How the Coordination Age changes the game

Introduction: Three ages of telecoms…

In this report, we elaborate on what we outlined in our recent report, The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, as a completely new paradigm for the telecoms industry. In the earlier report, we argue that this new age of telecoms – the Coordination Age – follows on from two previous, and still ongoing, paradigms for the telecoms industry: the Communications Age and the Information Age.

Chronologically, the three ages may be represented as follows:

The coordination age is beginning now

As the above diagram suggests, parts of the industry still exhibit characteristics of the earlier ages; and we are still working through the consequences of the paradigm shift from the Communications Age to the Information Age, even as we stand on the cusp of a further shift to the Coordination Age.

The report revisits our narrative of the three ages of telecoms to explore the different social, economic and cultural drivers and functions of telecoms in each period and the implications for telcos.

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Telecoms characteristics and functions have evolved over time

The fundamental service and business model characteristics of these three ages, as described in the previous report, are recapped in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Basic functions of telecoms in the three telco eras

telecoms functions across three ages

Source: STL Partners

The above table illustrates how the functions provided by telecoms services and networks across the three ages of the industry are radically different. In summary, we can say that:

  • In the Communications Age, telecoms networks and services were ‘physical’ in character: physical equipment and facilities delivering physical services; the core services being connectivity and communications centering on voice, which was transmitted by physical means (e.g. for voice, analogue electrical signals sent over wired or wireless networks).
  • In the Information Age, by contrast, while telecoms networks remained – initially, at least – physical in character and delivered increasingly advanced forms of connectivity, the services became digital. The ultimate expression of this is of course the Internet, which changed the role of the telco to that of providing the IP connectivity platform over which mainly third parties offered their web and digital services. Another way of putting this is that whereas telecoms network connectivity remained tied to physical hardware, the services were delivered via standardised software and compute devices: PCs and later smartphones and tablets. In the present era of NFV and SDN, the basis on which the connectivity itself is organised and controlled is now also migrating to (would-be) standardised software operating over COTS hardware.
  • The emerging Coordination Age of telecoms is not purely an extension of network and societal digitisation, but could be seen as a 180o reversal of its parameters, in this respect: instead of being a primarily physical connectivity system processing digital inputs to deliver digital services (as in the Information Age), the network becomes a compute- and software-centric system processing real-world inputs to deliver real-world outcomes. We will discuss further these aspects of the new paradigm later in this report. But examples of what we mean here include networked compute-driven applications around driverless cars, IoT, and automation of industrial and enterprise processes across many verticals.

The three telecoms ages correspond to different socio-economic and human functions

We set out how the general service and network characteristics of the Communications, Information and Coordination Ages relate to the different social, economic and human functions they serve.

Throughout this report, we describe what we see as some of the fundamental social, economic, cultural and technological drivers of the different telecoms networks and services across these three ages. The three ages represent distinct paradigms in which telecoms serves different needs and purposes.

We describe these socio-economic and cultural purposes through a simplified version of the psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan. It seems legitimate to explore telecoms through this lens, as telecoms networks are human constructs, and telecoms services are social, economic and cultural in their purpose and value to modern society.

In brief, Jacques Lacan distinguishes between three interdependent orders of psychological experience: the ‘Real’, the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Symbolic’.

  • The ‘Real’ is the physical aspect of our existence: our bodies, the material universe, and the physiological determinants experience, including basic emotions
  • The ‘Imaginary’ refers to the sub-rational and sub-linguistic phenomena of mental experience, through which we form mental impressions of sensory experience (e.g. sights, sounds, etc.). Together with the emotional impact with which they are associated, these ‘imaginary’ elements form the foundation of our self-image and view of our place in the world
  • The third order is that of the ‘Symbolic’, which refers to language and other social, logical and cultural codes through which we give meaning to our lives, acquire knowledge, order our activities, and structure society and our relationships within it.

This is important because it provides a way to make sense of the paradigm shifts that have taken place throughout the industry’s history. And it also provides a narrative account of the human needs – including economic and social needs – that are invested in telecoms services. Understanding what customers want – and above all, what can offer real benefit to them – is the key to driving future value.

We argue this is relevant to the situation that telcos find themselves in today and to their strategic options for the future. In our view, telcos failed to adapt their business models to capitalise on the digital service opportunities of the Information Age. This was because the value drivers of the Information Age were so radically different from those that prevailed over the much longer time span of the Communications Age.

