all that these can crowd out focus on a more long-term growth strategy and a drive to change the role and meaning of telecoms in society, these factors are actually accelerating changes and mean that a Coordination Age approach is needed more urgently. 

Figure 2: Accelerating changes means the Coordination is now a “must have” 

Source: STL Partners 

Telcos’ national scope and assets mean that they are well placed to take advantage of some of the new opportunities, boosting growth. But they are large and complex businesses with many departments and initiatives to co-ordinate, and broad organisational strategy has to be applied in different areas with a variety of specific goals and capabilities. In this report, STL addresses seven key strategic areas: transformation; consumer; enterprise; edge computing; networks; telco cloud; and sustainability. In each, we present our detailed assessment of how telcos can and should address current challenges and seize new growth opportunities, while building towards long term success in the Coordination Age, and how current and ongoing STL research can provide support and guidance. 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary 
  • The key pillars to change and growth
  • Transformation: How to adapt faster and better, collectively
    • Why does transformation matter?
    • Why is transformation difficult for telcos?
    • How telcos can operationalise adaptability
    • What must telcos do to capitalise on the adaptive opportunity?
  • Consumer: (Re)engaging through new needs
    • Why does the consumer business matter?
    • What challenges are telcos facing in the consumer market?
    • A three-pronged approach to winning with consumers
  • Enterprise: Becoming a transformative partner
    • Why does enterprise matter?
    • What challenges is the industry facing in enterprise?
    • What are the potential opportunities?
    • What must telcos do to capture the opportunities?
  • Edge computing: Getting compute to where the customer needs it
    • Why does edge computing matter?
    • The key challenges and opportunities the in edge market
    • So where to invest?
    • What must telcos (and others) do to capture the opportunities?
  • Networks: Developing and delivering the best tool for the job
    • The key challenge: Moving to a world of “network diversity”
    • It’s not about 5G, but the best tool for the job
    • What are the potential opportunities?
  • Telco cloud: Making the fabric customer-adaptable
    • Why does telco cloud matter?
    • What challenges is the industry facing in telco cloud?
    • What must telcos (and others) do to capture the opportunities?
  • Sustainability: Making it relevant for everyone
    • Why does sustainability matter?
    • What challenges is the industry facing in sustainability?
    • What are the potential opportunities?
    • How to move the industry forward on sustainability
  • Conclusion

Related research

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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

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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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 Deployment Tracker: Open RAN deep dive

Telco Cloud: Open RAN is a work in progress

This report accompanies the latest release and quarterly update of STL Partners ‘Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of VNFs (Virtual Network Functions), CNFs (cloud-native network functions) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. In this update we have added some additional categories to the database to reflect the different types of virtualised / open RAN:

  1. Open RAN / O-RAN: Fully open, disaggregated, virtualised / cloud-native, with CU / DU split
  2. vRAN: Virtualised CU/DU, with open interfaces but implemented as an integrated, single-vendor platform
  3. Cloud RAN: Single-vendor, virtualised / centralised BU, or CU only, with proprietary / closed interfaces

Cloud RAN is the most limited form of virtualised RAN: It is based on porting part or all of the functionality of the legacy, appliance-based BU into a Virtual Machine. vRAN and open RAN are much more significant, in both technology and business-model terms, breaking open all parts of the RAN to more competition and opportunities for innovation.

Accordingly, the report presents data on only open RAN and vRAN deployments however a granular analysis of each category of RAN deployment can be carried out using the Telco Cloud Tracker tool.

Access our online Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker tool here

Download the additional file for the full dataset of Telco Cloud deployments

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Open RAN and vRAN deployments, 2018 – 2022

Open-RAN-Deployments-Apr-2021-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Open RAN and vRAN

Both Open RAN and vRAN are virtualised (with the exception of NTT DoCoMo as outlined in the report), but ‘open RAN’ implies full disaggregation of the different parts of the RAN (hardware, software and radio), and open interfaces between them. By contrast, vRAN incorporates the open interfaces but is generally deployed as a pre-integrated, single-vendor solution: hardware, software and radio supplied by the same vendor.

To date, there have been significantly more open RAN than vRAN deployments. But vRAN is emerging as a potentially competitive alternative to pure open RAN: offering the same operational benefits and – in theory – multi-vendor openness, but without the overhead of integrating components from multiple vendors, and a ‘single neck to choke’ if things go wrong. Deployments in 2020 were mostly small-scale and / or 4G, including trials which continued to carry live traffic after the trial period came to an end.

