Building telco edge: Why multi-cloud will dominate

Defining the edge

Edge computing will remain a focus for telecoms operators for the foreseeable future, both to optimise the network and enable new, third-party applications and services. In fact, 70% of survey respondents believe investment levels of edge computing for supporting third-party applications will increase over that for internal network infrastructure in the next five years.

This report explores how telecoms operators will build their edge computing business, infrastructure and services, and the role multi-cloud will take in this. Before diving into this, it is worth defining this confusing and complicated space. At a high level, edge computing refers to cloud-native computing (and storage) being brought closer to the end-device or source of the data, rather than centralised in a remote, hyperscale data centre.

The telecoms industry has been exploring the role of edge computing for over four years, starting when network functions virtualisation (NFV) began to make real strides. The initial interest was in mobile edge computing (MEC), but this has now evolved to multi-access edge computing to incorporate fixed networks and non-cellular networks too. Outside telecoms, there is edge compute capacity in regional data centres provided by third parties centres, e.g. data centre operators and cloud providers. These are often in untapped geographies, such as Tier 2 cities. In addition, there is edge compute at customer premises, e.g. business campuses or factories.

We outline the scope of edge computing below. There is a full spectrum of possible edges from devices to regional data centres. Some of these edge locations may be owned and/or operated by communications services providers (CSPs). The CSP edge contains the most relevant types of edge for CSPs: network edge and on-premises enterprise edge. They contain infrastructure either owned by a telecoms operator (e.g. a CSP data centre) or operated by one (e.g. network CPE at a customer site).

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The spectrum of edge computing locations

There are two main types of applications that can be processed on CSP edge computing:

  1. Telecoms applicationsthat run, protect and monitor the network – i.e. CSP’s own network functions;
  2. Consumer/enterpriseapplications – which CSPs may provide for third-party customers.

STL Partners has been supporting the telecoms industry in exploring the opportunity to provide services and solutions to third parties by leveraging their edge computing infrastructure. These could include enterprises deploying IT applications locally to comply with data sovereignty laws, developers using edge to optimise their applications, IoT solution vendors using edge to reduce latency for mission-critical applications, etc. Our survey highlighted the importance for CSPs in investing in the infrastructure for these applications. On average, CSPs believe that 40% of edge computing investments in the next 1-2 years will be used to support these applications, rather than be used for network functions infrastructure.

Defining edge computing within telecoms

Although the edge computing market is nascent, there are emerging use cases that seek to take advantage of edge computing’s main benefits. These include offering the flexibility that comes with the cloud more local to reduce latency, improving reliability, keeping data secure, and offloading processing from the end-device. However, use cases are at different stages of maturity; some will be deployed in the next two years in early adopter markets, others are more than five years away from commercial, wide scale deployments.

The maturity stages of edge computing use cases

Telecoms operators are keen to leverage edge computing to grow revenues, particularly in their enterprise business. There are different strategies emerging: one is to focus on enterprise connectivity and networking, another on developing a horizontal, cloud-like platform for developers, while a third focuses on building end-to-end solutions for specific verticals.

Types of edge services and business models

The challenge with any new technology is that it takes time to educate the market and engage the innovators who will build the applications that will leverage its potential. Edge computing is complex, because it has a unique ecosystem that spans several industries: cloud, telecoms, industrial, traditional ICT, plus specific vertical sectors. In order to build an edge-based solution, there needs to be adequate infrastructure (facility, hardware, connectivity, edge cloud) plus the applications and services, and these need to be integrated so they work together seamlessly.

The edge value chain

Regardless of the business model and services strategy a telecoms operator chooses to pursue, it will need to first determine how best to build its edge infrastructure to optimise results. This report will dive into three key questions CSPs are still trying to evaluate:

  1. How should telecoms operators build edge computing infrastructure that can support both enterprise applications and network functions?
  2. To what extent should telecoms operators work with partners, particularly the hyperscalers, to build their edge and take services to market?
  3. How can telecoms operators effectively work with the ecosystem?

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Executive Summary
    • There are three key factors to consider to build the CSP edge
    • The edge will be multi-(edge) cloud
    • CSPs must build capabilities and partnerships today to support their edge business
  • Defining the edge
  • Laying down the foundations: Options for building the CSP edge
    • Convergence
    • Organisation
    • Hyperscaler partnerships
  • There is no single edge – it is multi-cloud
  • Conclusions and recommendations: What CSPs should do next
  • Index

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Microsoft, Affirmed and Metaswitch: What does it mean for telecoms?

What is Microsoft doing, and should telcos be worried?

Over the past two years, Microsoft and its cloud business unit Azure have intensified and deepened their involvement in the telecoms vertical. In 2020, this included the acquisition of two leading independent vendors of cloud-native network software, Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch. This move surprised many industry observers, as it represented an intensification of Microsoft’s involvement in telco networking.

