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

Why CFOs must 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.

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.

 

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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, 2020

R&D and capex telcos and hyperscalers

Source: Company accounts, STL Partners analysis

Proof point: Internet players are vastly more valuable than telecoms operators – and now they generate more revenue, too

Revenue and market capitalisation, Telco v Internet, comparing 2017 and 2020/2022

telcos internet players revenue market cap 2017 2020Note: Telecoms industry data represents 165 telecoms operators for 2017, but 78 top operators for 2020. However, operators outside the top 78 are unlikely to have a significant impact on revenues or market capitalisation. Source: Company accounts, stock market data, STL Partners analysis

 

Seven internet giants’ market capitalisation is bigger than the 78 top 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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What can telcos learn from Silicon Valley?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four major routes to outside-in innovation

Open Innovation

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

For STL Partners, this raises a series of questions:

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

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

What are telcos hoping to do in Silicon Valley?

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

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

The key drivers for innovation outposts include:

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

Table of contents

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

Related research

 

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How mobile operators can build winning 5G business models

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The chartpack for this report is available to download as an additional file

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

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

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5G: A catalyst for change

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

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

Table of Contents

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

 

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Elisa Automate: Growing value with sisu

Elisa’s transformation journey

Almost every telco aspires to innovate and become a ‘digital services player’, selling more than just data, voice, messages, and entertainment services, but few have made significant inroads to this aim.

Yet Elisa, the market leader in Finland, which has a population of only just over 5.5 million people, can stake a claim to having achieved more than most.

The Finnish word ‘sisu’ has no direct English translation. It means a spirit of determination, independence and fortitude, and is considered by some Finns to be the heart of Finnish character.

Elisa and the other Finnish telcos certainly have plenty of sisu. They have resolutely charted their own course and prospered, with Elisa quadrupling its market valuation over the last ten years.

Elisa’s share price has quadrupled since 2009 

Source: Yahoo Finance

The genesis of Elisa Automate

Elisa’s overall strategy was based on a sound but uncommon piece of customer insight: nobody knows what a megabit of data actually is, so it is crazy to price data services based on the volume of data used. So Elisa and the other players in the Finnish market moved to unlimited data packages prices by speed (see report Sense check: Can data growth save telco revenues?).

The consequences of this decision have been that Finnish customers use a lot of data, and secondly, Finnish operators have built out coverage so that they can enjoy using it whenever and wherever.

This means that Elisa has to deliver a lot of data across its network.

Elisa’s data traffic has grown massively

Source: Elisa

Elisa has grown its revenues and EBIT too

Source: Elisa

Necessity can be the mother of invention

To manage profitability in a market where use and therefore data volume is effectively unlimited, Elisa had to tie its costs firmly to its revenues, and to do so elected to keep the ratios of capex and opex to revenue flat. This requires a very clear focus on cost management, and a determination to take every step possible to do so.

Elisa’s capex/revenue ratio is surprisingly low and stable

Elisa capex ratio

 

Source: Elisa

Out of this need came a powerful drive for automation: not to simply cut costs or reduce headcount, but to make the company as efficient as possible.

The result is Elisa Automate, a fully automated Network Operations Centre (NOC), one of three new business concepts that it is selling to others (in this case, telcos), along with Elisa SmartFactory and its video conferencing aggregation service.

Elisa is clearly succeeding, and not just in its financial results. For example, 18% of Finnish business customers say that it is the most innovative IT actor in its market, compared to 6% for CGI and 5% for Fujitsu.

STL Partners has long watched Elisa’s progress with a high degree of fascination. Elisa and its Finnish peers are a little like the Galapagos Islands of telecoms evolution but marked extraordinary by their distinctive approaches rather than extreme geographical isolation.