The stark contrast between 2021 and 2022 reflects a slight hiatus in commercial deployments as work intensified around integration and operational models, trials, performance optimisation, and cost economics. However, major deployments are expected in 2022, including greenfield networks 1&1 Drillisch (Germany) and DISH (US), Verizon, Vodafone UK, and MTN (Africa and ME).

Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the latest update of our interactive tool and database covers the period up to March 2022, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to deploy a 5G standalone core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive tool containing line-by-line analysis of over 900 individual deployments of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, which can be used to drill down by:

  • Region where deployed
  • Operator
  • Technology vendor
  • Primary purpose
  • Type of telco cloud function deployed
  • …and more filters

Telco Cloud Trial Deployment Tracker

Take a look at the trial of our interactive tool with live, commercial deployments of VNFs, CNFs and SDN technologies worldwide

Previous telco cloud tracker releases

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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Telco edge platforms: Balancing speed vs value

Defining the edge

Edge computing has been hailed as key to help deliver the promises of 5G, enabling transformative use cases and experiences. Significantly for mobile service providers, deriving value from their networks and presence at the edge remains an aspiration for a new source of revenues and a more favourable position in the value chain. There is strong belief that this needs to exceed what was achieved with 3G and 4G, where OTT players built entire businesses through successful services using centralised platforms leveraging fast, ubiquitous internet access. Mobile operators remain hopeful that they can evolve from ‘dumb pipes’ and derive more value from dynamic connectivity services, value added platforms, and partnerships.

The edge means different things to different people, so it is useful to define terminology and clarify the scope of this report. We understand the edge to refer to compute, storage and networking infrastructure, facilities, software, and services which exist physically or architecturally between typically non-telco cloud data centres and end-devices. This report will focus on the ‘telco edge’ for both mobile and fixed line telecoms operators.  The term MEC (initially ETSI’s Mobile Edge Computing which evolved to Multi-access Edge Computing) has historically been used for telco edge predominantly with a focus on deployment in the access network, however as we will see its use has somewhat broadened as telcos initially deploy edge computing more centrally.

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The edge continuum spans between end devices and hyperscale cloud

It is common practice to define an edge continuum in a diagram such as below which shows the different edge locations between an end device and the hyperscaler cloud. Typically, the physical distance, the number of network hops, and network latency will increase the further the edge location shifts to the right.

The edge continuum

edge platform

In considering the telco edge, we will primarily be focussed on the network edge, consisting of data centres logically situated in telco’s access, transport, and core network facilities. The on-premise edge (sometimes referred to enterprise or private edge) may be offered by telcos and others to enterprises but is closely related to private 4G/5G networks and single tenant propositions which are out of scope of this report. STL has written about this in reports such as Private networks: Lessons so far and what next and Combining private 5G and edge computing: The revenue opportunity.

The network edge affords a wide range of choices to deliver edge services from within the network. Network edge also includes neutral host providers that offer facilities for multiple infrastructure providers, which support enterprise applications, as well as radio access networks. These may be offered by traditional telcos, tower infrastructure providers and others.

The regional edge sits outside telco networks at internet exchanges, carrier exchanges, interconnect points, co-location, and data centre facilities. Multiple parties can deploy infrastructure at such locations which are designed as neutral, well-connected locations for third party equipment.  For some use cases, these locations are considered as ‘close enough’ or ‘near enough’ edge sites.

Edge computing drivers and benefits vary depending on the use case

While low latency is often cited as the justification for moving application workloads from the cloud to the edge, there are other drivers such as reduced data transit, data sovereignty and improving redundancy. These factors may be just as relevant as low latency, or more so, depending on the specific use case.

Edge computing benefits

Migrating workloads from end-devices to the edge can also bring benefits such as reduced power consumption, allowing smaller form factors at lower costs, and enabling experiences that are simply not possible on existing devices due to heavy computational requirements. Processing in the cloud may have been previously dismissed due to its limitations or constraints. One consumer example would be Instagram or Snapchat real-time video filters with heavy machine learning processing requirements. The processing for these may move to the edge to improve and standardise performance across devices, by not relying on the end-device’s processing power. Partners

However, the public cloud is well established and here to stay, so it is prudent to view the edge as complementary to and an extension of the public cloud, offering characteristics which may be important for specific components of certain use cases.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Most telcos do not yet see demand for a fully distributed edge
    • The platform is an important piece of the edge, but the verdict is still out on which approach to take
    • Telcos need to guarantee multi-cloud and multi-edge orchestration for their customers
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
    • Defining the edge
    • The state of the edge
  • Cloud vs edge
    • Contrasting public cloud and public edge
    • Latency in fixed vs mobile networks
    • The rationale for telco edge
  • Telco edge propositions and use cases
    • Internal applications for telcos
    • External applications for telcos
    • Telco edge propositions based on telco’s capabilities
    • Potential use case opportunities for telco edge
  • Where is the telco edge?
    • Edge really means core for now
    • Challengers to the telco edge
  • Building the telco edge platform
    • Edge developers want a consistent and seamless experience
    • The potential providers of network edge platforms
    • Cloud-centric capabilities and business models are key the success of telco edge platforms
  • Overcoming challenges
    • Telco industry challenges
    • External challenges
  • Conclusion: What should telcos do?

