What can telcos learn from Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley: The promise of “Open” Innovation and agile experimentation

Until the early 2000s, Closed Innovation, based on a model of internal, centralised research and development, was the de facto way for companies to protect intellectual property and gain competitive advantage. Latterly, assisted by the tailwinds of increasing connectivity, there has been a shift in mindset towards Open Innovation – sourcing and acquiring external expertise, scanning the environment, and tapping into ideas and input from beyond the four walls of the business. Today, the array of innovation models is varied and ever-expanding: scouting, crowdsourcing, idea competitions, collaborative design and development, spin-outs, corporate ventures, incubators, joint ventures, in- and out-licensing of intellectual property, consortia, innovation platforms and ecosystems to name but a few. Increasingly, this activity is taking place in clusters – auspicious geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions – the most famous of which is Silicon Valley.

Thanks to a unique confluence of assets – the presence of tech giants and leading research universities, an abundance of venture capital and skilled labour, a disruptive culture, and a relatively benign regulatory environment – Silicon Valley is one of the world’s leading hotbeds of innovation.

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Hundreds of organisations of various sizes and industries – even those with plentiful local R&D talent in their home markets – have been drawn to the Valley in the hope of importing outside-in innovation, identifying new products and partners, and harnessing its ecosystem to solve strategic problems. Telcos are no exception: since the early 2000s, telcos’ core businesses have come under increasing pressure from OTT players as well as wider market forces to innovate and grow. Open Innovation is the antithesis of telcos’ traditional, vertically-integrated approach of translating their own R&D efforts into internally-developed products and services, typically tightly linked to their existing customer bases and offerings. Operators are hoping some of the Valley’s magic dust of disruptive thinking and speed of execution will rub off on them.

However, insiders sometimes quip that the Boeing 747s flying out of San Francisco International Airport have “amnesic” properties. The executive groups that typically descend upon the Valley, hoping to learn from its incumbents both large and small, take copious notes and leave fired up about re-energising innovation in their home base. But once back within the corporate environment, the seeds of innovation struggle to germinate and the majority of initiatives fail to generate any substantial return on objectives. There appears to be a degree of cognitive dissonance between the expectation of such engagements, and their impact.

Other approaches to the Valley, from CVCs (Corporate Venture Capital investments in start-ups) to environmental scanning and venture-building, are better established, with hundreds of corporate outposts currently in place. Four major routes to outside-in innovation, with illustrative examples are shown below.

Four major routes to outside-in innovation

Open Innovation

Unfortunately, truly transformational success stories are few and far between (gains tend to be small or incremental in nature) and there is a long tail of failures and missed opportunities.

For STL Partners, this raises a series of questions:

  • What are telcos hoping to learn from Silicon Valley and how are they going about it?
  • What are the challenges they face in implementing and operationalising what they learn?
  • What can they do differently to overcome some of the common pitfalls of Open Innovation to drive more significant successes?

In addition to its own primary and secondary research, STL Partners explored the challenges and opportunities in depth with Jean-Marc Frangos – Executive Fellow at INSEAD, Executive in Residence at the Plug and Play Tech Center, and Advisor to the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley and former Senior VP of BT’s Innovation function. Located in the Bay Area, Jean-Marc benefits from a 360° view of the disruptive technologies, revenue opportunities and shifts in the in the Valley landscape, and advises European and Asian players on how to integrate such innovations into the incumbent telecoms environment.

What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?

There are currently somewhere between 300 and 500 corporate outposts in Silicon Valley, as varied in their industries, size and depth of operations as they are in their motives, which are not exclusively tech-focused. The majority have a relatively small footprint, such as those acting as an innovation “antenna” or corporate venture capital (CVC) office, although some have established a more structured presence, for example an innovation lab or R&D centre.

Despite the diversity of these outposts, their common goal is to sense and respond to technology shifts, whether they be disruptive opportunities or disruptive threats. Many of these corporations may be struggling to keep pace with innovation in their own industry and are looking to infuse their organisation with a more entrepreneurial mindset and attract creative talent to gain competitive advantage. In the case of telcos, most are already facing disruption while the remainder can see it looming on the horizon.

The key drivers for innovation outposts include:

  • Keeping a finger on the pulse of trends originating in the Valley;
  • Scouting emerging technologies with a view to investment, incubation, acquisition or some form of collaborative partnership and identifying new channels to market, new business models or new people/processes;
  • Acquiring expertise or best practices from outside the organisation that can be internalised (e.g. to evolve the corporate culture) with a view to accelerating the innovation cycle from start-up through Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to initial production.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?
    • The dominant innovation outpost models in Silicon Valley
    • What to learn in Silicon Valley: Four levels of learning
    • Increasing acceptance of evolving business models
  • What should telcos do differently?
    • Purpose: Match effort to expectation
    • Whom to learn innovation lessons from in Silicon Valley
    • People: Who goes to the Valley, and who stays home
    • Practices: Dos and don’ts
  • Telco dynamics and challenges
    • Ambidextrous transformation is a hard art to master
    • Two-speed IT puts the brakes on digital culture
    • Capital-intensive infrastructure companies have a bigger turning circle
    • Design thinking must infuse the transmission belt
    • Telcos may struggle to win the battle for tech talent
  • Conclusion
  • Index

Related research

 

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How to identify and meet new customer needs

Customer-led innovation at Telia and Elisa

In order to secure competitive advantage and long-term growth, telcos need to identify and meet new customer needs. The importance of this is confirmed by the STL Partner’s Telco investment priorities survey published in January 2021. Understanding customer needs and innovation, both essential for addressing new needs and driving growth, featured in the top ten priorities.

Telco top investment  priorities

top-telco-investment-priorities-stl

Source:  STL Partners, Telecoms priorities: Ready for the crunch?

This report seeks to identify best practice for telcos. Through in-depth interviews with senior managers in Elisa and Telia, and an expert in disruptive innovation, we identify the critical success factors and lessons learned in these organisations.

Telia created Division X in 2017, a separate business unit focused on commercialising and growing revenue from emerging businesses and technologies such as IoT (including 5G), data insights, and digital B2C services. Its focus is on customer needs and speed of execution, to spearhead and accelerate innovation, which it deems necessary in Telia’s drive to “reinvent better connected living”.

International Digital Services is Elisa’s third main business division, alongside Consumer and Corporate, which serve the domestic market. As International Digital Services has matured, it has focussed specifically on addressing new needs and developing new services, in both industrial and corporate domains.

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The report is based on interviews with:

  • Liisa Puurunen, Vice President, Brand, CX and start-ups, International Digital Services, Elisa — Liisa has a background in leading new businesses and start-ups in Elisa in the Consumer division and International Digital Services. Liisa’s role is to understand where there are new needs to be met, and to get best practise in place across the whole customer journey, within both industrial and corporate domains.
  • Annukka Matilainen, Development Director for Omnichannel and Smart Automation, Elisa —Annukka led the Consumer team’s response to COVID-19
  • Stephanie Huf, Head of Marketing, Division X, Telia — Stephanie’s role is to support the business lines in Division X to in engaging with customers to identify their needs. For example, her team identifies what customers want, defines the value propositions and works with product and business teams to test these in line with customer insight. (Since participating in this research Stephanie Huf has moved to a new role.)
  • Anette Bohman, Strategy Director, Division X, Telia  — Anette supports and guides Division X in defining Telia’s future.
  • John McDonald, FIRSTEP — John is a strategist in disruptive innovation in the health industry in Canada. He helps leaders create alignment around how the forces of disruption are unfolding and where to place the bets. FIRSTEP works with health organisations searching for fresh insights that spark new opportunities for growth.

Create a separate team to maximise new business opportunities

A separate team has many benefits

New business requires a separate, dedicated team. Its needs are different from day-to-day business and it needs its own focus.

One of the biggest learnings for Elisa in addressing new opportunities, is that there needs to be a ‘sandbox team’ with its own resources and budgets, rules, methods and mindset. It must have access to senior managers for decision making and funding, and strong leadership.

The sandbox team needs to be remote from the demands of day-to-day operations and implementation. If finding new needs is only part of someone’s job it is difficult to manage, as short-term demands will inevitably take precedence. Delivery and experimentation are different functions and they should be separate.

Liisa Puurunen’s team is a start-up in its own right. It is leaner than the usual Elisa approach and people are only brought into the team when there is a test to be done, keeping it flexible.

Rationale for a separate team

separate-team-rationale
Source: STL Partners

Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Create a dedicated and separate team
    • Take a customer centric approach at all stages of innovation
    • Types of innovation will meet different new needs
  • Introduction
  • Create a separate team to maximise new business opportunities
    • A separate team has many benefits
    • Telia Smart Family: The case for a separate innovations team
    • Evaluate success in relevant ways that may be non-traditional
  • Take a customer centric approach to all stages of innovation
    • Ensure a customer centric culture
    • Start with a customer problem
  • Meeting needs and scaling bets
    • Co-create with customers, but choose them carefully
    • Elisa’s empowered teams enable a successful response to COVID-19
  • Types of innovation to meet different new needs
    • New needs in the core versus new businesses
    • Dedicate some resource to extreme innovation
    • Telia Data Insights: New Business innovation in response to COVID-19
    • The case for disruptive innovation
  • Plan exit strategies
    • Perseverance and pivoting can bring success
    • Be prepared to kill your darlings

Related research

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The Telco Cloud Manifesto

Telco cloud: A key enabler of the Coordination Age

The Coordination Age is coming

As we have set out in our company manifesto, STL Partners believes that we are entering a new ‘Coordination Age’ in which technological developments will enable governments, enterprises, and consumers to coordinate their activities more effectively than ever before. The results of better and faster coordination will be game-changing for society as resources are distributed and used more effectively than ever before leading to substantial social, economic, and health benefits.

A critical component of the Coordination Age is the universal availability of flexible, fast, reliable, low-latency networks that support a myriad of applications which, in turn, enable a complex array of communications, decisions, transactions, and processes to be completed quickly and, in many cases, automatically without human intervention.  The network remains key: without it being fit for purpose the ability to match demand and supply real-time is impossible.

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How telecoms can define a new role

Historically, telecoms networks have been created using specialist dedicated (proprietary) hardware and software.  This has ensured networks are reliable and secure but has also stymied innovation – from operators and from third-parties – that have found leveraging network capabilities challenging.  In fact, innovation accelerated with the arrival of the Internet which enabled services to be decoupled from the network and run ‘over the top’.

