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

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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

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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 is 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:

  • 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

The IoT is dead: Long live the I4T – the Internet for Things

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Introduction

The Internet for Things and the Coordination Age

In our recent research report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, STL Partners described how the global economy is moving into a new age: the Coordination Age.

This is driven by a global need to improve the efficiency of resource utilisation, arising from a combination of developments in both demand and supply. In terms of demand, there are pressing needs from all customers to make less do more. On the supply side, technologies like AI, automation, ‘digitisation’, NFV/SDN, and potentially 5G, provide a smarter and more flexible way to do things.

The consequence is that coordination is the job that needs to be done across many market areas. People, things and information need to be brought together at the right time and in the right place to deliver the desired outcome.

Examples include:

  • Smart home: devices, sensors, appliances and applications created by many different companies need to be coordinated into an easy-to-manage solution for consumers (see our latest report Can telcos create a compelling smart home?)
  • Healthcare: where clinicians, patients, treatments, resources and information need to be coordinated for successful healthcare outcomes (see Telcos in health – Part 1: Where is the opportunity? and Part 2: How to crack the healthcare opportunity)
  • Transport: coordination is needed to manage transport flows for both public and private transportation, to ensure the best use of available resources and where to direct investment most effectively
  • Logistics: to manage the distribution and delivery of stock and produced goods across highly complex, international supply chains
  • Industry: to ensure that manufacturing and supply-chain processes deliver, assemble and process goods and materials efficiently

The best description we’ve come up with for the common need across these areas is “to make our world run better”. It’s not a generic do-gooding mission, it’s about improving what people and companies get for their time, money, effort and attention.

It’s an over-arching principle (or meta-trend) that makes sense of, and gives direction to, the many technology led ideas like “Internet of Things”, “Industry 4.0”, and others.

But … so what?

It matters because to have a winning strategy first requires a superior (or at least appropriate) mental grasp of the environment, or frame of reference, for that strategy.

Put another way, if you don’t understand how the new game is being played, how can you possibly win?

Telcos frequently missed this trick in the previous 30-year transition into the Information Age.

Figure 1: The three ages of telecoms / ICT

Source: STL Partners

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Over the last 30 years, telcos have continued to think, talk and act like network builders. Consequently, telcos did well out of the broadband and mobile data revolution, but they largely missed out on the services that make use of the raw connectivity and turn it into something more useful.

There are numerous examples of changes the Information Age brought to communications, information discovery, and commerce. These new ways of doing things have ultimately been dominated by other players, like Google, Facebook, Apple, Alibaba and Amazon.

Sometimes, when telcos spotted those opportunities, they missed out because they applied old-style business model approaches in the new world. For example, they often tried to make payments and early information products walled gardens and/or failed to grasp the need to collaborate with others to create a proposition with sufficient scale in practice (e.g. see Apple Pay & Weve Fail: A Wake Up Call).

We discuss the reasons why telcos missed opportunities in more depth in our report How the coordination age changes the game.

Now that growth is reaching the end of its cycle in communications (see Figure 2) telcos have a simple choice: stay as a pure connectivity player in a flat or declining market or develop new service propositions in addition.

Figure 2: The well-worn path of slowing telecoms growth

Source: STL Partners

Whichever route they choose (connectivity only, or connectivity plus services), to succeed and grow going forward, telcos need to rethink their purpose and role in the economy.

How does an “Internet for Things” fit with this?

From about 1990 onwards, the internet was the catalyst for change and growth in the Information Age. By making a huge trove of new information – the World Wide Web – accessible and discoverable, and enabling the delivery of data at volume, it ultimately unlocked new business models, huge disruption, and digital transformation across the entire global economy.

To move into the next age – the Coordination Age – a similar concept and mechanism is needed to be able to discover and access connected things[1].

What’s wrong with the Internet of Things?

There’s a catch with what is currently called the ‘Internet of Things’: it isn’t an internet. It isn’t even a continuous network, and as such is severely limited in its capacity to grow, evolve in intelligence and capability, and deliver the benefits sought.

The Internet of Things (IoT) originated as concept around the turn of the century and has been widely discussed since the early 2010s. Over that time many thousands of ‘smart devices’ and machine to machine (M2M) applications have been developed, creating efficiencies and enhancing functionality in industries as diverse as agriculture, logistics, transportation and medicine. Such applications continue to increase and are often described as ‘the IoT’.

However, most current applications are in reality closed (and private) command and control solutions using standalone technology to limited ends – typically to enhance existing industrial, business or lifestyle functions – such as crop-watering applications that only turn on when the ground is dry, or lifestyle apps like Nest that allow remote control of household functions.

In fact, most of what is commonly referred to as ‘IoT’ is simply an effective use of ICT, contributing to a growing world of connected things – but not constituting ‘an internet’, which is a searchable network of networks that allows users to find and connect to any end-point for which they have appropriate access[2].

There’s a second problem. What’s really needed is not just an Internet of Things, but an “Internet for Things”. Interestingly, in one of the first mentions of the concept, that is precisely what it was called.

“We need an internet for things, a standardized way for computers to understand the real world,”

Kevin Ashton, Auto ID Center at MIT from 1999[3]

The reason STL Partners thinks an Internet for Things (I4T) is a more useful concept today, is that to make some of the most complex and dynamic applications of the Coordination Age work, “things”, including not just sensors but also IT systems, will need to be able to find and communicate with each other relatively autonomously.

The essential components of an Internet for Things

A true Internet for Things, would be much more open than most current IoT systems, and would:

  • Allow discovery of previously unknown sources (e.g. through a search engine), and interactions between communities of things within public or private domains.
  • Allow ‘things’ (including IT processes and software as well as devices) to discover each other within certain predefined rules or protocols, rather than either being given carte blanche to talk with any strange device, or being firmly controlled by a single, central authority.
  • Contain data that is published, searchable, and accessible to anyone – or anything – with the appropriate security access. It would bring data from machines, sensors and other intelligent things into the sharing economy and semi-public domain.

It could also open the door to much more radical initiatives that would combine data from multiple sources to deliver outcomes as yet unconceived of – perhaps triggering further revolutions in terms of efficiency, productivity and innovation.

So why isn’t there an Internet for Things that works more like the world-wide web, but in a machine-based context?

Many companies implicitly recognise the limitations of today’s IoT and are working on solutions to overcome them, some of which are covered in this report, while others will be examined in upcoming reports on Digital Twins and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). This report details further what an Internet for Things is, how it differs from what is described as the Internet of Things, its benefits, and some of the steps that have so far been taken towards it.

What is the Internet for Things (I4T)?

How is an Internet for Things different to an Internet of Things?

Before considering what it would take to create an Internet for Things, it is useful to understand what is currently meant by the expression the “Internet of Things” (IoT).

First, what is a “thing”?

The classic concept of an IoT “thing” is a sensor, or a connected device like a doorbell or machine in a factory. In STL Partners’ view this definition is too limited for the range of real world applications, and the “thing” being connected may be, for example:

  • a bit of data from a single sensor (e.g. the temperature measured by a given sensor, on an aircraft, at a specific time)
  • an aggregated result from a set of sensors (e.g. the average temperature near to a runway in an airport)
  • an industrial process (e.g. a status check on the maintenance needs on an aircraft’s tyres)
  • a consumer process (e.g. an app predicting the likely time of arrival of a flight).

Figure 3: Some examples of what a “thing” can be in the I4T

Examples of things in the I4T

All of these are effectively “things” and their operators may need or wish to share or access this data at any time.

The Internet of Things

Most simple definitions of the IoT describe the connection across the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday devices and machines, such as sensors and actuators, enabling them to send and receive data, be monitored, adjusted, switched on and off and so on.

This describes something that is more like conventional point-to-point or client/server communications than the Internet with which most people are familiar via the world-wide web. The Internet is a relatively open space, in which participants and resources can be identified in various searchable ways – through IP addresses, email addresses, URLs etc. – and located and engaged with.

The openness of the world-wide web makes the volume and nature of possible connections between IP-enabled entities almost infinite. The interactivity between connected things in the IoT, on the other hand, is generally much more limited. It might be better described currently as a world of partially connected things.

What is an “Internet for Things” (I4T)?

STL’s definition of an ‘Internet for Things’ is as follows:

The Internet for Things (I4T) is an open network of participatory, connected devices, objects, processes and entities. I4T entities can be located and interacted with according to their assigned security and privacy settings.

Advantages – what are the benefits of the “Internet for Things”?

An Internet for Things would not just be a collection of smart devices. It would be a digital enabling fabric for wholly new functionality, of potentially great benefit to individuals, enterprises and our environment.