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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 Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

Telco cloud 2.0, fuelled by 5G standalone and RAN, is on the starting grid

This report accompanies the latest release and update of STL Partners ‘Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of VNFs (Virtual Network Functions), CNFs (cloud-native network functions) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. It builds on an extensive body of analysis by STL Partners over the past nine years on NFV and SDN strategies, technology and market developments.

Access our Telco Cloud Tracker here

Download the additional file for the full dataset of Telco Cloud deployments

Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the latest update of our interactive tool and database covers the period up to September 2021, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to deploy a 5G standalone core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive tool containing line-by-line analysis of over 900 individual deployments of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, which can be used to drill down by:

  • Region where deployed
  • Operator
  • Technology vendor
  • Primary purpose
  • Category of NFV/SDN technology deployed
  • …and more filters

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5G standalone (SA) will hit an inflection point in 2022

5G standalone (SA) core is beginning to take off, with 19 deployments so far expected to be completed in 2022. The eventual total will be higher still, as will that of NSA core, as NSA 5G networks continue to be launched. As non-standalone (NSA) cores are replaced by SA, this will result in another massive wave of core deployments – probably from 2023/4 onwards.

Standalone 5G vs non-standalone 5G core deployments

STL-5G-standalone-core-cloud-tracker-2021

Source: STL Partners

 

Previous telco cloud tracker releases

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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Building telco edge: Why multi-cloud will dominate

Defining the edge

Edge computing will remain a focus for telecoms operators for the foreseeable future, both to optimise the network and enable new, third-party applications and services. In fact, 70% of survey respondents believe investment levels of edge computing for supporting third-party applications will increase over that for internal network infrastructure in the next five years.

This report explores how telecoms operators will build their edge computing business, infrastructure and services, and the role multi-cloud will take in this. Before diving into this, it is worth defining this confusing and complicated space. At a high level, edge computing refers to cloud-native computing (and storage) being brought closer to the end-device or source of the data, rather than centralised in a remote, hyperscale data centre.

The telecoms industry has been exploring the role of edge computing for over four years, starting when network functions virtualisation (NFV) began to make real strides. The initial interest was in mobile edge computing (MEC), but this has now evolved to multi-access edge computing to incorporate fixed networks and non-cellular networks too. Outside telecoms, there is edge compute capacity in regional data centres provided by third parties centres, e.g. data centre operators and cloud providers. These are often in untapped geographies, such as Tier 2 cities. In addition, there is edge compute at customer premises, e.g. business campuses or factories.

We outline the scope of edge computing below. There is a full spectrum of possible edges from devices to regional data centres. Some of these edge locations may be owned and/or operated by communications services providers (CSPs). The CSP edge contains the most relevant types of edge for CSPs: network edge and on-premises enterprise edge. They contain infrastructure either owned by a telecoms operator (e.g. a CSP data centre) or operated by one (e.g. network CPE at a customer site).

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The spectrum of edge computing locations

There are two main types of applications that can be processed on CSP edge computing:

  1. Telecoms applicationsthat run, protect and monitor the network – i.e. CSP’s own network functions;
  2. Consumer/enterpriseapplications – which CSPs may provide for third-party customers.

STL Partners has been supporting the telecoms industry in exploring the opportunity to provide services and solutions to third parties by leveraging their edge computing infrastructure. These could include enterprises deploying IT applications locally to comply with data sovereignty laws, developers using edge to optimise their applications, IoT solution vendors using edge to reduce latency for mission-critical applications, etc. Our survey highlighted the importance for CSPs in investing in the infrastructure for these applications. On average, CSPs believe that 40% of edge computing investments in the next 1-2 years will be used to support these applications, rather than be used for network functions infrastructure.

