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

Overview of Wi-Fi 6/7 for enterprises

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

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

The key themes covered in this report are:

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

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Wi-Fi’s background and history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roles and channels for enterprise Wi-Fi

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

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

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

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

Some of the options include:

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

Table of Contents

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

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Why B2B marketplace sits at the heart of a thriving ecosystem

B2B Marketplaces: A key enabler for new growth

What is a B2B marketplace?

At its core, a marketplace is an entity through which buyers and sellers can effectively and efficiently transact. It provides a platform to reduce friction for the provisioning of products, services, and solutions: connecting a distributed ecosystem of suppliers with an equally distributed ecosystem of customers.

Think of Amazon, which orchestrates a B2C retail marketplace – Amazon’s marketplace has created a site in which a host of different vendors, whether regional or global, major corporate or small/medium enterprise (SME), can compete directly with one another (and in some cases directly with Amazon’s own products) to reach and serve a wide scale customer base. Using the example of Amazon, we can therefore describe four key actors within the marketplace:

Key actors in a marketplace

B2B marketplace

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  • Customers: Amazon’s marketplace creates a simple tool through which users can seamlessly identify, evaluate, and purchase products from a wider range of sellers. These suppliers, due to competition, must continuously innovate to create value for customers or risk competing solely on price. This provides a strong proposition combining ease, choice, and value for the customer. For smaller enterprises and for more simple services (e.g. cybersecurity, productivity software) a B2C-style marketplace works well. Amazon provides a good example of a B2C marketplace – however, for larger enterprises requiring more complex, verticalised solutions, the Amazon “one click purchasing” capability may be less appropriate.
    The marketplace still acts as an entity within which enterprises can identify new, innovative, solution providers and evaluate different components/vendors but may act more as a discovery mechanism – it generates a customer lead for suppliers and a vendor lead for customers. The customer will go on to engage directly with a sales team or representative within the vendor, rather than purchasing and spinning up the service directly through the marketplace. This is because the solution sales cycle is complex and requires a deep knowledge of the end customer and vertical specific expertise. To generate revenue, the orchestrator in this situation would have to create a comparative tool pricing for the use of these larger players.
    Particularly for more fragmented industries with a significant number of SMEs, offering pre-integrated, out-of-the-box solutions still offers the orchestrator a strong revenue opportunity.
  • Suppliers: In the context of B2B, suppliers in the marketplace may offer holistic vertical solutions including end devices, connectivity, applications, infrastructure etc. or sell those capabilities as individual components. Through participation in the marketplace, these vendors gain a strong distribution channel to sell their solution. Furthermore, they can get to market with solutions much faster than a more traditional, vertically integrated route, which would require longer cycles of integration and testing between partners, more investment in marketing & sales engines, and the need to repeat the process with each channel/solution partner identified.
    It also acts as a platform through which to learn more about competitors, identify or even engage potential partners, and understand more about their end customer needs and drivers. The marketplace can therefore act as a tangible entity around which the supply side ecosystem can innovate. This is through varying levels of data and insights, collected through the marketplace, which the orchestrator may allow certain suppliers to access.
  • Orchestrators: Orchestrators help coordinate the underlying community of suppliers and customers, defining the dimensions of the marketplace (which we will discuss further in a later section of the report). They set the parameters and objectives of the marketplace (e.g. which suppliers to onboard to the marketplace and how, which customers to target), and bring additional value to suppliers and customers through insights, supplier and customer experience, and marketing and sales engines to build scale.
    As the orchestrator of the ecosystem, Amazon has leveraged these supply and demand side benefits to grow into the retail giant that we know today. It has successfully driven a flywheel to build scale with suppliers and customers, and subsequently monetised this scale through a variety of different revenue streams – we will discuss these further later in the report.