    • An Internet for Things would allow data to be combined and enriched in previously inconceivable ways – mashing up intelligence from different and seemingly unconnected sources for informational, security and commercial purposes.
    • It would enable more meaningful machine to machine conversations. One device might offer enhanced functionality by deriving important contextual information from other communicable entities or devices in its environment.
    • To take a simple example, an in-building climate controller might offer more accurate control based on data taken from security devices, if it could combine data from sources within its network, such as security devices and thermostats, with external sources such as personal smartphones and smart watches, to determine which parts of the building should be heated/cooled, or local weather forecasts, in order to adjust settings in anticipation of changing temperatures.
    • It would trigger a leap in the volume and quality of intelligence available to individuals and agencies. All kinds of “things” – buildings, vehicles, infrastructure elements, people – become data points and data sources, some static, some mobile, all contributing to a vast, searchable pool of crowd-sourced information. This could be mashed and downloaded on demand to create new intelligence for users working in areas unrelated to the source data – e.g. climate data being a driver for predicting cinema attendance figures, in turn used to review film release dates, trigger ice-cream orders and so on.
    • The potential of the Internet for Things is emerging just as the world is facing massive challenges in terms of the use of its resources as we’ve outlined in The Coordination Age: A Third Age for telecoms. These resources and issues range from industrial productivity, climate change, water shortages, major weather events, the move to renewable sources of energy, air pollution and garbage disposal, to name only a few.

Contents of the I4T report:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Credits
  • The Internet for Things and the Coordination Age
  • How does an “Internet for Things” fit with this?
  • What’s wrong with the Internet of Things?
  • The essential components of an Internet for Things
  • What is the Internet for Things (I4T)?
  • How is an Internet for Things different to an Internet of Things?
  • Advantages – what can the “Internet for Things” offer?
  • What problems does the I4T solve?
  • Problem 1: The use case paradox
  • Problem 2: No one really wants to be coordinated by someone else
  • Problem 3: A classic case of warehouse interruptus
  • Two approaches to creating the I4T…so far
  • Interoperability forums
  • Dating services for digital twins
  • Civil engineering: Making all the pieces work together in real life
  • Conclusions: It’s a tough job – but somebody’s got to do it

Figures:

  1. The three ages of telecoms / ICT
  2. The well-worn path of slowing telecoms growth
  3. Some examples of what a “thing” can be
  4. Players in the logistics ecosystem example
  5. Three functions of digital twins
  6. A possible Internet for Things (I4T) ecosystem
  7. Iotic Labs “Lego”
  8. BAM Nuttall and Iotic’s learning camera application to monitor machines

 

[1]A suitable level of security and manageability is obviously required too. More on this later.

[2] Places on the Internet may be freely viewable to all comers or need permissions such as user IDs and passwords, for example.

[3] Kevin Ashton was a Procter & Gamble Executive who headed the MIT Center at the time:   https://www.forbes.com/global/2002/0318/092.html#7a164e0f3c3e. He is regarded as the author of the term “The Internet of Things”,  https://iot-analytics.com/internet-of-things-definition/

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How telcos can get ahead in advertising

Introduction

Why is AT&T doubling down on becoming a new media company, while Verizon Media is retrenching? With divergent strategies at play in the U.S. telecoms market, is there a path or multiple paths to success in the advertising market that other telcos can follow, or is it too soon to tell?

Telcos’ pursuit of the digital advertising market is not a new phenomenon. Early telco-led mobile marketing and advertising initiatives pre-date the mid-2007 launch of the iPhone. The journey began with pre-iPhone primitive text-messaging marketing, moved through display advertising to an increasingly sophisticated data-driven approach. What is new is the flurry of investments the leading U.S. telcos and some others, notably SingTel, have been making over the past few years to compete more holistically and effectively in the advertising/media space.

While their core communications/connectivity services businesses are maturing and being disrupted, U.S. telcos now face the prospect of investing heavily in building out next-generation 5G networks. They are placing bets on new, potentially lucrative and high-growth opportunities in the Internet-of-things (IoT), media/content and fixed wireless, among others. Among these opportunities, brokering digital advertising offers potentially the highest operating margins. AT&T’s Xandr advertising unit reported an operating margin of 68% for the fourth quarter of 2018, compared with 33% in its core communications business.

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Going on the offensive

Telecoms networks have long been the conduits for Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others, to deliver innovative and disruptive (and mostly free) services, which generate billions in advertising revenues. Many of these same players have also introduced services, such as messaging, voice calls and video-on-demand, which have siphoned off revenues from the telcos that provide the networks they are riding on.

It is against this backdrop that distinct and evolving telco advertising strategies are emerging. And, from a U.S. market perspective, what a difference a year makes. In 2017, it looked like Verizon and AT&T were both doubling down on their advertising/media business strategies, with the aim of growing their piece of the total advertising pie and in turn attempting to siphon off advertising revenues from Google and Facebook, among others. But 2018 proved a watershed year, and now Verizon is pulling back, while AT&T continues full steam ahead.

This report focuses on the U.S. market and specifically how the big two telcos – Verizon and AT&T – have fared in the digital advertising market and what lessons other telcos can take away from their divergent market strategies. The report builds on past STL Partners research including:

The advertising opportunity for telcos

The future of advertising is digital. While spending on traditional advertising may have peaked, investment in digital advertising continues to fuel growth in the overall market. In 2018, global digital advertising revenues reached US$273 billion, and represented 44% of total advertising spend, according to eMarketer. By 2020, the specialist research firm expects digital to represent half of total global advertising spend, and by 2021 to eclipse traditional media spend – reaching US$427 billion globally in 2022. Note, eMarketer’s definition of digital advertising excludes SMS, MMS and P2P messaging-based advertising.

The global advertising opportunity – the future is digital

advertising is moving to digital

Source: eMarketer, May 2018

Within digital advertising, the mobile medium is taking over from the desktop as smartphones ship with larger screens and faster connectivity. Advertising agency Zenith, part of the Publicis Media Group, forecasts mobile advertising will account for 30.5% of global advertising expenditure in 2020, up from 19.2% in 2017. It reckons expenditure on mobile advertising will total US$187 billion by 2020, more than twice the US$88 billion spent on desktop advertising, and not far behind the US$192 billion spent on television advertising. At the current rate of growth, mobile advertising will comfortably overtake television in 2021, Zenith believes.

Mobile and cinematic advertising are growing faster than other segments

mobile and cinematic advertising growing fast

Source: Zenith

Singtel – a pioneering advertising play

Globally, one of the most advanced telcos in the advertising sector is Singtel, which has made a series of acquisitions to build out its adtech proposition, following its first deal in 2012, which saw it acquire Amobee, an early player in mobile advertising.

By some measures, Singtel is the largest telecoms group in south east Asia. The company and its affiliates serve 700 million mobile customers in 27 countries, including its wholly-owned subsidiary in Australia (Optus) and minority stakes in India, South Asia and Africa (Bharti Airtel, 40% effective stake); Indonesia (Telkomsel, 35% effective stake); Philippines (Globe Telecom, 47% ordinary shares); and mi Thailand (Advanced Info Service, 23% ordinary shares). With that extensive reach, which extends beyond mobile and includes Internet and video/TV customers, Singtel sees advertising as a high-growth opportunity and a way to leverage its customer data assets.

Singtel’s adtech play sits in its Group Digital Life (“GDL”) unit, which focuses on using the latest Internet technologies and assets of the operating companies to develop new revenue and growth engines by entering adjacent businesses where it has a competitive advantage. GDL focuses on three key businesses – digital marketing, regional premium OTT video and advanced analytics and intelligence capabilities, while acting as Singtel’s digital innovation engine through Innov8.

Singtel has spent about a billion dollars on adtech capabilities

Singtel spends a billion dollars on advertising companies

*Purchase price not available. Source: Company reports

In the fourth quarter of 2018, GDL contributed 8% (up from 7% in the previous quarter) to the Singtel group’s operating revenue. GDL’s operating revenue for the quarter grew 17%, lifted by a full quarter’s contribution from Videology and growth in Amobee’s programmatic platform business, partially offset by lower media revenues. At an EBITDA level, GDL lost S$16 million after inclusion of Videology’s losses.

Singtel said that Amobee’s programmatic platform business continues to gain traction, while the integration of Videology will further strengthen Amobee’s capabilities in TV and video advertising. Although its advertising business isn’t yet making a major financial contribution, Singtel’s continued investments in this market suggest the Singapore-based operator remains committed and convinced that there are synergies between the telecoms and advertising sectors.