Learning the lessons from this previous paradigm shift will help telcos be more aware of how they need to adapt to another new paradigm – the Coordination Age – that is emerging. There may be only a very short window of opportunity for telcos to adjust their business models and organisations to become ‘coordinators’ of the network- and AI-based, automation-enabling and resource-optimising services of the near future.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Three Ages of Telecoms
  • Differing characteristics and functions of telecoms across the three ages
  • The three telecoms ages correspond to different socio-economic and human functions
  • Speaking, showing and doing: The three ages of telecoms
  • The Communications Age: A telecoms of the Real, mediated by voice
  • The Information Age: A telecoms of the Imaginary, mediated by the screen
  • The Coordination Age: A telecoms of outcomes, driven by active intelligence
  • Coordination services rely on contextual and physical data, and the physical aspects of networking
  • Summary: Characteristics and purposes of telecoms across its three ages
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendations: A new telco age brings new opportunities but also renewed responsibilities

Figures:

  1. The three ages of telecoms.
  2. Basic functions of telecoms in the three telco eras
  3. ‘Real’, physical characteristics of the Communications Age telecoms network and service
  4. The core telecoms service – circuit-switched telephony – in the first telecoms age
  5. Comparison of the social, service and technology characteristics of Communications Age and Information Age telecoms
  6. Permanent, virtual presence to others replaces real-time voice communications
  7. Driverless car ecosystem in the Coordination Age
  8. Comparison between the three telecoms eras

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The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms

The Coordination Age

The world is entering the Coordination Age, driven by growing needs for resource efficiency and enabled by new technologies such as AI, automation, IoT, 5G, etc. What does this mean, how is it different, how is it an opportunity, and what should telecoms industry players do?

Problems, problems, problems…

The telecoms industry’s big problem

The core telecoms industry is currently close to reaching maturity as the following chart illustrates.

Figure 1: Revenue growth is grinding to a halt

Source: Data from company filings, STL Partners analysis

This approaching maturity has taken many years to achieve and is built on decades of astonishing growth in the telecoms and ICT industries as shown by just a few data points in Figure 2.

Figure 2: 30 years of telecoms in context

Source: AT&T company reports, STL Partners analysis

We’ve used AT&T as a comparator as perhaps the world’s best-known telco, and because its 1988 revenues are readily accessible. The chart shows that AT&T has grown massively but also that recent growth has slowed.

It also shows how mobile and internet use has blossomed to mass-market adoption. No-one knew in 1988 that this is what would happen by 2018, or how it would happen. Most people would have thought you were talking about science fiction if you said there would be more mobiles than people in their lifetime, and that half the world would have access to most of the world’s information.

Yet it was clear that growth in telecoms lay ahead – it seemed like a kind of economic and social gravity that communications would grow a lot. The direction that the world would take was obvious and unavoidable. So many people were not yet connected, and so much was possible in terms of improving the world’s access to information using the technologies that were coming to fruition then.

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What are the big problems the world needs to solve now?

It’s not a mystery now, of course. And while there’s plenty of work to do to make the world’s connectivity better and bring the second half of the global population online somehow, it’s unlikely to bring in masses of new revenues for telcos. So why the Coordination Age?

To create major growth, you need to solve some big, valuable problems. So, what are the big problems the world needs to solve?

There are some obvious candidates, e.g.:

  • mitigating climate change and minimising its effects
  • reducing the amount of waste and harmful by-products polluting the environment
  • the distribution and availability of human resources and services such as healthcare, education, employment, and entertainment
  • the availability of, and conflicts over, physical resources such as: water, fuel, power, food, land, etc…
  • global migration and increasingly hostile nationalism
  • concerns over increasingly skewed wealth distribution between the haves and have nots, and extreme poverty
  • a desire for greater business efficiency and productivity
  • concerns over employment due to automation and global economic changes.

Moreover, time is also a resource for people and business. Both want to make best use of their time – whether it is getting things done more effectively or enjoyably.

Making the most of what we have

STL Partners believes that these are all to some extent the manifestation of the same problem: the need to make the most efficient possible use of your/the world’s resources. In Figure 3 we call this helping to “make our world run better” for short.

Figure 3: How macro forces are creating a common global need

Source: STL Partners

It’s a widespread need

The underlying need for greater resource efficiency is widespread. While sustainability arguments are prominent symptoms of the problem, there are pressing needs being expressed in all areas of the economy for better utilisation of resources.

For example, most businesses are somewhere in the process of their own transformation using connected digital technologies. Almost every aspect of business, including product design, customer experience, production, delivery and value chain orchestration is being revolutionised by ‘digital’ technologies and applications.