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Elisa: creating an innovator
  • Building a stable foundation for innovation
  • Making the most of Finland’s advantages
  • The genesis of Elisa Automate
  • The early drivers of automation
  • The move towards ‘zero touch’
  • Augmenting human intelligence
  • Automation supports rapid mobile service revenue growth
  • Commercialising the opportunity
  • The value proposition
  • Customer spotlight: Orange Spain
  • Conclusions

Figures:

  1. Elisa’s share price has quadrupled since 2009
  2. Elisa’s data traffic has grown massively
  3. Elisa has grown its revenues and EBIT too
  4. Elisa’s Capex/Revenue ratio is surprisingly low and stable
  5. Elisa shares data showing network performance improvements through automation

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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Why fibre is on fire again

Introduction

Fibre to the home is growing at a near-explosive rate

Every company faces the problems of mature markets, disappointing revenues and tough decisions on investment. Everyone agrees that fibre delivers the best network experience, but until recently most companies rejected fibre as too costly.

Now, 15 of the world’s largest phone companies have decided fibre to the home is a solution. Why are so many now investing so heavily?

Here are some highlight statistics:

  • On 26th July 2018, AT&T announced it will pass 5 million locations with fibre to the home in the next 12 months, after reaching 3 million new locations in the last year.[1] Fibre is now a proven money-maker for the US giant, bringing new customers every quarter.
  • Telefónica Spain has passed 20 million premises – over 70% of the addressable population – and continues at 2 million a year.
  • Telefónica Brazil is going from 7 million in 2018 to 10 million in 2020.
  • China’s three giants have 344 million locations connected.[2]
  • Worldwide FTTH connections grew 23% between Q1 2017 and Q1 2018.[3]
  • In June 2018, China Mobile added 4.63 million broadband customers, nearly all FTTH.[4]
  • European FTTH growth in 2017 was 20%.[5]
  • In India, Mukesh Ambani intends to connect 50 million homes at Reliance Jio.[6]

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Even the most reluctant carriers are now building, including Deutsche Telekom and British Telecom. In 2015, BT Openreach CTO Peter Bell said FTTH was “impossible” for Britain because it was too expensive.[7] Now, BT is hiring 3,500 engineers to connect 3 million premises, with 10 million more homes under consideration.[8]

Credit Suisse believes that for an incumbent, “The cost of building fibre is less than the cost of not building fibre.”

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Fibre to the home is growing at a near-explosive rate
  • Why the change?
  • Strategies of leading companies
  • Frontrunners
  • Moving toward rapid growth
  • Relative newcomer
  • The newly converted
  • Alternate carriers
  • Naysayers
  • U.S. regionals: CenturyLink, Frontier and Windstream
  • The Asian pioneers
  • Two technologies to consider
  • Ten-gigabit equipment
  • G.fast
  • The hard question: How many will decide to go wireless only?

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Paris area fibre coverage – Orange has covered most of the capital
  • Figure 2: European fibre growth
  • Figure 3: Top five European incumbents, stock price July 2016 – July 2018
  • Figure 4: DT CEO Tim Höttges and Bavarian Prime Minister Dr. Markus Söder announce a deal to fibre nearly all of Bavaria, part financed by the government

[1] https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/11-fib/715-at-t-fiber-run-rate-going-from-3m-to-5m-year

[2] https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/8-fnn/713-china-1-1b-4g-400m-broadband-328m-fibre-home-rapid-growth

[3] http://point-topic.com/free-analysis/world-broadband-statistics-q1-2018/

[4] https://www.chinamobileltd.com/en/ir/operation_m.php

[5] http://www.ftthcouncil.eu/documents/PressReleases/2018/PR%20Market%20Panorama%20-%2015-02-2018-%20FINAL.pdf

[6] https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/11-fib/703-india-unreal-jio-wants-50m-ftth-in-1100-cities

[7] G.fast Summit May 2015

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/feb/01/bt-openreach-hire-3000-engineers-drive-to-fill-broadband-not-spots

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Solution: Transforming to the Telco Cloud Service Provider (Part 2)

Introduction

Structural barriers preventing telecoms business model change

In our recent report, Problem: Telecoms technology inhibits operator business model change (Part 1), we explained how financial and operational processes that have been adopted in response to investor requirements and regulation have prevented operators from innovating.

