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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographical distribution of STL Partners’ telco cloud benefit survey

 

Source: STL Partners

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

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

Phases of telco cloudification

Source: STL Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Table of Contents

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

Related research

VNFs on public cloud: Opportunity, not threat

VNF deployments on the hyperscale cloud are just beginning

Numerous collaboration agreements between hyperscalers and leading telcos, but few live VNF deployments to date

The past three years have seen many major telcos concluding collaboration agreements with the leading hyperscalers. These have involved one or more of five business models for the telco-hyperscaler relationship that we discussed in a previous report, and which are illustrated below:

Five business models for telco-hyperscaler partnerships

Source: STL Partners

In this report, we focus more narrowly on the deployment, delivery and operation by and to telcos of virtualised and cloud-native network functions (VNFs / CNFs) over the hyperscale public cloud. To date, there have been few instances of telcos delivering live, commercial services on the public network via VNFs hosted on the public cloud. STL Partners’ Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker contains eight examples of this, as illustrated below:

Major telcos deploying VNFs in the public cloud

Source: STL Partners

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Telcos are looking to generate returns from their telco cloud investments and maintain control over their ‘core business’

The telcos in the above table are all of comparable stature and ambition to the likes of AT&T and DISH in the realm of telco cloud but have a diametrically opposite stance when it comes to VNF deployment on public cloud. They have decided against large-scale public cloud deployments for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They have invested a considerable amount of money, time and human resources on their private clouddeployments, and they want and need to utilise the asset and generate the RoI.
  • Related to this, they have generated a large amount of intellectual property (IP) as a result of their DIY cloud– and VNF-development work. Clearly, they wish to realise the business benefits they sought to achieve through these efforts, such as cost and resource efficiencies, automation gains, enhanced flexibility and agility, and opportunities for both connectivityand edge compute service innovation. Apart from the opportunity cost of not realising these gains, it is demoralising for some CTO departments to contemplate surrendering the fruit of this effort in favour of a hyperscaler’s comparable cloud infrastructure, orchestration and management tools.
  • In addition, telcos have an opportunity to monetise that IP by marketing it to other telcos. The Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) marketed by Rakuten Symphony is an example of this: effectively, a telco providing a telco cloud platform on an NFaaS basis to third-party operators or enterprises – in competition to similar offerings that might be developed by hyperscalers. Accordingly, RCP will be hosted over private cloud facilities, not public cloud. But in theory, there is no reason why RCP could not in future be delivered over public cloud. In this case, Rakuten would be acting like any other vendor adapting its solutions to the hyperscale cloud.
  • In theory also, telcos could also offer their private telcoclouds as a platform, or wholesale or on-demand service, for third parties to source and run their own network functions (i.e. these would be hosted on the wholesale provider’s facilities, in contrast to the RCP, which is hosted on the client telco’s facilities). This would be a logical fit for telcos such as BT or Deutsche Telekom, which still operate as their respective countries’ communications backbone provider and primary wholesale provider

BT and Deutsche Telekom have also been among the telcos that have been most visibly hostile to the idea of running NFs powering their own public, mass-market services on the public and hyperscale cloud. And for most operators, this is the main concern making them cautious about deploying VNFs on the public cloud, let alone sourcing them from the cloud on an NFaaS basis: that this would be making the ‘core’ telco business and asset – the network – dependent on the technology roadmaps, operational competence and business priorities of the hyperscalers.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: VNF deployments on the hyperscale cloud are just beginning
    • Numerous collaboration agreements between hyperscalers and leading telcos, but few live VNF deployments to date
    • DISH and AT&T: AWS vs Azure; vendor-supported vs DIY; NaaCP vs net compute
  • Other DIY or vendor-supported best-of-breed players are not hosting VNFs on public cloud
    • Telcos are looking to generate returns from their telco cloud investments and maintain control over their ‘core business’
    • The reluctance to deploy VNFs on the cloud reflects a persistent, legacy concept of the telco
  • But NaaCP will drive more VNF deployments on public cloud, and opportunities for telcos
    • Multiple models for NaaCP present prospects for greater integration of cloud-native networks and public cloud
  • Conclusion: Convergence of network and cloud is inevitable – but not telcos’ defeat
  • Appendix

Related Research

 

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

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

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

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

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

Telco cloud: big promises, undelivered

A network running in the cloud

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

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

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

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

The telco cloud promise

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

The less-exciting reality

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

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

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

Telco cloud deployments have risen substantially over the past few years

Source: STL Partners NFV Deployment Tracker

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

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

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

The problem: flawed approaches to deployment

Learning from those on the front line

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

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

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

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

Figure 5: Two starting points for deploying telco cloud

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

Source: STL Partners

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

Table of contents

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

The 5G core and NFV: Different sides of the same coin?

