Network convergence: How to deliver a seamless experience

Operators need to adapt to the changing connectivity demands post-COVID19

The global dependency on consistent high-performance connectivity has recently come to the fore as the COVID-19 outbreak has transformed many of the remaining non-digital tasks into online activities.

The typical patterns of networking have broken and a ‘new normal’, albeit possibly a somewhat transitory one, is emerging. The recovery of the global economy will depend on governments, healthcare providers, businesses and their employees robustly communicating and gaining uninhibited access to content and cloud through their service providers – at any time of day, from any location and on any device.

Reliable connectivity is a critical commodity. Network usage patterns have shifted more towards the home and remote working. Locations which were previously light-usage now have high demands. Conversely, many business locations no longer need such high capacity. Utilisation is not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 patterns either, as people and businesses adapt to new daily routines – at least for some time.

The strategies with which telcos started the year have of course been disrupted with resources diverted away from strategic objectives to deal with a new mandate – keep the country connected. In the short-term, the focus has shifted to one which is more tactical – ensuring customer satisfaction through a reliable and adaptable service with rapid response to issues. In the long-term, however, the objectives for capacity and coverage remain. Telcos are still required to reach national targets for a minimum connection quality in rural areas, whilst delivering high bandwidth service demands in hotspot locations (although these hotspot locations might now change).

Of course, modern networks are designed with scalability and adaptability in mind – some recent deployments from new disruptors (such as Rakuten) demonstrate the power of virtualisation and automation in that process, particularly when it comes to the radio access network (RAN). In many legacy networks, however, one area which is not able to adapt fast enough is the physical access. Limits on spectrum, coverage (indoors and outdoors) and the speed at which physical infrastructure can be installed or updated become a bottleneck in the adaptation process. New initiatives to meet home working demand through an accelerated fibre rollout are happening, but they tend to come at great cost.

Network convergence is a concept which can provide a quick and convenient way to address this need for improved coverage, speed and reliability in the access network, without the need to install or upgrade last mile infrastructure. By definition, it is the coming-together of multiple network assets, as part of a transformation to one intelligent network which can efficiently provide customers with a single, unified, high-quality experience at any time, in any place.

It has already attracted interest and is finding an initial following. A few telcos have used it to provide better home broadband. Internet content and cloud service providers are interested, as it adds resilience to the mobile user experience, and enterprises are interested in utilising multiple lower cost commodity backhauls – the combination of which benefits from inherent protection against costly network outages.

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Network convergence helps create an adaptable and resilient last mile

Most telcos already have the facility to connect with their customers via multiple means; providing mobile, fixed line and public Wi-Fi connectivity to those in their coverage footprint. The strategy has been to convert individual ‘pure’ mobile or fixed customers into households. The expectation is that this creates revenue increase through bundling and loyalty whilst bringing some added friction into the ability to churn – a concept which has been termed ‘convergence’. Although the customer may see one converged telco through brand, billing and customer support, the delivery of a consistent user experience across all modes of network access has been lacking and awkward. In the end, it is customer dissatisfaction which drives churn, so delivering a consistent user experience is important.

Convergence is a term used to mean many different things, from a single bill for all household connectivity, to modernising multiple core networks into a single efficient core. While most telcos have so far been concentrating on increasing operational efficiency, increasing customer loyalty/NPS and decreasing churn through some initial aspects of convergence, some are now looking into network convergence – where multiple access technologies (4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, fixed line) can be used together to deliver a resilient, optimised and consistent network quality and coverage.

Overview of convergence

Source: STL Partners

As an overarching concept, network convergence introduces more flexibility into the access layer. It allows a single converged core network to utilise and aggregate whichever last mile connectivity options are most suited to the environment. Some examples are:

  • Hybrid Access: DSL and 4G macro network used together to provide extra speed and fallback reliability in hybrid fixed/mobile home gateways.
  • Cell Densification: 5G and Wi-Fi small cells jointly providing short range capacity to augment the macro network in dense urban areas.
  • Fixed Wireless Access: using cellular as a fibre alternative in challenging areas.

The ability to combine various network accesses is attractive as an option for improving adaptability, resilience and speed. Strategically, putting such flexibility in place can support future growth and customer retention with the added advantage of improving operational efficiency. Tactically, it enables an ability to quickly adapt resources to short-term changes in demand. COVID-19 has been a clear example of this need.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Convergence and network convergence
    • Near-term benefits of network convergence
    • Strategic benefits of network convergence
    • Balancing the benefits of convergence and divergence
    • A three-step plan
  • Introduction
    • The changing environment
    • Network convergence: The adaptable and resilient last mile
    • Anticipated benefits to telcos
    • Challenges and opposing forces
  • The evolution to network convergence
    • Everyone is combining networks
    • Converging telco networks
    • Telco adoption so far
  • Strategy, tactics and hurdles
    • The time is right for adaptability
    • Tactical motivators
    • Increasing the relationship with the customer
    • Modernisation and efficiency – remaining competitive
    • Hurdles from within the telco ecosystem
    • Risk or opportunity? Innovation above-the-core
  • Conclusion
    • A three-step plan
  • Index

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Digital Services: What is Your Digital Business Worth?

Introduction

When Hewlett Packard’s then-CEO (Carly Fiorina) defended HP’s infamous acquisition of Compaq in 2002, she offered a number of arguments as to why the deal made sense. Firstly, the combined entity would now be able to meet the demands of customers for “solutions on a truly global basis.” Secondly, she claimed that the firm would be able to offer products “from top to bottom, from low-end to high-end.” Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the merger would generate “synergies that are compelling.”

