Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain

Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?

Over a number of years – starting in around 2014, and gathering pace from 2016 onwards – telcos have invested a large amount of money and effort on the development and deployment of their ‘telco cloud’ infrastructure, virtualised network functions (VNFs), and associated operations: long enough to expect to see measurable returns. As we set out later in this report, operators initially hoped that virtualisation would make their networks cheaper to run, or at least that it would prevent the cost of scaling up their networks to meet surging demand from spiralling out of control. The assumption was that buying commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and running network functions as software over it would work out less costly than buying proprietary network appliances from the vendors. Therefore, all things being equal, virtualisation should have translated into lower opex and capex.

However, when scrutinising operators’ reported financials over the past six years, it is impossible to determine whether this has been the case or not:

  • First, the goalposts are constantly shifting in the telecoms world, especially in recent years when massive 5G and fibre roll-outs have translated into substantial capex increases for many operators. But this does not mean that what they buy is more (or less) expensive per unit, just that they need more of it.
  • Most virtualisation effort has gone into core networks, which do not represent a large proportion of an operator’s cost base. In fact, overall expenditure on the core is dwarfed by what needs to be spent on the fixed and mobile access networks. As a ballpark estimate, for example, the Radio Access Network (RAN) represents 60% of mobile network capex.
  • Finally, most large telco groups are integrated operators that report capex or opex (or both) for their fixed and mobile units as a whole; this makes it even more difficult to identify any cost savings related to mobile core or any other virtualisation.

For this reason, when STL Partners set out to assess the economic benefit of virtualisation in the first half of 2022, it quickly became apparent that the only way to do this would be through talking directly to telcos’ CTOs and principal network engineers, and to those selling virtualisation solutions to them. Accordingly, STL Partners carried out an intensive interview programme among leading operators and vendors to find out how they quantify the benefits, financial or otherwise, from telco cloud.

What emerged was a complex and nuanced picture: while telcos struggle to demonstrate RoI from their network cloudification activities to date, many other benefits have accrued, and telcos are growing in their conviction that further cloudification is essential to meet the business, innovation and technology challenges that lie ahead – many of which cannot (yet) be quantified.

The people we spoke to comprised senior, programme-leading engineers, executives and strategists from eight operators and five vendors.

The operators concerned included: four Tier-1 players, three Tier-2 and one Tier-3. These telcos were also evenly split across the three deployment pathways explained below: two Pathway 1 (single-vendor/full-stack); three Pathway 2 (vendor-supported best-of-breed); and three Pathway 3 (DIY best-of-breed).

Four of the vendors interviewed were leading global providers of telco cloud platforms, infrastructure and integration services, and one was a challenger vendor focused on the 5G Standalone (SA) core. The figure below represents the geographical distribution of our interviewees, both telcos and vendors. Although we lacked interviewees from the APAC region and did not gain access to any Chinese operators, we were able to gain some regional insight through interviewing a new entrant in one of the major Asian markets.

Geographical distribution of STL Partners’ telco cloud benefit survey

 

Source: STL Partners

Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways

This process of telco cloudification has already gone through two phases and is entering a third phase, as illustrated below and as decribed in our Telco Cloud Manifesto, published in March 2021:

Phases of telco cloudification

Source: STL Partners

Effectively, each of these phases represents an approximately three to five-year investment cycle. Telcos have begun these investments at different times: Tier-1 telcos are generally now in the midst of their Phase 2 investments. By contrast, Tier-2s and -3s, smaller MNOs, and Tier-1s in developing markets are generally still going through their initial, Phase 1 investments in virtualisation.

Given that the leading Tier-1 players are now well into their second virtualisation investment cycle, it seems reasonable to expect that they would be able to demonstrate a return on investment from the first phase. This is particularly apt in that telcos entered into the first phase – Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) – with the specific goal of achieving quantifiable financial and operational benefits, such as:

  • Reduction in operational and capital expenditures (opex and capex), resulting from the ability to deliver and run NFs from software running on COTS hardware (cheaper per unit, but also more likely to attract economies of scale), rather than from expensive, dedicated equipment requiring ongoing, vendor-provided support, maintenance and upgrades
  • Greater scalability and resource efficiency, resulting from the ability to dynamically increase or decrease the capacity of network-function Virtual Machines (VMs), or to create new instances of them to meet fluctuating network capacity and throughput requirements, rather than having to purchase and maintain over-specified, redundant physical appliances and facilities to guarantee the same sort of capacity and resilience
  • Generation of new revenue streams, resulting from the ability that the software-centricity of virtualised networks provides to rapidly innovate and activate services that more closely address customer needs.

Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation

Some of the leading telco advocates of virtualisation have claimed variously to have achieved capex and/or opex reductions, and increases in top-line revenues, thanks to their telco cloud investments. For example, in January 2022, it was reported that some technical modelling had vindicated the cost-reduction claims of Japanese greenfield, ‘cloud-native’ operator Rakuten Mobile: it showed that Rakuten’s capex per cell site was around 40% lower, and its opex 30% lower, than the MNO incumbents in the same market. Some of the savings derived from automation gains related to virtualisation, allowing cell sites to be activated and run remotely on practically a ‘plug and play’ basis.

Similarly, Vodafone claimed in 2020 that it had reduced the cost of its mobile cores by 50% by running them as VNFs on the VMware telco cloud platform.

The problem is that the few telcos that are willing to quantify the success of their virtualisation programmes in this way are those that have championed telco cloud most vocally. And these telcos have also gone further and deeper with cloudification than the greater mass of the industry, and are now pushing on with Phase 3 virtualisation: full cloud-native. This means that they are under a greater pressure to lay claim to positive RoI and are able to muster data points of different types that appear to demonstrate real benefits, without being explicit about the baseline underpinning their claims: what their costs and revenues would, or might, have been had they persisted with the old physical appliance-centric model.

But this is an unreal comparison. Virtualisation has arisen because telco networks need to do more, and different things, than the old appliance-dependent networks enabled them to do. In the colourful expression of one of the industry experts we interviewed as part of our research, this is like comparing a horse to a computer.

In the first part of this report, we discuss the reasons why telcos generally cannot unequivocally demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date. In the second part, we discuss the range of benefits, actual and prospective, that telcos and vendors have observed from network cloudification, broken down by the three main pathways that telcos are following, as referred to above.

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?
    • Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways
    • Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation
  • Why do operators struggle to demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date?
    • For some players, it is clear that NFV did not generate RoI
    • It has also proved impossible to measure any gains, even if achieved
  • Is virtualisation so important that RoI does not matter?
  • Short-term pain for long-term gain: Why telco cloud is mission-critical
    • Cost savings are achievable
    • Operational efficiencies also gather pace as telcos progress through the telco cloud phases
    • Virtualisation both drives and is driven by organisational and process change
    • Cloud-native and CI/CD are restructuring telcos’ business models and cost base
  • Conclusion: Telco cloud benefits are deferred but assured
  • Index

Related research

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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Telco edge computing: Turning vision into practice

The emerging opportunity for edge compute

There is ongoing interest in the telecoms industry about edge computing. The key rationale behind this is that telcos – through their distributed network assets – are in a unique position to push workloads closer to devices, reducing latency and/or data volumes over to the cloud, and thereby enabling new experiences and use cases, while enhancing existing ones.

After years of centralising workloads in the public cloud there is complementary demand emerging for more distributed compute. This is good news for telcos as it shows that the time is ripe for them to turn their ambition to edge computing. Telcos can exploit their own connectivity, unique network APIs and an existing distributed real-estate. Telcos are in a unique position to play a strong role in distributed and edge computing ecosystems.

Telcos’ excitement around edge is fuelled by new differentiation and revenue opportunities leveraging the dynamic application developer ecosystem which hitherto has been dominated by ever more sophisticated and technically advanced public clouds and proofs-of-concept (POCs). Furthermore, underlying trends in cloud computing are increasingly promising for distributed (edge) computing:

  • Hybrid and multi-cloud models and technologies will continue to facilitate more distributed compute scenarios beyond hyperscale-only and on-premise-only.
  • Lightweight compute models will enable the deployment of cloud-workloads on a smaller footprint (e.g. train AI models in the cloud and execute them at the edge, such as in a smartphone or a connected car). For example, containers and “serverless” compute models make it possible to run workloads more efficiently and elastically than virtual machines.
  • The adoption of more platform-agnostic deployment models (such as containers) will facilitate the shifting and moving of workloads within distributed and edge cloud environments.
  • Proliferation of edge gateways and IoT devices will drive processing and analytics outside the datacentre and closer to the customer (premises).
  • Regarding security, a more distributed computing model is well-suited to defending against certain types of attacks (e.g. DDOS). Furthermore, if/when breaches do occur, these can be quarantined to an edge “cloudlet”, limiting the potential damage and undermining the economics of an attack.

Our findings in this report are informed by a research programme STL Partners has conducted since January 2018, supported by and in cooperation with Aricent. For this research, STL Partners has conducted interviews with both telcos and technology companies, globally about their views and current efforts related to edge computing. Overall, the research forms part of STL Partners’ ongoing research work and consulting assignments around telco edge cloud.

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Key questions arising for telcos

Notwithstanding the strategic opportunity, telcos face some big questions in formulating edge initiatives. These include:

“What is the business case for telco edge – where is the money?”

