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

Beating the crash: What’s coming?

Signs of tougher times

Tough times are ahead…

As we look ahead, the world faces a number of significant challenges:

  • Global / OECD consumer confidence is diving to startling new depths as people increasingly feel the impact of inflation, supply constraints and a cost of living crisis.
  • This follows the war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic and long Covid, stresses resulting from diverging political ideologies, growing social unrest, and the ever increasing realisation of the impact of climate change.
  • These seismic tensions are all driven by nearly 8 billion (and growing) people vying for resources and a vision of the future that they can continue to thrive in.

…but it’s not our first rodeo…

We have previously written about, for example:

And before that, there was the Credit Crunch series (2008), the Eurozone Crisis (2012), and technology and market disruptions too numerous to name.

There is always a temptation to think that the latest crisis is the worst. Each one tends to temporarily obliterate one’s view of the future as our imaginations are so absorbed in dealing with the nearby threat that all other considerations become secondary.

…and we believe we can bring some hope

Our solution to these challenges is two-fold. First, there is a lot that can be learned by looking at the lessons from previous traumas. Secondly, it is extremely helpful to be able to position all the individual events within an overall context, as it enables us to more rapidly reorientate after the latest shock.

Our context is The Coordination Age – the vision that the world is entering into a new era where:

  • The primary need is to make better use of available resources (e.g. money, carbon, time, assets, etc)
  • And that connecting technologies (e.g. telecommunications, data, automation and AI) are key elements of the solution.

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Making the Coordination Age work

making-the-coordination-age-work

Source: STL Partners

This report uses these learnings to look ahead to what we see as a challenging time. While some of the forces we outline in this report may seem alarming, this is not a pessimistic picture. We believe that the vision we describe brings opportunities for telecoms – but only if leaders in telecoms and elsewhere act on the vision. We are striving to make this happen, and we hope we can help you do that too.

A scale of discovery

To help contextualise the many forces of change, we have developed a six-stage schematic to generalise how people deal with new forces and changes in their lives. It progresses from the first recognition of a new theme or issue through to normalisation, the point where something is no longer new or different. The graphic below highlights the six stages, and general heuristic descriptions of what you might hear said, risks and threats, mitigations, and the general psychological and emotional mindset of those processing the change or issue in question.

Six stages of dealing with new ideas

six-stages-dealing-with-new-ideas-stl-partners

Source: STL Partners

The body of the report covers the drivers, their impact and consequences for telecoms:

  • Economic drivers, such as consumer confidence, inflation, and rising living costs
  • Environmental drivers, including climate change and carbon reduction
  • Political drivers, including the War in Ukraine, China / US tensions, trade wars and tensions
  • Social drivers, including Covid and Long Covid, inequalities and social polarisation.

Economic drivers: A crisis of confidence

In this section we examine drivers in consumer confidence, inflation / cost-of-living concerns and the consequences for telecoms.

Consumer confidence: An all-time low

The OECD consumer confidence index is a barometer of consumer sentiment. It reflects people’s confidence in their economic prospects. The chart below shows that it is currently reaching record new lows.

The OECD Consumer confidence index is at its lowest ever level

OECD-consumer-inflation-index-june-2022

Source: OECD

This means that consumers feel extremely pessimistic about their economic prospects. The average score is now below where it was at the peak of anxiety about Covid in early 2020, and below where it was in the financial crash in 2008-09. Indeed, the OECD average is now at its lowest ever level since global measures were introduced in the early 1970s, with only Mexico and Indonesia bucking the downward trend.

People are now preparing for a tough period in their economies. Some are worried about making ends meet – having enough to live to the standard they normally expect. This usually means that they will look to cut back on spending, especially for non-essential things.

Inflation is worrying everyone in Summer 2023

The pressures behind this trend are a generalised concern about inflation (rising prices on essential items like food) leading to a cost-of-living crisis.

Inflation overtook other global concerns in April 2022

Inflation-overtook-global-concerns-april-2022-stl-partners

Source: Ipsos

The Google trends chart below shows search interest in ‘inflation’ globally, which is an even more immediate signal of concern. It clearly spikes in July 2022.

Google Trends – searches for “inflation” spiked in Summer 2022

google-trends-searches-for-inflation-summer-2022-stl-partners

Source: Google

The problem is not confined to one or two economies: it is widespread, as the image from the interactive chart below shows.