But the Coordination Age requires more from the network than ever before – applications require the network to be flexible, accessible and support a range of technical and commercial options. Applications cannot run independently of the network but need to integrate with it. The network must be able to impart actionable insights and flex its speed, bandwidth, latency, security, business model and countless other variables quickly and autonomously to meet the needs of applications using it.

Telco cloud – the move to a network built on common off-the-shelf hardware and flexible interoperable software from best-of-breed suppliers that runs wherever it is needed – is the enabler of this future.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telco cloud: A key enabler of the Coordination Age
    • The Coordination Age is coming
    • How telecoms can define a new role
  • Telco cloud: The growth enabler for the telecoms industry
    • Telecoms revenue growth has stalled, traffic has not
    • Telco cloud: A new approach to the network
    • …a fundamental shift in what it means to be an operator
    • …and the driver of future telecoms differentiation and growth
  • Realising the telco cloud vision
    • Moving to telco cloud is challenging
    • Different operator segments will take different paths

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Telecoms priorities: Ready for the crunch?

The goal of this research is to understand how telecoms operators’ investment priorities and investments are likely to change as the COVID-19 crisis recedes.  To do this, we collected 144 survey responses from participants in telecoms operators, telecoms vendors, and analysts and consultants and other groups. All responses are treated in strict personal and company confidence. Take the survey here.

This research builds on our previous content on the impact of the pandemic to the telecoms industry: COVID-19: Now, next and after (March 2020), COVID-19: Impact on telco priorities (May 2020), based on a survey undertaken in April and early May 2020 and Recovering from COVID: 5G to stimulate growth and drive productivity (August 2020).  STL Partners has also hosted three webinar on the topic (March to July 2020).

This deck summarises the findings of our industry research on telecoms priorities at the start of 2021.

We explored the research in our webinar,  State of the Industry: 2021 Priorities (click on the link to view the recording).

Background to the telecoms priorities survey – January 2021

The respondents were fairly evenly split between telcos, vendors, and ‘others’ (mainly analysts and consultants). This sample contained a higher proportion of European and American respondents than industry average, so is not fully globally representative. The split of company types and geography was broadly similar to the May 2020 survey, with the exception of the MENA region, where there were less than half the prior respondents – a total of 7. However those respondents were senior and well known to STL.

Who took the survey?

telco industry breakdown

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

48% of respondents were C-Level/VP/SVP/Director level. Functionally, most respondents work in senior HQ and operational management areas. Compared to May 2020, there were proportionally slightly more senior respondents, and slightly less in product and strategy roles.

What are their roles?

Senior participants

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

How respondents perceive priorities, as the COVID threat recedes

There were increases in respondent confidence in almost every category we surveyed from May 2020 to Jan 2021.

  • Telecoms automation and agility remain top priorities across the industry – and transformation has moved up the agenda.
  • Appetite for 5G investments increased the most of all areas surveyed in the last 8 months.
  • The ‘consumerisation’ of enterprise continues, although security and work from home (WFH) services have overtaken conferencing and VPNs in priority.
  • Healthcare remains the most accelerated vertical / application opportunity of all those impacted in the current crisis.
  • The priority of consumer services has significantly increased yet confidence in making any additional money in the sector is low.
  • Leadership and transformation: COVID 19 has empowered an industry-wide belief that change is possible.
  • Transformation and innovation are high priorities, and appetite for sustainability and recruitment has returned, but there are doubts about some telco leaders’ commitment and ability to grasp and invest in new opportunities.

STL Partners assesses the telecoms industry to be at a crunch point: COVID has injected further pace to the rapid evolution of the world economy. Telcos that have been focused on responding to immediate pandemic-induced challenges, will emerge from the crisis faced with an urgency to respond to this evolution – key choices that telcos might have had 5-10 years to ponder are being crunched into the next 0-3 years.

Our findings suggest that most telcos are only partly ready for this disruptive opportunity.

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Notes on interpreting the research findings

  • The way research respondents perceive any given question is generally dependent on their current situation and knowledge. To get relevant answers, we asked all respondents if they were interested or involved in specific areas of interest (e.g. ‘consumer services’), and to not answer questions they couldn’t (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) or simply didn’t know or have a clear opinion.
  • We saw no evidence that respondents were ‘gaming’ the results to be favourable to their interests.
  • Results need to be seen in the context that telcos themselves vary widely in size, profitability and market outlook. For example, for some, 5G seems like a valid investment, whereas for others the conditions are currently much less promising. COVID-19 has clearly had some impact on these dynamics, and our analysis attempts to reflect this impact on the overall balance of opinions as well as some of the specific situations to bring greater nuance.
  • In December 2020 / January 2021, the worldwide impact of COVID-19 is increasingly well understood and less of a shock than was the case in May / June 2020. Vaccines are beginning to be rolled out but it is an early stage in the process, and new variants of COVID-19 have evolved in the UK, South Africa and Brazil (and possibly elsewhere). There are geo-political wrangles on vaccine distribution, and varying views on effectiveness and the most appropriate responses. Nonetheless, respondents appear overall more optimistic, although there is still considerable uncertainty.
  • We’ve interpreted the results as best we can given our knowledge of the respondents and what they told us, and added in our own insights where relevant.
  • Inevitably, this is a subjective exercise, albeit based on 144 industry respondents’ views.
  • Nonetheless, we hope that it brings you additional insights to the many that you already possess through your own experiences and access to data.
  • Finally, things continue to change fast. We will continue to track them.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary: Opportunities are in overdrive, but can telcos catch them?
  • High-level findings
  • Research background
  • Technology impacts: Automation, cloud and edge come of age
  • Network impacts: 5G is back
  • Enterprise sector impacts: Healthcare still leads
  • Consumer sector impacts: Mojo aplenty, money – not so much
  • Leadership impacts: good talking, but enough walking?

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Consumer strategy: What should telcos do?

Globally, telcos are pursuing a wide variety of strategies in the consumer market, ranging from broad competition with the major Internet platforms to a narrow focus on delivering connectivity.

Some telcos, such as Orange France, Telefónica Spain, Reliance Jio and Rakuten Mobile, are combining connectivity with an array of services, such as messaging, entertainment, smart home, financial services and digital health propositions. Others, such as Three UK, focus almost entirely on delivering connectivity, while many sit somewhere in between, targeting a single vertical market, in addition to connectivity. AT&T is entertainment-orientated, while Safaricom is financial services-focused.

This report analyses the consumer strategies of the leading telcos in the UK and the Brazil – two very different markets. Whereas the UK is a densely populated, English-speaking country, Brazil has a highly-dispersed population that speaks Portuguese, making the barriers to entry higher for multinational telecoms and content companies.

By examining these two telecoms markets in detail, this report will consider which of these strategies is working, looking, in particular, at whether a halfway-house approach can be successful, given the economies of scope available to companies, such as Amazon and Google, that offer consumers a broad range of digital services. It also considers whether telcos need to be vertically-integrated in the consumer market to be successful. Or can they rely heavily on partnerships with third-parties? Do they need their own distinctive service layer developed in-house?

In light of the behavourial changes brought about by the pandemic, the report also considers whether telcos should be revamping their consumer propositions so that they are more focused on the provision of ultra-reliable connectivity, so people can be sure to work from home productively. Is residential connectivity really a commodity or can telcos now charge a premium for services that ensure a home office is reliably and securely connected throughout the day?

A future STL Partners report will explore telcos’ new working from home propositions in further detail.

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The UK market: Convergence is king

The UK is one of the most developed and competitive telecoms markets in the world. It has a high population density, with 84% of its 66 million people living in urban areas, according to the CIA Factbook. There are almost 272 people for every square kilometre, compared with an average of 103 across Europe. For every 100 people, there are 48 fixed lines and 41 broadband connections, while the vast majority of adults have a mobile phone. GDP per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) is US$ 48,710, compared with US$ 65,118 in the US (according to the World Bank).

The strength of the state-funded public service broadcaster, the BBC, has made it harder for private sector players to make money in the content market. The BBC delivers a large amount of high-quality advertising-free content to anyone in the UK who pays the annual license fee, which is compulsory to watch television.

In the UK, the leading telcos have mostly eschewed expansion into the broader digital services market. That reflects the strong position of the leading global Internet platforms in the UK, as well as the quality of free-to-air television, and the highly competitive nature of the UK telecoms market – UK operators have relatively low margins, giving them little leeway to invest in the development of other digital services.

Figure 1 summarises where the five main network operators (and broadband/TV provider Sky) are positioned on a matrix mapping degree of vertical integration against the breadth of the proposition.

Most UK telcos have focused on the provision of connectivity

UK telco B2C strategies

Source: STL Partners

Brazil: Land of new opportunities

Almost as large as the US, Brazil has a population density is just 25 people per square kilometre – one tenth of the total UK average population density. Although 87% of Brazil’s 212 million people live in urban areas, according to the CIA Fact book, that means almost 28 million people are spread across the country’s rural communities.

By European standards, Brazil’s fixed-line infrastructure is relatively sparse. For every 100 people, Brazil has 16 fixed lines, 15 fixed broadband connections and 99 mobile connections. Its GDP per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) is US$ 15,259 – about one third of that in the UK. About 70% of adults had a bank account in 2017, according to the latest World Bank data. However, only 58% of the adult population were actively using the account.

A vast middle-income country, Brazil has a very different telecoms market to that of the UK. In particular, network coverage and quality continue to be important purchasing criteria for consumers in many parts of the country. As a result, Oi, one of the four main network operators, became uncompetitive and entered a bankruptcy restructuring process in 2016. It is now hoping to to sell its sub-scale mobile unit for at least 15 billion reais (US$ 2.8 billion) to refocus the company on its fibre network. The other three major telcos, Vivo (part of Telefónica), Claro (part of América Móvil) and TIM Brazil, have made a joint bid to buy its mobile assets.

For this trio, opportunities may be opening up. They could, for example, play a key role in making financial services available across Brazil’s sprawling landmass, much of which is still served by inadequate road and rail infrastructure. If they can help Brazil’s increasingly cash-strapped consumers to save time and money, they will likely prosper. Even before COVID-19 struck, Brazil was struggling with the fall-out from an early economic crisis.

At the same time, Brazil’s home entertainment market is in a major state of flux. Demand for pay television, in particular, is falling away, as consumers seek out cheaper Internet-based streaming options.