In addition, in September 2020, Microsoft announced its ‘Azure for Operators’ strategy. This packages up all the elements of Microsoft’s and Azure’s infrastructure and service offerings for the telecoms industry – including those provided by Affirmed and Metaswitch – into a more comprehensive, end-to-end portfolio organised around Microsoft’s concept of a ‘carrier-grade cloud’: a cloud that is truly capable of supporting and delivering the distinct performance and reliability that telcos require from their network functions, as opposed to the mainstream cloud devoted to enterprise IT.

In this report, our discussion of Microsoft’s strategy and partnership offer to telcos is our own interpretation based on our research, including conversations with executives from Microsoft, Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch.

We examine Microsoft’s activities in the telecoms vertical in the light of three central questions:

  • What is Microsoft doing in telecoms, and what are its intentions?
  • How should telcos respond to Microsoft’s moves and those of comparable hyperscale cloud providers? Should they consume the hyperscalers’ telco cloud products, compete against the hyperscalers, or collaborate with them?
  • And what would count as success for telcos in relationship to Microsoft and the other hyperscalers? Are there any lessons to be learned from what is happening already?

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Microsoft’s telecom timeline

The last couple of years has seen Microsoft and Azure increasing their involvement in telecoms infrastructure and software while building partnerships with telcos around the world. This march into telecoms stepped up a level with Microsoft’s acquisition in 2020 of two independent virtual network function (VNF) vendors with a strong presence in the mobile core, among other things: Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch. Microsoft was not previously known for its strength in telco network software, and particularly the mobile domain – prompting the question: what exactly was it doing in telecoms?

The graphic below illustrates some of the key milestones in Microsoft’s steady march into telecoms.

Microsoft’s move on telecoms

Microsoft’s five partnership and service models

Microsoft Azure’s key initiatives over the past two years have been to expand its involvement in telecoms, culminating in Microsoft’s acquisition of Affirmed and Metaswitch, and the launch of the Azure for Operators portfolio.

As a result of these initiatives, we believe there are five models of partnership and service delivery that Microsoft is now proposing to operators, addressing the opportunities arising from a convergence of network, cloud and compute. Altogether, these five models are:

Five business models for partnerships

  • A classic telco-vendorrelationship (e.g. with Affirmed or Metaswitch) – helping telcos to evolve their own cloud-native network functions (CNFs), and cloud infrastructure and operations
  • The delivery and management of VNFs and CNFs as a cloud service, or ‘Network Functions-as-a-Service’ (NFaaS)
  • Enabling operators to pursue a hybrid-cloud operating model supporting the delivery of their own vertical-specific and enterprise applications and services, or Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)
  • Rolling out Azure edge-cloud data centres into telco and enterprise edge locations to serve as a cloud delivery platform for third-party application developers providing low latency-dependent and high-bandwidth services, or ‘Network-as-a-Cloud Platform’ (NaaCP)
  • Using such Azure edge clouds – in enterprise and neutral facilities alongside telco edge locations – as the platform for full-fledged ‘net compute’ services, whether these are developed collaboratively with operators or not.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Microsoft wants to be a win-win partner
    • What should telcos and others do?
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
    • What is Microsoft doing, and should telcos be worried?
  • What has Microsoft done?
    • Microsoft’s telecom timeline
  • What is Microsoft’s strategy?
    • Microsoft’s five partnership and service models
    • The ‘Azure for Operators’ portfolio completes the set
    • 5G, cloud-native and net compute: Microsoft places itself at the heart of telco industry transformation
    • Cellular connectivity – particularly 5G – is pivotal
  • Telco-hyperscaler business models: What should telcos do?
    • Different hyperscalers have different telco strategies: comparison between Azure, AWS and Google Cloud
    • What should telcos do? Compete, consume or collaborate?
  • Microsoft’s ecosystem partnership model: What counts as success for telcos?
    • More important to grow the ecosystem than share of the value chain
    • Real-world examples: AT&T versus Verizon
  • Conclusion: Telcos should stay in the net compute game – and Microsoft wants be a partner
  • Appendix 1: Analysis of milestones of Microsoft’s journey into telecoms
  • Appendix 2: Opportunities and risks of different types of telco-hyperscaler partnership
  • Index

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Growing B2B2X: Taking telcos beyond connectivity and 5G

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The telecoms industry is looking to revive growth

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

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

New purpose, new role

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

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

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

Figure 2: Potential telco roles beyond traditional connectivity

Source: STL Partners

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Clearer on the vision, unclear on the execution

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents

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

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ngena SD-WAN: scaling innovation through partnership

Introducing ngena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shifting enterprise needs

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

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

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

Key enterprise networking challenges

Source: STL Partners, SD-WAN mini series

The rise of SD-WAN: 2014 to present

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

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

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

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

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

The challenge of building a connectivity platform

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

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents

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

Telco edge computing: What’s the operator strategy?