Operator management teams make large investments over seven- or eight-year investment cycles and are responsible for deploying and managing the networks from which revenues flow.  As we show in Figure 1 below, operators therefore have much more of their costs tied up in capital expenditure than platform players or product innovators.  Furthermore, they need large quantities of operating expenditure to maintain and operate their networks.  The result is a rather small percentage of revenue – we estimate around 15% – which they devote to activities focused on innovation: marketing, sales, customer care, and product and service development (the green section of the bars).  This compares unfavourably to a platform player, such as Google, which we estimate devotes around 35% of revenue to these activities.  The difference is even more pronounced with a product innovator, such as Unilever, which minimises capital investment by outsourcing some of its manufacturing and all product distribution and so devotes nearly 70% of revenue to ‘innovation’ activities.

 

Figure 1: The telecoms cost structure inhibits innovation

Sources: Company accounts; STL Partners estimates and analysis

Seen in this context, how can anyone expect operators to be successful at developing new platforms, channels, or products?

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Structural barriers preventing telecoms business model change
  • Digital service innovation is proving tough for operators
  • Structural barriers coming down?
  • Virtualisation + cloud business practices could transform the telecoms business model
  • The drive for virtualisation is underway
  • Cost reduction and a new cost structure
  • Cloud business practices are a critical component in the future telco
  • The Telco Cloud Service Provider (TCSP)
  • Two benefits from becoming a Telco Cloud Service Provider
  • Product and service creation in the Telco Cloud Service Provider
  • From incremental and slow innovation today…
  • …to radical and fast innovation in the TCSP of tomorrow

 

  • Figure 1: The telecoms cost structure inhibits innovation
  • Figure 2: Telcos have struggled to launch successful digital services
  • Figure 3: Cloud and virtualisation can allow a telco to transform its cost structure
  • Figure 4: Cloud business practices – key principles
  • Figure 5: Defining the Telco Cloud Service Provider
  • Figure 6: Telco Cloud can spur transformation across the entire telco business
  • Figure 7: Product development – telco today vs Telco Cloud Service Provider

Telco Cloud: Translating New Capabilities into New Revenue

If you don’t subscribe to our research yet, you can download the free report as part of our sample report series.

Preface

The telecoms industry is embracing network virtualisation and software defined networking, which are designed to both cut costs and enable greater agility. Whilst most operators have focused on the operating and capital cost benefits of virtualisation, few have attempted to define the range of potential new services that could be enabled by these new technologies and even fewer have attempted to forecast the associated revenue growth.

This report outlines:

  • Why and how network functions virtualisation (NFV), software defined networking (SDN) and distributed compute capabilities could generate new revenue growth for telcos.
  • The potential new services enabled by these technologies.
  • The revenue growth that a telco might hope to achieve.

This report does not discuss the cost, technical, organisational, market or regulatory challenges operators will need to overcome in making the transition to SDN and NFV. STL Partners (STL) also acknowledges that operators are still a long way from developing and launching some of the new services discussed in this paper, not least because they require capabilities that do not exist today. Nevertheless, by mapping the opportunity landscape for operators, this report should help to pave the way to fully capturing the transformative potential of SDN and NFV.

To sense-check our findings, STL has tested the proposed service concepts with the industry. The new services identified and modelled by STL were shared with approximately 25 telecoms operators. Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) kindly commissioned and supported this research and testing programme.

However, STL wrote this report independently, and the views and conclusions contained herein are those of STL.

Introduction

The end of growth in telecoms…?

Most telecoms operators are facing significant competitive pressure from rival operators and players in adjacent sectors. Increased competition among telcos and Internet players has driven down voice and messaging revenues. Whilst demand for data services is increasing, STL forecasts that revenue growth in this segment will not offset the decline in voice and messaging revenue (see Figure 5).

 Figure 5: Illustrative forecast: revenue decline for converged telco in advanced market

Source: STL Partners analysis

Figure 5 shows STL forecasts for revenues over a six-year horizon for an illustrative converged telco operating in an advanced market. The telco, its market characteristics and the modelling mechanics are described in detail later in this report.

We believe that existing ‘digital’ businesses (representing consumer digital services, such as IPTV and managed services for enterprises) will not grow significantly on an organic basis over the next six years (unless operators are able to radically transform their business). Note, this forecast is for a converged telco (mobile and fixed) addressing both enterprise and consumer segments; we anticipate that revenues could face a steeper decline for non-converged, consumer-only or enterprise-only players.