The Amazon flywheel for marketplace success

B2B marketplace

  • Enablers: For a marketplace to function smoothly, a flexible but resilient backbone of support systems is required. This includes everything from billing, to authentication, onboarding, fulfilment, delivery, settlement, etc. A digital marketplace can automate many of these functions, diminishing the friction of interaction between partners, vendors, and customers.
    Oftentimes, these enablement services will be managed by an orchestrator who has complete oversight of the marketplace. Going back to the example of Amazon, Amazon not only orchestrates the marketplace but provides enablement services to capture additional value and revenue streams. This is in slight contrast, for example, to Ebay, which orchestrates the marketplace between different sellers, but is less involved in the delivery and fulfilment of the order. There is, therefore, nuance around how much of a role the orchestrator may take in the marketplace, and whether they partner to deliver enabling capabilities or completely outsource them to others. Enablers are, however, essential for a functioning marketplace and drive simplicity and stickiness for all actors. 

In summary, the marketplace brings opportunities to each of the actors within it and helps galvanise a diverse and fragmented ecosystem around a tangible construct. It enables customers to reach new suppliers, suppliers to reach new customers as well as engage new partners, and the orchestrators and enablers to drive new streams of revenue growth.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • B2B Marketplaces: A key enabler for new growth
    • What is a B2B marketplace?
  • Marketplaces as a B2B growth driver
  • The dimensions of a successful B2B marketplace in healthcare
    • Due to the need for solution certification, a healthcare marketplace will remain more closed and centrally controlled
    • The healthcare marketplace will encourage participants to collaborate while excluding competitors…at first
    • Telcos should create value in the marketplace by driving biodiversity
    • Telcos have the capacity to collect valuable customer data insights but must first develop their capabilities
  • The guiding principles for building a marketplace: Where telcos should start
  • Index

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How telcos can make the world a safer place

Telecoms networks can support public safety

In the wake of the pandemic and multiple natural disasters, such as fire and flooding, both policymakers and people in general are placing a greater focus on preserving health and ensuring public safety. This report begins by explaining the concept of a digital nervous system – large numbers of connected sensors that can monitor events in real-time and thereby alert organizations and individuals to imminent threats to their health and safety.

With the advent of 5G, STL Partners believes telcos have a broad opportunity to help coordinate better use of the world’s resources and assets, as outlined in the report: The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms. The application of reliable and ubiquitous connectivity to enable governments, companies and individuals to live in a safer world is one way in which operators can contribute to the Coordination Age.

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The chapters in this report consider the potential to use the data collected by telecoms networks to help counter the health and safety threats posed by:

  • Environmental factors, such as air pollution and high-levels of pollen,
  • Natural disasters, such as wildfires, flooding and earthquakes,
  • Infectious diseases
  • Violence, such as riots and shooting incidents
  • Accidents on roads, rivers and coastlines

In each case, the report considers how to harness new data collected by connected sensors, cameras and other monitors, in addition to data already captured by mobile networks (showing where people are and where they are moving to).  It also identifies who telcos will need to work with to develop and deploy such solutions, while discussing potential revenue streams.  In most cases, the report includes short case studies describing how telcos are trialling or deploying actual solutions, generally in partnership with other stakeholders.

The final chapter focuses on the role of telcos – the assets and the capabilities they have to improve health and safety.

It builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Managing an unstable world

Prior to the damage wrought by the pandemic, the world was gradually becoming a safer place for human beings. Global life expectancy has been rising steadily for many decades and the UN expects that trend to continue, albeit at a slower pace. That implies the world is safer than it was in the twentieth century and people are healthier than they used to be.

Global gains in life expectancy are slowing down

health and safety

Source: United Nations – World Population Prospects

But a succession of pandemics, more extreme weather events and rising pollution may yet reverse these positive trends. Indeed, many people now feel that they live in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. Air pollution and over-crowding are worsening the health impact of respiratory conditions and infections, such as SARS-CoV-2. As climate change accelerates, experts expect an increase in flash flooding, wildfires, drought and intense heat. As extreme weather impacts the food and water supplies, civil unrest and even armed conflict could follow. In the modern world, the four horsemen of the apocalypse might symbolize infectious disease, extreme weather, pollution and violence.