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Edge computing can help telcos to move up the value chain

The edge computing market and the technologies enabling it are rapidly developing and attracting new players, providing new opportunities to enterprises and service providers. Telco operators are eyeing the market and looking to leverage the technology to move up the value chain and generate more revenue from their networks and services. Edge computing also represents an opportunity for telcos to extend their role beyond offering connectivity services and move into the platform and the application space.

However, operators will be faced with tough competition from other market players such as cloud providers, who are moving rapidly to define and own the biggest share of the edge market. Plus, industrial solution providers, such as Bosch and Siemens, are similarly investing in their own edge services. Telcos are also dealing with technical and business challenges as they venture into the new market and trying to position themselves and identifying their strategies accordingly.

Telcos that fail to develop a strategic approach to the edge could risk losing their share of the growing market as non-telco first movers continue to develop the technology and dictate the market dynamics. This report looks into what telcos should consider regarding their edge strategies and what roles they can play in the market.

Following this introduction, we focus on:

  1. Edge terminology and structure, explaining common terms used within the edge computing context, where the edge resides, and the role of edge computing in 5G.
  2. An overview of the edge computing market, describing different types of stakeholders, current telecoms operators’ deployments and plans, competition from hyperscale cloud providers and the current investment and consolidation trends.
  3. Telcos challenges in addressing the edge opportunity: technical, organisational and commercial challenges given the market
  4. Potential use cases and business models for operators, also exploring possible scenarios of how the market is going to develop and operators’ likely positioning.
  5. A set of recommendations for operators that are building their strategy for the edge.

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What is edge computing and where exactly is the edge?

Edge computing brings cloud services and capabilities including computing, storage and networking physically closer to the end-user by locating them on more widely distributed compute infrastructure, typically at smaller sites.

One could argue that edge computing has existed for some time – local infrastructure has been used for compute and storage, be it end-devices, gateways or on-premises data centres. However, edge computing, or edge cloud, refers to bringing the flexibility and openness of cloud-native infrastructure to that local infrastructure.

In contrast to hyperscale cloud computing where all the data is sent to central locations to be processed and stored, edge computing local processing aims to reduce time and save bandwidth needed to send and receive data between the applications and cloud, which improves the performance of the network and the applications. This does not mean that edge computing is an alternative to cloud computing. It is rather an evolutionary step that complements the current cloud computing infrastructure and offers more flexibility in executing and delivering applications.

Edge computing offers mobile operators several opportunities such as:

  • Differentiating service offerings using edge capabilities
  • Providing new applications and solutions using edge capabilities
  • Enabling customers and partners to leverage the distributed computing network in application development
  • Improving networkperformance and achieving efficiencies / cost savings

As edge computing technologies and definitions are still evolving, different terms are sometimes used interchangeably or have been associated with a certain type of stakeholder. For example, mobile edge computing is often used within the mobile network context and has evolved into multi-access edge computing (MEC) – adopted by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) – to include fixed and converged network edge computing scenarios. Fog computing is also often compared to edge computing; the former includes running intelligence on the end-device and is more IoT focused.

These are some of the key terms that need to be identified when discussing edge computing:

  • Network edge refers to edge compute locations that are at sites or points of presence (PoPs) owned by a telecoms operator, for example at a central office in the mobile network or at an ISP’s node.
  • Telco edge cloud is mainly defined as distributed compute managed by a telco  This includes running workloads on customer premises equipment (CPE) at customers’ sites as well as locations within the operator network such as base stations, central offices and other aggregation points on access and/or core network. One of the reasons for caching and processing data closer to the customer data centres is that it allows both the operators and their customers to enjoy the benefit of reduced backhaul traffic and costs.
  • On-premise edge computing refers to the computing resources that are residing at the customer side, e.g. in a gateway on-site, an on-premises data centre, etc. As a result, customers retain their sensitive data on-premise and enjoy other flexibility and elasticity benefits brought by edge computing.
  • Edge cloud is used to describe the virtualised infrastructure available at the edge. It creates a distributed version of the cloud with some flexibility and scalability at the edge. This flexibility allows it to have the capacity to handle sudden surges in workloads from unplanned activities, unlike static on-premise servers. Figure 1 shows the differences between these terms.

Figure 1: Edge computing types

definition of edge computing

Source: STL Partners

Network infrastructure and how the edge relates to 5G

Discussions on edge computing strategies and market are often linked to 5G. Both technologies have overlapping goals of improving performance and throughput and reducing latency for applications such as AR/VR, autonomous vehicles and IoT. 5G improves speed by increasing spectral efficacy, it offers the potential of much higher speeds than 4G. Edge computing, on the other hand, reduces latency by shortening the time required for data processing by allocating resources closer to the application. When combined, edge and 5G can help to achieve round-trip latency below 10 milliseconds.