All of Brazil’s major telcos are building a broad consumer play

Brazil telco consumer market strategy overview

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The UK market: Convergence is king
    • BT: Trying to be broad and deep
    • Virgin Media: An aggregation play
    • O2 UK: Changing course again
    • Vodafone: A belated convergence play
    • Three UK: Small and focused
    • Takeaways from the UK market: Triple play gridlock
  • Brazil: Land of new opportunities
    • The Brazilian mobile market
    • The Brazilian fixed-line market
    • The Brazilian pay TV market
    • The travails of Oi
    • Vivo: Playing catch-up in fibre
    • Telefónica’s financial performance
    • América Móvil goes broad in Brazil
    • TIM: Small, but perfectly formed?
    • Takeaways from the Brazilian market: A potentially treacherous transition
  • Index

Growing B2B2X: Taking telcos beyond connectivity and 5G

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The telecoms industry is looking to revive growth

Telecoms operators have enjoyed 30 years of strong growth in all major markets. However, the core telecoms industry is showing signs of slowing. Connectivity revenue growth is declining and according to our research, annual growth in mobile operator revenues pre-COVID were converging to 1% across Asia Pacific, North America, and Western Europe. To help reverse this trend, telecoms operators’ have been investing in upgrading networks (fibre, 4G, 5G), enabling them to offer ever-increasing data speeds/plans to gain more customers and at least sustain ARPUs. However, this has resulted in the increasing commoditisation of connectivity as competitors also upgrade their networks. The costs to upgrade networks coupled with reducing margins from commoditisation have made it difficult for operators to invest in new revenue streams beyond core connectivity.

While connectivity remains an essential component in consumer and enterprises’ technology mix, on its own, it no longer solves our most pressing challenges. When the telecoms industry was first founded, over 150 years ago, operators were set up to solve the main challenge of the day, which was overcoming time and distance between people. Starting in the 1990s, alongside the creation of the internet and development of more powerful data networks, today’s global internet players set out to solve the next big challenge – affordable access to information and entertainment. Today, our biggest challenge is the need to make more efficient use of our resources, whether that’s time, assets, knowledge, raw material, etc. Achieving this requires not only connectivity and information, but also a high level of coordination across multiple organisations and systems to get it to the right place, at the right time. We therefore call this the Coordination Age.

Figure 1: New challenges for telecoms in the Coordination AgeThe coordination age overview

Source: STL Partners

In the Coordination Age, ‘things’ – machines, products, buildings, grids, processes – are increasingly connecting with each other as IoT and cloud-based applications become ubiquitous. This is creating an exponential increase in the volume of data available to drive development of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence, which combined with automation can improve productivity and resource efficiency. There are major socioeconomic challenges that society is facing that require better matching of supply and demand, which not only needs real-time communications and information exchange, but also insights and action.

In the Coordination Age, there is unlikely to be a single dominant coordinator for most ecosystems. While telecoms operators may not have all the capabilities and assets to play an important coordination role, especially compared to the Internet giants, they do have the advantage of being regulated and trusted in their local markets. This presents new opportunities for telecom operators in industries with stronger national boundaries. As such, there is a role for telcos to play in other parts of the value chain which will ultimately enable them to unlock new revenue growth (e.g. TELUS Health and Elisa Smart Factory).

New purpose, new role

The Coordination Age has added increased complexity and new B2B2X business model challenges for operators. They are no longer the monopolies of the past, but one of many important players in an increasingly ecosystem-based economy. This requires telcos to take a different approach: one with new purpose, culture, and ways of working. To move beyond purely connecting people and devices to enabling coordination, telcos will need a fundamental shift in vision. Management teams will need to embrace a new corporate purpose aligned with the outcomes their customers are looking for (i.e. greater resource efficiency), and drive this throughout their organisations.

Historically, operators have served all customers – consumers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), larger enterprises from all verticals and other operators – with a set of horizontal services (voice, messaging, connectivity).  If operators want to move beyond these services, then they will need to develop deep sector expertise. Indeed, telcos are increasingly seeking to play higher up the value chain and leveraging their core assets and capabilities provides an opportunity to do so.

However, in order to drive new revenues beyond connectivity and add value in other parts of the solution stack, telcos need to be able to select their battles carefully because they do not have the scale, expertise or resources to do it all.

Figure 2: Potential telco roles beyond traditional connectivity

Source: STL Partners

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Clearer on the vision, unclear on the execution

Many telcos have a relatively clear idea of where they want to drive new streams of revenue beyond traditional connectivity services. However, they face various technical, strategic and organisational challenges that have inhibited this vision from reaching fruition and have unanswered questions about how they can overcome these. This lack of clarity is further evident by the fact that some telcos have yet to set explicit revenue targets or KPIs for non-connectivity revenue, and those that have set clear quantifiable objectives struggle to define their execution plan or go-to-market strategy. Even operators that have been most successful in building new revenue streams, such as TELUS and Elisa, do not share targets or revenues for their new businesses publicly. This is likely to protect them from short-term demands of most telecoms shareholders, and because, even when profitable, they may not yet be seen as valuable enough to move the needle.

This report focuses not just on telco ambitions in driving B2B2X revenues beyond core connectivity and the different roles they want to play in the value chain, but more importantly on what strategies telcos are adopting to fulfil their ambitions. Within this research, we explore what is required to succeed from both a technological and organisational standpoint. Our findings are based on an interview programme with over 23 operators globally, conducted from June to August 2020. Our participant group spans across different operator types, geographies, and types of roles within the organisation, ensuring we gain insight into a range of unique perspectives.

In this report, we define B2B2X as a business model which supports the dynamic creation and delivery of new services by multiple parties (the Bs) for any type of end-customer (the X), whether they be enterprises or consumers. The complexity of the value chains within B2B2X models requires more openness and flexibility from party providers, given that any provider could be the first or second ‘B’ in the B2B2X acronym. This research is primarily focused on B2B2X strategies for serving enterprise customers.

In essence, our research is focused on answering the following key question: how can operators grow their B2B2X revenues when traditional core connectivity is in decline?

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The telecoms industry is looking to revive growth
    • New purpose, new role
    • Clearer on the vision, unclear on the execution
  • Beyond connectivity, but where to?
    • “Selling the service sandwich”
    • Horizontal play: Being the best application enabler
    • The vertical-specific digital services provider
    • There is no “best” approach: Some will work better for different operators in different situations
    • 5G is a trigger but not the only one
  • Accelerating the shift towards partnerships and ecosystems
    • Some operator ‘ecosystems’ look more like partnerships
    • Not all telcos define ‘ecosystems’ the same way
    • Most telcos focusing on ecosystems want to orchestrate and influence the proposition
    • Many see ecosystems as a key potential route but ecosystems come with new requirements
  • The market is ripe for telco ecosystems
    • The interest in network intelligence is not new but this time is different
    • Telcos can provide unique value by making their networks more accessible
    • But so far, telcos have not fully embraced this vision yet
  • Conclusions and recommendations

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How mobile operators can build winning 5G business models

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STL Partners has long believed that telecoms operators need to and can do more to add value to their consumer and enterprise customers and to society more generally. For the telecoms industry, the need to do more is illustrated by flat or declining revenues and rising capital expenditure and debt levels. The opportunity for telecoms to add more value is also clear. The demands of society now call for greater coordination between all players and new technology – 5G, analytics, AI, automation, cloud – is now spawning the Coordination Age.

Figure 1: The Coordination Age – new paradigm, new telco purposeThe coordination age overview

Source: STL Partners

Operators have the credibility, skills and relationships to contribute more in the Coordination Age. But the opportunity will not drop into their laps. Improved networks are not, of themselves, the driver of new value: it accrues to the provider of services that run on the network and it is up to operators to develop platforms and services that exploit ubiquitous, high-bandwidth connectivity.

So far, operators have found moving beyond connectivity challenging. There are a handful of success stories; most attempts to develop vertical solutions have failed to move the needle. In this report, we draw on successes and failures from within and outside telecoms to outline 8 core guiding principles for ambitious leaders within the telecoms industry who are determined to help their organisations to deliver more than connectivity.

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5G: A catalyst for change

In some ways, the challenge/opportunity for mobile operators has been present for the last 5-10 years: limited incremental revenue growth in voice, messaging, and data.

However, 5G is a catalyst for real change. There are internal pressures from the investments being made that mean operators must create new revenue streams. More positive reasons relate to increased demand for telco-driven services and the technological changes that telcos have implemented which will help the commercial side to adapt. Below are some of the main reasons why 5G has created a resurgent need to change business models.

  1. Making returns on network investments: It’s a given that 5G cannot be delivered without significant investment by the operators: be it in spectrum acquisition, upgrading the RAN and core network, managing a more distributed architecture of small cells, etc. Telcos can focus on ensuring that network runs efficiently to maintain margins, however many will need to look to new services. Data usage will surge, but the price customers will pay for each gigabyte will decline at a disproportionate rate.
  2. Building on telco cloud and edge computing platforms: Telcos have started to invest in developing their networks to become more like the cloud platforms that underpin the large cloud providers’ services. In fact, it’s a key part of the 5G core. Part of this has been the move towards SDN, network virtualisation and integrating edge computing. This flexible platform will allow telcos to innovate quickly and create new differentiated services on top if they have the desire to change their financial and operational models.
  3. Unlocking an enterprise business: Before 5G, mobile operators’ enterprise businesses have involved selling SIMs to enterprise customers with some forays into value-added services, such as cloud storage, mobile device management and M2M communications. Enterprises are genuinely interested in 5G and the capabilities it brings. For some, 5G has become an umbrella term for technological innovation. This is a good thing for the mobile industry, as it means enterprises will open doors to telcos and be keen to engage them for new solutions.
  4. Creating business value: 5G’s unique capabilities will enable use cases that solve real problems, particularly in industrial transformation. This last point is exemplified by research STL Partners previously conducted on the business value 5G brings to certain verticals by enhancing productivity, increasing output, creating efficiencies, etc. However, much of this value is extracted by the applications, solutions and services on top of the underlying network.

Figure 2: 5G enabled use cases could increase GDP by $1.5 trillion by 2030

Source: STL Partners

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • 5G: A catalyst for chang
  • Guiding principles for mobile operators seeking to move beyond connectivity
    1. Select priority verticals and how you will compete in the them
    2. Adopt a new approach to resource allocation: less CapEx and more OpEx
    3. Material OpEx should focus on building new skills, assets, capabilities, relationships
    4. Establish senior management commitment and independence for the new venture
    5. Focus on commercial as well as technological differentiation in order to disrupt verticals
    6. De-emphasise network integration – at least to start with
    7. Recognise that M&A will be needed for market entry in most cases
    8. Realise that organic growth can work in exceptional operator or market circumstances
  • Conclusion

 

ngena SD-WAN: scaling innovation through partnership

Introducing ngena

This report focusses on ngena, a multi-operator alliance founded in 2016, which offers multi-national networking services aimed at enterprise customers. ngena is interesting to STL Partners for several reasons:

First, it represents a real, commercialised example of operators working together, across borders and boundaries, to a common goal – a key part of our Coordination Age vision.