Examples cited at the Total Telecom Congress in October 2018, included:

  • Brendan Ives, VP Telia, Division X, said that the top priority of 70% of 500 enterprises surveyed in the Nordics was resource efficiency, with cost control a distant second at 20%.
  • Henri Korpi, Executive Vice President, New Business Development, Elisa, described a new ‘Smart Factory’ application that it offers to enhance productivity.
  • Durdana Achakzai, Chief Digital Officer, Telenor Pakistan, described its Khushall Zamindar feature phone application for 6 million small-scale farmers in rural Pakistan, that gives them access to local weather and market information and helps to improve yields.

All of these are examples of where telcos are already thinking about or addressing customers’ needs with respect to resource efficiency, in all of these cases via a B2B application, but the concerns apply to consumers too.

Ipsos’s global survey on consumer concerns from July 2018 (Figure 4) gives a flavour of what people across the world worry about today. The colouring applied to categorise the issues is STL Partners’, based on our view of their relevance to resource utilisation and distribution (and hence the Coordination Age).

Figure 4: Global population worries reflect underlying concerns about the availability and distribution of resources

Source: Ipsos global survey, July 2018, STL Partners analysis

Clearly, the weighting of needs varies in different countries, but most of the most pressing concerns relate to the distribution of economic resources within society (red bars). Concerns on social resources such as education and healthcare (orange bars) are second in prominence, while more classic ‘environmental’ worries (grey bars) are slightly further down the list.

People’s concerns also vary with their current circumstances. The closer you are to the bread-line, the more likely you are to prioritise where your next meal is coming from over the long-term future. Hence there is a natural tendency for near-term concerns to feature more highly on the list.

Many other day-to-day concerns relate to the efficient use of time (another resource): prompt service, availability of resources on-demand, business productivity, etc.

The fundamental enabler needed is coordination: the ability to enable many different players, devices, solutions, etc., to work together across the economy. These players and assets are a diverse mixture of both physical and digital entities. The drive to allow them to work together must be widespread and ultimately systematic – hence the Coordination Age.

The thorny issue of sustainability

We now live in a world of seven billion people that uses 1.7 times its sustainable resources (Figure 5). The argument goes that if we keep on at this rate we will face major environmental and societal pains and problems.

Figure 5: What does “the world need now”?

Source: Global Footprint Network

Climate change is arguably one consequence of the over-use of resources. Not everyone buys in to such concerns, and it is a matter for each person to make their own mind up.

However, even traditionally highly conservative bodies like the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change Panel (IPCC) are sounding alarm bells. In its recent report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C”, the IPCC says we may not even have thirty years to avoid the worst problems.

The editorial in The New Scientist put it like this:

“We still have time to pull off a rescue. It will arguably be the largest project that humanity has ever undertaken – comparable with the two world wars, the Apollo programme, the cold war, the abolition of slavery, the Manhattan project, the building of the railways and the roll-out of sanitation and electrification, all in one. In other words, it will require us to strain every muscle of human ingenuity in the hope of a better future, if not for ourselves then at least for our descendants.”[1]

The challenge is huge, and it reaches across all economies and sectors, not just telecoms.

Enlightened self-interest

STL Partners believes that telcos and the telecoms industry can play a significant role in addressing these issues, and moreover that the industry should move in this direction for both business and social reasons.

This should not be treated as a PR opportunity as it sometimes has in the past, as a kind of fop to regulators and governments in exchange for regulatory preferences.

It is a serious and significant problem to solve for humanity – and solving such problems is also how industries create new value in the economy.

Nonetheless, STL Partners believes that if telecoms industry players genuinely take on the challenges of addressing these issues, it may well have a significant impact on their sometimes-troubled relationships with governments and regulators. It’s one thing to be a big economic player in a market, which most telcos are, and quite another to be a big economic and social partner in an economy.

By truly aligning these goals and interests with governments telcos can start to foster a new dialogue “what do we need to do together for our economy?” This requires a very different level of heart-and-soul engagement than a well-intentioned but peripheral gesture under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) banner.

Moving the needle…

Internally, the industry has long faced two self-defeating challenges.

First, the idea of ‘moving the needle’. So many new opportunities are dismissed because they simply don’t seem big enough for a telco to bother, and telcos continue to search for the next ‘killer app’ like mobile data or SMS.

Despite looking for many years, it still hasn’t been found. Yet somehow the telecoms industry has missed out on capitalising on social media, search, online commerce – pretty much all growth industries of the last twenty years.