“Will massive demand for low-latency compute drive demand from core/central to edge compute?”

“How can we compete with the big cloud players – won’t they expand and control the edge too?”

“How should we play in Enterprise edge – should we offer edge services on customer premises?”

“How can we architect and charge for different edge services – those requiring expensive, specialised hardware for accelerated computing to process machine learning/AI workloads?”

“What edge services should we offer and through what distribution channels?”

These are (real examples of) questions that telcos must address in defining and delivering edge services. This report provides a framework to tackle these (and other) questions in a structured way. We will revisit these questions (and the answers) throughout the report.

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Cloud 2.0: don’t blow it, telcos

Summary: enterprise cloud computing services need great connectivity to work, but there are opportunities for telcos to participate beyond the connectivity. What are the opportunities, how are telcos approaching them, and what are the key strategies? Includes forecasts for telcos’ shares of VPC, IaaS, PaaS and SaaS. (September 2011, Executive Briefing Service, Cloud & Enterprise ICT Stream) Apps & Telco APIs Figure 1 Drivers of the App Market Telco 2.0 Sept 2011
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Below is an extract from this 28 page Telco 2.0 Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service and the Cloud and Enterprise ICT Stream here. Non-members can subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

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Introduction

In our previous analyses Cloud 2.0: What are the Telco Opportunities? and Cloud 2.0: Telcos to grow Revenues 900% by 2014 we’ve looked broadly at the growing cloud market opportunity for telcos. This new report takes this analysis forward, looking in detail at the service definitions, market forecasts and the industry’s confidence in them, and actual and potential strategies for telcos.

We’ll also be looking in depth at the opportunities in cloud services in the Cloud 2.0: Transforming technology, media and telecoms at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm in London on Thursday 10th November 2011.

The Cloud Market

Cloud computing represents the next wave of IT. Almost all organisations are saying that they will adopt cloud computing to a greater or lesser extent, across all segments and sizes. Consequently, we believe that there exists a large opportunity for telcos if they move quickly enough to take advantage of it.

Total market cloud forecasts – variation and uncertainty

In order to understand where the best opportunities are and how telcos can best take use their particular strengths to advantage of them, we need to examine the size of that opportunity and to understand which areas of cloud computing are most likely to offer the best returns.

Predictions for the size and growth of the cloud computing market are very diverse:

  • Merrill Lynch has previously offered the most optimistic estimate: $160 billion by the end of 2011 (The Cloud Wars: $100+ billion at stake, May 2008)
  • Gartner predicted expenditure of $150.1 billion by 2013 (Gartner forecast, March 2009)
  • IDC predicts annual cloud services revenues of $55.5 billion in by 2014 (IDC report, June 2010)
  • Cisco has estimated the cloud market at $43 billion by 2013 (STL Partners video, October 2010)
  • Bain expects spending to grow �?vefold from $30 billion in 2011 to $150 billion by 2020 (The Five Faces of the Cloud, 2011)
  • IBM’s Market Insights Cloud Phase 2 assessment of September 2011 sizes the cloud market at $88.5bn by 2015
  • Of that total, research by AMI Partners suggests that SMBs’ share of that spend will approach $100 billion by 2014 – over 60 % of the total (World Wide Cloud Services Study, December 2010)

Figure 1 – Cloud services market forecast comparisons

Cloud 2.0 Industry Forecast Comparisons Bain, Gartner, IDC, Cisco Sept 2011 Telco 2.0

Source: Bain, Cap Gemini, Cisco, Gartner, IBM, IDC, Merrill Lynch

Whichever way you look at it, the volume of spending on cloud computing is high and growing. But why are there such large variations in the estimates of that growth?

There is a clear correlation between the report dates and the market forecast sizes. Two of the forecasts – from Merrill Lynch and Gartner – are well over two years old, and are likely to have drawn conclusions from data gathered before the 2008 recession started to bite. Both are almost certainly over-optimistic as a result, and are included as an indication of the historic uncertainty in Cloud forecasts rather than criticism of the forecasters.

More generally, while each forecaster will be using different assumptions and extrapolation techniques, the variation is also likely to reflect a lack of maturity of the cloud services market: there exists little historical data from which to extrapolate the future, and little experience of what kinds of growth rates the market will experience. For example, well-known inhibitors to the adoption of cloud, such security and control, have yet to be resolved by cloud service providers to the point where enterprise customers are willing to commit a substantial volume of their IT spending.

Additionally, the larger the organisation, the slower the adoption of cloud computing is likely to be; it takes a long time for large enterprises to move to a new computing model that involves changing fundamental IT architectures and will be a process undertaken over time. It is hard to be precise about the degree to which they will inhibit the growth of cloud acceptance.