While 5G deployment is yet to accelerate and reach ubiquitous coverage, the edge can be utilised in some places to reduce latency where needed. There are two reasons why the edge will be part of 5G:

  • First, it has been included in the 5Gstandards (3GPP Release 15) to enable ultra-low latency which will not be achieved by only improvements in the radio interface.
  • Second, operators are in general taking a slow and gradual approach to 5G deployment which means that 5G coverage alone will not provide a big incentive for developers to drive the application market. Edge can be used to fill the network gaps to stimulate the application market growth.

The network edge can be used for applications that need coverage (i.e. accessible anywhere) and can be moved across different edge locations to scale capacity up or down as required. Where an operator decides to establish an edge node depends on:

  • Application latency needs. Some applications such as streaming virtual reality or mission critical applications will require locations close enough to its users to enable sub-50 milliseconds latency.
  • Current network topology. Based on the operators’ network topology, there will be selected locations that can meet the edge latency requirements for the specific application under consideration in terms of the number of hops and the part of the network it resides in.
  • Virtualisation roadmap. The operator needs to consider virtualisation roadmap and where data centre facilities are planned to be built to support future network
  • Site and maintenance costs. The cloud computing economies of scale may diminish as the number of sites proliferate at the edge, for example there is a significant difference in maintaining 1-2 large data centres to maintaining 100s across the country
  • Site availability. Some operators’ edge compute deployment plans assume the nodes reside in the same facilities as those which host their NFV infrastructure. However, many telcos are still in the process of renovating these locations to turn them into (mini) data centres so aren’t yet ready.
  • Site ownership. Sometimes the preferred edge location is within sites that the operators have limited control over, whether that is in the customer premise or within the network. For example, in the US, the cell towers are owned by tower operators such as Crown Castle, American Tower and SBA Communications.

The potential locations for edge nodes can be mapped across the mobile network in four levels as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: possible locations for edge computing

edge computing locations

Source: STL Partners

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Recommendations for telco operators at the edge
    • Four key use cases for operators
    • Edge computing players are tackling market fragmentation with strategic partnerships
    • What next?
  • Table of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Definitions of edge computing terms and key components
    • What is edge computing and where exactly is the edge?
    • Network infrastructure and how the edge relates to 5G
  • Market overview and opportunities
    • The value chain and the types of stakeholders
    • Hyperscale cloud provider activities at the edge
    • Telco initiatives, pilots and plans
    • Investment and merger and acquisition trends in edge computing
  • Use cases and business models for telcos
    • Telco edge computing use cases
    • Vertical opportunities
    • Roles and business models for telcos
  • Telcos’ challenges at the edge
  • Scenarios for network edge infrastructure development
  • Recommendation
  • Index

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Cloud gaming: What’s the telco play?

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Drivers for cloud gaming services

Although many people still think of PlayStation and Xbox when they think about gaming, the console market represents only a third of the global games market. From its arcade and console-based beginnings, the gaming industry has come a long way. Over the past 20 years, one of the most significant market trends has been growth of casual gamers. Whereas hardcore gamers are passionate about frequent play and will pay more to play premium games, casual gamers play to pass the time. With the rapid adoption of smartphones capable of supporting gaming applications over the past decade, the population of casual/occasional gamers has risen dramatically.

This trend has seen the advent of free-to-play business models for games, further expanding the industry’s reach. In our earlier report, STL estimated that 45% of the population in the U.S. are either casual gamers (between 2 and 5 hours a week) or occasional gamers (up to 2 hours a week). By contrast, we estimated that hardcore gamers (more than 15 hours a week) make up 5% of the U.S. population, while regular players (5 to 15 hours a week) account for a further 15% of the population.

The expansion in the number of players is driving interest in ‘cloud gaming’. Instead of games running on a console or PC, cloud gaming involves streaming games onto a device from remote servers. The actual game is stored and run on a remote compute with the results being live streamed to the player’s device. This has the important advantage of eliminating the need for players to purchase dedicated gaming hardware. Now, the quality of the internet connection becomes the most important contributor to the gaming experience. While this type of gaming is still in its infancy, and faces a number of challenges, many companies are now entering the cloud gaming fold in an effort to capitalise on the new opportunity.

5G can support cloud gaming traffic growth

Cloud gaming requires not just high bandwidth and low latency, but also a stable connection and consistent low latency (jitter). In theory, 5G promises to deliver stable ultra-low latency. In practice, an enormous amount of infrastructure investment will be required in order to enable a fully loaded 5G network to perform as well as end-to-end fibre5G networks operating in the lower frequency bands would likely buckle under the load if lots of gamers in a cell needed a continuous 25Mbps stream. While 5G in millimetre-wave spectrum would have more capacity, it would require small cells and other mechanisms to ensure indoor penetration, given the spectrum is short range and could be blocked by obstacles such as walls.