As the human race grapples with these challenges, there is growing interest in services and technologies that could make the world a safer and healthier place. That demand is apparent among both individuals (hence the strong sales of wearable fitness monitors) and among public sector bodies’ rising interest in environment and crowd monitoring solutions.

As prevention is better than cure, both citizens and organisations are looking for early warning systems that can help them prepare for threats and take mitigating actions. For example, an individual with an underlying health condition could benefit from a service that warns them when they are approaching an area with poor air quality or large numbers of densely-packed people. Similarly, a municipality would welcome a solution that alerts them when large numbers of people are gathering in a public space or drains are close to being blocked or are overflowing.  The development of these kinds of early warning systems would involve tracking both events and people in real-time to detect patterns that signal a potential hazard or disruption, such as a riot or flooding.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the falling cost of cameras and other sensors, together with the rollout of increasingly dense telecoms networks, could make such systems viable. For example, a camera mounted on a lamppost could use image and audio recognition technologies to detect when a crowd is gathering in the locality, a gun has been fired, a drain has been flooded or an accident has occurred.

Many connected sensors and cameras, of course, won’t be in a fixed location – they will be attached to drones, vehicles and even bicycles, to support use cases where mobility will enhance the service. Such uses cases could include air quality monitoring, wildfire and flooding surveillance, and search and rescue.

Marty Sprinzen, CEO of Vantiq (a provider of event-driven, real-time collaborative applications) believes telecoms companies are best positioned to create a “global digital nervous system” as they have the networks and managed service capabilities to scale these applications for broad deployment. “Secure and reliable connectivity and networking (increasingly on ultrafast 5G networks) are just the beginning in terms of the value telcos can bring,” he wrote in an article for Forbes, published in November 2020. “They can lead on the provisioning and management of the literally billions of IoT devices — cameras, wearables and sensors of all types — that are integral to real-time systems. They can aggregate and analyze the massive amount of data that these systems generate and share insights with their customers. And they can bring together the software providers and integrators and various other parties that will be necessary to build, maintain and run such sophisticated systems.”

Sprinzen regards multi-access edge computing, or MEC, as the key to unlocking this market. He describes MEC as a new, distributed architecture that pushes compute and cloud-like capabilities out of data centres and the cloud to the edge of the network — closer to end-users and billions of IoT devices. This enables the filtering and processing of data at the edge in near real-time, to enable a rapid response to critical events.

This kind of digital nervous system could help curb the adverse impact of future pandemics. “I believe smart building applications will help companies monitor for and manage symptom detection, physical distancing, contact tracing, access management, safety compliance and asset tracking in the workplace,” Sprinzen wrote. “Real-time traffic monitoring will ease urban congestion and reduce the number and severity of accidents. Monitoring and management of water supplies, electrical grids and public transportation will safeguard us against equipment failures or attacks by bad actors. Environmental applications will provide early warnings of floods or wildfires. Food distribution and waste management applications will help us make more of our precious resources.”

Vantiq says one if its telco customers is implementing AI-enabled cameras, IoT sensors, location data and other technologies to monitor various aspects of its new headquarters building. He didn’t identify the telco, but added that it is the lead technology partner for a city that’s implementing a spectrum of smart city solutions to improve mobility, reduce congestion and strengthen disaster prevention.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Managing an unstable world
  • Monitoring air quality
    • Exploiting existing cellular infrastructure
    • Is mobile network data enough?
    • Smart lampposts to play a broad role
    • The economics of connecting environmental sensors
    • Sensors in the sky
  • Natural disasters
    • Spotting wildfires early
    • Earthquake alert systems
    • Crowdsourcing data
    • Infectious diseases
  • On street security
  • Conclusions – the opportunities for telcos
    • Ecosystem coordination – kickstarting the market
    • Devices – finding the right locations
    • Network – reliable, low cost connectivity
    • Data platform
    • Applications
  • Index