Given that telcos’ cost structures are quite rigid, with high capex and opex requirements to manage infrastructure, the ongoing decline in core service revenue will continue to put significant pressure on the core business. As revenues decline, margins fall and telcos’ ability to invest in innovation is curbed, making it even harder to find new sources of revenue.

New technologies can be a catalyst for telco transformation

However, STL believes that new technologies have the potential to both streamline the telco cost structure and spur growth. In particular, network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) offer many potential benefits for telcos.

Virtualisation has the potential to generate significant cost savings for telcos. Whilst the process of managing a transition to NFV and SDN may be fraught with challenges and be costly, it should eventually lead to:

  • A reduction in capex – NFV will lead to the adoption of generic common-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. This hardware will be lower cost, able to serve multiple functions and will be more readily re-usable. Furthermore, operators will be less tied to vendors’ proprietary platforms, as functions will be more openly interchangeable. This will increase competition in the hardware and software markets, leading to an overall reduction in capital investment.
  • Reduction of opex through automation. Again, as services will be delivered via software there will be less cost associated with the on-going management and maintenance of the network infrastructure. The network will be more-centrally managed, allowing more efficient sharing of resources, such as space, power and cooling systems.
  • Product lifecycle management improvements through more integrated development and operations (devops)

In addition to cost savings, virtualisation can also allow operators to become more agile. This agility arises from two factors:

  1. The nature of the new infrastructure
  2. The change in cost structure

As the new infrastructure will be software-centric, as opposed to hardware-centric, greater levels of automation will be possible. This new software-defined, programmable infrastructure could also increase flexibility in the creation, management and provisioning of services in a way that is not possible with today’s infrastructure, leading to greater agility.

Virtualisation will also change the telco cost structure, potentially allowing operators to be less risk-averse and thereby become more innovative. Figure 6 below shows how virtualisation can impact the operating model of a telco. Through virtualisation, an infrastructure player becomes more like a platform or product player, with less capital tied-up in infrastructure (and the management of that infrastructure) and more available to spend on marketing and innovation.

Redefining the cost structure could help spur transformation across the business, as processes and culture begin to revolve less around fixed infrastructure investment and more-around software and innovation.

Figure 6: Virtualisation can redefine the cost structure of a telco

Source: STL Partners analysis

This topic is explored in detail in the recent Executive Briefings: Problem: Telecoms technology inhibits operator business model change (Part 1) and Solution: Transforming to the Telco Cloud Service Provider (Part 2).

 

  • Preface
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • The end of growth in telecoms…?
  • New technologies can be a catalyst for telco transformation
  • Defining ‘Telco Cloud’
  • How Telco Cloud enables revenue-growth opportunities for telcos
  • Connect services
  • Perform services
  • Capture, Analyse & Control services
  • Digital Agility services
  • Telco Cloud Services
  • Service Overview: Revenue vs. Ease of Implementation
  • 15 Service types defined (section on each)
  • The Revenue Opportunity
  • Model overview
  • Sizing the revenue potential from Telco Cloud services
  • Timeline for new service launch
  • Breaking down the revenues
  • Customer experience benefits
  • Conclusions
  • Appendix
  • Modelling Assumptions & Mechanics
  • Service Descriptions: Index of Icons

 

  • Figure 1: Defining Telco Cloud
  • Figure 2: Overview of Telco Cloud categories and services
  • Figure 3: Telco Cloud could boost revenues X% higher than the base case
  • Figure 4: Breakdown of Telco Cloud revenues in 2021
  • Figure 5: Illustrative forecast: revenue decline for converged telco in advanced market
  • Figure 6: Virtualisation can redefine the cost structure of a telco
  • Figure 7: Defining Telco Cloud
  • Figure 8: Telco Cloud Service Categories
  • Figure 9: Telco Cloud will enable immersive live VR experiences
  • Figure 10: Telco Cloud can enable two-way communication in real-time
  • Figure 11: Overview of Telco Cloud categories and services
  • Figure 12: Telco Cloud Services: Revenue versus ease of implementation
  • Figure 13: Telco X – Base case shows declining revenues
  • Figure 14: Telco X – Telco Cloud services increase monthly revenues by X% on the base case by Dec 2021
  • Figure 15: Telco X – Timeline of Telco Cloud service launch dates
  • Figure 16: Telco X (converged) – Net new revenue by service category (Dec 2021)
  • Figure 17: Telco Y (mobile only) – Net new revenue by service category (Dec 2021)
  • Figure 18 Telco Z (fixed only) – Net new revenue by service category (Dec 2021)
  • Figure 19: Modelling Mechanics

Reality Check: Are operators’ lofty digital ambitions unrealistic given slow progress to date?