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A complicated ecosystem

As explained in our earlier report, Cloud gaming: New opportunities for telcos?, the cloud gaming ecosystem is beginning to take shape. This is being accelerated by the growing availability of fibre and high-speed broadband, which is now being augmented by 5G and, in some cases, edge data centres. Early movers in cloud gaming are offering a range of services, from gaming rigs, to game development platforms, cloud computing infrastructure, or an amalgamation of these.

One of the main attractions of cloud gaming is the potential hardware savings for gamers. High-end PC gaming can be an extremely expensive hobby: gaming PCs range from £500 for the very cheapest to over £5,000 for the very top end. They also require frequent hardware upgrades in order to meet the increasing processing demands of new gaming titles. With cloud gaming, you can access the latest graphics processing unit at a much lower cost.

By some estimates, cloud gaming could deliver a high-end gaming environment at a quarter of the cost of a traditional console-based approach, as it would eliminate the need for retailing, packaging and delivering hardware and software to consumers, while also tapping the economies of scale inherent in the cloud. However, in STL Partners’ view that is a best-case scenario and a 50% reduction in costs is probably more realistic.

STL Partners believes adoption of cloud gaming will be gradual and piecemeal for the next few years, as console gamers work their way through another generation of consoles and casual gamers are reluctant to commit to a monthly subscription. However, from 2022, adoption is likely to grow rapidly as cloud gaming propositions improve.

At this stage, it is not yet clear who will dominate the value chain, if anyone. Will the “hyperscalers” be successful in creating a ‘Netflix’ for games? Google is certainly trying to do this with its Stadia platform, which has yet to gain any real traction, due to both its limited games library and its perceived technological immaturity. The established players in the games industry, such as EA, Microsoft (Xbox) and Sony (PlayStation), have launched cloud gaming offerings, or are, at least, in the process of doing so. Some telcos, such as Deutsche Telekom and Sunrise, are developing their own cloud gaming services, while SK Telecom is partnering with Microsoft.

What telcos can learn from Shadow’s cloud gaming proposition

The rest of this report explores the business models being pursued by cloud gaming providers. Specifically, it looks at cloud gaming company Shadow and how it fits into the wider ecosystem, before evaluating how its distinct approach compares with that of the major players in online entertainment, such as Sony and Google. The second half of the report considers the implications for telcos.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Cloud gaming: a complicated ecosystem
    • The battle of the business models
    • The economics of cloud gaming and pricing models
    • Content offering will trump price
    • Cloud gaming is well positioned for casual gamers
    • The future cloud gaming landscape
  • 5G and fixed wireless
  • The role of edge computing
  • How and where can telcos add value?
  • Conclusions

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

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Introduction

The Internet for Things and the Coordination Age

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

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

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

Examples include:

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

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

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

But … so what?

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

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

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

Figure 1: The three ages of telecoms / ICT

Source: STL Partners


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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: STL Partners

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

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

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

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

What’s wrong with the Internet of Things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The essential components of an Internet for Things

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Internet for Things (I4T)?

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

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

First, what is a “thing”?

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

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

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

Examples of things in the I4T

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

The Internet of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contents of the I4T report:

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

Figures:

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

 

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

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

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

 

How the Coordination Age changes the game

Introduction: Three ages of telecoms…

In this report, we elaborate on what we outlined in our recent report, The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, as a completely new paradigm for the telecoms industry. In the earlier report, we argue that this new age of telecoms – the Coordination Age – follows on from two previous, and still ongoing, paradigms for the telecoms industry: the Communications Age and the Information Age.

Chronologically, the three ages may be represented as follows:

The coordination age is beginning now

As the above diagram suggests, parts of the industry still exhibit characteristics of the earlier ages; and we are still working through the consequences of the paradigm shift from the Communications Age to the Information Age, even as we stand on the cusp of a further shift to the Coordination Age.

The report revisits our narrative of the three ages of telecoms to explore the different social, economic and cultural drivers and functions of telecoms in each period and the implications for telcos.

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Telecoms characteristics and functions have evolved over time

The fundamental service and business model characteristics of these three ages, as described in the previous report, are recapped in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2: Basic functions of telecoms in the three telco eras

telecoms functions across three ages

Source: STL Partners

The above table illustrates how the functions provided by telecoms services and networks across the three ages of the industry are radically different. In summary, we can say that:

  • In the Communications Age, telecoms networks and services were ‘physical’ in character: physical equipment and facilities delivering physical services; the core services being connectivity and communications centering on voice, which was transmitted by physical means (e.g. for voice, analogue electrical signals sent over wired or wireless networks).
  • In the Information Age, by contrast, while telecoms networks remained – initially, at least – physical in character and delivered increasingly advanced forms of connectivity, the services became digital. The ultimate expression of this is of course the Internet, which changed the role of the telco to that of providing the IP connectivity platform over which mainly third parties offered their web and digital services. Another way of putting this is that whereas telecoms network connectivity remained tied to physical hardware, the services were delivered via standardised software and compute devices: PCs and later smartphones and tablets. In the present era of NFV and SDN, the basis on which the connectivity itself is organised and controlled is now also migrating to (would-be) standardised software operating over COTS hardware.
  • The emerging Coordination Age of telecoms is not purely an extension of network and societal digitisation, but could be seen as a 180o reversal of its parameters, in this respect: instead of being a primarily physical connectivity system processing digital inputs to deliver digital services (as in the Information Age), the network becomes a compute- and software-centric system processing real-world inputs to deliver real-world outcomes. We will discuss further these aspects of the new paradigm later in this report. But examples of what we mean here include networked compute-driven applications around driverless cars, IoT, and automation of industrial and enterprise processes across many verticals.

The three telecoms ages correspond to different socio-economic and human functions

We set out how the general service and network characteristics of the Communications, Information and Coordination Ages relate to the different social, economic and human functions they serve.

Throughout this report, we describe what we see as some of the fundamental social, economic, cultural and technological drivers of the different telecoms networks and services across these three ages. The three ages represent distinct paradigms in which telecoms serves different needs and purposes.

We describe these socio-economic and cultural purposes through a simplified version of the psychoanalytical theories of Jacques Lacan. It seems legitimate to explore telecoms through this lens, as telecoms networks are human constructs, and telecoms services are social, economic and cultural in their purpose and value to modern society.

In brief, Jacques Lacan distinguishes between three interdependent orders of psychological experience: the ‘Real’, the ‘Imaginary’ and the ‘Symbolic’.

  • The ‘Real’ is the physical aspect of our existence: our bodies, the material universe, and the physiological determinants experience, including basic emotions
  • The ‘Imaginary’ refers to the sub-rational and sub-linguistic phenomena of mental experience, through which we form mental impressions of sensory experience (e.g. sights, sounds, etc.). Together with the emotional impact with which they are associated, these ‘imaginary’ elements form the foundation of our self-image and view of our place in the world
  • The third order is that of the ‘Symbolic’, which refers to language and other social, logical and cultural codes through which we give meaning to our lives, acquire knowledge, order our activities, and structure society and our relationships within it.

This is important because it provides a way to make sense of the paradigm shifts that have taken place throughout the industry’s history. And it also provides a narrative account of the human needs – including economic and social needs – that are invested in telecoms services. Understanding what customers want – and above all, what can offer real benefit to them – is the key to driving future value.

We argue this is relevant to the situation that telcos find themselves in today and to their strategic options for the future. In our view, telcos failed to adapt their business models to capitalise on the digital service opportunities of the Information Age. This was because the value drivers of the Information Age were so radically different from those that prevailed over the much longer time span of the Communications Age.

Learning the lessons from this previous paradigm shift will help telcos be more aware of how they need to adapt to another new paradigm – the Coordination Age – that is emerging. There may be only a very short window of opportunity for telcos to adjust their business models and organisations to become ‘coordinators’ of the network- and AI-based, automation-enabling and resource-optimising services of the near future.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Three Ages of Telecoms
  • Differing characteristics and functions of telecoms across the three ages
  • The three telecoms ages correspond to different socio-economic and human functions
  • Speaking, showing and doing: The three ages of telecoms
  • The Communications Age: A telecoms of the Real, mediated by voice
  • The Information Age: A telecoms of the Imaginary, mediated by the screen
  • The Coordination Age: A telecoms of outcomes, driven by active intelligence
  • Coordination services rely on contextual and physical data, and the physical aspects of networking
  • Summary: Characteristics and purposes of telecoms across its three ages
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendations: A new telco age brings new opportunities but also renewed responsibilities

Figures:

  1. The three ages of telecoms.
  2. Basic functions of telecoms in the three telco eras
  3. ‘Real’, physical characteristics of the Communications Age telecoms network and service
  4. The core telecoms service – circuit-switched telephony – in the first telecoms age
  5. Comparison of the social, service and technology characteristics of Communications Age and Information Age telecoms
  6. Permanent, virtual presence to others replaces real-time voice communications
  7. Driverless car ecosystem in the Coordination Age
  8. Comparison between the three telecoms eras

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Telcos in health – Part 2: How to crack the healthcare opportunity

This report is a follow-up from our first report Telcos in health – Part 1: Where is the opportunity? which looked at overarching trends in digital health and how telcos, global internet players, and health focused software and hardware vendors are positioning themselves to address the needs of resource-strained healthcare providers.

It also build on in depth case studies we did on TELUS Health and Telstra Health.