inflation-global-challenge-2022-stl-partners

Source: FT

The rest of the analysis in this report reviews the macro-economic trends – i.e. the economic, environmental, political and social drivers of change. In a second report, we will cover telecoms industry trends, including technologies, policy, propositions and industry structure.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Not one crash, but many
    • 1. Actively realigning with stakeholders
    • 2. Accelerating operational innovation
    • 3. Enhancing resilience and customer security offerings
    • Next steps
  • Introduction: Signs of tougher times
    • A scale of discovery
  • Economic drivers: A crisis of confidence
    • Consumer confidence: An all-time low
    • Inflation is worrying everyone in summer 2022
    • Interest rates: A blunt tool?
    • Stock markets: Not quite sure…yet
    • Moving out of denial on economic problems
    • Consequences in telecoms demand
    • Recommendations
  • Environmental factors: Heating up fast
    • Climate change: Denial is hard these days
    • Decarbonisation: Digitising the industrial landscape, fast
    • Environmental concerns are now mainstream
    • Consequences for telecoms
    • Recommendations
  • Political: Drawing new lines
    • Ideo-conflict: Who’s side are you on?
    • The war in Ukraine: The first Coordination Age war?
    • China and Taiwan: Watching, waiting, wondering
    • Trade wars and barriers in general
    • Global instability: More trouble ahead
    • Consequences for telecoms
    • Recommendations
  • Social: A new order
    • Covid and Long Covid: Living with the virus
    • Rising resentment of inequalities
    • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
    • Consequences and recommendations for telecoms
  • Analysis
    • Getting the news in context
  • Appendix 1: Waste, pollution and air quality
    • Waste and pollution: Cleaning up
    • Refugees and migrations: Seeking solace in troubling times
  • Appendix 2: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

 

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The three telco Metaverse strategies

The Metaverse offers opportunities beyond connectivity for telcos

The Metaverse is the increasingly accepted term for a set of interconnected virtual worlds. One way to think about the Metaverse is to see it as a 3D version of the world wide web in which organizations operate their own virtual 3D worlds, rather than 2D web sites. Represented by avatars, visitors to a virtual world can interact with other users or with avatars controlled by artificial intelligence. The term Metaverse entered the popular consciousness when Facebook renamed itself Meta in October 2021.

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The renaming of Facebook sparked a surge of interest in the Metaverse

Source: Google Trends

Whereas the existing Internet is essentially a 2D digital overlay of the world, composed of text, voice, images and video, the Metaverse will provide a 3D digital overlay. This is the way Nvidia’s CEO Jensen Huang, portrayed the Metaverse in a speech in November 2021. As a leading provider of graphics chips, Nvidia is thinking deeply about how to build a business case for the Metaverse, which could drive rapid growth in demand for its products.

For a fully immersive experience, the Metaverse will need to be accessed through virtual reality (VR) headsets, but it could also be explored by moving through 3D environments using a conventional handset, laptop or television. Indeed, it is important to stress that the fortunes of the Metaverse won’t necessarily depend on the fortunes of VR. Hundreds of millions of people already play video games in 3D, interacting with each other, without wearing headsets.

The Metaverse looks set to host both entirely fictional virtual spaces where people can socialise, play and enjoy entertainment, as well as simulations of the real world, where people can test new product designs, learn new skills or watch concerts and sports events they can’t attend in person.

The first part of this report considers how the Metaverse could create value and the obstacles that lie in its way. It also outlines the strategies of Improbable, Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft and Nvidia – four companies developing many of the key enabling technologies.

The second part explores the Metaverse strategies of telcos. Broadband networks and related telco services are fundamental to the smooth running of digital environments today, and will be the building blocks of the Metaverse. We believe that telcos could play a coordination role that will help prevent the Metaverse from fragmenting into silos that are unable to interoperate with each other.

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 Metaverse, telcos can help people and businesses to interact and transact with each other safely and securely in 3D environments.

As it considers the opportunities for telcos, this report draws on the experiences and actions of SKT, Telefónica and Verizon, which are each deploying strategies to help coordinate the development of the Metaverse.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • What is the Metaverse for?
    • The lure of the virtual road
    • Corporate worlds take over from web sites
    • Dominance or democracy?
    • The non-fungible flexibility paradox
    • Facebook pursues metamorphosis
    • Microsoft has most of the pieces
  • What will the Metaverse mean for telcos?
    • Recreating the real world is challenging
    • Traffic implications for telcos
    • Opportunities for telcos
    • SK Telecom – the full stack standard bearer
    • Telefónica looks to play coordination role
    • AT&T and Verizon – connectivity plus edge
  • Conclusions
  • Index

Related Research

 

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Scaling private cellular and edge: How to avoid POC and pilot purgatory

Evaluating the opportunities with private cellular and edge

The majority of enterprises today are still at the early stages of understanding the potential benefits of private cellular networking and edge computing in delivering enhanced business outcomes, but the interest is evident. Within private cellular for example, we have seen significant traction and uptake globally during 2020 and 2021, partially driven by increased availability and routes to spectrum due to localised spectrum licensing models across different markets (see this report). This has resulted in several trials and engagements with large companies such as Bosch, Ford, Rio Tinto, Heathrow Airport and more.

However, despite the rising interest, enterprises often encounter challenges with a lack of internal stakeholder alignment or the inability to find the right stakeholder to be accountable and own the deployment. Furthermore, many enterprises feel they lack the expertise to deploy and manage private networking and/or edge solutions. In some cases, enterprises have also cited a lack of maturity in the device and solution ecosystem, for example with lack of supported (or industry-grade) devices which have a 5G/LTE/CBRS capability embedded in them, or a significant inertia in the installed base around other connectivity solutions (e.g. Wi-Fi). Therefore, despite the value and business outcomes that private cellular and edge compute can unlock for enterprises, the opportunity is rarely clear-cut.