‘Synergy’ is a straightforward concept: the interaction of two or more entities to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their parts. Synergistic phenomena are ubiquitous in the natural world, ranging from physics (e.g. the building blocks of atoms), to genetics (e.g. the cooperative interactions among genes in genomes) and the synergies produced by socially-organised groups (e.g. the division of labour).

In the business world, ‘synergy’ refers to the value that is generated by combining two organisations to create a new, more valuable entity. Synergies here can be ‘operational’, such as the combination of functional strengths, or ‘financial’, such as tax benefits or diversification. Traditionally, however, investors have been deeply sceptical of synergies, in terms of both their existence and the ability of M&A activity to deliver them. This was the case with the HP-Compaq merger: the day the merger was announced HP’s stock closed at $18.87, down sharply from $23.21 the previous day.

Recently, ‘synergy’ has also become an increasingly familiar term within the telecommunications industry, owing to activities in two distinct areas. These are now discussed in turn.

Fixed-Mobile Convergence: How tangible are the synergies?

Fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) is a hot topic, and numerous substantial M&A transactions have occurred in this space in recent years (especially in Europe). Figure 1 charts some of these transactions, including publicly available synergy estimates (reflecting cost savings, revenue benefits, or both), below:

Figure 1: Fixed-mobile convergence driven by synergy value

Source: Vodafone, Analysys Mason, STL Partners
* Synergy run-rate by 2016; ** Revenue synergies only

With synergies estimated to account for over 10% of each of these transactions’ valuations, and in the case of Vodafone/KDG nearly 30%, they are clearly perceived as an important driver of value. However, there are two key qualifications to be made here:

  1. Discounted Cash Flow, or ‘DCF’, is theoretically sound but less credible in practice: Each of the estimates of ‘synergy value’ in Figure 1 were constructed using DCF techniques, which attempt to forecast future cash flows and ‘discount’ these to their overall value today (e.g. because one can save cash and earn interest) . Although theoretically sound, there are several problems with DCF in practice.
  2. Certain FMC synergies are more tangible than others: Whilst cost-centric synergies, such as economies of scale (e.g. combined call centres) and access to mobile backhaul, are tangible and easier to quantify, revenue-centric synergies (e.g. quad-play and upselling) are less tangible and more challenging to quantify

These qualifications mirror those raised in the ‘Valuing Digital: A Contentious Yet Vital Business’ Executive Briefing, which discusses the challenges telecoms operators are facing when seeking to generate formal valuations of their digital businesses.

Recap: Digital businesses are especially challenging to value

As telecoms operators’ ambitions in digital services continue to grow, they are increasingly asking what the value of their specific digital initiatives are. Without understanding the value of their digital businesses, telcos cannot effectively govern their individual digital activities: prioritisation, budget allocation and knowing when to close initiatives (‘fast failure’) within digital is challenging without a clear idea of the return on investment different verticals and initiatives are generating. However, telcos face significant challenges across three areas when attempting to value their businesses:

  1. There are challenges in valuing any business (analogue or digital): Although DCF has its drawbacks (see above), any quantitative ‘model’ is necessarily a simplification of reality
  2. Traditional approaches to valuation (e.g. DCF) are inadequate for digital businesses: DCF is especially inappropriate when valuing early-stage digital businesses due to their unique characteristics
  3. The potential for digital services to generate ‘synergy value’ presents further challenges for valuation: Synergy value presents additional conceptual and practical challenges when digital businesses are held within telecoms operators. Figure 2 outlines these below:

Figure 2: Conceptual and practical challenges caused by synergy value

Source: STL Partners

Therefore, telcos (but also the broader technology ecosystem in general) need a new set of tools to answer questions in two key areas. For example:

  1. How should telcos model the market value of their digital businesses?
    • Introducing ‘proxy models’
    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of proxy models?
    • How can a proxy be built to account for issues around limited data availability?
    • Case studies: example valuations of high-profile but privately-held initiatives
  2. How should telcos think about the ‘synergy value’ generated by their digital businesses?
    • What is a useful framework for thinking about synergy value?
    • How are some telcos using clinical trials to assist in the ‘measurement’ of synergies?

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Fixed-Mobile Convergence: How tangible are the synergies?
  • Recap: Digital businesses are especially challenging to value
  • A Digital Valuation Framework
  • ‘Net synergy’ has four components: benefits and costs, to and from the core
  • Benchmark data theoretically leads to conservative valuations
  • How to Build a Proxy Model
  • What is a ‘Proxy Model’?
  • Proxy models have several advantages over DCF, but they also have data availability challenges
  • Case Study: SK Telecom’s MelOn could be worth $1bn+
  • How to Measure Synergies
  • The Theory: Clinical trials reduce the synergy problem
  • Case Study: A leading European MNO works with its OpCos to run clinical trials
  • Conclusions and Next Steps
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game

 

  • Figure 1: Fixed-mobile convergence driven by synergy value
  • Figure 2: Conceptual and practical challenges caused by synergy value
  • Figure 3: MTN Mobile Money Uganda, Gross Profit Contribution, 2009-12
  • Figure 4: ‘Net synergy’ across four categories
  • Figure 5: ‘Net synergy’ as a component of digital business value
  • Figure 6: Facebook monthly active users vs. valuation, Q1 2010-Present
  • Figure 7: Proxy model output – SME SaaS providers (financial driver)
  • Figure 8: Total VC Investment by Geography, 2010-13
  • Figure 9: Example operational and financial ‘Emerging Market Discounts’
  • Figure 10: Proxy model output – Digital Music (operational driver; South Korea)
  • Figure 11: Correlation vs. Causation