Defining edge computing within telecoms

Although the edge computing market is nascent, there are emerging use cases that seek to take advantage of edge computing’s main benefits. These include offering the flexibility that comes with the cloud more local to reduce latency, improving reliability, keeping data secure, and offloading processing from the end-device. However, use cases are at different stages of maturity; some will be deployed in the next two years in early adopter markets, others are more than five years away from commercial, wide scale deployments.

The maturity stages of edge computing use cases

Telecoms operators are keen to leverage edge computing to grow revenues, particularly in their enterprise business. There are different strategies emerging: one is to focus on enterprise connectivity and networking, another on developing a horizontal, cloud-like platform for developers, while a third focuses on building end-to-end solutions for specific verticals.

Types of edge services and business models

The challenge with any new technology is that it takes time to educate the market and engage the innovators who will build the applications that will leverage its potential. Edge computing is complex, because it has a unique ecosystem that spans several industries: cloud, telecoms, industrial, traditional ICT, plus specific vertical sectors. In order to build an edge-based solution, there needs to be adequate infrastructure (facility, hardware, connectivity, edge cloud) plus the applications and services, and these need to be integrated so they work together seamlessly.

The edge value chain

Regardless of the business model and services strategy a telecoms operator chooses to pursue, it will need to first determine how best to build its edge infrastructure to optimise results. This report will dive into three key questions CSPs are still trying to evaluate:

  1. How should telecoms operators build edge computing infrastructure that can support both enterprise applications and network functions?
  2. To what extent should telecoms operators work with partners, particularly the hyperscalers, to build their edge and take services to market?
  3. How can telecoms operators effectively work with the ecosystem?

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Executive Summary
    • There are three key factors to consider to build the CSP edge
    • The edge will be multi-(edge) cloud
    • CSPs must build capabilities and partnerships today to support their edge business
  • Defining the edge
  • Laying down the foundations: Options for building the CSP edge
    • Convergence
    • Organisation
    • Hyperscaler partnerships
  • There is no single edge – it is multi-cloud
  • Conclusions and recommendations: What CSPs should do next
  • Index

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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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Driving the agility flywheel: the stepwise journey to agile

Agility is front of mind, now more than ever

Telecoms operators today face an increasingly challenging market, with pressure coming from new non-telco competitors, the demands of unfamiliar B2B2X business models that emerge from new enterprise opportunities across industries and the need to make significant investments in 5G. As the telecoms industry undergoes these changes, operators are considering how best to realise commercial opportunities, particularly in enterprise markets, through new types of value-added services and capabilities that 5G can bring.

However, operators need to be able to react to not just near-term known opportunities as they arise but ready themselves for opportunities that are still being imagined. With such uncertainty, agility, with the quick responsiveness and unified focus it implies, is integral to an operator’s continued success and its ability to capitalise on these opportunities.

Traditional linear supply models are now being complemented by more interconnected ecosystems of customers and partners. Innovation of products and services is a primary function of these decentralised supply models. Ecosystems allow the disparate needs of participants to be met through highly configurable assets rather than waiting for a centralised player to understand the complete picture. This emphasises the importance of programmability in maximising the value returned on your assets, both in end-to-end solutions you deliver, and in those where you are providing a component of another party’s system. The need for agility has never been stronger, and this has accelerated transformation initiatives within operators in recent years.

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Concepts of agility have crystallised in meaning

In 2015, STL Partners published a report on ‘The Agile Operator: 5 key ways to meet the agility challenge’, exploring the concept and characteristics of operator agility, including what it means to operators, key areas of agility and the challenges in the agile transformation. Today, the definition of agility remains as broad as in 2015 but many concepts of agility have crystallised through wider acceptance of the importance of the construct across different parts of the organisation.

Agility today is a pervasive philosophy of incremental innovation learned from software development that emphasises both speed of innovation at scale and carrier-grade resilience. This is achieved through cloud native modular architectures and practices such as sprints, DevOps and continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) – occurring in virtuous cycle we call the agility flywheel.

The Agility Flywheel

agility-flywheel

Source: STL Partners

Six years ago, operators were largely looking to borrow only certain elements of cloud native for adoption in specific pockets within the organisation, such as IT. Now, the cloud model is more widely embraced across the business and telcos profess ambitions to become software-centric companies.

Same problem, different constraints

Cloud native is the most fundamental version of the componentised cloud software vision and progress towards this ideal of agility has been heavily constrained by operators’ underlying capabilities. In 2015, operators were just starting to embark on their network virtualisation journeys with barriers such as siloed legacy IT stacks, inelastic infrastructures and software lifecycles that were architecture constrained. Though these barriers continue to be a challenge for many, the operators at the forefront – now unhindered by these basic constraints – have been driving a resurgence and general acceleration towards agility organisation-wide, facing new challenges around the unknowns underpinning the requirements of future capabilities.