Our research is based on findings and analysis from a global interview programme with 20 enterprises in sectors that are ahead in exploring private cellular and edge computing, primarily in the industrial verticals, as well as telecoms operators and solutions providers within the private cellular and edge computing ecosystem.

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Telcos see private cellular and edge as two peas in a pod…

Telecoms operators see private cellular and edge computing as part of a larger revenue opportunity beyond fixed and public cellular. It is an opportunity for telcos to move from being seen as horizontal players providing increasingly commoditised connectivity services, to more vertical players that address value-adding industry-specific use cases. Private cellular and edge compute can be seen as components of a wider innovative and holistic end-to-end solution for enterprises, and part of the telcos’ ambition to become strategic partners or trusted advisors to customers.

We define a private cellular network as a dedicated local on-premises network, designed to cover a geographically-constrained area or site such as a production plant, a warehouse or a mine. It uses dedicated spectrum, which can be owned by the enterprise or leased from a telco operator or third party, and has dedicated operating functions that can run on the enterprise’s own dedicated or shared edge compute infrastructure. Private cellular networking is expected to play a key role in future wireless technology for enterprise on-premises connectivity. Private cellular networks can be configured specifically to an individual enterprise’s requirements to meet certain needs around reliability, throughput, latency etc. to enable vertical-specific use cases in a combined way that other alternatives have struggled to before. Although there are early instances of private networks going back to 2G GSM-R in the railway sector, for the purpose of this report, we focus on private cellular networks that leverage 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) or 5G mobile technology.

Figure 1: Private cellular combines the benefits of fixed and wireless in a tailored way

benefits of private cellular

Source: STL Partners

Edge compute is about bringing the compute, storage and processing capabilities and power of cloud closer to the end-user or end-device (i.e. the source of data) by locating workloads on distributed physical infrastructure. It combines the key benefits of local compute, such as low latency, data localisation and reduced backhaul costs, with the benefits of cloud compute, namely scalability, flexibility, and cloud native operating models.

Figure 2: Edge computing combines local and cloud compute benefits to end-users

benefits of edge computing

Source: STL Partners

Within the telecoms industry, private cellular and edge computing are often considered two closely interlinked technologies that come hand-in-hand. Our previous report, Navigating the private cellular maze: when, where and how, explored the different private cellular capabilities that enterprises are looking to leverage, and our findings showed that security, reliability and control were cited as the most important benefits of private cellular. In many ways, edge compute also addresses these needs. Both are means of delivering ultra-low latency, security, reliability and high-throughput real time analytics, but in different ways.

…but this is not necessarily the case with enterprises

Although the telecoms industry often views edge computing and private cellular in the same vein, this is not always the case from the enterprise perspective. Not only do the majority of enterprises approach edge computing and private cellular as separate technologies, addressing separate needs, many are still at the early stages of understanding what they are.

There is oftentimes also a different interpretations and confusion of terminology when it comes to private cellular and edge compute. For example, in our interviews, a few enterprises describe traditional on-premises compute with local dedicated compute facilities within an operating site (e.g. a server room) as a flavour of edge compute. We argue that the key difference between traditional on-premises compute and on-premises edge compute is that with the latter, the applications and underlying infrastructure are both more cloud-like. Applications that leverage edge compute also use cloud-like technologies and processes (such as continuous integration and continuous delivery, or CI/CD in short) and the edge infrastructure uses containers or virtual machines and can be remotely managed (rather than being monolithic).

The same applies when it comes to private cellular networking, where the term ‘private network’ is used differently by certain individuals to refer to virtual private networks (VPNs) as opposed to the dedicated local on-premises network we have defined above. In addition, when it comes to private 5G, there is also confusion as to the difference between better in-building coverage of public 5G (i.e. the macro network) versus a private 5G network, for a manufacturing plant for example. This will only be further complicated by the upswing of network slicing, which can sometimes (incorrectly) be marketed as a private network.

Furthermore, for enterprises that are more familiar with the concepts, many are still looking to better understand the business value and outcomes that private LTE/5G and edge compute can bring, and what they can enable for their businesses.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Evaluating the opportunities with private cellular and edge
    • Telcos see private cellular and edge as two peas in a pod…
    • …but this is not necessarily the case with enterprises
    • Most private cellular or edge trials or PoCs have yet to scale
  • Edge and private cellular as different tracks
    • Enterprises that understand private cellular don’t always understand edge (and vice versa)
    • Edge and private cellular are pursued as distinct initiatives
  • Breaking free from PoC purgatory
    • Lack of stakeholder alignment
    • Ecosystem inertia
    • Unable to build the business case
  • Addressing different deployment pathways
    • Tactical solutions versus strategic transformations
    • Find trigger points as key opportunities for scaling
    • Readiness of solutions: Speed and ease of deployment
  • Recommendations for enterprises
  • Recommendations for telco operators
  • Recommendations for others
    • Application providers, device manufacturers and OEMs
    • Regulators

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How video analytics can kickstart the edge opportunity for telcos

Processing video is a key use for edge computing

In our analysis and sizing of the edge market, STL Partners found that processing video will be a strong driver of edge capacity and revenues. This is because a huge quantity of visual data is captured each day through many different processes. The majority of the information captured is straightforward (such as “how busy is this road?”), therefore it is highly inefficient for the whole data stream to be sent to the core of the network. It is much better to process it near to the point of origin and save the costs, energy and time of sending it back and forth. Hence “Video Analytics” is a key use for edge computing.

