The new telcos: A field guide

Introduction

The traditional industry view is that “telcos” are a well-defined and fairly cohesive group. Industry associations like GSMA, ETNO, CTIA and others have typically been fairly homogeneous collections of fixed or mobile operators, only really varying in size. The third-ranked mobile operator in Bolivia has not really been that different from AT&T or Vodafone in terms of technology, business model or vendor relationships.

Our own company, STL Partners used to have the brand “Telco 2.0”. However, our main baseline assumption then was that the industry was mostly made up the same network operators, but using a new 2.0 set of business models.

This situation is now changing. Telecom service providers – telcos – are starting to emerge in a huge variety of new shapes, sizes and backgrounds. There is fragmentation in technology strategy, target audiences, go-to-market and regional/national/international scope.

This report is not a full explanation of all the different strategies, services and technological architecture. Instead of analysing all of the “metabolic” functions and “evolutionary mechanisms”, this is more of a field-guide to all the new species of telco that the industry is starting to see. More detail on the enablers – such as fibre, 5G and cloud-based infrastructure – and the demand-side (such as vertical industries’ communications needs and applications) can be found in our other output.

The report provides descriptions with broad contours of motivation, service-offerings and implications for incumbents. We are not “taking sides” here. If new telcos push out the older species, that’s just evolution of those “red in tooth and claw”. We’re taking the role of field zoologists, not conservationists.

Enter your details below to request an extract of the report


 

Field guides are collections/lists of natural & human phenomena

animal-species-telcos-stl-partners

Source: Amazon, respective publishers’ copyright

The historical landscape

The term “telco” is a little slippery to define, but most observers would likely agree that the “traditional” telecoms industry has mostly been made up of the following groups of CSPs:

  • MNOs: Countries usually have a few major mobile network operators (MNOs) that are typically national, or sometimes regional.
  • Fixed operators: Markets also have infrastructure-based fixed telcos, usually with one (or a small number) that were originally national state-owned monopolies, plus a select number of other licensed providers, often with greenfield FTTX fibre. Some countries have a vibrant array of smaller “AltNets”, or competitive carriers (originally known as CLECs in the US).
  • Converged operators: These combine fixed and mobile operations in the same business or group. Sometimes they are arms-length (or even in different countries), but many try to offer combined or converged service propositions.
  • Wholesale telcos: There is a tier of a few major international operators that provide interconnect services and other capabilities. Often these have been subsidiaries (or joint ventures) of national telcos.

In addition to these, the communications industry in each market has also often had an array of secondary connectivity or telecom service providers as a kind “supporting cast”, which generally have not been viewed as “telecom operators”. This is either because they fall into different regulatory buckets, only target niche markets, or tend to use different technologies. These have included:

  • MVNOs
  • Towercos
  • Internet Exchanges
  • (W)ISPs
  • Satellite operators

Some of these have had a strong overlap with telcos, or have been spun-out or acquired at various times, but they have broadly remained as independent organisations. Importantly, many of these now look much more like “proper telcos” than they did in the past.

Why are “new telcos” emerging now?

To some extent, many of the classes of new telco have been “hiding in plain sight” for some time. MVNOs, towercos and numerous other SPs have been “telcos in all but name”, even if the industry has often ignored them. There has sometimes been a divisive “them and us” categorisation, especially applied when comparing older operators with cloud-based communications companies, or what STL has previously referred to as “under the floor” infrastructure owners. This attitude has been fairly common within governments and regulators, as well as among operator executives and staff.

However, there are now two groups of trends which are leading to the blurring of lines between “proper telcos” and other players:

  • Supply-side trends: The growing availability of the key building blocks of telcos – core networks, spectrum, fibre, equipment, locations and so on – is leading to democratisation. Virtualisation and openness, as well as a push for vendor diversification, is helping make it easier for new entrants, or adjacent players, to build telecom-style networks
  • Demand-side trends: A far richer range of telecom use-cases and customer types is pulling through specialist network builders and operators. These can start with specific geographies, or industry verticals, and then expand from there to other domains. Private 4G/5G networks and remote/underserved locations are good examples which need customisation and specialisation, but there are numerous other demand drivers for new types of service (and service provider), as well as alternative business models.