With 5G, the network itself is designed as cloud native from the ground up, as are the leading edge of enterprise applications recently deployed by operators, alleviating by design some of the constraints on operators’ ability to become more agile. Uncertainty around what future opportunities will look like and how to support them requires agility to run deep into all of an operators’ processes and capabilities. Though there is a vast raft of other opportunities that do not need cloud native, ultimately the market is evolving in this direction and operators should benchmark ambitions on the leading edge, with a plan to get there incrementally. This report looks to address the following key question:

Given the flexibility and driving force that 5G provides, how can operators take advantage of recent enablers to drive greater agility and thrive in the current pace of change?

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Table of Contents

    • Executive Summary
    • Agility is front of mind, now more than ever
      • Concepts of agility have crystallised in meaning
      • Same problem, different constraints
    • Ambitions to be a software-centric business
      • Cloudification is supporting the need for agility
      • A balance between seemingly opposing concepts
    • You are only as agile as your slowest limb
      • Agility is achieved stepwise across three fronts
      • Agile IT and networks in the decoupled model
      • Renewed need for orchestration that is dynamic
      • Enabling and monetising telco capabilities
      • Creating momentum for the agility flywheel
    • Recommendations and conclusions

2020 in review and focus on North America: How should telcos do cloud?

Tenth update of the Telco Cloud Tracker

This report accompanies the tenth release of STL Partners’ ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation), SDN (Software Defined Networking) and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. This analytical report focuses on trends in North America, set in global context.

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Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the tenth update covers the period up to the end of January 2021, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media. However, it also includes a smaller set of deployment data disclosed to us confidentially by operators and vendors. This information is added to the aggregate data sections of the ‘Tracker’ spreadsheet, which do not refer to the specific solutions supplied or the operators where they were deployed.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of virtual network functions (VNFs), CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to implement a virtualised mobile core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

Accordingly, some of the deployments contained in the database comprise multiple elements, which are listed separately, including details about the category of NFV / SDN / CNF, and vendor and product name where known.

In addition to these mainly public-domain deployments, there are many non-publicised deployments that are inevitably omitted from the ‘Tracker’. However, the ever-growing ‘Tracker’ database now constitutes a considerable body of research that in our view offers a reliable snapshot of the overall market and the main trends in the evolution of telco cloud. In addition, as the ‘Tracker’ contains details only of deployments in live, commercial telco networks (either completed or in progress), this provides a useful corrective to the hype of some vendors’ pronouncements about agreements with operators, which often relate only to collaboration arrangements and preliminary trials, rather than commercial roll-outs.

The one exception to this rule of including only deployments that are implemented to support commercial services is a limited set of data on some of the current live network trials of open and / or virtual RAN (vRAN). The reason for making this exception is the very high level of interest currently in open RAN.

In terms of the telcos included, we limit the database mainly to Tier-One international and national telecoms operators, along with national fixed and mobile operators in smaller markets. For subsequent updates, we may expand the range and types of service providers included, because telco cloud is opening up opportunities for new players to provide cloud- and CNF-based connectivity and related services that are competing strongly with classic telco services.

SD-WAN in focus

In this update of the Tracker we have included a deep dive on SD-WAN, which was one of the main early drivers of SDN/NFV deployments, particularly among North American operators. It is worth exploring in more detail because, as it evolves into an increasingly cloud-centric and cloud-native service, it is emerging as another battleground between operators, hyperscalers and vendors.

5G is driving deployments – but will it drive business model change?

This is the first update to the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ in 2021, which provides an opportunity to review 2020 and discuss the key trends in 2021.

Despite the global pandemic, the pace of virtualised network function (VNF) deployments has continued at a strong level.

Total deployments by region, 2016 to 2021

Our projection is that the final number of deployments in 2020 will be at around the same level as 2019 (182 in total). Many live deployments are confirmed some time after the event, swelling the totals for previous years. Accordingly, some of the deployments currently recorded as ‘in progress’ will be added to the tally for 2020.

5G core dominates the scene but is done largely via single-vendor, ‘vertical’ NFV

The main driver of deployments in 2020 was 5G network launches around the world, particularly in the second half of the year. This meant that many Non-standalone (NSA) 5G cores – the platform supporting almost all live 5G networks – also went live, as is illustrated below:

 Deployments by leading network function, 2016 to 2021

We recorded 76 completed deployments of NSA cores in 2020, up from 56 in 2019. A further ten deployments were either completed or pending in the first quarter of 2021.