As a result, in a world where economic uncertainty seems unlikely to disappear in the short to medium term, it would be unwise to assume a high level of accuracy for market sizing predictions, although the general upward trend is very clear.

Cloud service types

Cloud computing services fall into three broad categories: infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS).

Figure 2 – Cloud service layer definitions

Cloud 2.0 Service Types vs. layers Telco 2.0 Sept 2011

Source: STL Partners/Telco 2.0

Of the forecasts available, we prefer Bain’s near term forecast because: 1) it is based on their independent Cloud ‘Center of Excellence’ work; 2) it is relatively recent, and 3) it has clear and meaningful categories and definitions.
The following figure summarises Bain’s current market forecast, split by cloud service type.

Figure 3 – Cloud services: market forecast and current players

Cloud 2.0 Forecast growth by service type Sep 2011 Telco 2.0

Currently, telcos have around a 5% share of the c.$20 billion annual cloud services revenue, with 25 % CAGR forecast to 2013.

At the May 2011 EMEA Telco 2.0 Executive Brainstorm, we used these forecasts as a base to explore market views on the various cloud markets. There were c.200 senior executives at the brainstorm from industries across Telecoms, Media and Technology (TMT) and, following detailed presentations on Cloud Services, they were asked highly structured questions to ascertain their views on the likelihood of telco success in addressing each service.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

IaaS consists of cloud-based, usually virtualised servers, networking, and storage, which the customer is free to manage as they need. Billing is typically on a utility computing model: the more of each that you use, the more you pay. The largest of the three main segments, Bain forecasts IaaS to be worth around $3.5 billion in 2011, with 45 % CAGR forecast. The market leader is Amazon with about 18 % share. Other players include IBM and Rackspace. Telcos currently have about 20 % of this market – Qwest/Savvis/Equinix, and Verizon/Terremark.

Respondents at the EMEA Telco 2.0 Brainstorm estimated that telcos could take an average share of 25% of this market. The distribution was reasonably broad, with the vast majority in the 11-40% range.

Figure 4 – IaaS – Telco market share forecasts

Cloud 2.0 IaaS Telco Forecasts Sept 2011 Telco 2.0

Source: EMEA Telco 2.0 Executive Brainstorm delegate vote, May 2011

To read the note in full, including the following additional analysis…

  • Virtual Private Cloud (VPC)
  • Software as a Service (SaaS)
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS)
  • Hybrid Cloud
  • Cloud Service Brokerage
  • Overall telco cloud market projections by type, including forecast uncertainties
  • Challenges for telcos
  • Which areas should telcos target?
  • Telcos’ advantages
  • IaaS, PaaS, or SaaS?
  • Developing other segments
  • What needs to change?
  • How can telcos deliver?
  • Telcos’ key strengths
  • Key strategy variables
  • Next Steps

…and the following charts…

  • Figure 1 – Cloud services market forecast comparisons
  • Figure 2 – Cloud service layer definitions
  • Figure 3 – Cloud services: market forecast and current players
  • Figure 4 – IaaS – Telco market share forecasts
  • Figure 5 – VPC – Telco market share forecasts
  • Figure 6 – SaaS – Telco market share forecasts
  • Figure 7 – PaaS – Telco market share forecasts
  • Figure 8 – Total telco cloud market size and share estimates – 2014
  • Figure 9 – Uncertainty in forecast by service
  • Figure 10 – Telco cloud strengths
  • Figure 11 – Cloud services timeline vs. profitability schematic
  • Figure 12 – Telcos’ financial stability

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service and the Cloud and Enterprice ICT Stream can download the full 28 page report in PDF format here. Non-Members, please subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Organisations, people and products referenced: Aepona, Amazon, AMI Partners, Bain, BT, CenturyLink, CENX, Cisco, CloudStack, Deutsche Telekom, EC2, Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), EMC, Equinix, Flexible 4 Business, Force.com, Forrester, France Telecom, Gartner, Google App Engine, Google Docs, IBM, IDC, Intuit, Java, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Microsoft Office 365, MySQL, Neustar, NTT, OneVoice, OpenStack, Oracle, Orange, Peartree, Qwest, Rackspace, Red Hat, Renub Research, Sage, Salesforce.com, Savvis, Telstra, Terremark, T-Systems, Verizon, VMware, Vodafone, Webex.

Technologies and industry terms referenced: Azure, Carrier Ethernet, Cloud computing, cloud service providers, Cloud Services, Communications as a Service, compliance, Connectivity, control, forecast, Global reach, Hybrid Cloud, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), IT, Mobile Cloud, network, online, Platform as a Service (PaaS), Reliability, resellers, security, SMB, Software as a Service (SaaS), storage, telcos, telecoms, strategy, innovation, transformation, unified communications, video, virtualisation, Virtual Private Cloud (VPC), VPN.