Second, ngena’s SDN product is an example of a new service which was designed around a strong, customer-centric proposition, with a strong emphasis on partnership and shared vision – an alternative articulation, if you like, of Elisa’s cultural strategy.

Third, it was born out of Deutsche Telekom, the world’s sixth-largest telecoms group by revenue, which operates in more than fifty countries. This makes it a great case study of an established operator innovating new enterprise services.

And lastly, it is a unique example of a telco and technology company (in this case Cisco) coming together in a mutually beneficial creative partnership, rather than settling into traditional buyer-supplier roles.

Over the coming pages, we will explore ngena’s proposition to customers, how it has achieved what it has to date, and to what extent it has made a measurable impact on the companies that make up the alliance. The report explains STL Partners’ independent view, informed by conversations with Marcus Hacke, Founder and Managing Director, as well as others across the industry.

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Shifting enterprise needs

Enterprises throughout the world are rapidly digitising their operations, and in large part, that involves the move to a ‘multicloud’ environment, where applications and data are hosted in a complex ecosystem of private data centres, campus sites, public clouds, and so on.

Digital enterprises need to ensure that data and applications are accessible from any location, at any time, from any device, and any network, reliably and without headaches. A large enterprise such as a retail bank might have physical branches located all over the place – and the same data needs to be accessible from any branch.

Traditionally, this sort of connectivity was achieved over the wide area network (WAN), with enterprises investing in private networks (often virtual private networks) to ensure that data remained secure and reliably accessible. Traditional WAN architectures work well – but they are not known for flexibility of the sort required to support a multicloud set-up. The network topology is often static, requiring manual intervention to deploy and change, and in our fast-changing world, this becomes a bottleneck. Enterprises are still faced with several challenges:

Key enterprise networking challenges

Source: STL Partners, SD-WAN mini series

The rise of SD-WAN: 2014 to present

This is where, somewhere around 2014, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) came on the scene. SD-WAN improves on traditional WAN by applying the principles of software-defined networking (SDN). Networking hardware is managed with a software-based controller that can be hosted in the cloud, which opens up a realm of possibilities for automation, smart traffic routing, optimisation, and so on – which makes managing a multicloud set-up a whole lot easier.

As a result, enterprises have adopted SD-WAN at a phenomenal pace, and over the past five years telecoms operators and other service providers worldwide have rushed to add it to their managed services portfolio, to the extent that it has become a mainstream enterprise service:

Live deployments of SD-WAN platforms by telcos, 2014-20 (global)

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker
Includes only production deployments; excludes proof of concepts and pilots
Includes four planned/pending deployments expected to complete in 2020

The explosion of deployments between 2016 and 2019 had many contributing factors. It was around this time that vendor offerings in the space became mature enough for the long tail of service providers to adopt more-or-less off-the shelf. But also, the technology had begun to be seen as a “no-brainer” upgrade on existing enterprise connectivity solutions, and therefore was in heavy demand. Many telcos used it as a natural upsell to their broader suite of enterprise connectivity solutions.

The challenge of building a connectivity platform

While SD-WAN has gained significant traction, it is not a straightforward addition to an operator’s enterprise service portfolio – nor is it a golden ticket in and of itself.

First, it is no longer enough to offer SD-WAN alone. The trend – based on demand – is for it to be offered alongside a portfolio of other SDN-based cloud connectivity services, over an automated platform that enables customers to pick and choose predefined services, and quickly deploy and adapt networks without the effort and time needed for bespoke customer deployments. The need this addresses is obvious, but the barrier to entry in building such a platform is a big challenge for many operators – particularly mid-size and smaller telcos.

Second, there is the economic challenge of scaling a platform while remaining profitable. Platform-based services require continuous updating and innovation, and it is questionable whether many telecoms operators are up to have the financial strength to do so – a situation you find for nearly all IT cloud platforms.

Last – and by no means least – is the challenge of scaling across geographies. In a single-country scenario, where most operators (at least in developed markets) will already have the fixed network infrastructure in place to cover all of a potential customer’s branch locations, SD-WAN works well. It is difficult, from a service provider’s perspective, to manage network domains and services across the whole enterprise (#6 above) if that enterprise has locations outside of the geographic bounds of the service provider’s own network infrastructure. There are ways around this – including routing traffic over the public Internet, and other operators’ networks, but from a customer point-of-view, this is less than ideal, as it adds complexity and limits flexibility in the solution they are paying for.

There is a need, then, for a connectivity platform “with a passport”: that can cross borders between operators, networks and markets without issue. ngena, or the Next Generation Enterprise Network Alliance, aims to address this need.

Table of Contents

  • Executive summary
    • What is ngena?
    • Why does ngena matter?
    • Has ngena been successful?
    • What does ngena teach us about successful telco innovation?
    • What does this mean for other telcos?
    • What next?
  • Introduction
  • Context: Enterprise needs and SD-WAN
    • Shifting enterprise needs
    • The rise of SD-WAN: 2014 to present
    • The challenge of building a connectivity platform
  • ngena: Enterprise connectivity with a passport
    • A man with a vision
    • The ngena proposition
  • How successful has ngena been?
    • Growth in alliance membership
    • Growth in ngena itself
    • Making money for the partners
  • What does ngena teach us about successful innovation culture in telecoms?
    • Context: the need to disrupt and adapt in telecoms
    • Lessons from ngena
  • What does this mean for other telcos?
      • Consider how you support innovation
      • Consider how you partner for mutual benefit
      • What next?

Telco ecosystems: How to make them work

The ecosystem business framework

The success of large businesses such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google as well as digital disrupters like Airbnb and Uber is attributed to their adoption of platform-enabled ecosystem business frameworks. Microsoft, Amazon and Google know how to make ecosystems work. It is their ecosystem approach that helped them to scale quickly, innovate and unlock value in opportunity areas where businesses that are vertically integrated, or have a linear value chain, would have struggled. Internet-enabled digital opportunity areas tend to be unsuited to the traditional business frameworks. These depend on having the time and the ability to anticipate needs, plan and execute accordingly.

As businesses in the telecommunications sector and beyond try to emulate the success of these companies and their ecosystem approach, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the term “ecosystem” and how it can provide a framework for organising business.

The word “ecosystem” is borrowed from biology. It refers to a community of organisms – of any number of species – living within a defined physical environment.

A biological ecosystem

The components of a biological ecosystem

Source: STL Partners

A business ecosystem can therefore be thought of as a community of stakeholders (of different types) that exist within a defined business environment. The environment of a business ecosystem can be small or large.  This is also true in biology, where both a tree and a rainforest can equally be considered ecosystem environments.

The number of organisms within a biological community is dynamic. They coexist with others and are interdependent within the community and the environment. Environmental resources (i.e. energy and matter) flow through the system efficiently. This is how the ecosystem works.

Companies that adopt an ecosystem business framework identify a community of stakeholders to help them address an opportunity area, or drive business in that space. They then create a business environment (e.g. platforms, rules) to organise economic activity among those communities.  The environment integrates community activities in a complementary way. This model is consistent with STL Partners’ vision for a Coordination Age, where desired outcomes are delivered to customers by multiple parties acting together.

Characteristics of business ecosystems that work

In the case of Google, it adopted an ecosystem approach to tackle the search opportunity. Its search engine platform provides the environment for an external stakeholder community of businesses to reach consumers as they navigate the internet, based on what consumers are looking for.

  • Google does not directly participate in the business-consumer transaction, but its platform reduces friction for participants (providing a good customer experience) and captures information on the exchange.

While Google leverages a technical platform, this is not a requirement for an ecosystem framework. Nespresso built an ecosystem around its patented coffee pod. It needed to establish a user-base for the pods, so it developed a business environment that included licensing arrangements for coffee machine manufacturers.  In addition, it provided support for high-end homeware retailers to supply these machines to end-users. It also created the online Nespresso Club for coffee aficionados to maintain demand for its product (a previous vertically integrated strategy to address this premium coffee-drinking niche had failed).

Ecosystem relevance for telcos

Telcos are exploring new opportunities for revenue. In many of these opportunities, the needs of the customer are evolving or changeable, budgets are tight, and time-to-market is critical. Planning and executing traditional business frameworks can be difficult under these circumstances, so ecosystem business frameworks are understandably of interest.

Traditional business frameworks require companies to match their internal strengths and capabilities to those required to address an opportunity. An ecosystem framework requires companies to consider where those strengths and capabilities are (i.e. external stakeholder communities). An ecosystem orchestrator then creates an environment in which the stakeholders contribute their respective value to meet that end. Additional end-user value may also be derived by supporting stakeholder communities whose products and services use, or are used with, the end-product or service of the ecosystem (e.g. the availability of third party App Store apps add value for end customers and drives demand for high end Apple iPhones). It requires “outside-in” strategic thinking that goes beyond the bounds of the company – or even the industry (i.e. who has the assets and capabilities, who/what will support demand from end-users).

Many companies have rushed to implement ecosystem business frameworks, but have not attained the success of Microsoft, Amazon or Google, or in the telco arena, M-Pesa. Telcos require an understanding of the rationale behind ecosystem business frameworks, what makes them work and how this has played out in other telco ecosystem implementations. As a result, they should be better able to determine whether to leverage this approach more widely.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • The ecosystem business framework
  • Why ecosystem business frameworks?
    • Benefits of ecosystem business frameworks
  • Identifying ecosystem business frameworks
  • Telco experience with ecosystem frameworks
    • AT&T Community
    • Deutsche Telekom Qivicon
    • Telecom Infra Project (TIP)
    • GSMA Mobile Connect
    • Android
    • Lessons from telco experience
  • Criteria for successful ecosystem businesses
    • “Destination” status
    • Strong assets and capabilities to share
    • Dynamic strategy
    • Deep end-user knowledge
    • Participant stakeholder experience excellence
    • Continuous innovation
    • Conclusions
  • Next steps
    • Index

COVID-19: Impact on telco priorities

The goal of this research is to understand how telecoms operators’ investment priorities and investments are likely to change in response to COVID-19.  To do this, we collected more than 200 survey responses from participants in telecoms operators, telecoms vendors, and analysts and consultants and other groups. All responses are treated in strict personal and company confidence. Take the survey here.

This research builds on our initial research on the impact of the pandemic to the telecoms industry, COVID-19: Now, next and after, published in March 2020.