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The edge market is evolving rapidly

Edge computing is an exciting opportunity. The market is evolving rapidly, and although still fairly nascent today, is expected to scale significantly over the next 2-3 years. STL partners has estimated that the total edge computing addressable market was worth $10bn in 2020, and that this will grow to $534bn in 2030. This is driven by the increasing number of connected devices, and the rising adoption of IoT, Industry 4.0 and digital transformation solutions. While cloud adoption continues to grow in parallel, there are cases where the increasingly stringent connectivity demands of new and advanced use cases cannot be met by cloud or central data centres, or where sending data to the cloud is too costly. Edge answers this problem, and offers an alternative option with lower latency, reduced backhaul and greater reliability. For the many enterprises who are adopting a hybrid and multi-cloud strategy – strategically distributing their data across different clouds and locations – running workloads at the edge is a natural next step.

Developments in the technologies enabling edge computing are also contributing to market growth. For example, the increased agility of virtualised and 5G networks enables the migration of workloads from the cloud to the edge. Compute is also developing, becoming more lightweight, efficient, and powerful. These more capable devices can run workloads and perform operations that were not previously possible at the edge.

Defining different types of edge

Edge computing brings processing capabilities closer to the end user or end-device. The compute infrastructure is therefore more distributed, and typically at smaller sites. This differs from traditional on-premise compute (which is monolithic or based on proprietary hardware) because it utilises the flexibility and openness of cloud native infrastructure, i.e. highly scalable Kubernetes clusters.

The location of the edge may be defined as anywhere between an end device, and a point on the periphery of the core network. We have outlined the key types of edge computing and where they are located in the figure below.

The types of edge computing

It should be noted that although moving compute to the edge can be considered an alternative to cloud, edge computing also complements cloud computing and drives adoption, since data that is processed or filtered at the edge can ultimately be sent to the cloud for longer term storage or collation and analysis.

Telcos must identify which area of the edge market to focus on

For operators looking to move beyond connectivity and offer vertical solutions, edge is an opportunity to differentiate by incorporating their edge capabilities into solutions. If successful, this could result in significant revenue generation, since the applications and platforms layer is where most of the revenue from edge resides. In fact, by 2030, 70% of the addressable revenue for edge will come from the application, with only 9% in the pure connectivity. The remaining 21% represents the value of hardware, edge infrastructure and platforms, integration, and managed services.

Realistically, operators will not have the resource and management bandwidth to develop solutions for several use cases and verticals. They must therefore focus on key customers in one or two segments, understand their particular business needs, and deliver that value in concert with specific partners in their ecosystem. As it relates to MEC, most operators are selecting the key partners for each of the services they offer – broadcast video, immersive AR/VR experiences, crowd analytics, gaming etc.

When selecting the best area to focus on, telcos should weigh up the attractiveness of the market (including the size of the opportunity, how mature the opportunity is, and the need for edge) against their ability to compete.

Value of edge use cases (by size of total addressable market by 2030)

Source: STL Partners – Edge computing market sizing forecast

We assessed the market attractiveness of the top use cases that are expected to drive adoption of edge over the coming years, some of which are shown in the figure above. This revealed that the use cases that represent the largest opportunities in 2030 include edge CDN, cloud gaming, connected car driver assistance and video analytics. Of these, video analytics is the most mature opportunity, therefore represents a highly attractive proposition for CSPs.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Processing video is a key use for edge computing
    • The edge market is evolving rapidly
    • Defining different types of edge
    • Telcos must identify which area of the edge market to focus on
  • Video analytics is a large and growing market
    • The market for edge-enabled video analytics will be worth $75bn by 2030
  • Edge computing changes the game and plays to operator strengths
    • What is the role of 5G?
  • Security is the largest growth area and operators have skills and assets in this
    • Video analytics for security will increasingly rely on the network edge
  • There is empirical evidence from early movers that telcos can be successful in this space
    • What are telcos doing today?
    • Telcos can front end-to-end video analytics solutions
    • It is important to maintain openness
    • Conquering the video analytics opportunity will open doors for telcos
  • Conclusion
  • Index

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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 plays in live entertainment

Enhancing live entertainment

Live entertainment spans everything from a handful of people enjoying stand-up comedy in a pub to a football match attended by 100,000 fans. Although there are many different forms and formats of live entertainment, they share three inter-related characteristics – immediacy, interactivity and immersion. The performers make things happen and people tend to react, by clapping, shouting, singing or gesticulating at the performers or by interacting with each other. A compelling event will also be immersive in the sense that the spectators will focus entirely on the action.

For telcos, live events present specific challenges and opportunities. Simultaneously providing millions of people with high quality images and audio from live events can soak up large amounts of bandwidth on networks, forcing telcos to invest in additional capacity. Yet, it should be feasible to make a return on that investment: live events are an enormously popular form of entertainment on which people around the world are prepared to spend vast sums of money. This is a market where demand often outstrips supply: tickets for top tier sports events or music concerts can cost US$150 or more.