Growing telco ambitions in new (digital) business models

Telco execs are bullish about long-term prospects for new digital business models

Respondents believe new business model revenues should reach nearly 25% of total telecom revenue by 2020

Despite recent evidence in Europe of material revenue decline from telecoms operators, the executives that STL Partners canvassed in its recent global survey  were relatively optimistic about the opportunities for revenue growth from new business models.  On average, executives felt that revenue from new digital business models  should reach 9% of total revenue in 2015 and this should rise to 24% by 2020 (see Figure 1).

In the case of 2015, 9% is way beyond what will be achieved by most players and probably represents respondents’ theoretical target that their organisation should have achieved by the end of this year if management had invested more effort in building new revenue sources earlier: it is where their organisation should be in an ideal world.   One of the few operators in the world that is at this level of digital revenues is NTT DoCoMo.  We explore its digital activities later in this report.

24% of telecoms revenue coming from new business models in 2020 is also ambitious but STL Partners considers this a realistic target and one which would probably result in the overall telecoms market being no bigger than it was in 2013 – see the forecast on page 15.

Two drivers of digital business model importance to operators: digital revenue growth and core business revenue decline

A key question for the industry is whether the 2020 target can be achieved by growing material new business model revenues in tandem with limited voice, messaging and connectivity decline or whether it could result from an implosion of these Telco 1.0 revenues.  In other words, modest new business model revenue could be 24% of a very much smaller overall telecoms market if voice, messaging and connectivity revenues suffer a precipitous decline.

Figure 2 charts the quarterly revenue for six European markets and illustrates a range of trajectories for telecoms revenues.  At one extreme is Denmark where telecoms revenue in Q3 2014 was nearly 40% lower than Q1 2008.  At the other extreme are the UK and French markets where the figure is 3% and 7% lower respectively.  Clearly, if most telecoms markets follow the Danish route then the opportunity for modest digital revenues to become important to operators grows substantially.  Interestingly, in most of the six markets, 2013 and 2014 has seen revenues stabilising (at least among operators that publish accounts which split out those markets over the time period) and in some cases, such as the UK and Netherlands, growth has been achieved from the lows of 2012.

STL Partners’ global forecast lies somewhere between the two extremes outlined in Figure 2: we believe that core telecoms revenues will decline by around 25% between 2013 and 2020.  If this is indeed the case then for digital revenues to represent 24% of telecoms revenue, they will need to be very material – around $250 billion for mobile telecoms alone!

Figure 1: Digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020

Source: STL Partners/Telco 2.0 Operator Survey, November 2014, n=55

Figure 2: Telecoms quarterly revenue in 6 European markets

Source: Telecoms company accounts, STL Partners analysis
Note: Revenue is for operators reporting quarterly figures for each market. As a result, not all market revenue is captured.

Belief in the importance of future telecoms business models varies greatly by business function and by geography

Respondents from Network functions were most bullish; IT respondents most pessimistic

Where there were 10 or more respondents in a functional or geographic group, we examined the responses for that group.  As Figure 3 shows, there were wide differences in ambition for digital services by functional area with respondents from Network being far more bullish than those in IT:  the former suggesting 30% of 2020 revenue should come from digital services compared with only 14% from IT.

North American respondents seem to anticipate unrealistic digital business growth

There was a consistency among functional groups in their ambitions for digital services: those that were more bullish for 2015 remained more so for 2020.  This contrasted with the regional split in which North American respondents believed the ‘correct’ proportion of revenue from digital services in 2015 is 7% (compared with 10% for Europe and Asia) rising to a formidable 26% in 2020.  This suggests that North American executives remain confident that their organisations can compete effectively in consumer and enterprise digital markets despite the US, in particular, being the home market of many formidable digital players: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, Twitter, and so forth.