Background to the telco COVID-19 survey

The respondents were fairly evenly split between telcos, vendors, and ‘others’ (mainly analysts and consultants). This sample contained a higher proportion of European and American respondents than industry average, so is not fully globally representative. We have drawn out regional comparisons where possible.

Who took the survey?

COVID-19 survey respondents by company and region

Source: STL COVID-19 survey, 202 respondents, May 8th 2020

Meanwhile, 44% of respondents were C-Level/VP/SVP/Director level. Functionally, most respondents work in senior HQ and operational management areas.

What are their roles?

COVID-19 survey respondents by seniority

Source: STL COVID-19 survey, 202 respondents, May 8th 2020

How respondents perceive the risks from COVID-19

Respondents were positive on the prospects for most areas overall. We have taken a slightly more pessimistic view in our analysis of the survey results and the categorisation below to balance this bias and factor in future economic risk.

While not all activities we have categorised as “at risk” will necessarily be delayed, we believe that in some telcos there may be more pressure in these areas if the financial impact of COVID-19 is harsher than expected at the time of the survey. We expect that when Q2 results come out, many operators will have a clearer view of how the crisis will affect them financially – and those that are ahead of the curve in adopting technologies such as automation will be in a good position to accelerate their impact, those that are behind the curve may face a more difficult uphill battle.

A relative view of how respondents perceived the outlook for telcos in different business areas and verticals

COVID-19 survey perceived risks to business

Source: STL Partners analysis of COVID-19 survey, 202 respondents, May 8th 2020

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Notes on the research findings

  • The way research respondents perceive any given question is generally dependent on their current situation and knowledge. To get relevant answers, we asked all respondents if they were interested or involved in specific areas of interest (e.g. ‘consumer services’), and to not answer questions they couldn’t (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) or simply didn’t know or have a clear opinion.
  • We saw no evidence that respondents were ‘gaming’ the results to be favourable to their interests.
  • Results need to be seen in the context that telcos themselves vary widely in size, profitability and market outlook. For example, for some, 5G seems like a valid investment, whereas for others the conditions are currently much less promising. COVID-19 has clearly had some impact on these dynamics, and our analysis attempts to reflect this impact on the overall balance of opinions as well as some of the specific situations to bring greater nuance.
  • As of mid May 2020, the total economic impact of COVID-19 was probably less clear to the majority of the respondents than the operational and lifestyle changes it has brought. It is therefore likely that as telco results for Q2 start to be circulated, and before then internally to the telcos, differing pressures will arise than that existed at the time of this survey. The resulting intentions may therefore become more or less extreme than shown in this research, though the relative positions of different activities in the various maps of risk and opportunity may change less than the absolute levels shown here.
  • We’ve interpreted the results as best we can given our knowledge of the respondents and what they told us, and added in our own insights where relevant.
  • Inevitably, this is a subjective exercise, albeit based on 200+ industry respondents’ views.
  • Nonetheless, we hope that it brings you additional insights to the many that you already possess through your own experiences and access to data.
  • Finally, things continue to change fast. We will continue to track them.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary: What’s most likely to change?
  • Research background
  • Technology impacts: Implementing automation, cloud and edge
  • Network impacts: Making sense of divergent 5G viewpoints
  • Enterprise sector impacts: Healthcare and consumerisation
  • Consumer sector impacts: What will last?
  • Leadership impacts: Building on new foundations
  • What next?

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Elisa: Telco leadership excellence – and how to do it

Elisa stands out among telcos

As digital services are reshaping our world, many different players are creating new and disruptive services, while telcos’ traditional revenue streams are plateauing and, in some cases, in decline. While many telcos have embarked on the journey to diversify their offerings and establish themselves as serious players in the digital services space, many are struggling to make business model adjustments that are critical to success as operators move into adjacent growth segments. Few telcos have figured out how to keep the wheels turning on their core business, while also building new businesses and embedding agile working practices across their organisation.

In our evaluation of new digital services propositions from Finnish telco, Elisa, STL Partners discovered a contender that punches significantly above its weight. (See our earlier case studies on Elisa Automate and Smart Factory.) Elisa’s successes in pioneering new services, maintaining customer relevance and delivering impressive financial results are not an overnight sensation but the product of long-term, systematic transformation and hard-won lessons.

We were curious to find out what combination of attributes make Elisa an exemplar of how to win in the digital revolution, and how other telcos can take a leaf out of the Elisa playbook to create a similarly agile, adaptable environment for innovation within their own organisations.

Through a series of in-depth interviews with key members of Elisa’s senior management, we set out to explore the company’s recent history of evolution and the culture, practices and processes that are positioning Elisa to co-operate as well as compete with digitally-minded telcos worldwide.

For this research we interviewed six members of Elisa’s executive management:

  • Veli-Matti Mattila, CEO
  • Henri Korpi, Executive Vice President, International Digital Services, including Elisa Automate and Elisa Smart Factory
  • Vesa-Pekka Nikula, at the time of the interviews Executive Vice President, Production – the Production team is responsible for networks, IT and software underpinning all of Elisa’s operations in Finland, Estonia and new international digital services. Currently Executive Vice President, Consumer Customers.
  • Merja Ranta-aho, Executive Vice President, HR – Elisa’s HR team plays a key role in developing processes and practices that encourage continuous learning across the organisation.
  • Liisa Puurunen, Vice President, International Digital Services, International Entertainment – this team is tasked with ideation and development of new business propositions built out from Elisa’s core capabilities in the area of entertainment.
  • Tapio Turunen, at the time of the interview, Director, Business Development – this team is responsible for strategy development across Elisa. Currently Vice President, Business Development, Corporate Customers.

The figure below shows a high-level view of Elisa’s operational structure, with additional notes on how those interviewed for this research fit into the organisation.

Elisa operational model and interviewee overview

Elisa operational structure and interviewees

Source: Elisa, with STL Partners notes

Comparing Elisa’s culture with other telcos

In parallel with our research into the Elisa’s critical success factors, STL Partners has been running a survey on culture, leadership and purpose in telecoms operators. The goal of the survey is to understand how important these factors are to telcos’ success, and what types of behaviours contribute to a working environment that motivates and enables people to learn new skills and innovate.

As of November 2019, we received 19 responses from Elisa out of a total of nearly 170 respondents overall, primarily from other European operators, as well as some from North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East. The results illustrated in the graphic below show a stark difference between how people in Elisa perceive their culture and leadership compared to their peers.

Elisa’s culture is perceived as significantly more effective than other telcos’

To what extent is Elisa's culture an enabler or barrier to success surveySource: STL Partners

The fact that people within Elisa feel as though the company culture is significantly more supportive to its success than in the average telco validates STL Partners’ view that it has a unique approach that others can learn from.

Elisa similarly stands out against its peers across other areas covered in the survey, such as how the organisation responds to mistakes, leadership and management styles and maturity of digital capabilities.

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Is it just a Finnish thing?

There are elements of Finnish culture and the regulatory environment that have benefitted Elisa:

  • Sisu, a Finnish word which can be translated as the spirit of determination and grit, which is considered by some to be at the heart of Finnish character.
  • Early deregulation of the telecoms industry meant that Finnish operators were further ahead than telcos in many other countries in adapting to commoditisation of telecoms services when global internet players disrupted the market
  • Unlike other European countries, the Finnish regulator never introduced a fourth mobile player, possibly because there was already strong price competition between Elisa, DNA and Telia. This has likely given the market more stability than others in Europe, as the telecoms industry has adapted to growing demand for data.

Although these circumstances have certainly helped Elisa, we believe that the position it is in today is the result of deliberate actions and processes implemented in response to its weak performance in the early 2000s, when falling revenues and curtailed dividends saw its share price plummet by 75% between January 2001 and December 2002.

Sixteen years later, Elisa has started to establish a healthy track record of pioneering digital services built on its core competences, scaling businesses in its domestic market, and expanding its international reach at pace through carefully selected acquisitions, and its share price has returned to previous highs.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Key success factors other telcos can emulate
    • Next steps
  • Elisa stands out among telcos
    • Comparing Elisa’s culture with other telcos
    • Is it just a Finnish thing?
  • How Elisa transitioned to a digital operating model
    • A long history of innovation
    • Developing the business case for innovation the Elisa way
    • The shift to a software-defined enterprise
    • A phased approach to turning an idea or opportunity into a business
  • Critical success factors
    • Leadership: Earning shareholders’ trust
    • Vision and strategy: Striving for excellence
    • Culture and practices: Embedding systematic learning
    • An unswerving customer focus
    • Talent strategy: Giving people the autonomy to experiment
    • Partnerships
  • The long-term outlook for Elisa

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Telco Cloud: Why it hasn’t delivered, and what must change for 5G

Related Webinar – 5G Telco Clouds: Where we are and where we are headed

This research report will be expanded upon on our upcoming webinar 5G Telco Clouds: Where we are and where we are headed. In this webinar we will argue that 5G will only pay if telcos find a way to make telco clouds work. We will look to address the following key questions:

  • Why have telcos struggled to realise the telco cloud promise?
  • What do telcos need to do to unlock the key benefits?
  • Why is now the time for telcos to try again?

Join us on April 8th 16:00 – 17:00 GMT by using this registration link.

Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered

A network running in the cloud

Back in the early 2010s, the idea that a telecoms operator could run its network in the cloud was earth-shattering. Telecoms networks were complicated and highly-bespoke, and therefore expensive to build, and operate. What if we could find a way to run networks on common, shared resources – like the cloud computing companies do with IT applications? This would be beneficial in a whole host of ways, mostly related to flexibility and efficiency. The industry was sold.

In 2012, ETSI started the ball rolling when it unveiled the Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) whitepaper, which borrowed the IT world’s concept of server-virtualisation and gave it a networking spin. Network functions would cease to be tied to dedicated pieces of equipment, and instead would run inside “virtual machines” (VMs) hosted on generic computing equipment. In essence, network functions would become software apps, known as virtual network functions (VNFs).

Because the software (the VNF) is not tied to hardware, operators would have much more flexibility over how their network is deployed. As long as we figure out a suitable way to control and configure the apps, we should be able to scale deployments up and down to meet requirements at a given time. And as long as we have enough high-volume servers, switches and storage devices connected together, it’s as simple as spinning up a new instance of the VNF – much simpler than before, when we needed to procure and deploy dedicated pieces of equipment with hefty price tags attached.

