The Open Source Telco: Taking Control of Destiny

Preface

This report examines the approaches to open source software – broadly, software for which the source code is freely available for use, subject to certain licensing conditions – of telecoms operators globally. Several factors have come together in recent years to make the role of open source software an important and dynamic area of debate for operators, including:

  • Technological Progress: Advances in core networking technologies, especially network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), are closely associated with open source software and initiatives, such as OPNFV and OpenDaylight. Many operators are actively participating in these initiatives, as well as trialling their software and, in some cases, moving them into production. This represents a fundamental shift away from the industry’s traditional, proprietary, vendor-procured model.
    • Why are we now seeing more open source activities around core communications technologies?
  • Financial Pressure: However, over-the-top (OTT) disintermediation, regulation and adverse macroeconomic conditions have led to reduced core communications revenues for operators in both developed and emerging markets alike. As a result, operators are exploring opportunities to move away from their core, infrastructure business, and compete in the more software-centric services layer.
    • How do the Internet players use open source software, and what are the lessons for operators?
  • The Need for Agility: In general, there is recognition within the telecoms industry that operators need to become more ‘agile’ if they are to succeed in the new, rapidly-changing ICT world, and greater use of open source software is seen by many as a key enabler of this transformation.
    • How can the use of open source software increase operator agility?

The answers to these questions, and more, are the topic of this report, which is sponsored by Dialogic and independently produced by STL Partners. The report draws on a series of 21 interviews conducted by STL Partners with senior technologists, strategists and product managers from telecoms operators globally.

Figure 1: Split of Interviewees by Business Area

Source: STL Partners

Introduction

Open source is less optional than it once was – even for Apple and Microsoft

From the audience’s point of view, the most important announcement at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this year was not the new versions of iOS and OS X, or even its Spotify-challenging Apple Music service. Instead, it was the announcement that Apple’s highly popular programming language ‘Swift’ was to be made open source, where open source software is broadly defined as software for which the source code is freely available for use – subject to certain licensing conditions.

On one level, therefore, this represents a clever engagement strategy with developers. Open source software uptake has increased rapidly during the last 15 years, most famously embodied by the Linux operating system (OS), and with this developers have demonstrated a growing preference for open source tools and platforms. Since Apple has generally pushed developers towards proprietary development tools, and away from third-party ones (such as Adobe Flash), this is significant in itself.

An indication of open source’s growth can be found in OS market shares in consumer electronics devices. As Figure 2 shows below, Android (open source) had a 49% share of shipments in 2014; if we include the various other open source OS’s in ‘other’, this increases to more than 50%.

Figure 2: Share of consumer electronics shipments* by OS, 2014

Source: Gartner
* Includes smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs

However, one of the components being open sourced is Swift’s (proprietary) compiler – a program that translates written code into an executable program that a computer system understands. The implication of this is that, in theory, we could even see Swift applications running on non-Apple devices in the future. In other words, Apple believes the risk of Swift being used on Android is outweighed by the reward of engaging with the developer community through open source.

Whilst some technology companies, especially the likes of Facebook, Google and Netflix, are well known for their activities in open source, Apple is a company famous for its proprietary approach to both hardware and software. This, combined with similar activities by Microsoft (who open sourced its .NET framework in 2014), suggest that open source is now less optional than it once was.

Open source is both an old and a new concept for operators

At first glance, open source also appears to now be less optional for telecoms operators, who traditionally procure proprietary software (and hardware) from third-party vendors. Whilst many (but not all) operators have been using open source software for some time, such as Linux and various open source databases in the IT domain (e.g. MySQL), we have in the last 2-3 years seen a step-change in operator interest in open source across multiple domains. The following quote, taken directly from the interviews, summarises the situation nicely:

“Open source is both an old and a new project for many operators: old in the sense that we have been using Linux, FreeBSD, and others for a number of years; new in the sense that open source is moving out of the IT domain and towards new areas of the industry.” 

AT&T, for example, has been speaking widely about its ‘Domain 2.0’ programme. Domain 2.0 has the objectives to transform AT&T’s technical infrastructure to incorporate network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN), to mandate a higher degree of interoperability, and to broaden the range of alternative suppliers available across its core business. By 2020, AT&T hopes to virtualise 75% of its network functions, and it sees open source as accounting for up to 50% of this. AT&T, like many other operators, is also a member of various recently-formed initiatives and foundations around NFV and SDN, such as OPNFV – Figure 3 lists some below.