 

 

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What can telcos learn from Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley: The promise of “Open” Innovation and agile experimentation

Until the early 2000s, Closed Innovation, based on a model of internal, centralised research and development, was the de facto way for companies to protect intellectual property and gain competitive advantage. Latterly, assisted by the tailwinds of increasing connectivity, there has been a shift in mindset towards Open Innovation – sourcing and acquiring external expertise, scanning the environment, and tapping into ideas and input from beyond the four walls of the business. Today, the array of innovation models is varied and ever-expanding: scouting, crowdsourcing, idea competitions, collaborative design and development, spin-outs, corporate ventures, incubators, joint ventures, in- and out-licensing of intellectual property, consortia, innovation platforms and ecosystems to name but a few. Increasingly, this activity is taking place in clusters – auspicious geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions – the most famous of which is Silicon Valley.

Thanks to a unique confluence of assets – the presence of tech giants and leading research universities, an abundance of venture capital and skilled labour, a disruptive culture, and a relatively benign regulatory environment – Silicon Valley is one of the world’s leading hotbeds of innovation.

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Hundreds of organisations of various sizes and industries – even those with plentiful local R&D talent in their home markets – have been drawn to the Valley in the hope of importing outside-in innovation, identifying new products and partners, and harnessing its ecosystem to solve strategic problems. Telcos are no exception: since the early 2000s, telcos’ core businesses have come under increasing pressure from OTT players as well as wider market forces to innovate and grow. Open Innovation is the antithesis of telcos’ traditional, vertically-integrated approach of translating their own R&D efforts into internally-developed products and services, typically tightly linked to their existing customer bases and offerings. Operators are hoping some of the Valley’s magic dust of disruptive thinking and speed of execution will rub off on them.

However, insiders sometimes quip that the Boeing 747s flying out of San Francisco International Airport have “amnesic” properties. The executive groups that typically descend upon the Valley, hoping to learn from its incumbents both large and small, take copious notes and leave fired up about re-energising innovation in their home base. But once back within the corporate environment, the seeds of innovation struggle to germinate and the majority of initiatives fail to generate any substantial return on objectives. There appears to be a degree of cognitive dissonance between the expectation of such engagements, and their impact.

Other approaches to the Valley, from CVCs (Corporate Venture Capital investments in start-ups) to environmental scanning and venture-building, are better established, with hundreds of corporate outposts currently in place. Four major routes to outside-in innovation, with illustrative examples are shown below.

Four major routes to outside-in innovation

Open Innovation

Unfortunately, truly transformational success stories are few and far between (gains tend to be small or incremental in nature) and there is a long tail of failures and missed opportunities.

For STL Partners, this raises a series of questions:

  • What are telcos hoping to learn from Silicon Valley and how are they going about it?
  • What are the challenges they face in implementing and operationalising what they learn?
  • What can they do differently to overcome some of the common pitfalls of Open Innovation to drive more significant successes?

In addition to its own primary and secondary research, STL Partners explored the challenges and opportunities in depth with Jean-Marc Frangos – Executive Fellow at INSEAD, Executive in Residence at the Plug and Play Tech Center, and Advisor to the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley and former Senior VP of BT’s Innovation function. Located in the Bay Area, Jean-Marc benefits from a 360° view of the disruptive technologies, revenue opportunities and shifts in the in the Valley landscape, and advises European and Asian players on how to integrate such innovations into the incumbent telecoms environment.

What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?

There are currently somewhere between 300 and 500 corporate outposts in Silicon Valley, as varied in their industries, size and depth of operations as they are in their motives, which are not exclusively tech-focused. The majority have a relatively small footprint, such as those acting as an innovation “antenna” or corporate venture capital (CVC) office, although some have established a more structured presence, for example an innovation lab or R&D centre.