An additional benefit of moving to a software model is that operators have a far greater degree of control than before over where network functions physically reside. NFV infrastructure can directly replace old-school networking equipment in the operator’s central offices and points of presence, but the software can in theory run anywhere – in the operator’s private centralised data centre, in a datacentre managed by someone else, or even in a public hyperscale cloud. With a bit of re-engineering, it would be possible to distribute resources throughout a network, perhaps placing traffic-intensive user functions in a hub closer to the user, so that less traffic needs to go back and forth to the central control point. The key is that operators are free to choose, and shift workloads around, dependent on what they need to achieve.

The telco cloud promise

Somewhere along the way, we began talking about the telco cloud. This is a term that means many things to many people. At its most basic level, it refers specifically to the data centre resources supporting a carrier-grade telecoms network: hardware and software infrastructure, with NFV as the underlying technology. But over time, the term has started to also be associated with cloud business practices – that is to say, the innovation-focussed business model of successful cloud computing companies

Figure 2: Telco cloud defined: New technology and new ways of working

Telco cloud: Virtualised & programmable infrastructure together with cloud business practices

Source: STL Partners

In this model, telco infrastructure becomes a flexible technology platform which can be leveraged to enable new ways of working across an operator’s business. Operations become easier to automate. Product development and testing becomes more straightforward – and can happen more quickly than before. With less need for high capital spend on equipment, there is more potential for shorter, success-based funding cycles which promote innovation.

Much has been written about the vast potential of such a telco cloud, by analysts and marketers alike. Indeed, STL Partners has been partial to the same. For this reason, we will avoid a thorough investigation here. Instead, we will use a simplified framework which covers the four major buckets of value which telco cloud is supposed to help us unlock:

Figure 3: The telco cloud promise: Major buckets of value to be unlocked

Four buckets of value from telco cloud: Openness; Flexibility, visibility & control; Performance at scale; Agile service introduction

Source: STL Partners

These four buckets cover the most commonly-cited expectations of telcos moving to the cloud. Swallowed within them all, to some extent, is a fifth expectation: cost savings, which have been promised as a side-effect. These expectations have their origin in what the analyst and vendor community has promised – and so, in theory, they should be realistic and achievable.

The less-exciting reality

At STL Partners, we track the progress of telco cloud primarily through our NFV Deployment Tracker, a comprehensive database of live deployments of telco cloud technologies (NFV, SDN and beyond) in telecoms networks across the planet. The emphasis is on live rather than those running in testbeds or as proofs of concept, since we believe this is a fairer reflection of how mature the industry really is in this regard.

What we find is that, after a slow start, telcos have really taken to telco cloud since 2017, where we have seen a surge in deployments:

Figure 4: Total live deployments of telco cloud technology, 2015-2019
Includes NFVi, VNF, SDN deployments running in live production networks, globally

Telco cloud deployments have risen substantially over the past few years

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

All of the major operator groups around the world are now running telco clouds, as well as a significant long tail of smaller players. As we have explained previously, the primary driving force in that surge has been the move to virtualise mobile core networks in response to data traffic growth, and in preparation for roll-out of 5G networks. To date, most of it is based on NFV: taking existing physical core network functions (components of the Evolved Packet Core or the IP Multimedia Subsystem, in most cases) and running them in virtual machines. No operator has completely decommissioned legacy network infrastructure, but in many cases these deployments are already very ambitious, supporting 50% or more of a mobile operator’s total network traffic.

Yet, despite a surge in deployments, operators we work with are increasingly frustrated in the results. The technology works, but we are a long way from unlocking the value promised in Figure 2. Solutions to date are far from open and vendor-neutral. The ability to monitor, optimise and modify systems is far from ubiquitous. Performance is acceptable, but nothing to write home about, and not yet proven at mass scale. Examples of truly innovative services built on telco cloud platforms are few and far between.

We are continually asked: will telco cloud really deliver? And what needs to change for that to happen?

The problem: flawed approaches to deployment

Learning from those on the front line

The STL Partners hypothesis is that telco cloud, in and of itself, is not the problem. From a theoretical standpoint, there is no reason that virtualised and programmable network and IT infrastructure cannot be a platform for delivering the telco cloud promise. Instead, we believe that the reason it has not yet delivered is linked to how the technology has been deployed, both in terms of the technical architecture, and how the telco has organised itself to operate it.

To test this hypothesis, we conducted primary research with fifteen telecoms operators at different stages in their telco cloud journey. We asked them about their deployments to date, how they have been delivered, the challenges encountered, how successful they have been, and how they see things unfolding in the future.

Our sample includes individuals leading telco cloud deployment at a range of mobile, fixed and converged network operators of all shapes and sizes, and in all regions of the world. Titles vary widely, but include Chief Technology Officers, Heads of Technology Exploration and Chief Network Architects. Our criteria were that individuals needed to be knee-deep in their organisation’s NFV deployments, not just from a strategic standpoint, but also close to the operational complexities of making it happen.

What we found is that most telco cloud deployments to date fall into two categories, driven by the operator’s starting point in making the decision to proceed:

Figure 5: Two starting points for deploying telco cloud

Function-first "we need to virtualise XYZ" vs platform-first "we want to build a cloud platform"

Source: STL Partners

The operators we spoke to were split between these two camps. What we found is that the starting points greatly affect how the technology is deployed. In the coming pages, we will explain both in more detail.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered
    • A network running in the cloud
    • The telco cloud promise
    • The less-exciting reality
  • The problem: flawed approaches to deployment
    • Learning from those on the front line
    • A function-first approach to telco cloud
    • A platform-first approach to telco cloud
  • The solution: change, collaboration and integration
    • Multi-vendor telco cloud is preferred
    • The internal transformation problem
    • The need to foster collaboration and integration
    • Standards versus blueprints
    • Insufficient management and orchestration solutions
    • Vendor partnerships and pre-integration
  • Conclusions: A better telco cloud is possible, and 5G makes it an urgent priority

SoftBank: An overstretched telco or a unique innovator?

SoftBank’s history: How it got to where it is

The story of SoftBank’s history – first as a software distribution company, followed by its contribution to the dotcom bubble, and then a gradually expanding telecoms footprint throughout the 2000s – is important because it gives context to its current investment strategy, dubbed the Vision Fund. SoftBank has never been a traditional telco and its outside perspective helped it to shake up the Japanese telecoms market. The Vision Fund’s ambition stretches far beyond telecoms, with an aim to transform all industries through the adoption and advancement of artificial intelligence (AI). Will this unique approach enable SoftBank to weather the softwarisation of telecoms, which will likely be accelerated by the newest Japanese entrant Rakuten, better than others?

Figure 1: SoftBank’s evolution

SoftBank's evolution 1981 - 2019

Source: SoftBank Group annual report 2019

The early days: Software distribution

Founded by Masayoshi Son in 1981, SoftBank began not as a telecoms operator but as a software distributor. Son had recognized an important niche in the Japanese market: while computer hardware manufacturers were having issues sourcing quality software to run on their machines, software makers lacked the cash to properly advertise their products. As a distributor, Son acted as a matchmaker between computer software and hardware companies. Though exclusivity agreements with Japan’s major hardware vendors, SoftBank’s monthly sales reached US$2.4 million by the end of its first year of operation.

Not satisfied with a sole focus on software distribution, just six months after starting the software business, Son branched out into the computer magazine publishing segment, eventually producing over 20 periodicals. Son used his magazines to advertise the software products SoftBank was distributing. Right from the start, he aimed to create value through exploiting synergies across different business units.

In 1990, SoftBank also branched out into trade shows, acquiring Ziff Communication’s trade show division for $200 million and then, in 1995, the COMDEX trade show from the Interface group for an eyebrow-raising $800 million, taking on $500 million in debt. Later that year, SoftBank cemented its status as a leader in computer-magazine publishing, investing $2.1 billion in Ziff-Davis Publishing, making SoftBank the largest PC magazine distributor in the world. To finance this, SoftBank Group added $1 billion in debt and issued $649 million in new shares (SoftBank having gone public on the Tokyo Stock exchange in 1995, at a $3 billion valuation). It is clear from the beginning that SoftBank was not averse to accruing sizeable debt liabilities to finance strategic acquisitions.

SoftBank’s Internet pivot

SoftBank’s defining play in the 1990s was a pivot towards Internet services. Believing that the Internet would be the next technological revolution – eclipsing the invention of the personal computer – SoftBank made a dizzying number of investments in Internet companies. Many of these investments were made indirectly through a network of SoftBank venture capital funds, mainly overseen by SoftBank Investment Corp, which managed $5.25 billion worth of funds by 2000; SoftBank itself contributed over $2 billion. The investments included big name sites in e-commerce and e-finance, notably GeoCities, Yahoo!, ZD Net, e-buy-com, E-loan and E* TRADE Group.

The dotcom bust

SoftBank was heavily invested in – and therefore heavily exposed to – Internet stocks. Moreover, with a reputation as the largest investor in the world, owning as much as 25% of cyberspace by value at its peak, SoftBank became regarded by the market as fundamentally an Internet company. At the height of the dotcom bubble in February 2000, SoftBank’s market cap soared to $180 billion, far exceeding the equity value of the stakes in its subsidiaries and affiliates.

The dotcom bubble began to burst by early March 2000. Between SoftBank’s peak market cap in late February 2000, and its low point two years later, SoftBank lost over 95% of its market value. Masayoshi Son lost $70 billion of personal wealth during the crash. Many of SoftBank’s Internet investments had to be written-off entirely, including dotcom big names such as Webvan, Kozmo.com and Global Crossing – the latter filing one of the largest bankruptcies in corporate history.

However, across the graveyard of dotcom duds, SoftBank made several investments which delivered extraordinarily high returns. One resulted from a $20 million pledge Son made to Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, in January 2000. According to Ma, Son made the investment without first inspecting Alibaba’s business model or revenue stream, but rather based on Son’s impression of Ma. The Alibaba investment would turn out to be one of the most successful in history. Moreover, SoftBank’s investment in Yahoo! was still fruitful relative to Son’s initial pledge, despite falling foul of the dotcom bust. This is testimony to the efficacy of Son’s ability to adapt US companies to meet the needs of the Japanese market, delivering growth long past the NASDAQ stock crash. It is also one of the key reasons why SoftBank was able to attract nearly $100bn of investment for its Vision Fund in 2017.

Does SoftBank’s approach work for telecoms?

SoftBank Group is deeply tied to its charismatic CEO Masayoshi Son’s grand visions about how new technologies such as the Internet, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) will transform the world. Son’s ambition to play a key role in driving the development of these technologies has led SoftBank to achieve some remarkable successes – notably an early investment in Alibaba and building a successful Japanese telecoms business – and survive some major setbacks, such as the dotcom crash and, more recently, the WeWork scandal.