The rest of this report looks at U.S. telcos’ advertising strategies in depth, drawing conclusions and recommendations for other telcos globally.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • The advertising opportunity for telcos
  • Singtel – a pioneering advertising play
  • U.S. mobile market shift in full swing
  • Telcos’ strategic fits and starts
  • Google and Facebook strong, but Amazon makes gains
  • Amazon pulls commerce levers in advertising
  • Privacy, identity and security challenges and mandates
  • GDPR: A harbinger of things to come to the U.S.
  • U.S. telcos’ advertising assets
  • AT&T goes all-in on advanced advertising
  • More inventory, stronger monetisation
  • Balancing advertising and subscriptions
  • Takeaways
  • Verizon cuts its losses
  • The obstacles in the way of Oath
  • Takeaways
  • Conclusions and recommendations
  • Recommendations
  • Recommendations for major telcos

Figures:

  1. Recommendations for how AT&T can get ahead in advertising
  2. Why Verizon didn’t get ahead in advertising
  3. The global advertising opportunity – the future is digital
  4. Mobile and cinematic advertising are growing faster than other segments
  5. Singtel has spent about a billion dollars on adtech capabilities
  6. US online advertising spend – shift to mobile has already happened
  7. Examples of telcos’ investments/divestments in adtech and content
  8. Amazon gains, but still significant opportunities for telcos
  9. AT&T, Verizon and Comcast’s content and advertising assets
  10. AT&T’s advertising revenues are rising rapidly
  11. Xandr is growing rapidly, but its high margins are sliding downwards
  12. AT&T reaps rewards from Xandr, WarnerMedia, but pay TV is still a drag
  13. Verizon Media (previously Oath) fails to hit revenue growth targets
  14. As Verizon’s ad business struggles, it doubles down on 5G
  15. SWOT analysis and recommendations for big telcos in advertising

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MWC19: What really happened and what to do about it

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Mobile World Congress 2019

According to the GSMA, 100,000 people gathered in Barcelona last week for the 2019 Mobile World Congress. It is a remarkable testament to the growth and size of the industry that the show has kept growing. I’d like to add our sincere thanks to the GSMA for partnering with STL Partners again for the event.

It was a vibrant and busy show, but what was behind all the noise and action?

While at the Congress last week, I wrote a brief pastiche of the visceral impact of the show’s 5G frenzy in MWC2019: Beyond beyond on Linked-In. On a more serious note, we’ve previously researched 5G intensively in over ten reports, including:

The point of the pastiche and these references is that 5G is both a significant development, but also at the peak of its hype-cycle. It’s being touted as the next great hope for growth for the telecoms industry, but its impact will be more piecemeal for reasons we explained in 5G: ‘Just another G’ – yet a catalyst of change. To drive more rational decision-making, 5G and telco strategy overall need to be understood within a broader context.

The question that last week’s article didn’t answer was “what were the deep and important signals that lay behind the 5G hype at MWC?”. That is what this report covers, along with recommendations for actions by telcos, vendors and indeed the GSMA.

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The Coordination Age: A fundamental change in the world economy

We’ve outlined in our previous reports The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms and How the Coordination Age changes the game that there is a massive change underway in the way economies work.

The ongoing transition to the Coordination Age presents an opportunity for telcos to redefine their roles and create new sources of value. It may also present a possible (albeit partial) swing of advantage back towards the nationally and locally organised telcos from the centralised, global scale technology players.

The Coordination Age is a result of the combination of the changing needs and demands of the world’s people, businesses, and governments, evolving technological solutions and possibilities, and  the need to preserve the most habitable possible future environment for the world’s population.

The underlying systemic world need is to improve the efficiency of the use of its many resources, which include food, materials, fuel, land, and water. It is also necessary and important to make the use of human resources (people, time, health, money, employment, etc,) productive and rewarding.

Its principle difference from the Information Age is the need to enable the better co-ordination of ‘real-world’ resources (e.g. people, time and other assets) and digital resources (i.e. information, computing power, etc.).

Overall, there are both changes in:

  • Demand, as individuals and organisations seek to improve their resource effectiveness
  • Supply, as a confluence of technological advances including AI, automation, IoT, NFV, 5G, edge, cloud, digital twins and the broad concept of ‘digitisation’ fundamentally change the operation and business models of industry production processes.

Figure 1: Global demand and supply trends are driving the Coordination Age

supply and demand are driving need for efficiency MWC theme

Source: STL Partners

Dr Che’s triangle of needs

We had many conversations at MWC19 about the Coordination Age. One fellow traveller that we met was Dr Haiping Che, the eminent SVP and Chief Digital Transformation Officer at Huawei.

Dr Che summarised one aspect of future success for the industry in with a rather neat triangle in his notebook, which I reproduce in the following chart.

Figure 2: Dr Che’s triangle – successful strategies will serve three goals

Huawei MWC19 customer, economy, environment

Source: Dr Haiping Che, SVP Chief Digital Transformation Officer, Huawei

Dr Che also made the insightful comment that a further major change will be that collaboration needs to increase in production networks to deliver increased coordination. While collaboration is increasingly common in the sharing economy on the demand side, it is not yet as strong a feature in production.

Accelerated evolution: Technologies versus problems solved

A further trend we’ve identified is that there is a general progression in the way that the increased combination of physical and digital assets produces benefits in the supply-side of the economy.

It broadly follows the steps laid out in Figure 3, taken from work in progress on a soon to be published STL Partners report on “Why we need an Internet for Things (I4T)”.

Figure 3: How production is changing in the Coordination Age

better data visualisation, models interact with the real world internally and then externally mwc19

Source: STL Partners

The rest of this report summarises where telcos and vendors are on all this, and what should they do next.

Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Mobile World Congress 2019
  • The Coordination Age: A fundamental change in the world economy
  • Dr Che’s triangle of needs
  • Accelerated evolution: Technologies versus problems solved
  • What’s happening now?
  • Signs of change at MWC 2019
  • Where are the telcos?
  • Vendors: Going any which way to enterprise
  • What should operators do?
  • Change the mindset
  • Make 5G pay
  • Get smarter in enterprise
  • How the GSMA should evolve MWC2020
  • Next steps for STL Partners

Figures

  1. Global demand and supply trends are driving the Coordination Age
  2. Dr Che’s triangle – successful future strategies will serve three goals
  3. How production is changing in the Coordination Age
  4. Every picture tells a story – growing transport industry presence at MWC 2019
  5. Elisa Automate at MWC 2019
  6. Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges at MWC 2019
  7. Increasing telecoms capital investment is yielding lower and lower returns
  8. Three new telecoms industry business models

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Why CFOs must start to drive telecoms business model change

The telecoms operator’s conundrum – how to break the service innovation status quo

Telco CFOs need to upweight telecoms R&D investments to drive differentiating service innovations. If they don’t, telcos will recede further into the category of low yield, low growth commodities.

The relationship between a company’s financial and commercial model is complex:

  • The financial model determines the commercial model of a company – what commercial goals it is able to pursue and how it is able to pursue them
  • But the commercial model also feeds directly back into the financial model of the business and determines how resources are allocated

The interrelatedness of commercial and financial models means that change is sometimes difficult – a ‘chicken and egg’ situation occurs in which each model relies on change in the other before it can change.

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This ‘chicken and egg’ situation is apparent within the telecoms industry:

  • Business owners within operators want their organisation to become more agile, more flexible, more innovative which implies having resources that can be (re)deployed quickly, but they find it hard to secure budget owing to the huge and slow capital investment programmes involved in upgrading networks
  • Finance departments at the same organisations want to deploy resources efficiently to maximise returns and capital investment in the existing business model (infrastructure that drives connectivity revenue) has a much stronger ROI than speculative operating expenditure in platforms and services that have (so far) proved unsuccessful

The result is status quo: the same financial model drives the same commercial model at a time when returns for core services are reducing every year.

 

We start by mapping out the relationship between financial and commercial models…

In this framework, we use R&D operating expenditure (vertical axis) as a proxy for service innovation. We recognise that this is not perfect as service innovation requires much more than R&D. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that service innovation is unlikely to be sustained without material R&D expenditure.

Capital investment (horizontal axis) is a proxy for infrastructure build – developing assets which will generate returns over a long period of time such as buildings, manufacturing plants, telecoms networks.

Telcos are classic ‘Moat builders’, making money from capital investment in infrastructure and putting little into telecoms R&D investments.

The Internet giants and tech players typically start out as ‘service differentiators’, keeping capital investment light and instead focusing on flexible operating expenditure to drive service innovation. Increasingly however, they are investing capital in cloud computing infrastructure, to construct moats to protect their services – giving them cheaper distribution and better customer experience than smaller competitors.