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • 5G core drives deployments
    • SD-WAN: Telco value moves from the WAN to the edge
    • The industry is facing an existential question: How should telcos do cloud?
    • Conclusion from North America analysis: Can a brownfield MNO be more cloud-native than a greenfield one?
  • Introduction
    • Tenth update of the Telco Cloud Tracker
    • Scope and content of the Tracker
    • SD-WAN in focus
  • 5G is driving deployments – but will it drive business model change?
    • 5G core dominates the scene but is done largely via single-vendor, ‘vertical’ NFV
    • The industry faces an existential question: how should telcos do cloud?
    • Focus on North America: four divergent answers to the existential question
  • SD-WAN: While WAN moves to the cloud, new software-defined value migrates to the edge
    • SD-WAN was one of the success stories of the first phase of SDN / NFV
    • SD-WAN has been largely made in America
    • Changes accelerated by Covid favour SD-WAN vendors over telcos – but telcos retain strengths in key areas
    • Main opportunities currently for telcos in SD-WAN, and challenge from vendors
    • ‘SD’ moves towards the edge, while ‘WAN’ moves to the cloud
  • Conclusion: Can a brownfield MNO be more cloud-native than a greenfield one?

 

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Why energy management is critical to 5G success

This paper explains why telco’s 5G roll-out, and their ability to monetise 5G, could be undermined by failing to address both the energy and wider sustainability issues that come with it. 5G must be deployed in an energy efficient manner to avoid spiralling costs and increased pressure from customers, investors and authorities. This report is aimed at the C-suite, but also at network operations and planners who are charged with deploying 5G, and the product and customer teams developing new 5G services that will create value and drive growth.

5G: Designed to spur innovation and drive growth

Much has been written (not least by STL) about 5G technology being different – both in what it does and how it does it – from previous ‘Gs’. Among other things, 5G has been conceived:

  • To enable new operating models, spur innovation and introduce an explosion of tailored connectivity and tightly coupled applications (e.g. low latency, high reliability, IoT)
  • To sustain the growth in data traffic that we have already seen with 3G and then 4G

Although many operators globally have yet to launch 5G, the roll-out is gathering pace and expected to achieve significant global coverage by 2025.

Actual data traffic volumes will move to 5G networks faster than coverage or subscriber adoption. This is due to take up of new 5G services, the nature of consumer adoption cycles (earlier adopters are heavier users) and coverage concentration in more populous areas. For example, in South Korea 5G accounted for over 30% of all mobile traffic by the end of 2020, although only 15% of subscribers were on 5G and much of the country is still not covered.

STL Partners project that global 5G traffic may overtake 4G traffic as soon as 2026.

Projected 5G traffic volumes by region

The 5G energy challenge

5G networks, done right, can limit carbon emissions and even reduce the overall energy consumption of telecoms operators, but given the number of factors at play, things will not fall into place on their own.

5G can curb excess energy use…. if done right

In terms of energy required per unit of data transmitted, 5G networks are an order of magnitude more efficient than 4G networks (much of this due to the air interface, particularly MIMO arrays packing in a greater number of antennae). 5G networks can also be more ‘energy elastic’, with energy consumption more closely tracking network use: high at peak times, largely dormant at quieter times. Cloud-native 5G standalone core and virtualised RAN will make it far easier and cheaper to adopt performance improvements in hardware and software. Open RAN will spawn new commercial and operating models in RAN sharing / wholesale / neutral hosts.

However, as the higher performance and lower cost (per GB) of 5G services will result in increased use and accelerate traffic growth, this will negate some of the efficiency gains. Furthermore, to achieve coverage, 5G networks will initially represent another overlay network requiring additional equipment and energy. Due to the higher frequencies, 5G will need more cells than 4G networks and 5G cells will typically have peak power requirements higher than 4G sites. Initially at least, this power will be additional to that supporting existing networks.

Another complication is the cloud-native nature of 5G networks which means that these will run on commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) servers. Although potentially cheaper to buy and more efficient to run than traditional telco equipment, such servers are designed to run in ‘data-centre’ technical facilities: with more specialised cooling and power requirements. Due to the nature of networks, these servers will be distributed across many, smaller ‘edge’ facilities as well as a few big ones. And, in addition to housing servers for network functions these distributed facilities may also support edge compute resources for telco customers’ 5G-enabled applications such as AR/VR.