The key question for telecoms operators is whether SoftBank’s telecoms assets gain any competitive advantage from being a part of SoftBank Group. Since SoftBank took ownership of Vodafone KK in Japan in 2006 and Sprint in 2013, both telecoms operators have become more profitable. While SoftBank’s stake in Yahoo Japan and willingness to take risks have contributed to success, neither operator is really exceptional in the way they manage their core business.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • SoftBank’s history: How it got to where it is
    • The early days: SoftBank the software distributor
    • SoftBank’s move into telecoms
  • Masayoshi Son’s 300-year plan: Sprint, Arm and the Vision Fund
    • Sprint: SoftBank’s move into US telecoms
    • Arm: Hardware and IoT are the foundations of AI
    • The Vision Fund
  • Can SoftBank pull off its grand plans?
    • Internal risks: Cracks beneath the surface
    • External risks: Rakuten goes after SoftBank’s core
  • Conclusions

Digital twins: A catalyst of disruption in the Coordination Age

Digital twins and the Coordination Age

Digital twins are an enabler of the Coordination Age, in which a global need to improve the efficiency of resource use, combined with supply-side technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G and AI, is driving a revolutionary change in the way that economies work.

In this change, the fundamental mechanism needed is coordination – the organisation of multiple parties and assets to deliver a desired end-goal. Examples of this need can be found in all sectors of the economy and all areas of life, such as healthcare, manufacturing, the smart home, smart transport, etc.

To make this happen in practice a number of practical challenges need to be addressed:

  • Physical and digital assets need to be able to work together more easily
  • Authorised users need better real-time remote insight on and control of distributed assets
  • Certain things and processes need to be able to act with greater autonomy (albeit within clear rules)
  • More realistic and reliable models/simulations are needed to test and evaluate different solutions and scenarios

Digital twins are a means towards all these ends, providing a mechanism whereby processes and things can become interoperable and intelligent on demand to authorised users.

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What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a digital representation of an existing physical or digital entity:

  • Examples of digital twins of physical entities include twins of simple sensors (such as a temperature sensor), machine components (such as a fan in a motor), a sub-system within a motor (such as a cooling system), the entire motor, or the whole vehicle containing the motor
  • Examples of digital twins of digital entities include digital twins of data, a digital process (such as an order process or an automation protocol), or an entire digital business value network (such as a centralised data warehouse).

Digital twinning is a method of designing information systems that enables:

  • First visualisation, then dynamic control and emulation/simulation of assets. This can be ‘offline’ from the actual asset in the sense of a model to predict behaviours in different scenarios, or in real-time as a means to control and monitor operations.
  • A more efficient way to manage large volumes of data, where instead of collecting ‘data lakes’ storing every data point, data is organised into more manageable datasets capturing only meaningful events. This can reduce the need for data storage by up to 90%, which can be highly significant. An aircraft’s jet engine can generate Terabytes of data in a few hours of operation, for example.

Customers often arrive at the need for digital twins with one or other of these needs in mind, and over time end up utilising both.

Archetypal customers are:

  • Organisations that want to share data and create value from numerous sensors and devices, such as weather stations, and connect consumer devices (e.g. washing machines, doorbells, cookers) to consumer / household app dashboards.
  • Organisations that want to make better use of complex assets by using the data they generate to help them operate more efficiently. Examples of such assets include large buildings, trains, jet engines, manufacturing processes, etc. The first step in this process is to organise the data so that it can be used.

The process may ultimately evolve to the point where the organisation possesses a highly sophisticated twin of the entire asset made with information from many component twins from multiple sensors and sources. The overall twin may comprise both historical data of past behaviour, and live real-time data from the thing.

Figure 1: Example of a composite digital twinComposite Digital Twin Example

Source: STL Partners

STL Partners sees digital twins as a key building block of the Internet for Things, and thereby part of the DNA of the Coordination Age in the way that websites and URLs are part of the DNA for the Information Age.

As well as these wider implications, they have potential applications within telcos, and for their customers and partners.

Digital twins: A catalyst of disruption in the Coordination Age explores why telecoms operators need to understand digital twins and their application. The report then sets out how operators and vendors can best take advantage of digital twins.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Digital twins and the Coordination Age
    • What is a digital twin?
  • What do digital twins do?
    • How is a digital twin different from a simulation?
    • Why else are digital twins exciting?
    • So where is the money?
    • What are the challenges?
    • The evolving impact of digital twins
  • Digital twins for telcos
    • Potential internal applications
    • Speaking customers’ language
    • Telcos as providers of digital twins
  • Dating services for digital twins
    • Civil engineering: Making all the pieces work together in real life

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Telco innovation: Why it’s broken and how to fix it

Telcos have tried innovating in many verticals

Incumbent telecommunications providers have seen their margins fall as basic telecommunications services, both fixed and mobile, have been increasingly commoditised. The need to provide differentiated services to counteract this trend is widely recognised in the industry, yet despite considerable investment and many attempts, too often new services launched by operators have failed to deliver the anticipated results. Yet some, especially in mobile banking and related services, have proved successful. Why is this so?

This report focuses on product and service innovation for customers, rather than on innovation in sales, marketing, finance, operations or networks. It addresses the introduction of new and innovative services and not the repackaging of existing communications services, for example in new pricing and service bundles (see Figure 2).

It looks at examples from a range of services, covering most of the new types of services introduced by MNOs over the past decade. These include:

  • Messaging: RCS and its competitors
  • Mobile financial and insurance services: Orange Money / Orange Bank, Millicom/Tigo’s joint ventures
  • Health: O2 Telehealth, Telenor’s Tonic health service
  • Smart home: AT&T’s Digital Life, Deutsche Telekom’s Qivicon
  • Lifestyle: Turkcell’s range of apps and Vodacom’s Mezzanine

We have covered many of these individually in previous reports, looking at how they were developed and have evolved over time, and whether and why they are (or we expect them to be) successful.

This report seeks to identify the common factors that led to success or failure, in order to establish some best practices for telcos in innovation. While we recognise that there are often several causes of success and failure, in some cases a single failure can undo much good work.

Previous reports this one builds on include:

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Product development or true diversification: How ambitious should telcos be?

Historically, telcos have aimed to find new customers for existing telecoms services, where the their market is not yet saturated, or expanding geographically to achieve scale. However, most telecoms markets are now nearly saturated – at least in the areas that telcos can profitably reach – so true service innovation, corresponding to the right hand side on the figure below, is now a crucial component for long term revenue growth.

The seven telco innovations discussed in this report are shown on the figure below. It is worth noting the progression Orange has made in building on its experience with its mobile money service to providing full banking services. This is highlighted in the diagram by the arrow, and is discussed more fully in the body of this report.

Most telcos innovation falls in the product development category on the Ansoff matrix

Telco innovations plotted on the Ansoff matrix

Source: STL Partners. For more on market development opportunity, see STL Partners report Making big beautiful: Multinational telcos need the telco cloud

In theory, one of the most effective ways of maximising the chances of success, and achieving the scale required to make a significant impact on revenues and profitability, is for operators to select services that target a large part of their existing customer base.

However, our analysis of the telco innovations in this report shows that there is actually little correlation between the distance from telcos’ core customer base and level of success. This because by tying new products and services too closely to their existing customer bases, telcos are actually limiting their ability to scale. While this approach is intended to help them compete more effectively against their peers, by increasing loyalty for core telecoms services, in reality, any telco-driven product development innovation is likely to compete with network agnostic service providers. So while it may make sense to offer something only to existing customers at the start, to truly scale telcos need to reach a wider market.

Orange is a good example of this transition. While its mobile money services in Africa remain tied to its telecoms customer base, its move into full-fledge banking in France is separate from telecoms services. As it rolls out full banking services across its footprint, this separation is likely to become more entrenched.

Many of the examples discussed in the main body of the report, including AT&T’s Digital Life, Orange Money and O2’s Telehealth venture were set up as separate businesses, which allowed their initial development to progress well. But this was not enough on their own to make them successful.

How successful have telcos been?

Comparing telcos’ investments into service innovations shows that, too often, they have made bets on areas that seem like natural opportunities for new services, but failed to gain traction because they didn’t do a rigorous enough assessment of the conditions for success.

To succeed in innovation, telcos must evaluate proposed new services or products much more painstakingly across three areas:

  1. User needs and requirements: that the product or service meets a real user need. This breaks down into two points:
    • The product or servicemust be easy to use and fit into users’ lifestyles.
    • And at the right price point. Most consumer products need a free tier to encourage customers to try and engage before paying (if ever). In some cases, the end user might not be the payer, so if that is the case then telcos need to identify the payer and ensure the product is relevant and valuable for them, too.
  2. Market structure and characteristics: clear vision of where the ROI is coming from. There are two main options for ROI – increased customer loyalty and new revenue.
    • For loyalty, telcos need a clear means of measuring whether the product or service is improving retention.
    • If telcos are seeking to build new revenue, they need to be realistic about how long it will take to achieve profitability and the size of the opportunity. Too often, telcos give up because they deem a new venture not valuable enough compared with the core business..
  3. Business structure: deciding on whether to develop something in house, to set up a joint venture, or acquire, and what the relationship is with the core business. The further away a new product or service is from the core business, the more independence it needs to develop and grow.

In this report, we compare the approaches of seven telco innovations, drawing on in-depth analysis from previous STL Partners reports, summarised in the table below.

Strategy is more important that degree of difficult for successful innovation

Assessment of quality of strategy and execution for telco innovationsSource: STL Partners

Our analysis shows that the difficulty of the innovation, i.e. whether it is product development or diversification into a new vertical, is less important to success than doing the difficult strategy and planning work outlined above.

For instance, while RCS is very closely tied to telcos’ existing customers and services, the necessary cooperation between telcos to bring it to market in a way that is valuable to consumers and potential enterprise customers was unrealistic from the start. By constrast, Tonic’s health insurance proposition is very different from Telenor’s core telecoms services, but Tonic’s clear vision and strategy, and ability to adapt to customer needs, have underpinned its early success in Bangladesh.

Read the full report to see a detailed assessment of each innovation across the three categories.

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36 blockchain applications: What’s next?

Why is blockchain important?

Blockchain applications are valuable because they decentralise control. This offers a new way to reduce friction and speed up adoption of solutions that require collaboration between various players, but where no one wants to cede control to a single entity.

Collaborative ecosystems are only going to become more important in the Coordination Age, so mastery of blockchain technology can enable telcos to successfully address their customers’ changing needs.