Taken together, the supply and demand factors are leading to the creation of new types of telcos (sometimes from established SPs, and sometimes greenfield) which are often competing with the incumbents.

While there is a stereotypical lobbying complaint about “level playing fields”, the reality is that there are now a whole range of different telecom “sports” emerging, with competitors arranged on courses, tracks, fields and hills, many of which are inherently not “level”. It’s down to the participants – whether old or new – to train appropriately and use suitable gear for each contest.

Virtualisation & cloudification of networks helps newcomers as well as existing operators

virtualisation-cloudification-networks-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?

Most new telcos tend to focus initially on specific niche markets. Only a handful of recent entrants have raised enough capital to build out entire national networks, either with fixed or mobile networks. Jio, Rakuten Mobile and Dish are all exceptions – and ones which came with a significant industrial heritage and regulatory impetus that enabled them to scale broadly.

Instead, most new service providers have focused on specific domains, with some expanding more broadly at a later point. Examples of the geographic / customer niches for new operators include:

  • Enterprise private 4G/5G networks
  • Rural network services (or other isolated areas like mountains, offshore areas or islands)
  • Municipality / city-level services
  • National backbone fibre networks
  • Critical communications users (e.g. utilities)
  • Wholesale-only / shared infrastructure provision (e.g. neutral host)

This report sets out…

..to through each of the new “species” of telcos in turn. There is a certain level of overlap between the categories, as some organisations are developing networking offers in various domains in parallel (for instance, Cellnex offering towers, private networks, neutral host and RAN outsourcing).

The new telcos have been grouped into categories, based on some broad similarities:

  • “Evolved” traditional telcos: operators, or units of operators, that are recognisable from today’s companies and brands, or are new-entrant “peers” of these.
  • Adjacent wireless providers: these are service provider categories that have been established for many years, but which are now overlapping ever more closely with “traditional” telcos.
  • Enterprise and government telcos: these are other large organisations that are shifting from being “users” of telecoms, or building internal network assets, towards offering public telecom-type services.
  • Others: this is a catch-all category that spans various niche innovation models. One particular group here, decentralised/blockchain-based telcos, is analysed in more detail.

In each case, the category is examined briefly on the basis of:

  • Background and motivation of operators
  • Typical services and infrastructure being deployed
  • Examples (approx. 3-4 of each type)
  • Implications for mainstream telcos

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Overview
    • New telco categories and service areas
    • Recommendations for traditional fixed/mobile operators
    • Recommendations for vendors and suppliers
    • Recommendations for regulators, governments & advisors
  • Introduction
    • The historical landscape
    • Why are “new telcos” emerging now?
    • Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?
    • Structure of this document
  • “Evolved” traditional telcos
    • Greenfield national networks
    • Telco systems integration units
    • “Crossover” Mobile, Fixed & cable operators
    • Extra-territorial telcos
  • Adjacent wireless providers
    • Neutral host network providers
    • TowerCos
    • FWA Fixed Wireless Access (WISPs)
    • Satellite players
  • Enterprise & government telcos
    • Industrial / vertical MNOs
    • Utility companies offering commercial telecom services
    • Enterprises’ corporate IT network service groups
    • Governments & public sector
  • New categories
    • Decentralised telcos (blockchain / cryptocurrency-based)
    • Other “new telco” categories
  • Conclusions

Related Research

 

Enter your details below to request an extract of the report


 

 

Revisiting convergence: How to address the growth imperative

Introduction

Significant opportunity, high risk of complacency

The opportunity for communications service providers (CSPs) to provide greater value and innovative services to customers through new technology advancements is well-documented. For example, the network capabilities (and programmability) that 5G and cloud native bring is touted to change the way that CSPs address revenue opportunities with customers and partners in a more ecosystem-centric environment. The emergence of FTTx (fibre to the x) technology can optimise the use of operators’ assets in a way that delivers seamless connectivity to customers. These advancements allow CSPs to better serve customer needs in a more flexible, scalable, sustainable and agile way than ever before.

