5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

Request a report extract

5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat

How telcos can win with SMBs: Strategies for success

SMB markets: An elusive opportunity for telcos

SMBs (small-to-medium-sized businesses) have been a challenging market for telcos historically. Despite this, it remains an attractive opportunity thanks to its sheer size and (potential) margins. Our interview programme, across 10 telcos globally and 100 SMBs in Europe and North America, revealed a feeling that telcos could see real rewards by focusing on this previously underserved market.

“SMB is now a high priority as a large part of our B2B strategy. We see it as a very big and growing opportunity,” noted a Western European Operator. A North American operator commented, “medium enterprises are now an area of great focus for us, there’s lots of potential there. We didn’t use to but are now investing lots of resources.” There are several key factors why telcos are looking to pursue this opportunity now:

  • As consumer average revenue per user (ARPUs) continue to decline, there remains a promise of stability and  growth with business customers.
  • SMBs are becoming more technologically mature and are increasingly embracing trends such as remote working and bring your own device, which can reduce their costs of operation. They have increased need and desire for digital and cloud services, which enable employees to access documents from any device, anywhere – they are often looking to their broadband providers to provide this.
  • Security and compliance are a high priority for SMBs. Previously they may have relied upon the belief that small businesses will not be targeted by cyberattacks, but increasingly SMBs will struggle to do business without being able to prove they are compliant. As this report will go on to highlight, security is an area of key potential telcos should be looking to pursue.
  • Technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and SD-WAN can enable telcos to provide new services to SMBs while keeping cost of acquisition low.

SMB markets are attractive due to sheer size and (potential) margins

For SMBs, the potential untapped revenues, though relatively small per business, are sizeable when aggregated across SMBs. For example, companies with fewer than 250 employees made up 99% of all enterprises in the EU. But why do telcos often struggle in this space, and what should they do to succeed in this market?

First, it’s important to define what we mean by SMBs and how we should segment them. There is no one clear definition, and segmentation often differs across markets. For example, one operator we spoke to in Mexico pointed out that what they classify as relatively large enterprises would be considered SMBs by telcos in the United States. The definition varies, often dependent on the difference in average company size for each region.

For the purposes of this report, we define SMBs as enterprises with fewer than 100 employees. We also include the category of firms with 2-7 employees – often called SOHO (single office / home office) or VSE (very small enterprise) – in our definition. However, given their size and needs, telcos sometimes group SOHOs with consumers in their “mass-market” lines of business.

The number of potential SMB customers provides the telco with scale of service and large revenue opportunities. These opportunities come from both the acquisition of new customers, for whom operators provide connectivity and communications services (voice, conferencing, UC), and from upselling additional adjacent services to existing customers. These new services might include:

  • Enterprise mobility: management and security of mobile devices, including scenarios like bringyour-own-device (BYOD) and virtual desktops
  • Software-as-a-service: cloud-hosted enterprise software such as productivity software (e.g. Office 365), CRM software (e.g. Salesforce) or accounting packages (e.g. local accounting software)
  • Infrastructure-as-a-service: compute / storage resources and networking capabilities
  • Cybersecurity and disaster recovery: email backup and security services including firewalls, anti-phishing and DDOS attack prevention
  • IoT connectivity: bespoke connectivity solutions for IoT devices (though not the focus of this report, it is a major new area for telco enterprise services).

For most telcos, moving into new services is a crucial move to combat the commoditisation of connectivity. This move is critical in the SMB market, where cost of acquisition of new customers is relatively high, so telcos must offer value-add services to make it profitable.

Telcos’ key challenges in SMB markets: Fragmentation, heterogeneity, “high-touch” engagement

Disparity characterises the SMB market. The divergence of expectations, needs, and technological maturity of SMBs creates fragmentation. Additionally, SMB needs vary by vertical and region, both of which create additional elements of disparity. This market fragmentation has created two crucial challenges for telcos.

  1. It’s hard to understand the customers’ needs because they vary so greatly from one SMB to another.
  2. It’s expensive to serve them because of the time it takes to understand these needs and develop bespoke solutions to address them.

Both of the above challenges are complicated by SMBs’ relatively limited buying power and often limited understanding of their own IT requirements. Despite their smaller budgets, SMBs traditionally require a relatively large investment to win a sale. In comparison to the highly automated, self-service environment of many telcos’ consumer divisions, SMBs want and expect personalised, often dedicated (even face to face) sales and support. Along with knowledge of their product suite, sellers may need to help solve wider IT problems or offer technical guidance. Successful SMB sales teams require broad knowledge and time, making it a comparatively big investment for telcos.

It is not just the sales process that needs to be personalised and consultative; SMBs may also require bespoke product configuration and integration. This kind of service would be expected within a large enterprise but becomes prohibitively expensive within smaller businesses unless it is provided by channels with wider monetisation models (e.g. IT support or equipment sales). In short, SMBs have the engagement expectations of enterprises, with budgets closer to that of consumers. No wonder that few telcos made the effort with SMBs while their consumer businesses were still growing.

To seize this opportunity, telcos must find a way to bridge the gap between the entirely productised world of consumer, and the bespoke sales and services for larger corporates and enterprises.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • SMB markets: An elusive opportunity for telcos
    • SMB markets are attractive due to sheer size and (potential) margins
    • Telcos’ key challenges in SMB markets: Fragmentation, heterogeneity, “high-touch” engagement
    • There is a disconnect between what telcos think SMBs need and what they actually want
  • Untapped opportunities: Strategies for SMB market success
  • Channel strategies: Engaging SMBs to provide a “high-touch” experience
    • Short term channel strategies
    • Long term channel strategies
  • Product strategies: Where to win quick in a fragmented market
    • Short term product strategies
    • Long-term product strategies
  • Supporting capabilities: Where telcos should invest for success in the SMB market
    • Short-term supporting capabilities needed
    • Long-term supporting capabilities needed
  • Conclusion