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

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

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

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

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

Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered

A network running in the cloud

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

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

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

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

The telco cloud promise

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

The less-exciting reality

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

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

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

Telco cloud deployments have risen substantially over the past few years

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

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

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

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

The problem: flawed approaches to deployment

Learning from those on the front line

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

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

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

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

Figure 5: Two starting points for deploying telco cloud

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

Source: STL Partners

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

Table of contents

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

The European Telecoms market in 2020, Report 2: 4 scenarios and 7 predictions

Introduction

The second report in The European Telecoms market in 2020, this document uses the framework introduced in Report 1 to develop four discrete scenarios for the European telecoms market in 2020.  Although this report can be read on its own, STL Partners suggests that more value will be derived from reading Report 1 first.

The role of this report

Strategists (and investors) are finding it very difficult to understand the many and varied forces affecting the telecoms industry (Report 1), and predict the structure of, and returns from, the European telecoms market in 2020 (the focus of this Report 2).  This, in turn, makes it challenging to determine how operators should seek to compete in the future (the focus of a STL Partners report in July, Four strategic pathways to Telco 2.0).

In summary, The European Telecoms market in 2020 reports therefore seek to:

  • Identify the key forces of change in Europe and provide a useful means of classifying them within a simple and logical 2×2 framework (Report 1);
  • Help readers refine their thoughts on how Europe might develop by outlining four alternative ‘futures’ that are both sufficiently different from each other to be meaningful and internally consistent enough to be realistic (Report 2);
  • Provide a ‘prediction’ for the future European telecoms market based on our own insights plus two ‘wisdom of crowds’ votes conducted at a recent STL Partners event for senior managers from European telcos (Report 2).

Four European telecoms market scenarios for 2020

The second report in The European Telecoms market in 2020, this document uses the framework introduced in Report 1 to develop four discrete scenarios for the European telecoms market in 2020.  Although this report can be read on its own, STL Partners suggests that more value will be derived from reading Report 1 first.

Overview

STL Partners has identified the following scenarios for the European market in 2020:

  1. Back to the Future. This scenario is likely to be the result of a structurally attractive telecoms market and one where operators focus on infrastructure-led ‘piping’ ambition and skills.
  2. Consolidated Utility. This might be the result of the same ‘piping’ ambition in a structurally unattractive market.
  3. Digital Renaissance. A utopian world resulting from new digital ambitions and skills developed by operators coupled with an attractive market.
  4. Telco Trainwreck. As the name suggests, a disaster stemming from lofty digital ambitions being pursued in the face of an unattractive telco market.

The four scenarios are shown on the framework in Figure 1 and are discussed in detail below.

Figure 1: Four European telecoms market scenarios for 2020

Source: STL Partners/Telco 2.0

How each scenario is described

In addition to a short overview, each scenario will be examined by exploring 8 key characteristics which seek to reflect the combined impact of the internal and external forces laid out in the previous section:

  1. Market Structure. The absolute and relative size and overall number of operators in national markets and across the wider EU region.
  2. Operator service pricing and profits. The price levels and profit performance of telecoms operators (and the overall industry) and the underlying direction (stable, moving up, moving down).
  3. The role of content in operators’ service portfolios. The importance of IPTV, games and applications within operators’ consumer offering and the importance of content, software and applications within operators’ enterprise portfolio.
  4. The degree to which operators can offer differentiated services. How able operators are to offer differentiated network services to end users and, most importantly, upstream service providers based on such things as network QoS, guaranteed maximum latency, speed, etc.
  5. The relationships between operators and NEP/IT players. Whether NEP and IT players continue to predominantly sell their services to and through operators (to other enterprises) or whether they become ‘Under the Floor’ competitors offering network services directly to enterprises.
  6. Where service innovation occurs – in the network/via the operator vs at the edge/via OTT players. The extent to which services continue to be created ‘at the edge’ – with little input from the network – or are ‘network-reliant’ or, even, integrated directly into the network. The former clearly suggests continued dominance by OTT players and the latter a swing towards operators and the telecoms industry.
  7. The attitude of the capital markets (and the availability of capital). The willingness of investors to have their capital reinvested for growth by telecoms operators as opposed to returned to them in the form of dividends. Prospects of sustained growth from operators will lead to the former whereas profit stasis or contraction will result in higher yields.
  8. Key industry statistics. Comparison between 2020 and 2015 for revenue and employees – tangible numbers that demonstrate how the industry has changed.

The European macro-economy – a key assumption

The health and structure of all industries in Europe is dependent, to a large degree, on the European macro-economy. Grexit or Brexit, for example, would have a material impact on growth throughout Europe over the next five years.  Our assumption in these scenarios is that Europe experiences a stable period of low-growth and that the economic positions of the stretched Southern European markets, particularly Italy and Spain, improves steadily.  If the European economic position deteriorates then opportunities for telecoms growth of any sort is likely to disappear.