These distributed edge sites need to be specified, equipped, commissioned, and operated differently than in the past. Failure to do so risks inefficiencies and a jump in both embedded and ongoing emissions. To compound things, these sites will not all be greenfield ones. In many instances, they will be collocated with existing equipment, or use refurbished space in central offices, branch exchanges or older self-contained technical enclosures delivered by truck.

To reduce energy consumption and OPEX at telco sites and across the telco networks, one answer would be to begin to de-commission previous generations of mobile technology. De-commissioning 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks would have a net beneficial effect on the carbon emissions from all the networks.

However, there are issues with de-commissioning, given that customers and applications rely on 2G and 3G even in advanced economies, smart meters being a key use for 2G, for example. There are also regional divergences: while many Asian countries have fully de-commissioned 2G and countries such as Germany aims to have fully de-commissioned 3G by 2022, by the end of 2019F 46% of consumers of mobile connectivity in Africa still used 2G.

This attests to a wider challenge when evaluating how telcos can reduce their carbon emissions in the Coordination Age: different regions are at very different stages of 5G deployment and face different challenges and solutions with regards to energy management as a whole.

Regions with different 5G take-up face different energy challenges

An added challenge with deploying 5G in a sustainable manner is that telcos cannot lose sight of resiliency and cost. Energy performance and sustainability goals need to be aligned with financial and operational objectives and incentives, not competing with them. We set out how this can be achieved in this study.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Preface
  • Introduction
    • The Coordination Age – a new role and purpose for telcos
    • Resource efficiency and the Coordination Age
    • 5G: Designed to spur innovation and drive growth
    • Challenge 1: The 5G energy challenge
    • Challenge 2: A rapidly changing business climate
  • How can telcos pursue growth through 5G and meet the challenges of the changing business climate?
    • Adopt energy best practice in 5G design, procurement, deployment, and operations
      • Best practice operates at multiple levels…and across them
      • Focusing action for your operator
    • Drive customers’ transition to low emissions through 5G-enabled services
      • Who to target?
      • Specific steps in driving customer efficiency through 5G
  • Conclusions and recommendations
    • Preach what you practice
    • … as well as practice what you preach
    • Recommendations for telco leadership

Cloud native: Just another technology generation?

Cloud native networking: Telecoms’ latest adventure

As a term, cloud native has currency in telecoms networking. 5G has contributed to the recent industry-wide interest in adopting cloud native applications for networks. This is because the 5G standalone core networks (5G SA) that operators are now planning (and some have started deploying) are intended to run as software that is specified and architected following cloud native principles.

Within telecoms, thinking about cloud native tends to centre on the next phase of moving network functions into a software environment, building on lessons learned with NFV/SDN. Viewed from this perspective, cloud native is the next step in the telecoms industry technology evolution: from analogue to digital circuit-switched to digital IP to virtualised to cloud native.

Telcos’ business model is reaching end-of-life

The rise of mobile telephony and fixed and mobile broadband means that telecoms operators have enjoyed 20 years of strong growth in all major markets. That growth has stalled. It happened in Japan and South Korea as early as 2005, in Europe from 2012 or so and, market by market, others have followed. STL Partners forecasts that, apart from Africa, all regions will see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) below 3% for both fixed and mobile services for the next three years. Ignoring pandemic ‘blips’, we forecast a CAGR of less than 1% per annum globally. This amounts to a decline in real terms.

The telecoms industry is reaching the end of its last growth cycle

The telecoms industry’s response to this slowdown has been to continue to invest capital in better networks – fibre, 4G, 5G – to secure more customers by offering more for less. Unfortunately, as competitors also upgrade their networks, connectivity has become commoditised as value has shifted to the network-independent services that run over them.

In other words, the advantage that telcos had when only telecoms services could run on telecoms networks has gone: the defensive moat from owning fibre or spectrum has been breached. Future value comes from service innovation not from capital expenditure. The chart below sums the problem up: seven internet players generate around 65% of the revenue generated by 165 operators globally, but have a c. 50% bigger combined market capitalisation. This is because the capital markets believe that revenue and profit growth will accrue to these service innovators rather than telecoms operators.

Tech companies are more highly valued than telcos

Understand, then emulate the operating model

Operators have been aspiring to learn from technology firms so they can transform their operations and services. But changes have been slow, and it is difficult to point to many ‘poster child’ operators that successfully made a move beyond pure telecommunications. Partly this is due to a mismatch between corporate announcements and their investment policies. Too often we hear CEOs express a desire to change their organisations and that they intend to offer a host of exciting new services, only to see that aspiration not borne out when they allocate resources. Where other tech companies make substantial investments in R&D and product development, operators continue to invest miniscule amounts in service innovation (especially in comparison to what is poured into the network itself).