A framework for understanding capex versus R&D spending

Source: STL Partners

…which reveals that telcos are moat builders and are radically out-invested in service innovation by tech players

Historically, for telecoms operators service innovation resulted from network capital investment because voice and messaging services were integrated into there were no alternative sources for communications – a customer had to use the service provider by the telecoms operator:

  • Telcos effectively outsourced innovation to Network Equipment Players (NEPs)
  • There was no need to invest significantly in R&D

Now, services are independent of the network (thanks to the internet) – telco customers can use communication (and other) services provided by dozens of third-parties and value has shifted to companies (such as the internet giants and tech companies) that invest in service innovation.

Telcos still invest only in infrastructure but value is increasingly in network-independent services so they are missing out on value-creation and are instead competing on price on the only commodity service that third-parties cannot substitute: connectivity.

R&D and Capex % of Revenue, 2017

Source: Company accounts, STL Partners analysis

Proof point: Internet players are vastly more valuable than telecoms operators

Revenue and Market Capitalisation 2017. Telco v Internet

Source: Company accounts, stock market data, STL Partners analysis

Seven internet giants’ market capitalisation is bigger than 165 telecoms operators combined because:

Service innovation + moats  Revenue + profit growth  Future value creation

In other words, telcos’ current business model (financial and commercial models) are not deemed to be strong value creators.

The result is that capital markets demand that operators hand profits back to investors in the form of high-dividend yields so that they can invest in higher-growth companies.

In the rest of this report, we outline why CFOs need to drive business model change that will enable telcos to compete more effectively as ‘Service differentiators’, and four steps they should take to start this process – fundamentally increasing telecoms R&D investments.

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Creating a healthy culture

Introduction

Creating a healthy culture is a key component of success in any organisation. It is particularly important – and challenging – where a company is building a new business operating in a new industry that combines people steeped in an existing cultures. This was the case for TELUS Health in Canada, so we spoke to its then CEO to understand the approach it took.

Three components of ‘Culture’

Whenever we ask our clients what the biggest problem they face is, there’s an excellent chance they will say ‘changing the culture’.

Yet it’s a bit of a coverall statement: what exactly do they mean?

It’s often a bit of a mish-mash of processes, organisation, behaviours and incentives: ‘the way we do things around here’.

Some of this is formalised, through organisation, line-management, how projects are managed and so on. Other aspects are softer – how companies expect people to behave when they are at work: how much autonomy do they have, can they work from home, etc.

To put some structure to this catch-all idea, it can be useful to think about three fundamental components of culture:

  • Shared purpose: what are we all trying to achieve?
  • Common values: what do we believe we need to be like to get there?
  • Processes and behaviours: how do we do things round here?

Looking at these definitions makes it clear why change needs to be led from the top, and why culture change is so challenging.

It needs to be led from the top because you cannot have a credible common purpose that conflicts with what the leadership says it wants, what it values, or how the organisation acts.

Even if you have clear direction from the top, it’s still hard to change because:

  • Most of your organisation will start from a position of ‘this is how we previously learned to be – and now you’re asking us to be different from that?’
  • Culture essentially means a set of behaviours or characteristics that have been socialised, and thereby enmeshed in a complex human web of habits and expectations.

According to Paul Lepage, President of TELUS Health, “culture eats why for breakfast”, paraphrasing the quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast” in a fascinating conversation we had recently.

What Paul meant was that one of the key drivers to creating a great culture is to ensure that your team is truly engaged with your organisation’s meaning or purpose, or ‘why are we doing this?’ beyond making money.

In the case of TELUS Health, this is ‘delivering better healthcare outcomes’, and in Paul’s case at least, this idea comes over very strongly in every interaction I have had with him.

Author’s note: I was talking to Paul because I am fascinated by the role that culture plays in business success. I have known some of the team at TELUS Health for several years, and I am always struck by the quality and consistency of their culture across all the people I have met at TELUS. Andrew Collinson, Partner and Research Director, STL Partners.

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TELUS and TELUS Health: consistent internal and external KPIs

There is a notable consistency between TELUS’ results on internal measures of employee engagement, customer opinion, and commercial performance.

  • Employee engagement: TELUS’ overall employee engagement score consistently ranks within the top quartile and has risen steadily in recent years.  TELUS was also named as one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers and Achiever’s 50 Most Engaged Workplaces in 2017.
  • Customer recommendation: TELUS’ customers have given it improving ‘Likelihood to recommend’ scores since 2011.
  • Market valuation: TELUS’ share price has also grown steadily from 2011.

Figure: TELUS’ share price has also steadily grown

TELUS Annual share price chart
TELUS Annual share price, as at end August 2011-2018

Source: Google Finance, STL Partners

Is this a coincidence, or is there a link between these results? And if it is not a coincidence, how has it achieved this, and what can others learn?

TELUS and TELUS Health

Background

STL Partners has worked closely with TELUS and TELUS Health over the last few years, analysing the healthcare division’s progress in TELUS Health: Innovation leader case study. We’ve participated in its Healthcare Summits in Toronto and come to know several of its executives over the years. The following is a brief introduction to TELUS Health from our 2017 report.

Why TELUS got into healthcare: a viable growth opportunity

Starting in 2005, led by the CEO Darren Entwistle, TELUS executives came to a consensus that just focusing on connectivity would not be enough to sustain long term revenue growth for telecoms companies in Canada, so the telco began a search into adjacent areas where it felt there were strong synergies with its core assets and capabilities. TELUS initially considered options in many sectors with similar business environments to telecoms – i.e. high fixed costs, capex intensive, highly regulated – including financial services, healthcare and energy (mining, oil).

In contrast with other telcos in Canada and globally, TELUS made a conscious decision not to focus on entertainment, anticipating that regulatory moves to democratise access to content would gradually erode the differentiating value of exclusive rights.

By 2007, health had emerged as TELUS’ preferred option for a ‘content play’, supported by four key factors which remain crucial to TELUS’ ongoing commitment to the healthcare sector, nearly a decade later. These are:

  1. Strong correlation with TELUS’ socially responsible brand. TELUS has always prioritised social responsibility as a core company value, consistently being recognised by Canadian, North American and global organisations for its commitment to sustainability and philanthropy. For example, in 2010, the Association for Fundraising Professionals’ named it the most outstanding philanthropic corporation in the world. Thus, investing into the healthcare, with the aim of improving efficiency and health outcomes through digitisation of the sector, closely aligns with TELUS’ core values.
  2. Healthcare’s low digital base. Healthcare was and remains one of the least digitised sectors both in Canada and globally. This is due to a number of factors, including the complexity and fragmented nature of healthcare systems, the difficulty of identifying the right payer model for digital solutions, and cultural resistance among healthcare workers who are already stretched for time and resources.
  3. Personal commitment from Darren Entwistle, TELUS’ CEO since he joined the company in 2000. Based on personal experiences with the flaws in the Canadian healthcare system, Darren Entwistle forged his conviction that there was a business case for TELUS to drive adoption of digital health records and other ehealth solutions that could help minimise such errors, which was crucial in winning and maintaining shareholders’ support for investment into health IT.
  4. Healthcare is a growing sector. An ageing population means that the burden on Canada’s healthcare system has and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. As people live longer, the demands on the healthcare system are also shifting from acute care to chronic care. For example, data from the OECD and the Canadian Institute for Health Information show that the rate of chronic disease among patients over 65 years old is double that of those aged 45-64. Meanwhile, funding is not increasing at the same rate as demand, convincing TELUS of the need for the type of digital disruption that has occurred in many other sectors.

That all four of TELUS’ reasons for investing in healthcare remain equally relevant in 2017/18 as in 2007 is key to its unwavering commitment to the sector. Darren Entwistle refers to healthcare as a ‘generational investment’, saying that over the long term, TELUS may shift into a healthcare company that offers telecoms services, rather than the other way around.

TELUS Health: On leadership and culture

To get insight for this report, I spoke at length with Paul Lepage, President-TELUS Health and Payment Solutions at TELUS, on the recommendation of his colleagues, who’d told me that ‘culture’ was of deep importance to Paul. He has been instrumental in setting up TELUS Health, and holds joint responsibility for TELUS Health on the international markets with Dave Sharma, President, TELUS Partner Solutions and Senior Vice-president, Business Solutions Sales. Paul runs the operation on the ground in Canada, while Dave spearheads partnerships and international activity.

I also requested additional support material from TELUS Health, which is included in the Appendix of this report.

This report would not have been possible without their kind collaboration and openness. Nonetheless, its contents represent the opinion of STL Partners, and were not sponsored or commissioned by TELUS.