Figure 3: OPNFV Platinum Members

Source: OPNFV website

However, based on publicly-available information, other operators might appear to have lesser ambitions in this space. As ever, the situation is more complex than it first appears: other operators do have significant ambitions in open source and, despite the headlines NFV and SDN draw, there are many other business areas in which open source is playing (or will play) an important role. Figure 4 below includes three quotes from the interviews which highlight this broad spectrum of opinion:

Figure 4: Different attitudes of operators to open source – selected interview quotes

Source: STL Partners interviews

Key Questions to be Addressed

We therefore have many questions which need to be addressed concerning operator attitudes to open source software, adoption (by area of business), and more:

  1. What is open source software, what are its major initiatives, and who uses it most widely today?
  2. What are the most important advantages and disadvantages of open source software? 
  3. To what extent are telecoms operators using open source software today? Why, and where?
  4. What are the key barriers to operator adoption of open source software?
  5. Prospects: How will this situation change?

These are now addressed in turn.

  • Preface
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Open source is less optional than it once was – even for Apple and Microsoft
  • Open source is both an old and a new concept for operators
  • Key Questions to be Addressed
  • Understanding Open Source Software
  • The Theory: Freely available, licensed source code
  • The Industry: Dominated by key initiatives and contributors
  • Research Findings: Evaluating Open Source
  • Open source has both advantages and disadvantages
  • Debunking Myths: Open source’s performance and security
  • Where are telcos using open source today?
  • Transformation of telcos’ service portfolios is making open source more relevant than ever…
  • … and three key factors determine where operators are using open source software today
  • Open Source Adoption: Business Critical vs. Service Area
  • Barriers to Telco Adoption of Open Source
  • Two ‘external’ barriers by the industry’s nature
  • Three ‘internal’ barriers which can (and must) change
  • Prospects and Recommendations
  • Prospects: An open source evolution, not revolution
  • Open Source, Transformation, and Six Key Recommendations
  • About STL Partners and Telco 2.0
  • About Dialogic

 

  • Figure 1: Split of Interviewees by Business Area
  • Figure 2: Share of consumer electronics shipments* by OS, 2014
  • Figure 3: OPNFV Platinum Members
  • Figure 4: Different attitudes of operators to open source – selected interview quotes
  • Figure 5: The Open IT Ecosystem (incl. key industry bodies)
  • Figure 6: Three Forms of Governance in Open Source Software Projects
  • Figure 7: Three Classes of Open Source Software License
  • Figure 8: Web Server Share of Active Sites by Developer, 2000-2015
  • Figure 9: Leading software companies vs. Red Hat, market capitalisation, Oct. 2015
  • Figure 10: The Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Open Source Software
  • Figure 11: How Google Works – Failing Well
  • Figure 12: Performance gains from an open source activation (OSS) platform
  • Figure 13: Intel Hardware Performance, 2010-13
  • Figure 14: Open source is more likely to be found today in areas which are…
  • Figure 15: Framework mapping current telco uptake of open source software
  • Figure 16: Five key barriers to telco adoption of open source software
  • Figure 17: % of employees with ‘software’ in their LinkedIn job title, Oct. 2015
  • Figure 18: ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Agile’ Software Development Methodologies Compared
  • Figure 19: Four key cultural attributes for successful telco transformation

Valuing Digital: A Contentious Yet Vital Business

Introduction

Tech VC in 2014: New heights, billion-dollar valuations

Venture capital investment across the mobile, digital and broader technology sectors is soaring. Although it stumbled during the 2008/9 financial crisis, the ecosystem has since recovered with 2013 and 2014 proving to be record-breaking years. Looking at Silicon Valley, for example, 2013 saw deals and funding more than double compared to 2009, and 2014 had already surpassed 2013 by the half-year mark:

Figure 1: Silicon Valley Tech Financing History, 2009-14

Source: CB Insights Venture Capital Database

As Figure 1 shows, growth in funding has outstripped growth in the number of deals: consequently, the average deal size has more than doubled since 2009. In part, this has been driven by a small number of large deals attracting very high valuations, with some of the highest valuations seen by Uber ($41bn), SpaceX ($12bn), Dropbox ($10bn), Snapchat ($10-20bn) and Airbnb ($13bn). Similarly high valuations have been seen in Silicon Valley tech exits, with Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp and Google’s $3.2bn acquisition of Nest two high-profile examples. These billion-dollar valuations are leading many to claim that a dotcom-esque bubble is forming: what can possibly justify such valuations?