Why? For many reasons, no doubt. But there has certainly been a kind of well-fed corporate complacency, a general aversion to commitment to new ideas, and a huge reduction in investment in R&D and innovation. Telcos’ R&D spends are minuscule compared to technology players. We will publish more on this soon, and why we think telcos need to change.

This has gone arm-in-arm with a failure to understand that new business models are not linear and predictable. A sound business case is all very well when you have a predictable business environment. This is typically the case when looking at incremental changes to existing businesses where the consequences are relatively predictable.

In new areas, especially where there are network effects and other unpredictable and non-linear relationships, it’s very hard to do. Even if you succeeded in making a numerical model, most would frown heavily at the assumptions and their consequences, and the decision-making process would stagnate on uncertainty.

Where companies have been successful in building new value, they have at some point made a serious management commitment against a need that they recognise will persist in their market, continued to invest in it, and be willing to admit and learn from mistakes. We would cite TELUS in Healthcare, and Vodafone’s M-PESA as examples where leadership has protected and nurtured the fragile flower of innovation through to growth.

… and moving the people

The second big internal challenge to change and growth has been much of the telecoms industry’s inability to excite its people to buy in to the uncertain and worrying process of change.

Change and its accompanying uncertainties are uncomfortable for most people, and they need support, guidance and ultimately leadership to see them through. Too often, companies only truly address change when they sense the ‘burning platform’ – a (usually threatening) reason that means they simply must abandon their current beliefs and behaviours.

And frankly, why should most employees care about, for example, their company ‘becoming digital’? They care about being paid, having a job with some status, and being reasonably comfortable with what they must do and who they do it with. They are working to support themselves and their families. To most, “becoming digital” sounds like another excuse for a round of job cuts – which in some cases it is.

Our argument is that there is now a powerful new job for telecoms companies to do in the Coordination Age, and that this means we all must change. If we don’t do that job and make those changes, the future will potentially be much worse for us and them as we age, and their kids as they grow.

We believe that the additional insight in the story as we now see it should make it compelling to customers, employees, governments and shareholders. But first, the management of the telecoms industry need to grasp it, improve it and lead the rest forward.

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Contents:

  • Executive summary
  • Problems, problems, problems…
  • The telecoms industry’s big problem
  • What are the big problems the world needs to solve now?
  • Enlightened self-interest
  • Moving the needle…
  • … and moving the people
  • The Three Ages of Telecoms
  • The first age: The Communications Age, 1850s onwards
  • The second age: The Information Age, 1990s onwards
  • The third age: The Coordination Age, 201Xs onwards
  • So, what is the Coordination Age opportunity for telcos?
  • The telecoms industry has some important assets
  • Two possible jobs for telecoms
  • Having a clear role is motivational
  • So, what should telcos and the industry do?
  • Finally, a need for the technologies we’re developing
  • Conclusions and next steps

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Revenue growth is grinding to a halt
  • Figure 2: 30 years of telecoms in context
  • Figure 3: How macro forces are creating a common global need
  • Figure 4: Global population worries reflect underlying concerns about the availability and distribution of resources
  • Figure 5: What does “the world need now”?
  • Figure 6: The three ages of telecoms
  • Figure 7: The Communication Age
  • Figure 8: An early manual telephone exchange
  • Figure 9: Electro-mechanical ‘Strowger’ exchanges automated analogue switching
  • Figure 10: The Information Age
  • Figure 11: The Coordination Age
  • Figure 12: What are the unique assets of the telecoms industry?
  • Figure 13: Broadly, there are two possible jobs for telcos
  • Figure 14: Battle of the business models – Technology vs Telco
  • Figure 15: A new corporate reality
  • Figure 16: How a unifying purpose (a “why?”) helps create value

[1] The New Scientist, Vol 240 No. 3199, page 1.

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Personal Data: how to make it a viable, customer-centred industry

Content:

  • Guiding Principles
  • The Market: evolving use cases
  • Industry Structure: the Personal Data Landscape
  • Legal: creating a bridging framework
  • Technical Stream: creating a universal language
  • Personal Data Rights Language (PDRL)
  • Next Steps

 

  • Figure 1 – A Selection of Other Legal Principles and Guidelines Examined
  • Figure 2 – Updated draft of the WEF Personal Data Principles
  • Figure 3 – The emerging landscape of uses
  • Figure 4 – The Personal Data Landscape
  • Figure 5 – The ‘BLT’ Approach – Business, Legal, Technical Mapping
  • Figure 7- ’System Rules Architecture’ for Legal Frameworks
  • Figure 7 – Rough Example of PDRL ‘Mark Up’ Language
  • Figure 8 – WEF Personal Data Milestone Roadmap