Contents

  • Executive Summary: For telcos and others wanting to change culture
  • Introduction
  • Three components of ‘Culture’
  • Culture eats ‘why’ for breakfast
  • TELUS and TELUS Health: consistent internal and external KPIs
  • Background
  • Why TELUS got into healthcare: a viable growth opportunity
  • TELUS Health: On leadership and culture
  • Culture = Purpose and process
  • Culture creates a yardstick for performance
  • The importance of a compelling ‘why?’
  • Fair Process
  • Diversity and talent
  • Measuring culture and results
  • Communicating, listening and reflecting is at least 50% of the job
  • Recruitment, partnerships and culture
  • The ‘why?’ must be genuine
  • Conclusions: TELUS Health – A consistent and compelling culture
  • Appendix: Prepared by TELUS Health External Communications

Figures

  • TELUS’ share price has increased steadily
  • Why is ‘why?’ important?
  • TELUS’ ‘Fair process’

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Telco edge computing: Turning vision into practice

The emerging opportunity for edge compute

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

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

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

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

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

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Key questions arising for telcos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Telco 2.0: Choose your future – while you still can

Introduction

Time to update Telco 2.0

Telcos are facing difficult choices about whether and how to invest in new technologies, how to cut costs, and how to create new services, either to pair with their core network services or to broaden their customer bases beyond connectivity users.

Through the Telco 2.0 vision (our shorthand for ‘what a future telco should look like’), STL Partners has long argued that telcos need to make fundamental changes to their business models in response to the commoditisation of connectivity and the ‘softwarisation’ of all industries, including telecoms. At the very least this means digitalising operations to become more data-centric and efficient in the way they deliver connectivity. But to generate significant new revenue growth, we still believe telcos need to look beyond connectivity and develop (or acquire) new product and service offerings.

The original Telco 2.0 two-sided business model

original telco 2.0

Source: STL Partners

Since 2011, a handful of telcos have made significant investments into areas beyond connectivity that fall into these categories. For example:

  • NTT Docomo has continued to expand its ‘dmarket’ consumer loyalty scheme, media and sports content and payment services, which accounted for nearly 20% of total revenues for FY2017.
  • Singtel acquired digital advertising provider Amobee in 2012, followed by several more acquisitions in the same area to build an end-to-end digital marketing platform. Its digital services accounted for more than 10% of quarterly revenues by December 2017, and was the fourth largest revenue segment, ahead of voice revenues.
  • TELUS first acquired a health IT company in 2008, and has since expanded its reach and range of services to become Canada’s largest provider of health IT solutions, such as a nation-wide e-prescription system. Based on a case study we did on TELUS, we estimate its health solutions accounted for at least 7% of total revenues by 2017.

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However, these telcos are the exception rather than the rule. Over the last decade, most telcos have failed to build a significant revenue stream beyond their core services.

While many telcos remain cautious or even sceptical about their ability to generate significant revenue from non-connectivity based products and services, “digitalising” operations has become a widespread approach to sustain margins as revenue growth has slowed.

In Figure 3 we illustrate these as the two ‘digital dimensions’ along which telcos can drive change, where most telcos are prioritising an infrastructure play, but few are putting significant resources into product innovation, and only a small number with the ability to do both.

  • Digitalising telecoms operations: Reduction of capex and opex by reducing complexity and automating processes, and improving customer experience
  • Developing new services: This falls into two categories on the right-hand side of Figure 3
    • Product innovation: New services that are independent from the network, in which case digitalising telecoms operations is only moderately important
    • Platform (& product): New services that are strongly integrated with the network and therefore require the network to be opened up and digitalised

Few telcos are putting real resources into product & platform innovation

2 digital dimensions

Source: STL Partners

Four developments driving our Telco 2.0 update

  • AI and automation technology is ready to deploy at scale. AI is no longer an over-hyped ideal – machine and deep learning techniques are proven to deliver faster and more accurate decision-making for repetitive and data-intensive tasks, regardless of the type of data (numerical, audio, images, etc.). This has the potential to transform all areas of operators’ businesses.
  • We live and work in a world of ecosystems. Few services are completely self-sufficient and independent from everything else, but rather enable, complement and/or augment other services. Telcos must accept that they are not immune to this trend, just because connectivity is one of the key enablers of content, cloud and IoT ecosystems (see Figure 4).
  • Software-defined networks and 5G are coming. This is happening at a different pace in different markets, but over the next five to ten years these technologies will drastically change the ‘thing’ that telcos operate: the ‘network’ will become another cloud service, with many operational functions instantiated in near real-time in hardware at the network edge, so never even reaching a centralised cloud. So telcos need to become more proficient in software and computing, and they should think of themselves as cloud service providers that operate in partnership with many other players to deliver end-users a complete service.
  • As other industries go through their own digital transformations, the connectivity and IT needs of enterprises have become much more complex and industry specific. This means the one-size-fits-all approach does not apply for operators or for their enterprise customers in any sector.

Telcos and connectivity are not a central pillar, but an enabler in a much richer ecosystem

telco myth vs reality

Source: STL Partners

We are updating the Telco 2.0 Vision in light of these realities. Previously, we proposed six opportunity areas for new revenue growth, and expected large, proactive telcos to be able to address many of them. But telcos have been slow to change, margins are tighter now, implementing NFV/SDN is hard, and software skills are necessary for succeeding in any vertical. So telcos can no longer hope to do it all and must make choices of where to put their bets. As NTT Docomo, Singtel and TELUS show, it also takes time to succeed, so telcos need to choose and commit to a strategy now for long term success.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Time to update Telco 2.0
  • Four developments driving our Telco 2.0 update
  • Analysing the current market state
  • Options for the future
  • If connectivity won’t drive growth, do telcos’ network strategies matter?
  • Imagining the future telecoms stack
  • Conclusions

Figures:

  • Figure 1: The telco stack
  • Figure 2: The original Telco 2.0 two-sided business model
  • Figure 3: Few telcos are putting real resources into product & platform innovation
  • Figure 4: Telcos and connectivity are not a central pillar, but an enabler in a much richer ecosystem
  • Figure 5: The network cloud platform within the telco stack
  • Figure 6: Steps to becoming a cloud platform
  • Figure 7: Horizontal specialisation within the telco stack
  • Figure 8: Vertical specialisation within the telco stack
  • Figure 9: Enterprise verticals
  • Figure 10: Consumer services and applications
  • Figure 11: Network technology company versus lean network operator
  • Figure 12: Example of a fixed telco stack
  • Figure 13: Example of a telco IoT stack
  • Figure 14: Example of a lean network operator stack

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Making big beautiful: Multinational operators need the telco cloud

Telcos’ (economies of) scale in perspective

As a result of their wide regional or global footprints, multi-country operators typically generate tens of billions of USD in revenues. By this measure, telcos’ scale (as defined by their revenues) is indeed comparable with the likes of Google and Facebook (see Figure 2). However, we can consider scale through a different lens as well: defined by the number of users, it becomes evident that telcos are dwarfed relative to the large internet companies. When considering the number of users, the telecoms industry is more fragmented than the internet sector – resulting in the unfavourable comparison, since no one telco can achieve a similar customer-base.

The fragmented nature of the global telecommunications industry means that telcos tend to struggle to create so-called demand-side economies of scale. These economies of scale rely on network effects stemming from the value generated by having a large number of users. In such a case, there is both inherent value in the use of the service and value derived from other people’s use of the service.

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The big success of the internet giants can, in part, be attributed to significant network effects. Telcos, on the other hand, are in a tougher position. Partly this is due to the nature of the services they traditionally provide. Unlike the internet giants who can reach anyone around the world with an internet connection, telcos are have largely been limited to serving users in the countries in which they operate networks.
Despite this, large operators should – in theory – be well-equipped to create so-called supply-side economies of scale due to the sheer size of their business. With telecoms being a high fixed-costs business, the cost of providing telco services per customer falls as the number of customers increases.

Figure 2: Some telcos are big – but they are unable to create the same network effects as the internet giants

So, have these large multinational telcos managed to create scale effects? Unfortunately, we find rather sobering evidence to the contrary. Figure 3 shows that multi-country operators tend to underperform the industry average. Large European multi-country operators – such as Orange, Telefonica, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom – all underperform the telco global average operating margin of 17%. On the other hand, large single-market operators, namely AT&T and Verizon, achieve margins above the global average.