With the advent of 5G and Wi-Fi 6E, telcos have an opportunity to improve spectators’ enjoyment of live events both within a venue and in remote locations. Indeed, telcos could play a key role in enabling many more people to both participate in and appreciate live entertainment, thereby helping them to enjoy more fulfilling and enriching lives.

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The opportunities to use new technologies to enhance live events

Live entertainment

Source: STL Partners

More broadly, telecoms networks and related services have become fundamental to the smooth running of our increasingly digital economy. 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 live entertainment, telcos can help people to make better use of their leisure time – a precious and very finite resource for most individuals.

This report begins by providing an overview of the live entertainment opportunity for telcos, outlining the services they could provide to support both professional and amateur events. It then considers the growing demand for high-definition, 360-degree coverage of live events, before discussing why it is increasingly important to deliver footage in real-time, rather than near real-time. Subsequent sections explore the expanding role of edge computing in facilitating live broadcasts and how augmented reality and virtual reality could be used to create more immersive and interactive experiences.

This report draws on the experiences and actions of AT&T, BT, NTT and Verizon, which are all very active in the coverage of live sports. It also builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Opportunities to enhance live entertainment
    • Amateur entertainment – a B2C play
  • Delivering high-definition/360-degree video
    • New broadcast technologies
    • Real-time encoding and compression
    • Traffic management and net neutrality
  • Real real-time coverage and stats
    • More data and more stats
    • Personalised advertising and offers
  • Edge computing and the in-event experience
    • Refereeing automation/support
    • In-venue security and safety
    • Wi-Fi versus 5G
  • Augmented reality – blurring the lines
  • Conclusions
    • Tech can enrich people’s experience of live events
    • The role of telcos
  • Index

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Forecasting capacity of network edge computing

Telco edge build has been slower than expected

Telecoms operators have been planning the deployment of edge computing sites for at least the last three years.

Initially, the premise of (mobile) edge computing was to take advantage of the prime real estate telecoms operators had. Mobile operators, in particular, had undergone a process of evolving their network facilities from sites which housed purpose-built networking equipment to data centres as they adopted virtualisation. The consolidation of networking equipment meant there would be spare capacity in these data centres that could easily host applications for enterprises and developers.

That evolution has now been accelerated by the advent of 5G, a mobile generation built on a software-based architecture and IT principles. The result will be a proliferation of edge data centres that will be used for radio access network and core network hardware and software.

However, the reality is that it has taken time for telcos to deploy these sites. There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. Cost: There is a cost to renovate an existing telco site and ensure it meets requirements common for world-class data centres.
  2. Demand: Telcos are hesitant to take on the risk of building out the infrastructure until they are certain of the demand for these data centres.
  3. 5G roll-out: Mobile operators have been prioritising their 5G RAN roll-out in the last two years, over the investment in edge data centres.
  4. Partnership decisions: The discussion around who to partner with to build the edge data centres has become more complicated, because of the number of partners vying for the role and the entrance of new partners (e.g. hyperscalers) which has slowed down decision-making

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Early adopters have taken significant strides in their edge strategy in 2021

2020 and 2021 have been seen as inflection points as a number of leading telecoms operators have launched edge sites: e.g. AT&T, Verizon, Cox Communications, SK Telecom and Vodafone. Arguably, this was triggered by AWS announcing partnerships on AWS Wavelength with four telecoms operators in November 2019, with more recently announced (e.g. Telstra in 2021).

Going forward, key questions remain on the trajectory of telco edge build:

  • How many edge data centres will telcos build and make available for consumer/enterprise applications?
  • How much capacity of telco edge computing will there be globally?
  • How much of telco edge computing will be used for distributed core network functions vs. consumer/enterprise applications?
  • What proportion of telco edge data centre capacity will be taken up by hyperscalers’ platforms?

This report seeks to forecast the capacity at telecoms operators’ edge data centres until 2025 and provide clarity on the nature and location of these sites. In other words, how many sites and servers will be available for running applications and where will these sites be located, both physically and logically in the telecoms operators’ networks.

Before reading this report, we would recommend reading STL Partners’ previous publications on telco edge computing to provide context for some of the key themes addressed, for example:

The report focuses on network edge computing sites

Edge computing comprises of a spectrum of potential location and technologies designed to bring processing power closer to the end-device and source of data, outside of a central data centre or cloud. This report focuses on forecasting capacity at the network edge – i.e. edge computing at edge data centres owned (and usually operated) by telecoms operators.

The initial version of the forecast models capacity at these sites for non-RAN workloads. In other words, processing for enterprise or consumer applications and the distributed core network functions required to support them. Future versions of the forecast will expand to RAN.