Part of the imperative to address this opportunity and vision stems from significant market disruption with new entrants and new types of ‘co-opetitors’, such as the hyperscale cloud providers and greenfield operators, that challenge operators’ existing business and operating models. As a result, CSPs face growing pressure to respond much faster to market and customer demands and enhance their capabilities in a way that does not inflate their cost base or undermine their net-zero goals.

Although CSPs have identified these green pastures for growth, there is still a considerable disconnect between the vision (and what is required to fulfil the ambition) and what capabilities CSPs have today to meet it. Today, CSPs are grappling with too much complexity, fragmentation and duplication within their networks, capabilities and systems. This not only means costs are too high, but it also poses a significant barrier to how they can accelerate the beat rate of innovation and serve new revenue-generating opportunities. This is a gap that CSPs need to close urgently or be at risk of their market shares and value eroding as a result of competition.

Enter your details below to download an extract of the report


 

The imperative that CSPs can no longer ignore

There is therefore a renewed urgency in building a stronger cost base, scalability, agility and innovation, which could soon become a matter of survival. CSPs are evaluating different strategies and means of making better (and smarter) use of their assets and capabilities in a more agile way and provide the services that customers and partners are increasingly demanding. One such strategy that CSPs have long pursued is network convergence. Although the concept is not new and has been consistently explored and sporadically pursued by operators over the years, the interest has now been reignited to address this imperative. The balance of forces between convergence and divergence has also shifted in favour of the latter in recent years. This has been driven by the adoption of cloud native technologies, which enables operators to deliver new innovative services on top of a common platform (versus siloed islands) and drive for more sustainability & efficiency in the network. This has brought convergence back up to the top of operators’ agendas.

Our report therefore looks to address the following questions:

  • Why and how are CSPs converging their networks to fulfil their growth ambitions?
  • What are the key challenges they face and how can they overcome them?

Evaluating the key drivers for convergence

Cost savings are a priority, but CSPs also want top line growth

The key drivers that CSPs are focused on as part of this renewed pursuit of network convergence are internal and external. Although most operators see capital investment savings and reduction of total cost of ownership (TCO) as an essential priority, the majority of interviewees we spoke to also emphasised the need to support greater innovation with customers and ecosystem development. We describe the main drivers we found through our research with operators below:

Four key drivers that CSPs are focused on

Source: STL Partners

Reducing TCO through network simplification and consolidation

Many operators we spoke to cited network simplification and convergence in addressing the need to ‘do more with less’ and the ability to drive economies of scale and serve market requirements. Convergence can address different disparate sub-systems and siloes that don’t interact with one another (e.g. performance management and inventory management, IP and optical). This fragmentation creates unnecessary complexity for network operations teams to run, manage and assure their networks and introduce potential human errors and associated costs. CSPs have an opportunity to move towards having common infrastructure and management toolset to serve multiple needs, reduce overall TCO and to achieve better control and ubiquitous visibility across their networks. This is particularly important for larger and/or multi-service, multi-country operators. The decommissioning of legacy services (in some cases with government support, for example with PSTN services) is a key opportunity for this.

One European operator described the importance of being able to serve fixed (residential), mobile (consumer), enterprise and wholesale customers with a single backbone and transport network. Inherent in this is greater efficiency, ease of management and less capital spend required to serve multiple types of customers. For example, our interviewee cited the economies of scale they have achieved by putting all of their traffic onto a single IP network that supports all types of customers. This includes greater efficiency and simplicity in not having to run separate IP networks for each type of customer group and less spend on IP routers and lower TCO overall as part of the consolidation.

Creating a sustainable platform for scale and massive data growth

New use cases are projected to increase network traffic and demands. Operators need to prepare for this volume expansion, support more types of fibre connections, provide more flexible capacity and address high performance demands (throughput, latency, error rates). Another European group operator described scale as the main driver for convergence, in being able to seamlessly support thousands of points within the network and offer their portfolio of services across their operations as one package to customers in a simpler way.