Telco vs tech-co investment models

STL Partners believes that many of the network-related activities that will enable operators to reduce capital expenditure, such as cloud-native networking, will also enable them to automate and integrate processes and systems so they are more flexible and agile at introducing new services. So, an agile software-oriented infrastructure will enable changes in business processes such as product development and product management, partnering, and customer care – if management prioritises investment and drives change in these areas. Cloud native business practices and software were developed by technology companies (and then widely adopted by enterprise IT functions) as a means to deliver greater innovation at scale whilst reducing the level of capital relative to revenue.

Our belief is that financial and operational developments need to happen in unison and operators need to move quickly and with urgency to a new operating model supported by cloud native practices and technology, or face sharp declines in ROI.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Table of Figures
  • Preface
  • Cloud native networking: Telecoms’ latest adventure
  • Telcos’ business model is reaching end-of-life
    • Understand, then emulate the operating model
    • The coordination age – a new role for telcos
    • 5G: Just another G?
    • Cloud native: Just another technology generation?
  • Different perspectives: Internal ability, timing …and what it means to be a network operator
    • Organisational readiness, skills and culture
    • Target operating model and ecosystem
    • Assembly versus Engineering
    • Wider perceptions across the business functions
    • Operator segment 1: Risk of complacency
    • Operator segment 2: Align for action
    • Operator segment 3: Urgent re-evaluation
    • Operator segment 4: Stay focused and on track
  • Appendix 1
    • Interviewee overview
  • Appendix 2
    • Defining Cloud Native
    • There is consensus on the meaning of cloud native software and applicability to networks
    • Agreement on the benefits: automation at scale for reliability and faster time to market
    • …and changing supplier relationships

Telco A3: Skilling up for the long term

Telcos must master automation, analytics and AI (A3) skills to remain competitive

A3 will permeate all aspects of telcos’ and their customers’ operations, improving efficiency, customer experience, and the speed of innovation. Therefore, whether a telecoms operator is focused on its core connectivity business, or seeking to build new value beyond connectivity, developing widespread understanding of value of A3 and disseminating fundamental automation and AI skills across the organisation should be a core strategic goal. Our surveys on industry priorities suggest that operators recognise this need, and automation and AI are correspondingly rising up the agenda.

Expected technology priority change by organisation type, May 2020

technology investment priorities telecoms May 2020

*Updated January 2021 survey results will be published soon. Source: STL Partners survey, 222 respondents.

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Key findings on operators’ A3 strategies

Based on deep dive interviews with 8 telcos, as well as insights from 8 more telcos gathered from previous research programmes.

  • Less advanced telcos are creating a set of basic structures and procedures, as well as beginning to develop a single view of the customer
  • Having a single version of the truth appears to be an ongoing issue for all – alongside continued work on data quality
  • As full end-to-end automation is not a realistic goal for the next few years, interviewees were seeking to prioritise the right journeys to be automated in the short term
  • Reskilling and education of staff was an area of importance for many but not all
  • Just one company had less ambitious data-related aims due to the specialist nature of their services and smaller size of the company – saying that they worked with data on an as-needed basis and had no plans to develop dedicated data science headcount

Preparing for the future: There are four areas where A3 will impact telcos’ businesses

four A3 areas impacting telcos

Source: Charlotte Patrick Consult, STL Partners

In this report we outline the skills and capabilities telcos will need in order to navigate these changes. We break out these skills into four layers:

  1. The basic skillset: What operators need to remain competitive over the short term
  2. The next 5 years: The skills virtually all telcos will need to build or acquire to remain competitive in the medium term (exceptions include small or specialist telcos, or those in less competitive markets)
  3. The next 10 years: The skills and organisational changes telcos will need to achieve within a 10 year timeframe to remain competitive in the long term
  4. Beyond connectivity (5–10 year horizon): This includes A3 skills that telcos will need to be successful strategic partners for customers and suppliers, and to thrive in ecosystem business models. These will be essential for telcos seeking to play a coordination role in IoT, edge, or industry ecosystems.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telcos’ current strategic direction
    • Deep dive into 8 operator strategies
    • Overview of 8 more operator strategies
  • How A3 technologies are evolving
    • Deep dive into 40 A3 applications that will impact telcos’ businesses
    • Internal capabilities
    • Customer requirements
    • Technology changes
    • Organisational change
  • A timeline of telco A3 skills evolution
    • The basic skillset
    • The next 5 years
    • The next 10 years
    • Beyond connectivity

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