Forecast scope in terms of edge locations and workload types

The report covers two out of three scenarios for building the network edge

Table of content

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • There are 3 key factors determining telco edge data centre build out
  • Logically, most network edge will be in the transport aggregation layer
  • Geographically, we will see a shift in the concentration of network edge data centres
  • The limited capacity at network edge DCs will largely be used for edge applications
  • Most telecoms operators are taking a hybrid approach to building their edge
  • Conclusions and next steps
  • Appendix: Methodology

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Edge computing market sizing forecast

Introducing STL Partners’ edge computing market sizing forecast

This report presents the key findings of STL Partners’ new demand forecast model for edge computing services. Its purpose is to:

  • Assess the demand from 20 use cases which currently rely on edge or will require edge to fully develop;
  • Identify the total revenue across the value chain: hardware, connectivity, application, edge infrastructure (network and on-premise), and integration and support;
  • Output a full set of results for over 180 countries over the 2020–2030 period per use case and per vertical.

This report is accompanied by a dashboard which presents a summary of our model output and the associated graphics for the world’s regions and for 20 major markets. The dashboard also presents the full revenue output for the 180+ countries.

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Edge computing addressable revenue will reach US$543 billion by 2030

High-level findings from the model indicate that:

  • The growth in the number of connected devices, as well as the need for higher levels of automation, operational efficiency and cost reduction, will drive the adoption of edge computing across many use cases and verticals over the next 10 years. This will result in increased spend across the value chain.
  • The total edge computing addressable market will grow from US$10 billion in 2020 to US$543 billion in 2030 at a CAGR of 49% over the 10-year period.
  • The total value chain breaks into five main components which are hardware, connectivity, application, integration & support, in addition to the edge infrastructure which includes both on-prem edge and network edge.

Total edge computing addressable revenue

Edge computing

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Methodology
  • Revenue by value chain component
  • Revenue by use case
  • Revenue by vertical
  • Revenue by region
  • Appendix

For more information on STL Partners’ edge-related services, please go to our Edge Insights Service page.

The new forecast is intended to complement:

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Why telcos need to capture the edge opportunity now

Why telcos need to capture the edge opportunity now

This report is based on an interview programme that STL Partners conducted in the months of July and August 2021. The interview programme consisted of 17 interviews: 13 with operators and 4 with enterprises. More information about the telecoms interviewees can be found below.

Figure 1: Interviewee profiles across telcos and enterprises

We asked operators and enterprises about the role of edge computing within their organisations, as well as their overall technology strategy. We investigated the key use cases they were exploring, their view on ecosystem partnerships and their vertical targeting strategy to understand: How can operators capture the edge opportunity?

Table of Contents

Executive Summary……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..2
Telco edge computing is now…………………………………………………………………………………………………………..2
Key takeaway: telcos must take a pragmatic approach going forward …………………………………………..2
Preface…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………5
Introduction………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….7
Edge progress to date: laying the groundwork…………………………………………………………………………………….8
Building the 5G foundation has been the priority ……………………………………………………………………………..8
Private cellular network solutions are gaining traction …………………………………………………………………..10
Operators have been undergoing an education process………………………………………………………………..11
Clarity around use cases has allowed telcos to more actively engage the ecosystem………………….11
The inflection point: how to capture demand for edge computing through focused strategies ……….13
Vertical strategy………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………13
Horizontal strategy………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….18
Partnerships must underpin any successful edge strategy ………………………………………………………………20
Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….23

Further reading

STL Partners has an extensive catalogue of edge research, which can be found on our Edge Computing hub. These reports provide an overview of edge, an examination of the telco opportunities and challenges in pursuing edge, and the role of 5G in edge. We recommend reading the following articles and reports before pursuing this report to provide sufficient context.

Telecoms priorities: Ready for the crunch?

The goal of this research is to understand how telecoms operators’ investment priorities and investments are likely to change as the COVID-19 crisis recedes.  To do this, we collected 144 survey responses from participants in telecoms operators, telecoms vendors, and analysts and consultants and other groups. All responses are treated in strict personal and company confidence. Take the survey here.

This research builds on our previous content on the impact of the pandemic to the telecoms industry: COVID-19: Now, next and after (March 2020), COVID-19: Impact on telco priorities (May 2020), based on a survey undertaken in April and early May 2020 and Recovering from COVID: 5G to stimulate growth and drive productivity (August 2020).  STL Partners has also hosted three webinar on the topic (March to July 2020).

This deck summarises the findings of our industry research on telecoms priorities at the start of 2021.

We explored the research in our webinar,  State of the Industry: 2021 Priorities (click on the link to view the recording).

Background to the telecoms priorities survey – January 2021

The respondents were fairly evenly split between telcos, vendors, and ‘others’ (mainly analysts and consultants). This sample contained a higher proportion of European and American respondents than industry average, so is not fully globally representative. The split of company types and geography was broadly similar to the May 2020 survey, with the exception of the MENA region, where there were less than half the prior respondents – a total of 7. However those respondents were senior and well known to STL.

Who took the survey?

telco industry breakdown

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

48% of respondents were C-Level/VP/SVP/Director level. Functionally, most respondents work in senior HQ and operational management areas. Compared to May 2020, there were proportionally slightly more senior respondents, and slightly less in product and strategy roles.

What are their roles?

Senior participants

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

How respondents perceive priorities, as the COVID threat recedes

There were increases in respondent confidence in almost every category we surveyed from May 2020 to Jan 2021.