Telcos should invest in health if…

  • They want to build new revenue further up the IT value chain
  • They are prepared to make a long term commitment
  • They can clearly identify a barrier to healthcare access and/or delivery in their market

…Then healthcare is a good adjacent opportunity with strong long term potential that ties closely with core telco assets beyond connectivity:

  • Relationships with local regulators
  • Capabilities in data exchange, transactions processing, authentication, etc.

Telcos can help healthcare systems address escalating resourcing and service delivery challenges

Pressures on healthcare - ageing populations and lack of resources
Chart showing the dynamics driving challenges in healthcare systems

Telcos can help overcome the key barriers to more efficient, patient-friendly healthcare:

  • Permissions and security for sharing data between providers and patients
  • Surfacing actionable insights from patient data (e.g. using AI) while protecting their privacy

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Why telcos’ local presence makes them good candidates to coordinate the digital and physical elements of healthcare

  • As locally regulated organisations, telcos can position themselves as more trustworthy than global players for exchange and management of health data
  • Given their universal reach, telcos make good partners for governments seeking to improve access and monitor quality of healthcare, e.g.:
    • Telco-agnostic, national SMS shortcodes could be created to enable patients to access health information and services, or standard billing codes linked to health IT systems for physicians to send SMS reminders
    • Partner with health delivery organisations to ensure available mobile health apps meet best practice guidelines
    • Authentication and digital signatures for high-risk drugs like opioids
  • Healthcare applications need more careful development than most consumer sectors, playing to telcos’ strengths – service developers should not take a “fail fast” approach with people’s health

Telcos have further reach across the diverse  healthcare ecosystem than most companies

The complexity of healthcare systems - what needs to be linked
To coordinate healthcare, you need to make these things work together

However, based on the nine telco health case studies in this report, to successfully help healthcare customers adopt IoT, data-driven processes and AI, telcos must offer at least some systems integration, and probably develop much more health-specific IT solutions.

Case study overview: Depth of healthcare focus

Nine telcos shown on a spectrum of the kind of healthcare services they provide
Where Vodafone, AT&T, BT, Verizon, O2, Swisscom, Telstra, Telenor Tonic and TELUS Health fit on a spectrum of services to healthcare,

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Telcos in health – Part 1: Where is the opportunity?

Why is healthcare an attractive sector?

  • Healthcare systems – particularly in developed markets – must find ways to treat ageing populations with chronic illnesses in a more cost effective way.
  • Resource strained health providers have very limited internal IT expertise. This means healthcare is among the least digitised sectors, with high demand for end-to-end solutions.
  • The sensitive nature of health data means locally-regulated telcos may be able to build on positions of trust in their markets.
  • In emerging markets, there are huge populations with limited access to health insurance, information and treatment. Telcos may be able to leverage their brands and distribution networks to address these needs.
  • This report outlines how the digital health landscape is addressing these challenges, and how telcos can help

Four tech trends are supporting healthcare transformation – all underpinned by connectivity and integration for data sharing

These four trends are not separate – they all interrelate. The true value lies in enabling secure data transfer across the four areas, and presenting data and insights in a useful way for end-users, e.g. GPs don’t have the time to look at ten pages of a patient’s wearable data, in part because they may be liable to act on additional information.

Digital health solutions break down into three layers

Digital health solutions in 3 layers

This report explores how telcos can address opportunities across these three layers, as well as how they can partner or compete with other players seeking to support healthcare providers in their digital transformation.

Our follow up report looks at nine case studies of telcos’ healthcare propositions: Telcos in health – Part 2: How to crack the healthcare opportunity

The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms

The Coordination Age

The world is entering the Coordination Age, driven by growing needs for resource efficiency and enabled by new technologies such as AI, automation, IoT, 5G, etc. What does this mean, how is it different, how is it an opportunity, and what should telecoms industry players do?

Problems, problems, problems…

The telecoms industry’s big problem

The core telecoms industry is currently close to reaching maturity as the following chart illustrates.

Figure 1: Revenue growth is grinding to a halt

Source: Data from company filings, STL Partners analysis

This approaching maturity has taken many years to achieve and is built on decades of astonishing growth in the telecoms and ICT industries as shown by just a few data points in Figure 2.

Figure 2: 30 years of telecoms in context

Source: AT&T company reports, STL Partners analysis

We’ve used AT&T as a comparator as perhaps the world’s best-known telco, and because its 1988 revenues are readily accessible. The chart shows that AT&T has grown massively but also that recent growth has slowed.

It also shows how mobile and internet use has blossomed to mass-market adoption. No-one knew in 1988 that this is what would happen by 2018, or how it would happen. Most people would have thought you were talking about science fiction if you said there would be more mobiles than people in their lifetime, and that half the world would have access to most of the world’s information.

Yet it was clear that growth in telecoms lay ahead – it seemed like a kind of economic and social gravity that communications would grow a lot. The direction that the world would take was obvious and unavoidable. So many people were not yet connected, and so much was possible in terms of improving the world’s access to information using the technologies that were coming to fruition then.