Figure 3: European giants struggle to create economies of scale

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Multinational telcos have struggled to create economies of scale
  • A Telco Cloud strategy can deliver scale economies for multinational operators
  • Introduction – Economies of scale in telecoms
  • International expansion has delivered a global footprint for some telcos
  • Telcos’ (economies of) scale in perspective
  • Multinational telcos need to revisit their approach to creating economies of scale
  • The dilemma of multinational telcos – can Telco Cloud help overcome it?
  • Telco Cloud: a brave new world?
  • The cost problem: multinational telcos need to create synergies across markets
  • The revenue problem: multinationals need to calibrate the right innovation model across markets
  • The traditional Opco-driven innovation has inherent problems
  • Centralisation of innovation isn’t the answer either
  • What is the right model for telcos?
  • Conclusions

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AccorHotels: From hotelier to digital marketplace

Introduction

Why are we doing non-telco case studies?

Digital transformation is a phenomenon that is affecting every sector. Many industries have been through a transformation process far more severe than we have seen in telecoms, while others began the process much earlier in time. We believe that there are valuable lessons telcos can learn from these sectors, so we have decided to find and examine the most interesting/useful case studies.

In this report, we look at French hotel chain AccorHotels, which has undertaken an ambition transformation from hotel owner and operator into a digital platform for independent hotels. While our previous case study, publisher Axel Springer, has completed its transformation, AccorHotels has achieved significant changes but remains some years away from reaching its longer-term ambitions. However, because hotel groups and telcos share many similarities, such as being in the service industry, owning physical infrastructure and having highly distributed assets, we can draw many useful lessons from AccorHotels’ experience.

Like in previous transformation case studies, the key takeaways from our analysis of AccorHotels’ strategy will be the lessons for telcos to help them make their own transformation process run more smoothly.

General outline of STL Partners’ case study transformation index

We intend to complete more case studies in the future from other industry verticals, with the goal of creating a ‘case study transformation index’, illustrating how selected companies have overcome the challenge of digital disruption. In these case studies we are examining five key areas of transformation, identifying which have been the most challenging, which have generated the most innovative solutions, and which can be considered successes or failures. These five areas are:

  • Market
  • Proposition
  • Value Network
  • Technology
  • Finances

For each section, supporting evidence of good or bad practice will be graded as a positive (tick), a negative (cross) or a work in progress (dash). These ticks, crosses and dashes will then be evaluated to create a “traffic light” rating for each section, which will then be tallied to provide an overall transformation rating for each case study.

We anticipate that some of these five sections will overlap, and some will be more pertinent to certain case studies than others. But central to the case studies will be analysis of how the transformation process is relevant to the telco industry and the lessons that can be learned to help operators on the path to change.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • AccorHotels’ transformation experience – a summary of key lessons
  • The AccorHotels story in brief
  • AccorHotels in STL Partners’ transformation index
  • Introduction
  • Why are we doing non-telco case studies?
  • General outline of STL Partners’ case study transformation index
  • Drawing the parallels between hotels and telecoms
  • What does a hotel business look like?
  • How the Internet changed the hotel industry
  • Accor in context of leading global hotel chains
  • A successful transformation, so far
  • AccorHotels’ transformation strategy
  • Part 1: Separating property and services into distinct business lines
  • Part 2: From digital platform to marketplace
  • Part 3: Cultural transformation
  • Part 4: Invest in innovation
  • Conclusion
  • AccorHotels in STL Partners’ transformation index

Figures:

  • Figure 1: OTAs cut into hotels’ share of the hospitality industry
  • Figure 2: Comparison of leading global hotel chains
  • Figure 3: AccorHotels revenues and profitability are ticking up
  • Figure 4: Accor outperforms on growth of average revenue per room
  • Figure 5: AccorHotels property investments
  • Figure 6: Solid growth in profitability
  • Figure 7: AccorHotels eight digital hospitality programmes
  • Figure 8: Steady growth in loyalty programme subscribers
  • Figure 9: Accor acquires software expertise and reach to challenge OTAs
  • Figure 10: AccorHotels is gaining traction with digital services
  • Figure 11: AccorHotels still has some digital distance to go
  • Figure 12: AccorHotels digital services investment plan
  • Figure 13: AccorHotels acquisitions fuel business innovation
  • Figure 14: Digital M&A investment as a % of service revenue, 2012 – H1 2017
  • Figure 15: AccorHotels scores ‘Green’ on STL Partners’ transformation index

VEON – Transition from telco to consumer IP communications platform

Introduction to Veon

Geographical footprint and brands

Veon came into being at the start of 2017, a rebrand of VimpelCom. The Amsterdam-based telco was founded in its current form in 2009 when shareholders Telenor and Alfa agreed to merge their assets in VimpelCom and Ukraine’s Kyivstar to create VimpelCom Ltd.

Veon is among the world’s 10 largest communications network operators by subscription, with around 235 million customers in 13 countries (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Veon’s geographical footprint (September 2017)

Source: Veon, STL Partners

The telco operates a number of brands across its geographical footprint (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Veon’s brands (September 2017)

Source: Veon, STL Partners

Veon’s largest market is Russia, where it has over 58 million mobile subscribers, making up 24% of its global total. Pakistan and Bangladesh comprise its second-largest markets by subscribers, while it has over 30 million customers in Italy under its Wind Tre brand, a joint venture with CK Hutchison (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Veon mobile customers by region, H2 2017 (millions)

Source: Veon, STL Partners

A brief history of Veon

  • 1992: Veon began life as Russian operator PJSC VimpelCom in 1992.
  • 2009: VimpelCom Ltd. founded as Telenor and Alfa Group (Altimo) agree to merge their assets in VimpelCom (Russia and CIS) and Ukraine (Kyivstar).
  • 2010: VimpelCom acquires Orascom Telecom Holding (operating in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria) and Wind Italy from Egypt’s Naguib Sawiris.
  • 2017: VimpelCom Ltd. rebrands as Veon.

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The somewhat unusual development of both Veon’s shareholder structure and geographical footprint means the telco faces some unique challenges, but has also enabled a degree of flexibility in the company’s path to transformation.

Veon’s shareholder structure – an enabler of transformation

At the time of writing, Veon is 47.9%-owned (common and voting shares) by Alfa (via investment vehicle LetterOne), and 19.7% by Norway’s Telenor (with the remaining 32.4% split between free float and minority shareholders).

This structure means that the company is less beholden to dividend-hungry shareholders, allowing the telco more ease of alignment than many of its contemporaries. This extra “breathing space” also allows change to occur faster with fewer levels of managerial approval required, whilst the board of directors has given its backing to Veon’s transformation journey, offering full “top-down support”. Nevertheless there is some doubt about how the transformation plans will be greeted at local OpCo level, and the group faces some serious cultural challenges in this area.

Faced with lacklustre organic growth and in the face of headwinds of currency devaluations in its former Soviet markets, Veon has chosen to, in the words of CEO Jean-Yves Charlier, “disrupt itself from within”.

Reversing the revenue decline

Speaking at Veon’s rebrand in February 2017, CEO Charlier spoke of how the telco sector has been backed into a corner by aggressive disruptive start-ups like Skype and WhatsApp, meaning the industry now needs to reinvent itself and find new paths to growth.

The company began by improving its capital structure, in part through the consolidation of operations in two of its largest markets, with the mergers of Mobilink and Warid to form Jazz in Pakistan, and the formation of joint venture Wind Tre from Wind Italy and CK Hutchison’s Tre (3).

Veon states it has realigned its corporate culture and values, introduced a robust control and compliance framework, and significantly cut its cost base, and the operator returned to positive revenue and EBITDA growth in the second quarter of 2017.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary 
  • Introduction to Veon
  • Veon’s digital strategy
  • What are the strengths of Veon’s offering?
  • What must Veon do to succeed?
  • Will Veon make it work?
  • Introduction
  • Introduction to Veon
  • The path to total transformation
  • Veon’s digital strategy
  • Reinvent customer experience
  • Network virtualisation
  • The product
  • An omni-channel platform
  • The strengths of the holistic platform
  • Can Veon’s consumer IP communications proposition succeed? 
  • Can Veon beat the GAFA and Chinese giants to the market?
  • What must Veon do to succeed?
  • Conclusions

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Veon’s geographical footprint (September 2017)
  • Figure 2: Veon’s brands (September 2017)
  • Figure 3: Veon mobile customers by region, H2 2017 (millions)
  • Figure 4: Veon revenue and EBITDA, Q4 2015-Q2 2017 ($ billion)
  • Figure 5: Veon’s transformation from telco to tech company
  • Figure 6: Penetration of leading social networks in Russia (2016)
  • Figure 7: Veon IT stack scope of responsibilities
  • Figure 8: VEON app screenshots – a IP communication platform
  • Figure 9: Veon app access requirements
  • Figure 10: Comparison of consumer IP communications plays
  • Figure 11: Veon – a SWOT analysis

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How to build an open source telco – and why?