  • Telecoms automation and agility remain top priorities across the industry – and transformation has moved up the agenda.
  • Appetite for 5G investments increased the most of all areas surveyed in the last 8 months.
  • The ‘consumerisation’ of enterprise continues, although security and work from home (WFH) services have overtaken conferencing and VPNs in priority.
  • Healthcare remains the most accelerated vertical / application opportunity of all those impacted in the current crisis.
  • The priority of consumer services has significantly increased yet confidence in making any additional money in the sector is low.
  • Leadership and transformation: COVID 19 has empowered an industry-wide belief that change is possible.
  • Transformation and innovation are high priorities, and appetite for sustainability and recruitment has returned, but there are doubts about some telco leaders’ commitment and ability to grasp and invest in new opportunities.

STL Partners assesses the telecoms industry to be at a crunch point: COVID has injected further pace to the rapid evolution of the world economy. Telcos that have been focused on responding to immediate pandemic-induced challenges, will emerge from the crisis faced with an urgency to respond to this evolution – key choices that telcos might have had 5-10 years to ponder are being crunched into the next 0-3 years.

Our findings suggest that most telcos are only partly ready for this disruptive opportunity.

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Notes on interpreting the research findings

  • The way research respondents perceive any given question is generally dependent on their current situation and knowledge. To get relevant answers, we asked all respondents if they were interested or involved in specific areas of interest (e.g. ‘consumer services’), and to not answer questions they couldn’t (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) or simply didn’t know or have a clear opinion.
  • We saw no evidence that respondents were ‘gaming’ the results to be favourable to their interests.
  • Results need to be seen in the context that telcos themselves vary widely in size, profitability and market outlook. For example, for some, 5G seems like a valid investment, whereas for others the conditions are currently much less promising. COVID-19 has clearly had some impact on these dynamics, and our analysis attempts to reflect this impact on the overall balance of opinions as well as some of the specific situations to bring greater nuance.
  • In December 2020 / January 2021, the worldwide impact of COVID-19 is increasingly well understood and less of a shock than was the case in May / June 2020. Vaccines are beginning to be rolled out but it is an early stage in the process, and new variants of COVID-19 have evolved in the UK, South Africa and Brazil (and possibly elsewhere). There are geo-political wrangles on vaccine distribution, and varying views on effectiveness and the most appropriate responses. Nonetheless, respondents appear overall more optimistic, although there is still considerable uncertainty.
  • We’ve interpreted the results as best we can given our knowledge of the respondents and what they told us, and added in our own insights where relevant.
  • Inevitably, this is a subjective exercise, albeit based on 144 industry respondents’ views.
  • Nonetheless, we hope that it brings you additional insights to the many that you already possess through your own experiences and access to data.
  • Finally, things continue to change fast. We will continue to track them.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary: Opportunities are in overdrive, but can telcos catch them?
  • High-level findings
  • Research background
  • Technology impacts: Automation, cloud and edge come of age
  • Network impacts: 5G is back
  • Enterprise sector impacts: Healthcare still leads
  • Consumer sector impacts: Mojo aplenty, money – not so much
  • Leadership impacts: good talking, but enough walking?

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

What is Microsoft doing, and should telcos be worried?

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

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

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

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

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

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Microsoft’s telecom timeline

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

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

Microsoft’s move on telecoms

Microsoft’s five partnership and service models

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

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

Five business models for partnerships

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

Table of Contents

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

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Growing B2B revenues from edge: Five new telco services

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Edge computing has sparked significant interest from telcos

Edge computing brings cloud capabilities such as data processing and storage closer to the end user, device, or the source of data. There are two main opportunity areas for telcos in edge computing. Firstly, telcos have an opportunity to provide edge computing via edge data centres at sites on the telecoms network – network edge, sometimes referred to as multi-access edge computing. Secondly, telcos can offer edge-enabled services through compute platforms at the customer premises – on-premise edge.

Although there is an opportunity for telcos to offer new services and an enhanced customer experience to their consumer customer base, much of the edge computing opportunity for telcos is in the B2B segment. We have covered the general strategy operators are taking for edge computing in our previous report Telco edge computing: What’s the operator strategy? and through insights on our Edge Hub. Within enterprise, edge offers a chance for operators to move beyond offering connectivity services and extend into the platform and application space.

However, the market is still young; enterprises are still at an early stage of understanding the potential benefits of edge computing. There is limited availability of network edges; telcos are still deploying sites and few have begun to offer mechanisms to access the edge compute infrastructure within them. As a result, developers are only just starting to build applications to leverage this new infrastructure.

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Telcos are still grappling with defining the opportunity. Since adoption is so nascent, many feel that they are not able to prove the commercial case to unlock significant investment. Some operators are pushing ahead by building out edge infrastructure, securing partnerships and launching edge computing services. Nonetheless, even these operators are keeping an open mind to edge and waiting to see what unfolds as the market matures. What is clear is that, with the hyperscalers and others moving into the edge, telcos are increasingly keen to capitalise on the edge opportunity and solidify their position in the market before it’s too late.The sweet spot opportunity for edge is highly dependent on telcos’ starting points: some have existing capabilities within B2B networking and cloud, partnerships, and strong customer relationships. But for other telcos, the B2B business is at a very early stage. Meanwhile, edge infrastructure build differs across telcos, with some choosing to partner with hyperscalers to create the hardware and software stack within edge data centres while others are opting to build their own stack.