Despite the diversity of these outposts, their common goal is to sense and respond to technology shifts, whether they be disruptive opportunities or disruptive threats. Many of these corporations may be struggling to keep pace with innovation in their own industry and are looking to infuse their organisation with a more entrepreneurial mindset and attract creative talent to gain competitive advantage. In the case of telcos, most are already facing disruption while the remainder can see it looming on the horizon.

The key drivers for innovation outposts include:

  • Keeping a finger on the pulse of trends originating in the Valley;
  • Scouting emerging technologies with a view to investment, incubation, acquisition or some form of collaborative partnership and identifying new channels to market, new business models or new people/processes;
  • Acquiring expertise or best practices from outside the organisation that can be internalised (e.g. to evolve the corporate culture) with a view to accelerating the innovation cycle from start-up through Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to initial production.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?
    • The dominant innovation outpost models in Silicon Valley
    • What to learn in Silicon Valley: Four levels of learning
    • Increasing acceptance of evolving business models
  • What should telcos do differently?
    • Purpose: Match effort to expectation
    • Whom to learn innovation lessons from in Silicon Valley
    • People: Who goes to the Valley, and who stays home
    • Practices: Dos and don’ts
  • Telco dynamics and challenges
    • Ambidextrous transformation is a hard art to master
    • Two-speed IT puts the brakes on digital culture
    • Capital-intensive infrastructure companies have a bigger turning circle
    • Design thinking must infuse the transmission belt
    • Telcos may struggle to win the battle for tech talent
  • Conclusion
  • Index

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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.

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

Growing B2B2X: Taking telcos beyond connectivity and 5G

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The telecoms industry is looking to revive growth

Telecoms operators have enjoyed 30 years of strong growth in all major markets. However, the core telecoms industry is showing signs of slowing. Connectivity revenue growth is declining and according to our research, annual growth in mobile operator revenues pre-COVID were converging to 1% across Asia Pacific, North America, and Western Europe. To help reverse this trend, telecoms operators’ have been investing in upgrading networks (fibre, 4G, 5G), enabling them to offer ever-increasing data speeds/plans to gain more customers and at least sustain ARPUs. However, this has resulted in the increasing commoditisation of connectivity as competitors also upgrade their networks. The costs to upgrade networks coupled with reducing margins from commoditisation have made it difficult for operators to invest in new revenue streams beyond core connectivity.

While connectivity remains an essential component in consumer and enterprises’ technology mix, on its own, it no longer solves our most pressing challenges. When the telecoms industry was first founded, over 150 years ago, operators were set up to solve the main challenge of the day, which was overcoming time and distance between people. Starting in the 1990s, alongside the creation of the internet and development of more powerful data networks, today’s global internet players set out to solve the next big challenge – affordable access to information and entertainment. Today, our biggest challenge is the need to make more efficient use of our resources, whether that’s time, assets, knowledge, raw material, etc. Achieving this requires not only connectivity and information, but also a high level of coordination across multiple organisations and systems to get it to the right place, at the right time. We therefore call this the Coordination Age.

Figure 1: New challenges for telecoms in the Coordination AgeThe coordination age overview

Source: STL Partners

In the Coordination Age, ‘things’ – machines, products, buildings, grids, processes – are increasingly connecting with each other as IoT and cloud-based applications become ubiquitous. This is creating an exponential increase in the volume of data available to drive development of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence, which combined with automation can improve productivity and resource efficiency. There are major socioeconomic challenges that society is facing that require better matching of supply and demand, which not only needs real-time communications and information exchange, but also insights and action.

In the Coordination Age, there is unlikely to be a single dominant coordinator for most ecosystems. While telecoms operators may not have all the capabilities and assets to play an important coordination role, especially compared to the Internet giants, they do have the advantage of being regulated and trusted in their local markets. This presents new opportunities for telecom operators in industries with stronger national boundaries. As such, there is a role for telcos to play in other parts of the value chain which will ultimately enable them to unlock new revenue growth (e.g. TELUS Health and Elisa Smart Factory).