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Introduction: Why an open source telecom?

Commercial pressures and technological opportunities

For telcos in many markets, declining revenues is a harsh reality. Price competition is placing telcos under pressure to reduce capital spending and operating costs.

At the same time, from a technological point of view, the rise of cloud-based solutions has raised the possibility of re-engineering telco operations to be run with virtualised and open sourced software on low cost, general purpose hardware.

Indeed, rather than pursuing the traditional technological model, i.e. licensing proprietary solutions from the mainstream telecoms vendors (e.g. Ericsson, Huawei, Amdocs, etc.), telcos can increasingly:

  1. Progressively outsource the entire technological infrastructure to a vendor;
  2. Acquire software with programmability and openness features: application programming interfaces(APIs) can make it easier to program telecommunications infrastructure.

The second option promises to enable telcos to achieve their long-standing goals of decreasing the time-to-market of new solutions, while further reducing their dependence on vendors.

Greater adoption of general IT-based tools and solutions also:

  • Allows flexibility in using the existing infrastructure
  • Optimises and reuses the existing resources
  • Enables integration between operations and the network
  • And offers the possibility to make greater use of the data that telcos have traditionally collected for the purpose of providing communications services.


In an increasingly squeezed commercial context, the licensing fees applied by traditional vendors for telecommunication solutions start to seem unrealistic, and the lack of flexibility poses serious issues for operators looking to push towards a more modern infrastructure. Moreover, the potential availability of competitive open source solutions provides an alternative that challenges the traditional model of making large investments in proprietary software, and dependence on a small number of vendors.

Established telecommunications vendors and/or new aggressive ones may also propose new business models (e.g., share of investments, partnership and the like), which could be attractive for some telcos.

In any case, operators should explore and evaluate the possibility of moving forward with a new approach based on the extensive usage of open source software.

This report builds on STL Partners’ 2015 report, The Open Source Telco: Taking Control of Destiny which looked at how widespread use of open source software is an important enabler of agility and innovation in many of the world’s leading internet and IT players. Yet while many telcos then said they crave agility, only a minority use open source to best effect.

In that 2015 report, we examined the barriers and drivers, and outlined six steps for telcos to safely embrace this key enabler of transformation and innovation:

  1. Increase usage of open source software: Overall, operators should look to increase their usage of open source software across their entire organisation due to its numerous strengths. It must, therefore, be consistently and fairly evaluated alongside proprietary alternatives. However, open source software also has disadvantages, dependencies, and hidden costs (such as internally-resourced maintenance and support), so it should not be considered an end in itself.
  2. Increase contributions to open source initiatives: Operators should also look to increase their level of contribution to open source initiatives so that they can both push key industry initiatives forward (e.g. OPNFV and NFV) and have more influence over the direction these take.
  3. Associate open source with wider transformation efforts: Successful open source adoption is both an enabler and symptom of operators’ broader transformation efforts, and should be recognised as such. It is more than simply a ‘technical fix’.
  4. Bring in new skills: To make effective use of open source software, operators need to acquire new software development skills and resources – likely from outside the telecoms industry.
  5. … but bring the whole organisation along too: Employees across numerous functional areas (not just IT) need to have experience with, or an understanding of, open source software – as well as senior management. This should ideally be managed by a dedicated team.
  6. New organisational processes: Specific changes also need to be made in certain functional areas, such as procurement, legal, marketing, compliance and risk management, so that their processes can effectively support increased open source software adoption.

This report goes beyond those recommendations to explore the changing models of IT delivery open to telcos and how they could go about adopting open source solutions. In particular, it outlines the different implementation phases required to build an open source telco, before considering two scenarios – the greenfield model and the brownfield model. The final section of the report draws conclusions and makes recommendations.

Why choose to build an open source telecom now?

Since STL Partners published its first report on open source software in telecoms in 2015, the case for embracing open source software has strengthened further. There are three broad trends that are creating a favourable market context for open source software.

Digitisation – the transition to providing products and services via digital channels and media. This may sometimes involve the delivery of the product, such as music, movies and books, in a digital form, rather than a physical form.

Virtualisation – executing software on virtualised platforms running on general-purpose hardware located in the cloud, rather than purpose-built hardware on premises. Virtualisation allows a better reuse of large servers by decoupling the relationship of one service to one server. Moreover, cloudification of these services means they can be made available to any connected device on a full-time basis.

Softwarisation – the redefinition of products and services though software. This is an extension of digitisation, i.e., the digitisation of music has allowed the creation of new services and propositions (e.g. Spotify). The same goes for the movie industry (e.g. Netflix) or the transformation of the book industry (e.g. ebooks) and newspapers. This paradigm is based on:

  • The ability to digitise the information (transformation of the analogue into a digital signal).
  • Availability of large software platforms offering relevant processing, storage and communications capabilities.
  • The definition of open and reusable application programming interfaces (APIs) which allow processes formerly ‘trapped’ within proprietary systems to be managed or enhanced with other information and by other systems.

These three features have started a revolution that is transforming other industries, e.g. travel agencies (e.g. Booking.com), large hotel chains (e.g. Airbnb), and taxis (e.g. Uber). Softwarisation is also now impacting other traditional industries, such as manufacturing (e.g., Industry 4.0) and, for sure, telecommunications.

Softwarisation in telecommunications amounts to the use of virtualisation, cloud computing, open APIs and programmable communication resources to transform the current network architecture. Software is playing a key role in enabling new services and functions, better customer experience, leaner and faster processes, faster introduction of innovation, and usually lower costs and prices. The softwarisation trend is very apparent in the widespread interest in two emerging technologies: network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN).

The likely impact of this technological transformation is huge: flexibility in service delivery, cost reduction, quicker time to market, higher personalisation of services and solutions, differentiation from competition and more. We have outlined some key telco NFV/SDN strategies in the report Telco NFV & SDN Deployment Strategies: Six Emerging Segments.

What is open source software?

A generally accepted open source definition is difficult to achieve because of different perspectives and some philosophical differences within the open source community.

One of the most high-profile definitions is that of the Open Source Initiative, which states the need to have access to the source code, the possibility to modify and redistribute it, and non-discriminatory clauses against persons, groups or ‘fields of endeavour’ (for instance, usage for commercial versus academic purposes) and others.

For the purpose of this report, STL defines open source software as follows:

▪ Open source software is a specific type of software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. This software is usually made available and maintained by specialised communities of developers that support new versions and ensure some form of backward compatibility.

Open source can help to enable softwarisation. As an example, it has greatly helped in moving from proprietary solutions in the web server sector to a common software platform (named LAMP) based on the Linux operating system, the Apache Http server, Mysql server, PhP programming language. All these components are made available as open source. This essentially means that people can freely acquire the source code, modify it and use it. Modifications and improvements are to be returned to the development community.

One of the earliest and most high profile examples of open source software was the Linux operating system, a Unix-like operating system developed under the model of free and open source software development and distribution.

Open source for telecoms: Benefits and barriers

The benefits of using open source for telecoms

As discussed in our earlier report, The Open Source Telco: Taking Control of Destiny, the adoption and usage of open source solutions are being driven by business and technological needs. Ideally, the adoption and exploitation of open source will be part of a broader transformation programme designed to deliver the specific operator’s strategic goals.

Operators implementing open source solutions today tend to do so in conjunction with the deployment of network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN), which will play an important role for the definition and consolidation of the future 5G architectures.

However, as Figure 1 shows, transformation programmes can face formidable obstacles, particularly where a cultural change and new skills are required.

Benefits of transformation and related obstacles

The following strategic forces are driving interest in open source approaches among telecoms operators:

Reduce infrastructure costs. Telcos naturally want to minimise investment in new technologies and reduce infrastructure maintenance costs. Open source solutions seem to provide a way to do this by reducing license fees paid to solution vendors under the traditional software procurement model. As open source software usually runs on general-purpose hardware, it could also cut the capital and maintenance costs of the telco’s computing infrastructure. In addition, the current trend towards virtualisation and SDN should enable a shift to more programmable and flexible communications platforms. Today, open source solutions are primarily addressing the core network (e.g., virtualisation of evolved packet core), which accounts for a fraction of the investment made in the access infrastructure (fibre deployment, antenna installation, and so forth). However, in time open source solutions could also play a major role in the access network (e.g., open base stations and others): an agile and well-formed software architecture should make it possible to progressively introduce new software-based solutions into access infrastructure.