In some cases, these concerns are driven by a lack of publicly available information on financial performance: for example, Uber’s leaked dashboard showed its financials to be considerably stronger than analysts’ expectations at the time. In other cases, they appear to be driven by a lack of understanding of the true rationale behind the deal. See, for example, the Connected Home: Telcos vs Google (Nest, Apple, Samsung, +…) and Facebook + WhatsApp + Voice: So What? Executive Briefings.

The Telco Dilemma: What is it all worth?

Against this uncertain backdrop, telecoms operators are expanding into such new mobile and digital services as a means to fill the ‘hunger gap’ left by falling revenues from core services. They are doing so through a mixture of organic and inorganic investment, in different verticals and with varying levels of ambition and success:

Figure 2: % of Revenue from ‘New’ Telco 2.0 Services*, 2013

Source: Telco 2.0 Transformation Index
* Disclaimer: Scope of what is included/excluded varies slightly by operator and depends upon the ability to source reliable data
Note: Vodafone data from 2012/13 financial year 

However, this is a comparatively new area for telcos and many are now asking what is the real ‘value’ of their individual digital initiatives. For example, to what extent are Telefonica’s digital activities leading to a material uplift in enterprise value?

This question is further complicated by the potential for a new service to generate ‘synergy value’ for the acquirer or parent company: just as Google’s $3.2bn+ valuation of Nest was in part driven by the synergy Nest’s sensor data provides to Google’s core advertising business, digital services have also been shown to provide synergy benefits to telcos’ core communications businesses. For example, MTN Mobile Money in Uganda is estimated to have seen up to 48% of its gross profit contribution generated by synergies, such as core churn reduction and airtime distribution savings, as opposed to standard transaction commissions.

Ultimately, without understanding the value of their digital businesses and how this changes over time (capital gain), telcos cannot effectively govern their 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. Understanding valuation was therefore identified as the joint most important success factor for delivering digital services in STL Partners’ recent survey of telco executives:

Figure 3: Importance of factors in successfully delivering digital services (out of 4)

Source: Digital Transformation and Ambition Survey Results, 2014, n=55

Crucially, however, survey respondents also identified developing this understanding as more than two years away from being resolved. In order to accelerate this process, there are three key questions which need to be addressed:

  1. What are the pitfalls to avoid when valuing digital businesses within telecoms operators?
  2. How should telcos model the spin-off value of their digital businesses?
  3. How should telcos think about the ‘synergy value’ generated by their digital businesses?

This Executive Briefing (Part 1) focuses on question 1; questions 2 and 3 will be addressed by future research (Part 2).

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Tech VC in 2014: New heights, billion-dollar valuations
  • The Telco Dilemma: What is it all worth?
  • Challenges in Valuing Any Business (Analog or Digital)
  • DCF: Theoretically sound, but less reliable in practice
  • All models are wrong, but some are more useful than others
  • DCF’s shortcomings are magnified with digital businesses
  • Practical Issues: Lessons from Uber, Google, Skype and Spotify
  • A Conceptual Issue: Lessons from Facebook
  • Proxy Models: An improvement on DCF?
  • The Synergy Problem: A challenge for any valuation technique
  • Synergies are Real: Case studies from mobile money, cloud services and the connected home
  • Synergies are Problematic: Challenges for valuation in four areas
  • Conclusions
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game

 

  • Figure 1: Silicon Valley Tech Financing History, 2009-14
  • Figure 2: % of Revenue from ‘New’ Telco 2.0 Services, 2013
  • Figure 3: Importance of factors in successfully delivering digital services (out of 4)
  • Figure 4: Sensitivity of DCF valuation to assumptions on free cash flow growth
  • Figure 5: Different buyer/seller valuations support a range of potential sales prices
  • Figure 6: Impact of addressable market and market share on Uber’s DCF valuation
  • Figure 7: Facebook vs. yield businesses, EV/revenue multiple, 2014
  • Figure 8: Facebook monthly active users vs. valuation, Q1 2010-Present
  • Figure 9: Three potential investor approaches to modelling Facebook’s value
  • Figure 10: MTN Mobile Money Uganda, Gross Profit Contribution, 2009-12
  • Figure 11: Monthly churn rates for MTN Mobile Money Uganda users (three months)
  • Figure 12: Conceptual and practical challenges caused by synergy value