The 5G core is an instance of standardised, operationalised NFV

The 5G mobile core network as defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body, along with the other network functions specific to 5G mobile networks (e.g. the Radio Access Network, or RAN), is intended to be ‘fully’ virtualised.

There are four main reasons for this, as set out below. The first two in the list relate more particularly to what we describe in this report as Phase 1 of the NFV project, as well as to the so-called Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G core. The last two reasons are dependent on capabilities being introduced as part of Phase 2 NFV and the Standalone (SA) mobile core:

  1. Scalability: to enable the capacity of the mobile core – particularly that of the data plane – to be scaled up flexibly and dynamically to support rapidly growing data volumes, both for existing 4G services and especially the much higher volumes expected with 5G.
  2. Cost: the replacement of dedicated hardware appliances supporting network functions by Virtual Machines (VMs) – and other modes of Virtualised Network Function (VNF), such as micro-services and containers – running over COTS hardware in theory enables that scaling of capacity to be carried out much more cost-efficiently.
  3. Latency: virtualisation, along with separation of the control and user plane within the core, allows that dynamically scalable data-plane capacity to be brought physically closer to the end user and application. This is important in the case of latency-critical services.
  4. Network slicing: to enable dynamic, automated network-slicing capabilities, which depend on being able to spin up end-to-end virtual networks – including the core – on demand, based on the variable networking requirements of individual clients and use cases.

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There are serious questions as to whether the first two objectives in the above list have yet been adequately achieved, even in the context of 4G core (Evolved Packet Core: EPC) virtualisation let alone the context of the NSA 5G core (5GC). And in respect of the last two items in the list, there are many outstanding questions regarding the eventual technical and commercial models that will be adopted to support low-latency services from the network edge, and about the business models for network slicing in all its possible forms.Nonetheless, in the 3GPP 5G core, the industry has at least – and at last – reached agreement on a set of NFV standards, and has begun deploying and operating them as commercial 5G networks are rolled out. This is in stark contrast to the broader NFV project, where alignment around a set of industry-wide standards has proved elusive, although some momentum has built up around open-source programmes such as the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) and the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) in the past year or two.

The 5G networks that have been launched to date – which have all been done on the basis of the NSA core – are therefore an example of operationalised and standardised NFV that is finally delivering, albeit with the caveats expressed above.

3GPP has specified two 5G core standards: Non-standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA)

In brief, 3GPP – and the many operators and vendors that have contributed to its work – have agreed on two 5GC standards. The first of these, the Non-Standalone (NSA) core (agreed as part of Release 15 of the standards, in December 2017), essentially involves using a virtualised and more ‘cloud-native’ version of the existing 4G core (or EPC) to support 5G New Radio (NR) wireless transmission in tandem with existing LTE services. This is illustrated in Figure 2 below:

NSA core and dual-mode LTE/5G NR operation

NSA Core and dual-mode LTE / 5G NR operation

Source: 3GPP

The purpose of the NSA core is to help facilitate a smooth and rapid introduction of 5G services by enabling telcos to reuse their existing virtual EPCs to support 5G NR, which in any case will be provided as a dual-band service – in combination with 4G, 3G and even 2G – for several years while 5G coverage is being built up.

The second of the 3GPP 5GC standards – the Standalone (SA) core – was first agreed in June 2018, also as part of Release 15. However, a further iteration of the SA specification is expected with Release 16, due in March 2020; and there may be further iterations in Release 17. As the name suggests, this is a completely new, 5G-only core. It has a simplified, ‘cloud-native’ and distributed architecture, and is designed to support services and functions such as network slicing, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) and enhanced Machine-Type Communications (eMTC, i.e. massive IoT).