Mitigate vendor lock-in. Major vendors have been the traditional enablers of new services and new network deployments. Moreover, to minimise risks, telco managers tend to prefer to adopt consolidated solutions from a single vendor. This approach has several consequences:

  • Telcos don’t tend to introduce innovative new solutions developed in-house.
  • As a result, the network is not fully leveraged as a differentiator, and can become the full care and responsibility of a vendor.
  • The internal innovation capabilities of a telco have effectively been displaced in favour of those of the vendor.

This has led to the “ossification” of much telecoms infrastructure and the inability to deliver differentiated offerings that can’t easily be replicated by competitors. Introducing open source solutions could be a means to lessen telcos’ dependence on specific vendors and increase internal innovation capabilities.

Enabling new services. The new services telcos introduce in their networks are essentially the same across many operators because the developers of these new services and features are a small set of consolidated vendors that offer the same portfolio to all the industry. However, a programmable platform could enable a telco to govern and orchestrate their network resources and become the “master of the service”, i.e., the operator could quickly create, customise and personalise new functions and services in an independent way and offer them to their customers. This capability could help telcos enter adjacent markets, such as entertainment and financial services, as well as defend their core communications and connectivity markets. In essence, employing an open source platform could give a telco a competitive advantage.

Faster innovation cycles. Depending on a vendor makes the telco dependent on its roadmap and schedule, and on the obsolescence and substitution of existing technologies. The use of out-dated technologies has a huge impact on a telco’s ability to offer new solutions in a timely fashion. An open source approach offers the possibility to upgrade and improve the existing platform (or to move to totally new technologies) without too many constraints posed by the “reference vendor”. This ability could be essential to acquiring and maintaining a technological advantage over competitors. Telcos need to clearly identify the benefits of this change, which represent the reasons, the “why”, for the softwarisation.

Complete contents of how to build an open source telecom report:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: why open source?
  • Commercial pressures and technological opportunities
  • Open Source: Why Now?
  • What is open source software?
  • Open source: benefits and barriers
  • The benefits of using open source
  • Overcoming the barriers to using open source
  • Choosing the right path to open source
  • Selecting the right IT delivery model
  • Choosing the right model for the right scenario
  • Weighing the cost of open source
  • Which telcos are using open source today?
  • How can you build an open source telco?
  • Greenfield model
  • Brownfield model
  • Conclusions and recommendations
  • Controversial and challenging, yet often compelling
  • Recommendations for different kinds of telcos

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Illustrative open source costs versus a proprietary approach
  • Figure 2: Benefits of transformation and the related obstacles
  • Figure 3: The key barriers in the path of a shift to open source
  • Figure 4: Shaping an initial strategy for the adoption of open source solutions
  • Figure 5: A new open source component in an existing infrastructure
  • Figure 6: Different kinds of telcos need to select different delivery models
  • Figure 7: Illustrative estimate of Open Source costs versus a proprietary approach

Sense check: Can data growth save telco revenues?

Introduction

A recent STL Partners report – Which operator growth strategies will remain viable in 2017 and beyond? – looked at the growth strategies of 68 operator groups, and identified eight different growth strategies employed over this sample. The eighth strategy was to expect mobile data growth to start to reverse the decline in revenues once the decline in voice and messaging revenues is complete. In the previous report, we argued that data revenue growth would not rapidly counterbalance the losses of voice and messaging due to the forces outlined in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Trust in the increasing value of (and spend in) broadband data 

Source: STL Partners

In that report, we showed a number of examples, including NTT Docomo in Japan, which has been experiencing voice and messaging declines for the longest period of telcos we are aware of, and the UK market, which is competitive with relatively good availability of market data (See Figure 3):

Figure 3: STL Partners can find no evidence of long term revenue growth driven by increased mobile broadband demand in mature markets (outside duopolies)

Source: Company accounts, STL Partners

Despite the clarity of our own convictions on this matter, we are aware that some telcos are growing their revenues, and also that a minority of our clients (perhaps one in ten based on a number of informal surveys we have run in workshops etc.) believe that data could start to regrow the market in certain conditions.

Given how attractive this idea is to the industry, and how difficult and lengthy the path of transformation and creating digital services is proving for telcos, we decided that it would be useful to revisit our assertions, to dig deeper to see what signs of growth we could find and what might be learned from them. This report contains our findings from this further analysis.

Background: The telco ‘hunger gap’

This decline is not a new story, and STL Partners has been warning about this phenomenon and the need for business model change since 2006.

Back in 2013, STL Partners estimated that digital business would need to represent 25+% of Telco revenue by 2020 to avoid long-term industry decline. However, to date we have not taken the view that data revenues will to grow enough to make up for the decline in traditional services, meaning that “hunger gap” will not be filled this way (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: The telco ‘hunger gap’ between the decline in traditional and data revenues

Source: STL Partners

However, making the transition to new business models is challenging for telcos, who have traditionally relied on an infrastructure-based business model. Digital businesses are very different, and the astronomical growth in demand for mobile data services over the past decade is placing severe strain on networks and resources.

We have argued that telcos now need to make a fundamental shift from their traditional infrastructure-based business model to a complex amalgam of infrastructure, platform, and product innovation businesses.

Alternatively, growing data would be an innately attractive prospect for the telecoms industry. It would not require all the hard work, risk, change and investment of transformation. Hard-pressed executives would love nothing better than the ‘do little’ strategy to work out. It’s an idea that can easily find traction and supporters.

But is it a realistic prospect to grow data revenues faster than voice and messaging are shrinking?

To sense-check our original assertion that data will not grow overall revenues, this report takes a new look at the available evidence. We picked six different telcos appearing to exhibit representative or outlier strategies to see whether there may currently be grounds to change our view that data revenue growth will not grow the overall telecoms market.

Content:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Background: the telco ‘hunger gap’
  • Methodology
  • Review of global trends in data growth
  • The explosion in mobile data growth
  • The link between data consumption and ARPU
  • The rise of 4G
  • Data tariff bundles increase in volume
  • Mobile data offloading
  • Multiplay bundling and the fixed network advantage
  • International data roaming
  • Zero rating and net neutrality
  • Case studies – different data strategies
  • Four data growth strategies
  • The traditional growth model
  • The disruptor/challenger model
  • The innovator model
  • The OTT proposition
  • Case studies comparison: Investment vs risk in summary
  • Case study: Innovator: DNA (Finland)
  • Case study: Disruptor/Innovator: T-Mobile US
  • Case study: Super-disruptor: Reliance Jio (India)
  • Case study: Disruptor: Free (France)
  • Case study: Traditional/Innovator: Vodafone UK
  • Case study: Traditional: Cosmote (Greece)
  • Conclusions
  • Case studies comparison: Investment vs risk in summary
  • Telcos need to seek fresh business models
  • Network investment will need to be even more intelligently targeted than with 3G/4G
  • New growth opportunities are emerging
  • A little thoughtful innovation goes a long way
  • Recommendations

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Trust in the increasing value of (and spend) in broadband data
  • Figure 2: Trust in the increasing value of (and spend) in broadband data
  • Figure 3: STL Partners can find no evidence of long-term revenue growth driven by increased mobile broadband demand in mature markets (outside duopolies)
  • Figure 4: The telco “hunger gap” between the decline in traditional and data revenues
  • Figure 5: Cisco global data growth 2016-2021
  • Figure 6: Total estimated UK mobile retail revenues
  • Figure 7: SMS and MMS sent in the UK, 2007-2015
  • Figure 8: Selected telco data growth strategies
  • Figure 9: Analysis of mobile operator growth strategies
  • Figure 10: DNA revenues and churn 2012-2016
  • Figure 11: DNA mobile data growth 2010-2016
  • Figure 12: DNA mobile data growth forecast
  • Figure 13: USA average monthly data use, 2010-2015
  • Figure 14: Deutsche Telekom non-voice % of ARPU, 2009-2016
  • Figure 15: T-Mobile US total revenues and non-voice ARPU, 2009-2016
  • Figure 16: Reliance Jio subscription growth
  • Figure 17: Free Mobile 4G subscriptions and 4G data, 2015-2016
  • Figure 18: Iliad Free revenue growth 2012-2016
  • Figure 19: France average mobile data use per SIM, 2009-2015
  • Figure 20: France mobile value added service revenues, 2009-2015
  • Figure 21: Vodafone UK data use and total mobile ARPU, 2011-2016
  • Figure 22: UK mobile retail ARPU, 2010-2016
  • Figure 23: UK estimated mobile retail revenues, 2010-2015
  • Figure 24: Vodafone UK total mobile revenue 2013-2016
  • Figure 25: Greece data use and total mobile revenues