To put the North American perspective in perspective: if STL Partners’ global forecast for core telecoms services holds true in the US then a $120bn revenue telecoms company, such as Verizon, will lose around $30 billion in core service revenues by 2020.  In this scenario, for Verizon to end up the same size as it is now in 2020, it will have to replace this $30 billion with new digital business revenues (which would equate roughly to the 26% proposed by North American respondents).  In our deep-dive analysis of Verizon for the Telco 2.0 Transformation Index, STL Partners estimated that Verizon generated around $2.9 billion in Telco 2.0 digital business model revenues (around 2.4% of total revenue) in 2013.  For that $2.9 billion to grow to $30 billion by 2020 requires compound annual growth of a whopping 40% per year: a tall order indeed and one that is almost certainly unrealistic.

Middle Eastern respondents least ambitious: signs of complacency?

Unsurprisingly, the Middle Eastern respondents whose companies are enjoying continued growth in core telecoms services and, in many countries advantageous regulatory environments, were least bullish about digital services in the near and longer term.  The danger for this region is complacency: operators are in a similar position to those in Europe in 2007.  European operators failed to prepare early enough for core service decline – most digital activities were not kicked off until 2012 by which time aggregate revenue from voice, messaging and connectivity was either flat or in decline in most markets.

Figure 3: Average digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020 by function and geography

Source: STL Partners/Telco 2.0 Operator Survey, November 2014, n=55

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Growing telco ambitions in new (digital) business models
  • Telco execs are bullish about long-term prospects for new digital business models
  • Belief in the importance of future telecoms business models varies greatly by business function and by geography
  • Telco execs’ views on digital business Opex and Capex investment are closely correlated with their views on revenue growth
  • Calculating a telecoms digital business P&L:  Moving from investment in 2015 to (unrealistically?) strong returns in 2020
  • STL Partners’ forecast suggests that new digital business should be 25+% of revenue by 2020 to avoid long-term industry decline
  • The outlook for Telco 1.0 business models is not positive and Telco 2.0 business models are required to fill the gap
  • Investment in new business models is increasing but results from the Telco 2.0 Transformation Index suggest it is still inadequate to engender success
  • Scale of NTT DoCoMo’s ‘new digital business’ suggests bold vision is realistic for some players
  • Long-term downward trend in Telco 1.0 core services in Japan with digital services a ‘gap-filler’
  • Smart Life: A cloud-based (OTT) consumer-centric approach to digital services
  • A digital business has fundamentally different characteristics to a telecoms business
  • 9 challenges to overcome and all are important
  • Overall, operator progress on all 9 challenges remains slow
  • Too little progress on core challenges from most operators
  • What next?  Forthcoming STL Partners’ Telco 2.0 research supporting telecoms transformation
  • Appendix 1: Survey details
  • Appendix 2: Telco 2.0 Transformation Index overview

 

  • Figure 1: Digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020
  • Figure 2: Telecoms quarterly revenue in 6 European markets
  • Figure 3: Average digital business model revenue ambition, 2015 and 2020 by function and geography
  • Figure 4: Average required Digital Business Opex and Capex, 2015 & 2020
  • Figure 5: Digital Business P&L for a $100 billion revenue telecoms operator, 2015 vs 2020, $ Billions
  • Figure 6: STL Partners’ global mobile telecoms forecast by opportunity area
  • Figure 7: STL Partners Telco 2.0 Transformation Index summary results, December 2014
  • Figure 8: NTT DoCoMo quarterly voice, data and ‘other’ revenue, Mar 2007-Sep 2014
  • Figure 9: Smart Life – NTT DoCoMo’s customer-centric approach to transformation
  • Figure 10: Different companies…different business models – the change that telecoms operators are trying to make
  • Figure 11: 9 challenges scored by ‘importance for operator digital transformation and future success’
  • Figure 12: The degree to which operators have addressed the 9 challenges
  • Figure 13: Strategists are much more bullish than other functions about their organisation’s transformation progress
  • Figure 14: Lots to change…and its taking too long
  • Figure 15: Operators appear to be at very different stages of resolving the ‘Big 6’ challenges
  • Figure 16: Defining Digital Services