Non-standalone 5G core basic architecture 

Non-standalone 5G core basic architecture

Source: 3GPP, STL Partners annotations in red

One major innovation compared with the 4G EPC is the decomposition of the Mobility Management Entity (MME) into two component parts: the Session Management Function (SMF) and the Access Management Function (AMF). This allows for optimisation of each of those functions to support increasingly complex use cases involving low-latency transmission of data, to and from multiple device types, across multiple network domains.

Each of the macro-level network functions illustrated in the above diagram are themselves composed of multiple ‘micro-services’ (smaller segments of software-based functionality) as part of the 5G core’s ‘cloud-native’ character. There are many formal, technical definitions of what ‘cloud-native’ means; but for our purposes, we take this term to mean that the software components forming part of a network function are disaggregated: broken up into loosely coupled ‘micro-services’ – containerised or otherwise – that are able in theory to be deployed, separately scaled and upgraded, orchestrated, and managed in innumerable permutations, configurations and distributions to support the demands of different use cases.

This means that not only the macro-level functions illustrated in the above diagram, but also the underlying micro-services, can in theory be adapted, recombined or exchanged with comparable micro-services from other vendors, to support the data-processing, security or mobility requirements of different use cases – although in the 3GPP standards, this can happen only within certain parameters in order not to compromise the integrity of specified services such as URLLC or eMTC.

The 5G core standards are designed for the ‘core’ telco business

The 3GPP standardisation effort has been driven by the desire to define and assure 5G network functionality, especially those aspects that relate to the ‘core’ telco business: connectivity. This is connectivity:

  • either as a service in its own right, e.g.
    • IP-based voice communications (as enabled by micro-services carrying forward the functionality of the current IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) in 3G and 4G networks), and
    • Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB: the much higher-speed broadband services of 5G compared with 4G).

These are classic, core telco services of the first and second ‘ages’ of telecoms (the Communications Age and Information Age respectively), as described in a recent STL Partners report

  • or as the delivery mechanism for services created and monetised by others, e.g.
    • URLLC-dependent content services such as AR / VR, or
    • URLLC- and eMTC-dependent IoT / process optimisation services.

These IoT / process-optimisation use cases represent services of the ‘third’ telco age (the Coordination Age), while digital content-rich services such as AR and VR can be viewed as advanced Information Age services.

In other words, the 5G core standards embody and perpetuate the view that the core (fundamental) telco business is providing standardised, commoditised, universally available and accessible connectivity services and platforms, over which predominantly third parties – as opposed to telcos themselves – develop and deliver useful and entertaining, value-generating, digital and coordination services. The 5G standards are for standard telcos – but we believe the potential of 5G for telcos can eventually be much more.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The 5G core is an instance of standardised, operationalised NFV
    • 3GPP has specified two 5G core standards: Non-standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA)
    • The 5G core standards are designed for the ‘core’ telco business
    • The 5G core standards are also defined with vendors’ interests very much to the fore
    • But the 5G core standards are in some respects inconsistent with the goals, status and methodology of the broader NFV project
    • Rakuten Mobile: The tension between cloud-nativity and operational NFV pragmatism
  • Rakuten Mobile: A case of (not quite yet) operational NFV – but not as virtualised and cloud-native as claimed
    • Is Rakuten’s network truly cloud-native, multi-vendor and fully virtualised?
    • The Rakuten Cloud Platform is a medium-term, pragmatic compromise – but not a long-term blueprint
  • An alternative, NFV-driven approach to 5G: What, how and when?
    • Alternative thinking: Telco-specific cores for new services and use cases
    • Telcos must adopt a ‘third age’ approach to 5G, not a ‘first age’ one
  • Conclusion: 5G and NFV – head and tail of the same coin?

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Problem: Telecoms technology inhibits operator business model change (Part 1)

Introduction

Everyone loves to moan about telcos

‘I just can’t seem to get anything done, it is like running through treacle.’

‘We gave up trying to partner with operators – they are too slow.’

‘Why are telcos unable to make the most basic improvements in their service offerings?’

‘They are called operators for a reason: they operate networks. But they can’t innovate and don’t know the first thing about marketing or customer service.’

Anyone within the telecoms industry will have heard these or similar expressions of dissatisfaction from colleagues, partners and customers.  It seems that despite providing the connectivity and communications services that have truly changed the world in the last 20 years, operators are unloved.  Everyone, and I think we are all guilty of this, feels that operators could do so much better.  There is a feeling that these huge organisations are almost wilfully seeking to be slow and inflexible – as if there is malice in the way they do business.