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • The role of this report
  • Four European telecoms market scenarios for 2020
  • Overview
  • How each scenario is described
  • The European macro-economy – a key assumption
  • Back to the Future
  • Consolidated Utility
  • Digital Renaissance
  • Telco Trainwreck
  • Risk and returns in the scenarios
  • Making predictions
  • Wisdom of crowds: 2 approaches
  • Approach 1: Aggregating individual forces – ‘Sum-of-the-parts’
  • Approach 2: Picking a scenario
  • STL Partners’ prediction for the European telecoms market in 2020
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game

 

  • Figure 1: Four European telecoms market scenarios for 2020
  • Figure 2: Back to the Future – key characteristics
  • Figure 3: Consolidated Utility – key characteristics
  • Figure 4: Digital Renaissance – key characteristics
  • Figure 5: Telco Trainwreck – key characteristics
  • Figure 6: Risk and returns in the four scenarios
  • Figure 7: Europe’s future based on aggregating individual forces – ‘Sum-of-the-parts’
  • Figure 8: Europe’s future – results of the two approaches compared

The European Telecoms market in 2020, Report 1: Evaluating 10 forces of change

Introduction

Telecoms – the times they are a changin’

The global telecoms market is experiencing change at an unprecedented pace.  As recently as 2012 , few would have predicted that consumer voice and messaging would be effectively ‘given away’ with data packages in 2015.  Yet today, the shift towards data as the ‘valuable’ part of the mobile bundle has been made in many European markets and, although many operators still allocate a large proportion of revenue to voice and messaging, the value proposition is clearly now ‘data-led’.

Europe, in particular, is facing great uncertainty

While returns on investment have steadily reduced in European telecoms, the market has remained structurally fragmented with a large number of disparate players – fixed-only; mobile-only; converged; wholesalers; enterprise-only; content-oriented players (cablecos); and so forth. Operators generally have continued to make steady economic returns for investors and have been considered ‘defensive stocks’ by the capital markets owing to an ability to generate strong dividend yields and withstand economic down-turns (although Telefonica’s woes in Spain will attest to the limitations of the telco business model to recession).

But the forces of change in Europe are growing and, as a company’s ‘Safe Harbor’ statement would put it, ‘past performance does not guarantee future results’. Strategists are puzzling over what the European telecoms industry might look like in 2020 (and how might that affect their own company) given the broad range of forces being exerted on it in 2015.

STL Partners believes there are 12 questions that need to be considered when considering what the European telecoms market might look like in 2020:

  1. How will regulation of national markets and the wider European Union progress?
  2. How will government policies and the new EC Digital Directive impact telecoms?
  3. How will competition among traditional telecoms players develop?
  4. How strong will new competitors be and how will they compete with operators?
  5. What is the revenue and margin outlook for telecoms core services?
  6. Will new technologies such as NFV, SDN, and eSIM, have a positive or negative effect on operators?
  7. How will the capital markets’ attitude towards telecoms operators change and how much capital will be available for investment by operators?
  8. How will the attitudes and behaviours of customers – consumer and enterprise – evolve and what bearing might this have on operators’ business models?
  9. How will the vision and aspirations of telecoms senior managers play out – will digital services become a greater focus or will the ‘data pipe’ model prevail? How important will content be for operators? What will be the relative importance of fixed vs mobile, consumer vs enterprise?
  10. Will telcos be able to develop the skills, assets and partnerships required to pursue a services strategy successfully or will capabilities fall short of aspirations?
  11. What M&A strategy will telco management pursue to support their strategies: buying other telcos vs buying into adjacent industries? Focus on existing countries only vs moves into other countries or even a pan-European play?
  12. How effective will the industry be in reducing its cost base – capex and opex – relative to the new competitors such as the internet players in consumer services and IT players in enterprise services?

Providing clear answers to each of these 12 questions and their combined effect on the industry is extremely challenging because:

  • Some forces are, to some extent at least, controllable by operators whereas other forces are largely outside their control;
  • Although some forces are reasonably well-established, many others are new and/or changing rapidly;
  • Establishing the interplay between forces and the ‘net effect’ of them together is complicated because some tend to create a domino effect (e.g. greater competition tends to result in lower revenues and margins which, in turn, means less capital being available for investment in networks and services) whereas other forces can negate each other (e.g. the margin impact of lower core service revenues could be – at least partially – offset by a lower cost base achieved through NFV).

The role of this report

In essence, strategists (and investors) are finding it very difficult to understand the many and varied forces affecting the telecoms industry (this report) and predict the structure of and returns from the European telecoms market in 2020 (Report 2). This, in turn, makes it challenging to determine how operators should seek to compete in the future (the focus of a STL Partners report in July, Four strategic pathways to Telco 2.0).

In summary, the European Telecoms market in 2020 reports therefore seek to:

  • Identify the key forces of change in Europe and provide a useful means of classifying them within a simple and logical 2×2 framework (this report);
  • Help readers refine their thoughts on how Europe might develop by outlining four alternative ‘futures’ that are both sufficiently different from each other to be meaningful and internally consistent enough to be realistic (Report 2);
  • Provide a ‘prediction’ for the future European telecoms market based on the responses of two ‘wisdom of crowds’ votes conducted at a recent STL Partners event for senior managers from European telcos plus our STL Partners’ own viewpoint (Report 2).
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Telecoms – the times they are a changin’
  • Europe, in particular, is facing great uncertainty
  • The role of this report
  • Understanding and classifying the forces of change
  • External (market) forces
  • Internal (telco) forces
  • Summary: The impact of internal and external forces over the next 5 years
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game

 

  • Figure 1: O2’s SIM-only pay monthly tariffs – many with unlimited voice and messaging bundled in
  • Figure 2: A framework for classifying telco market forces: internal and external
  • Figure 3: Telefonica dividend yield vs Spanish 10-year bond yield
  • Figure 4: Customer attitudes to European telecoms brands – 2003 vs 2015
  • Figure 5: Summarising the key skills, partnerships, assets and culture needed to realise ambitions
  • Figure 6: SMS Price vs. penetration of Top OTT messaging apps in 2012
  • Figure 7: Summary of how internal and external forces could develop in the next 5 years