Operators need to consider how they can maximise the use of their infrastructure to serve increasingly demanding needs. For example, there is a significant need for CSPs to extract greater synergies from their access fibre: two operators we spoke to – one in North America, the other in Asia – are using fibre originally deployed for residential broadband (Gigabit Passive Optical Network, or GPON) to connect 5G cells. Operators are joining national governments and high-profile corporations in making ‘net-zero’ commitments which is leading them to actively identify and implement strategies that will dramatically reduce their own environmental footprint and play a more active role in reducing their customers’ carbon emissions.

Enabling greater control, resilience and automation

Implicit in these developments is the greater need for automation within the network to ensure not only the greatest cost efficient optimisation of network speeds and processing power, but also the ability to navigate greater network intricacy. One particular European operator we spoke to described the need to enable greater automation across the entire lifecycle, introduce CI/CD pipelines for more agile service development and provide much more granular information and visibility across the entire network. By simplifying and converging the network, operators, operators can address some of the inherent complexity and disparate siloes in their networks and create a unified view of their network. This provides better visibility across the entire network for network operations teams and makes the task of assuring their networks easier. A more unified or common management layer also enables a more granular view and creates scope for AI/ML to deliver further gains in operational simplification and automation. In addition to the benefits for service assurance and lifecycle management, CSPs are also looking to better identify priority areas for improvement and develop more granular cost-benefit analysis for future investment planning.

Enabling greater control, resilience and automation

Implicit in these developments is the greater need for automation within the network to ensure not only the greatest cost efficient optimisation of network speeds and processing power, but also the ability to navigate greater network intricacy. One particular European operator we spoke to described the need to enable greater automation across the entire lifecycle, introduce CI/CD pipelines for more agile service development and provide much more granular information and visibility across the entire network. By simplifying and converging the network, operators can address some of the inherent complexity and disparate siloes in their networks and create a unified view of their network. This provides better visibility across the entire network for network operations teams and makes the task of assuring their networks easier. A more unified or common management layer also enables a more granular view and creates scope for AI/ML to deliver further gains in operational simplification and automation. In addition to the benefits for service assurance and lifecycle management, CSPs are also looking to better identify priority areas for improvement and develop more granular cost-benefit analysis for future investment planning.

Supporting greater innovation and ecosystem development

As the industry moves to more ecosystem-centric, B2B2X models, operators need to be more versatile in supporting diverse types of services with different types of customers. As more and more devices become connected throughout the Coordination Age , the network will need to become more responsive to different use case needs. The underlying network infrastructure needs to facilitate the faster development of richer network functionality and the plethora of emerging use cases, in order to support greater innovation. This means the network (and network teams) need to handle fast changing functions and more agile service development, and frequent software updates.

With a resurging interest in more network-enabled applications, from telematics and connected car to different types of location-based services or immersive experiences (AR/VR) that can respond to network performance data, the network needs to become more visible, distributed, programmable and instructible. Operators can leverage and expose these network capabilities to both internal and external parties, including customers and partners such as application developers, to serve new types of revenue opportunities and ecosystem partners . The expansion of 5G will create the risk of added complexity to the network, not least through the increase in access infrastructure including thousands of locations supporting distributed virtualised workloads (both cloud native network functions and other applications). This makes convergence and the simplification of the management layer even more imperative. The ability to dynamically manipulate network functions is just one of many programmable capabilities the network will require but doing this while keeping the network and associated services secured is no simple task.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Preface
  • Introduction
    • Significant opportunity, high risk of complacency
    • The imperative that CSPs can no longer ignore
  • Evaluating the key drivers for convergence
    • Cost savings are a priority, but CSPs also want top line growth
  • Revisiting the concept of convergence
    • Convergence is a multifaceted problem and solution
    • CSPs take different approaches to tackle similar problems
    • Logical convergence
    • Horizontal convergence
    • Vertical convergence
    • The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
  • A matter of how? not why?
    • History and market variance play a role
    • Understanding the key challenges
  • Taking the plunge
    • Convergence is not just a technology decision
    • Incremental steps, not radical change

Related Research

Enter your details below to download an extract of the report