New purpose, new role

The Coordination Age has added increased complexity and new B2B2X business model challenges for operators. They are no longer the monopolies of the past, but one of many important players in an increasingly ecosystem-based economy. This requires telcos to take a different approach: one with new purpose, culture, and ways of working. To move beyond purely connecting people and devices to enabling coordination, telcos will need a fundamental shift in vision. Management teams will need to embrace a new corporate purpose aligned with the outcomes their customers are looking for (i.e. greater resource efficiency), and drive this throughout their organisations.

Historically, operators have served all customers – consumers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), larger enterprises from all verticals and other operators – with a set of horizontal services (voice, messaging, connectivity).  If operators want to move beyond these services, then they will need to develop deep sector expertise. Indeed, telcos are increasingly seeking to play higher up the value chain and leveraging their core assets and capabilities provides an opportunity to do so.

However, in order to drive new revenues beyond connectivity and add value in other parts of the solution stack, telcos need to be able to select their battles carefully because they do not have the scale, expertise or resources to do it all.

Figure 2: Potential telco roles beyond traditional connectivity

Source: STL Partners

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Clearer on the vision, unclear on the execution

Many telcos have a relatively clear idea of where they want to drive new streams of revenue beyond traditional connectivity services. However, they face various technical, strategic and organisational challenges that have inhibited this vision from reaching fruition and have unanswered questions about how they can overcome these. This lack of clarity is further evident by the fact that some telcos have yet to set explicit revenue targets or KPIs for non-connectivity revenue, and those that have set clear quantifiable objectives struggle to define their execution plan or go-to-market strategy. Even operators that have been most successful in building new revenue streams, such as TELUS and Elisa, do not share targets or revenues for their new businesses publicly. This is likely to protect them from short-term demands of most telecoms shareholders, and because, even when profitable, they may not yet be seen as valuable enough to move the needle.

This report focuses not just on telco ambitions in driving B2B2X revenues beyond core connectivity and the different roles they want to play in the value chain, but more importantly on what strategies telcos are adopting to fulfil their ambitions. Within this research, we explore what is required to succeed from both a technological and organisational standpoint. Our findings are based on an interview programme with over 23 operators globally, conducted from June to August 2020. Our participant group spans across different operator types, geographies, and types of roles within the organisation, ensuring we gain insight into a range of unique perspectives.

In this report, we define B2B2X as a business model which supports the dynamic creation and delivery of new services by multiple parties (the Bs) for any type of end-customer (the X), whether they be enterprises or consumers. The complexity of the value chains within B2B2X models requires more openness and flexibility from party providers, given that any provider could be the first or second ‘B’ in the B2B2X acronym. This research is primarily focused on B2B2X strategies for serving enterprise customers.

In essence, our research is focused on answering the following key question: how can operators grow their B2B2X revenues when traditional core connectivity is in decline?

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The telecoms industry is looking to revive growth
    • New purpose, new role
    • Clearer on the vision, unclear on the execution
  • Beyond connectivity, but where to?
    • “Selling the service sandwich”
    • Horizontal play: Being the best application enabler
    • The vertical-specific digital services provider
    • There is no “best” approach: Some will work better for different operators in different situations
    • 5G is a trigger but not the only one
  • Accelerating the shift towards partnerships and ecosystems
    • Some operator ‘ecosystems’ look more like partnerships
    • Not all telcos define ‘ecosystems’ the same way
    • Most telcos focusing on ecosystems want to orchestrate and influence the proposition
    • Many see ecosystems as a key potential route but ecosystems come with new requirements
  • The market is ripe for telco ecosystems
    • The interest in network intelligence is not new but this time is different
    • Telcos can provide unique value by making their networks more accessible
    • But so far, telcos have not fully embraced this vision yet
  • Conclusions and recommendations

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