It is therefore critical for telcos to:

  1. Assess whether they can leverage existing B2Bservices, customers and partners versus where they need to invest to fill the gaps
  2. Understand which factors may affect how successful they are in offering new edgeservices
  3. Prioritise which servicesthey could offer to B2B customers

In this report, we focus on answering the following questions:

Which B2B services can edge computing add value to? And how ready are telcos to take new edge services to market?

In order to better understand how operators are thinking about edge services and what they are looking to offer today, we interviewed eight technology and strategy leaders working in operators primarily across Europe.

To ensure an open and candid dialogue, we have anonymised their contributions. We would like to take the opportunity to thank those who participated in this research. A summary of the interviewee profiles is provided in the Appendix.

Telcos’ B2B businesses today

As consumer revenues come under increasing pressure, operators are looking to their B2B businesses to provide a new source of revenue growth. The maturity of their B2B businesses today varies from those who have a limited offering focussed primarily on phones, SIMs and basic connectivity (particularly mobile-only telcos, e.g. Three UK), to those who are providing full vertical applications or taking on the role of systems integrator (often incumbents or telcos with fixed networks, e.g. DTAG, Vodafone). Many telcos are looking for opportunities to take on more of the latter role, by expanding their B2B offerings and increasing their foothold in the value chain e.g. by offering managed services. Particularly with the arrival of 5G, they see greater potential to grow revenues through B2B services compared with B2C.

Maturity levels of telcos’ B2B business

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Strategic principles for B2B telco edge
    • Telcos’ B2B businesses today
    • Three telco strategies for B2B edge
    • On-premise edge and network edge are separate opportunities
    • Telcos are open to partnering with the hyperscalers for edge
  • Five types of B2B edge services
    • Edge-to-cloud networking
    • Private edge infrastructure
    • Network edge platforms
    • Multi-edge and cloud orchestration
    • Vertical solutions
  • Evaluating the opportunity: How should telcos prioritise?
    • It’s not just about technology
    • However, significant value creation does not come easy
    • Telcos should consider new business models to ensure success
  • Next steps for telcos in building B2B edge services
    • Prioritise services to monetise edge
    • Evaluate the role of partners
    • Work closely with customers given that edge is still nascent
  • Appendix
    • Interviewee overview
  • Index

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AI is starting to pay: Time to scale adoption

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AI adoption yields positive results

Over the last five years, telcos have made measurable progress in AI adoption and it is starting to pay off.  When compared to all industries, telcos have become adept at handling large data sets and implementing automation. Over the last several years the telecoms industry has gone from not knowing where or how to implement AI, to having developed and implemented hundreds of AI and automation applications for network operations, fraud prevention, customer channel management, and sales and marketing. We have discussed these use cases and operator strategies and opportunities in detail in previous reports.

For the more advanced telcos, the challenge is no longer setting up data management platforms and systems and identifying promising use cases for AI and automation, but overcoming the organisational and cultural barriers to becoming truly data-centric in mindset, processes and operations. A significant part of this challenge includes disseminating AI adoption and expertise of these technologies and associated skills to the wider organisation, beyond a centralised AI team.The benchmark for success here is not other telcos, or companies in other industries with large legacy and physical assets, but digital- and cloud-native companies that have been established with a data-centric mindset and practices from the start. This includes global technology companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon, who increasingly see telecoms operators as customers, or perhaps even competitors one day, as well as greenfield players such as Rakuten, Jio and DISH, which as well as more modern networks have fewer ingrained legacy processes and cultural practices to overcome.

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Telecoms has a high AI adoption rate compared with other industries

AI pays off

Source: McKinsey

In this report, we assess several telcos’ approach to AI and the results they have achieved so far, and draw some lessons on what kind of strategy and ambition leads to better results. In the second section of the report, we explore in more detail the concrete steps telcos can take to help accelerate and scale the use of AI and automation across the organisation, in the hopes of becoming more data-driven businesses.

While not all telcos have an ambition to drive new revenue growth through development of their own IP in AI, to form the basis of new enterprise or consumer services, all operators will need AI to permeate their internal processes to compete effectively in the long term. Therefore, whatever the level ambition, disseminating fundamental AI and data skills across the organisation is crucial to long term success. STL Partners believes that the sooner telcos can master these skills, the higher their chances of successfully applying them to drive innovation both in core connectivity and new services higher up the value chain.

Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Developing an AI strategy: What is it for?
    • Telefónica: From AURA and LUCA to Telefónica Tech
    • Vodafone: An efficiency focused strategy
    • Elisa: A vertical application approach
    • Takeaways: Comparing three approaches
  • AI maturity progression
    • Adopt big data analytics: The basic building blocks
    • Creating a centralised AI unit
    • Creating a new business unit
    • Disseminating AI across the organisation
  • Using partnerships to accelerate and scale AI
    • O2 and Cardinality
    • AT&T Acumos
  • Conclusion and recommendations
  • Index

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