But the telecoms industry employs millions of people globally. It pays quite well and so attracts talent. Many, for example, have already enjoyed success in other industries. But nobody has yet, it seems, been able to make a telco, let alone the industry, fast, agile, and innovative.

Why not?

A structural problem

In this report, we argue that nobody is at fault for the perceived woes of telecoms operators.  Indeed, the difficulty the industry is facing in changing its business model is a result of financial and operational processes that have been adopted and refined over years in response to investor requirements and regulation.  In turn, investors and regulators have created such requirements as a result of technological constraints that have applied, even with ongoing improvements, to fixed and mobile telecommunications for decades. In essence, operators are constrained by the very structures that were put in place to ensure their success.

So should we give up?

If the limitations of telecoms operators is structural then it is easy to assume that change and development is impossible.  Certainly sceptics have plenty of empirical evidence for this view.  But as we outline in this report and will cover in more detail in a follow up to be published in early February 2016 (Answer: How 5G + Cloud + NFV can create the ‘agile telco’), changes in technology should have a profound impact on telecoms operators ability to become more flexible and innovative and so thrive in the fast-paced digital world.

Customer satisfaction is proving elusive in mature markets

Telecoms operators perform materially worst on customer service than other players in the US and UK

Improving customer experience has become something of a mantra within telecoms in the last few years. Many operators use Net Promoter Scores (NPS) as a way of measuring their performance, and the concept of ‘putting the customer first’ has gained in popularity as the industry has matured and new customers have become harder to find. Yet customer satisfaction remains low.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) publishes annual figures for customer satisfaction based on extensive consumer surveys. Telecommunications companies consistently come out towards the bottom of the range (scoring 65-70 out of 100). By contrasts internet and content players such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Netflix have much more satisfied customers and score 80+ – see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Customers are generally dissatisfied with telecoms companies

 

Source: American Customer Satisfaction index (http://www.theacsi.org/the-american-customer-satisfaction-index); STL Partners analysis

The story in the UK is similar.  The UK Customer Satisfaction Index, using a similar methodology to its US counterpart, places the Telecommunications and Media industry as the second-worst performer across 13 industry sectors scoring 71.7 in 2015 compared to a UK average of 76.2 and the best-performing sector, Non-food Retail, on 81.6.

Poor customer services scores are a lead indicator for poor financial performance

Most concerning for the telecoms industry is the work that ACSI has undertaken showing that customer satisfaction is linked to the financial performance of the overall economy and the performance of individual sectors and companies. The organisation states:

  • Customer satisfaction is a leading indicator of company financial performance. Stocks of companies with high ACSI scores tend to do better than those of companies with low scores.
  • Changes in customer satisfaction affect the general willingness of households to buy. As such, price-adjusted ACSI is a leading indicator of consumer spending growth and has accounted for more of the variation in future spending growth than any other single factor.

Source: American Customer Satisfaction index (http://www.theacsi.org/about-acsi/key-acsi-findings)  

In other words, consistently poor performance by all major players in the telecoms industry in the US and UK suggests aspirations of growth may be wildly optimistic. Put simply, why would customers buy more services from companies they don’t like? This bodes ill for the financial performance of telecoms operators going forward.

Senior management within telecoms knows this. They want to improve customer satisfaction by offering new and better services and customer care. But change has proved incredibly difficult and other more agile players always seem to beat operators to the punch. The next section shows why.

 

  • Introduction
  • Everyone loves to moan about telcos
  • A structural problem
  • So should we give up?
  • Customer satisfaction is proving elusive in mature markets
  • Telecoms operators perform materially worst on customer service than other players in the US and UK
  • Poor customer services scores are a lead indicator for poor financial performance
  • ‘One-function’ telecommunications technology stymies innovation and growth
  • Telecoms has always been an ‘infrastructure play’
  • …which means inflexibility and lack of innovation is hard-wired into the operating model
  • Why ‘Telco 2.0’ is so important for operators
  • Telco 2.0 aspirations remain thwarted
  • Technology can truly ‘change the game’ for operators

 

  • Figure 1: Customers are generally dissatisfied with telecoms companies
  • Figure 2: Historically, capital deployment has driven telecoms revenue
  • Figure 3: Financial & operational metrics for Infrastructure player (Vodafone) vs Platform (Google) & Product Innovator (Unilever)