But telcos are still figuring out what to use blockchain for

Based on an interview programme with telcos and technology partners, our research shows that one of the key barriers to adoption is finding valid use cases that are worth taking beyond the PoC stage.

Part of the challenge of knowing which applications are most worthwhile is that there are few large scale, real-world implementations of blockchain. This means that its key value proposition – that it can ease collaboration by removing the need for a centrally controlling authority, instead distributing power across all participants within an ecosystem – still needs to be proven.

Without many successful examples of blockchain-supported applications, it is difficult to know which ones are likely to succeed in telecoms. Telcos are therefore unsure of where to focus their time and investments.In practice, applications that leverage blockchain’s ability to broker trust through transparency and decentralisation are still at an early stage of development.

In the first report in this series, Moving beyond the lab: How to make blockchain pay we looked at eight of the most promising applications in telecoms in detail.

In this report, we look at a broader range of applications where blockchain is being tested to see if it can deliver better results than other technologies.

We explore 36 use cases across six categories, based on key blockchain capabilities:

  1. Tracking / registry: Recording information and data in an immutable and transparent way, whereby no party has asymmetric power over the data
  2. Data access / transfer: Enabling ease of transferring data between multiple parties
  3. Identity /authentication: Managing identities and permissions for authentication or verification
  4. Transactions: Enabling (real-time) payments and transactions
  5. Settlements: Revenue settlement by recording movement of goods/revenues or use of services/assets
  6. Token exchange: Virtual currency/tokens with intrinsic value traded between multiple parties

Key takeaways

  • Tracking / registry and data access / authentication are the two biggest categories in terms of use cases, reflecting the relative maturity of blockchain technology in addressing these pain points.
  • While enterprises are prepared to rely on the distributed ledger and shared consensus mechanisms of blockchain technology to support business processes, the regulatory and reputational risks of using cryptocurrency or tokens to exchange real-world value are still too high.
  • Therefore, there are fewer emerging use cases around transactions, token exchange, and to some degree settlements, and they will likely take longer to develop into viable commercial solutions.
  • Identity / authentication is one of the most technologically advanced application areas where blockchain is enabling enterprises to develop truly novel solutions for consumers, IoT, and to ease commercial partnerships. However, the business model is still untested at scale and/or not directly related to telcos’ core operations, so these applications can be difficult to justify as priority investment areas.

Overview of 36 telecoms blockchain applications

36 telecoms blockchain use cases

For each of these use cases, this report covers:

  • For each use case, the report covers:
  • The current problem or pain point
  • How blockchain can help solve the problem
  • Which of the following blockchain characteristics are most relevant to the use case
    • Security: Decentralisation makes tampering with records or DDOS attacks extremely difficult
    • Cost efficiency: Shared ledgers can disintermediate middlemen
    • Traceability: Immutable, transparent record
    • Business process speed: Automation through smart contracts
    • Token value: Holding real-world value in digital assets, such as loyalty points
    • Neutral and equal: Shared ownership through consensus mechanisms
    • Confidentiality: Blockchain can enable collaboration without having to publicise sensitive information (particularly in a consortium/private application)
  • Type of blockchain most suited to the use case (public, permissioned public, or permissioned private)
  • The business drivers for telcos, such as:
    • Increase existing revenues
    • Decrease costs
    • New revenues: market disruption
    • New revenues: new market
    • Compliance / regulation
    • Customer experience
  • Real world examples in development or production
  • Potential challenges or barriers to adoption

Telco AI: How to organise and partner for maximum success

Not a passing fad: AI is becoming a core capability for telcos

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a key enabler of the digital transformation journey for service providers in the telecoms industry, providing them with the insights and capabilities they need to be more agile and take a more software-centric approach to their role.

The document was researched and written independently by STL Partners, supported by Nokia. STL’s conclusions are entirely independent and build on ongoing research into the future of telecoms. STL Partners has been writing about telcos’ AI opportunities since 2016, looking first at how AI might improve the customer experience and then at the critical role AI might play in the future of network operations.

In this report, we provide a comprehensive overview of the state of AI in the telecoms industry. Supported by nearly a dozen in-depth interviews plus an online survey of more than 50 leading telcos around the world, we explore where the industry is looking to progress and how it is planning to do so — and identify the strategic and business opportunities that are being enabled by AI.

This report will be followed by a sequel that quantifies some of the business outcomes telcos can expect from specific AI application areas. In the coming months, we will also publish a report discussing how AI technology is evolving and presenting our vision of the telco AI roadmap.

What is artificial intelligence?

Before going any further, it is important to clarify what we mean by “artificial intelligence”. To us, AI is about using computing capabilities to perform tasks traditionally associated with humans (such as inference, planning, anticipation, prediction and learning) in human-like ways (e.g., autonomous, adaptive). Our definition incorporates machine learning (ML), which we define as a subset of AI that focuses on the ability of machines to receive datasets and adapt responses in pursuit of a goal.

These definitions attempt to encapsulate the distinction between AI and other forms of rules-based automation — although we acknowledge that in practice these lines are easily blurred.

Practically speaking, AI sits on a continuum of other related technologies and concepts, which we have covered at length in our previous reports. Figure 1 illustrates this continuum and depicts the stages we expect telcos will have to go through as they to move from manual to automated and then to AI-augmented processes.

Figure 1: Moving toward AI

The progression of AI maturity in four steps

Source: STL Partners

A long-term ambition for many telcos is to reach the orange zone in Figure 1: a state in which their systems and processes run and learn from themselves with human input limited to the setting of desired business goals. Beyond the targeted use of ML in certain applications, however, the industry and society as a whole are far from realising that ambition. It is still unclear what fully autonomous systems in a telco might look like in practice, let alone whether they will ever be achievable.

Today, most telcos are still figuring out how to play in the blue zone. They’re using targeted data analysis to inform largely human-led decision-making processes, or they’ve implemented some fixed-policy automation where machines follow a script written and inputted by a human. This is valuable work, but it is not the focus of this report. Instead, we focus on the middle section of Figure 1: on those fledging opportunities that move beyond rules-based automation and into the realm of ML-supported automation

Cutting through the hype

AI has generated considerable industry noise and media attention — so much so, in fact, that a recent survey of leading telcos awarded AI the title of “most overhyped emerging technology”. We believe this hype originates in a general lack of understanding of what AI is (and is not), as well as unrealistic expectations about what it can do for a business, how quickly it can be deployed, and how much ongoing work will be needed to manage it. While there is consensus that the technology has great potential, many telcos doubt it will deliver everything that has been promised up to now.

For those disillusioned by the hype, it is worth noting the impact of AI is much likelier to be evolutionary than revolutionary. The line between automation and AI is blurred; so, too, is the progression between the two. While AI has the potential to unlock new business opportunities, realising that potential will require patience and long-term investment.

And yet, the truth is that telcos are uniquely positioned to take full advantage of AI technology — largely because they’re already used to dealing with the huge volumes of data AI relies on. When telcos automate systems, networks and processes — particularly with the injection of AI — they benefit from feedback loops that further improve those automated processes. This drives simplicity in an industry rife with complexity.

The digital transformation we all talk about depends on driving out complexity and becoming more agile, and the only way to do that is by automating intelligently. Looking ahead to the launch of 5G, it will become impossible for telcos to manage billions of connected devices without AI assistance.

Telcos’ current AI focus: Improving speed and efficiency

Key learnings on telco AI initiatives

Through our research, we have identified five primary domains of activity for telcos looking to make use of AI. The first three broadly relate to business process improvement, with the end goal of reducing costs and improving efficiency.

  1. Optimising existing networks and operations. Telcos are using AI not only for network planning and optimisation, but also to improve their human resources, accounting and fraud-management functions. For example, Telefónica has built an ML model capable of monitoring the status of the network, predicting possible failures and an optimising maintenance routes.[1] This has been particularly important in its rollout and maintenance of networks across rural Latin America, where it can take an engineer up to a day to travel to the site of a network fault.
  2. Improving sales and marketing activity. This includes upselling, cross-selling and agent augmentation. Globe Telecom, for example, has created a data-management platform that collates network signal information alongside information from billing and payment systems to provide personalised offers to its mobile customers.[2]
  3. Improving the customer experience. This includes use cases such as fault resolution, churn management, chatbots and virtual assistants. Vodafone has developed the chatbot TOBi, for example, which can handle 70 percent of customer requests and employs ML technology to further improve the support it offers to customers.[3]

The remaining two domains focus on using AI to enable new ways of working that go beyond a telco’s core connectivity offering, with a focus on growing revenues.

  1. Driving (and monetising) customer data. AI can help telcos aggregate massive volumes of anonymised customer data that can then be sold to third parties. Singtel’s DataSpark has taken a step down this data-as-a-service route, providing access to GPS and mobile network data that other organisations can incorporate into their applications and services.[4]
  2. Enabling or supporting new services. This includes cybersecurity and predictive analytics. As an example, AT&T is using ML to quickly identify normal and abnormal activity in it networks.[5] This sort of solution could be sold as a managed service to other enterprises in the future, unlocking a new revenue stream.

Contents of the full report include:

  • Executive Summary
  • Not a passing fad: AI is becoming a core capability for telcos
  • What is artificial intelligence?
  • Cutting through the hype 8
  • Telcos’ current AI focus: Speed and efficiency
  • How are telcos using AI today?
  • Sharing is caring: How telco AI initiatives are organised
  • Centralised AI initiatives
  • Cross-functional R&D units
  • Individual AI initiatives
  • The stumbling blocks for AI implementation — and how to get around them
  • AI initiatives need to be powered by high-quality data
  • Data governance is an essential requirement
  • Exploring the link between data maturity and AI success
  • The tricky transition from the lab to in-field deployment
  • Accept failure and embrace innovation
  • Revamp partnership strategies
  • New challenges, new expectations
  • Finding the impact: How telcos assess the benefits of AI
  • Different types of telcos, different levels of AI maturity
  • Conclusion

Figures:

  1. Moving toward AI
  2. Telco AI initiatives by domain
  3. Centrally coordinated AI initiatives are more likely to scale
  4. Poor data and a lack of internal skills are key challenges
  5. Telcos struggle with data management at every step of the AI journey
  6. Issues with data governance do not preclude AI implementation
  7. Only 1 in 5 AI projects has advanced to live deployment
  8. Collaborative partnering is key to AI success
  9. Nearly half of telcos have not gone live with AI
  10. Fixed-line and wholesale operators lag behind


[1] Source: Telefónica

[2] Source: Cloudera

[3] Source: Vodafone

[4] Source: DataSpark

[5] Source: AT&T