What are the big problems the world needs to solve now?

It’s not a mystery now, of course. And while there’s plenty of work to do to make the world’s connectivity better and bring the second half of the global population online somehow, it’s unlikely to bring in masses of new revenues for telcos. So why the Coordination Age?

To create major growth, you need to solve some big, valuable problems. So, what are the big problems the world needs to solve?

There are some obvious candidates, e.g.:

  • mitigating climate change and minimising its effects
  • reducing the amount of waste and harmful by-products polluting the environment
  • the distribution and availability of human resources and services such as healthcare, education, employment, and entertainment
  • the availability of, and conflicts over, physical resources such as: water, fuel, power, food, land, etc…
  • global migration and increasingly hostile nationalism
  • concerns over increasingly skewed wealth distribution between the haves and have nots, and extreme poverty
  • a desire for greater business efficiency and productivity
  • concerns over employment due to automation and global economic changes.

Moreover, time is also a resource for people and business. Both want to make best use of their time – whether it is getting things done more effectively or enjoyably.

Making the most of what we have

STL Partners believes that these are all to some extent the manifestation of the same problem: the need to make the most efficient possible use of your/the world’s resources. In Figure 3 we call this helping to “make our world run better” for short.

Figure 3: How macro forces are creating a common global need

Source: STL Partners

It’s a widespread need

The underlying need for greater resource efficiency is widespread. While sustainability arguments are prominent symptoms of the problem, there are pressing needs being expressed in all areas of the economy for better utilisation of resources.

For example, most businesses are somewhere in the process of their own transformation using connected digital technologies. Almost every aspect of business, including product design, customer experience, production, delivery and value chain orchestration is being revolutionised by ‘digital’ technologies and applications.

Examples cited at the Total Telecom Congress in October 2018, included:

  • Brendan Ives, VP Telia, Division X, said that the top priority of 70% of 500 enterprises surveyed in the Nordics was resource efficiency, with cost control a distant second at 20%.
  • Henri Korpi, Executive Vice President, New Business Development, Elisa, described a new ‘Smart Factory’ application that it offers to enhance productivity.
  • Durdana Achakzai, Chief Digital Officer, Telenor Pakistan, described its Khushall Zamindar feature phone application for 6 million small-scale farmers in rural Pakistan, that gives them access to local weather and market information and helps to improve yields.

All of these are examples of where telcos are already thinking about or addressing customers’ needs with respect to resource efficiency, in all of these cases via a B2B application, but the concerns apply to consumers too.

Ipsos’s global survey on consumer concerns from July 2018 (Figure 4) gives a flavour of what people across the world worry about today. The colouring applied to categorise the issues is STL Partners’, based on our view of their relevance to resource utilisation and distribution (and hence the Coordination Age).

Figure 4: Global population worries reflect underlying concerns about the availability and distribution of resources

Source: Ipsos global survey, July 2018, STL Partners analysis

Clearly, the weighting of needs varies in different countries, but most of the most pressing concerns relate to the distribution of economic resources within society (red bars). Concerns on social resources such as education and healthcare (orange bars) are second in prominence, while more classic ‘environmental’ worries (grey bars) are slightly further down the list.

People’s concerns also vary with their current circumstances. The closer you are to the bread-line, the more likely you are to prioritise where your next meal is coming from over the long-term future. Hence there is a natural tendency for near-term concerns to feature more highly on the list.

Many other day-to-day concerns relate to the efficient use of time (another resource): prompt service, availability of resources on-demand, business productivity, etc.

The fundamental enabler needed is coordination: the ability to enable many different players, devices, solutions, etc., to work together across the economy. These players and assets are a diverse mixture of both physical and digital entities. The drive to allow them to work together must be widespread and ultimately systematic – hence the Coordination Age.

The thorny issue of sustainability

We now live in a world of seven billion people that uses 1.7 times its sustainable resources (Figure 5). The argument goes that if we keep on at this rate we will face major environmental and societal pains and problems.

Figure 5: What does “the world need now”?

Source: Global Footprint Network

Climate change is arguably one consequence of the over-use of resources. Not everyone buys in to such concerns, and it is a matter for each person to make their own mind up.

However, even traditionally highly conservative bodies like the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change Panel (IPCC) are sounding alarm bells. In its recent report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C”, the IPCC says we may not even have thirty years to avoid the worst problems.

The editorial in The New Scientist put it like this:

“We still have time to pull off a rescue. It will arguably be the largest project that humanity has ever undertaken – comparable with the two world wars, the Apollo programme, the cold war, the abolition of slavery, the Manhattan project, the building of the railways and the roll-out of sanitation and electrification, all in one. In other words, it will require us to strain every muscle of human ingenuity in the hope of a better future, if not for ourselves then at least for our descendants.”[1]

The challenge is huge, and it reaches across all economies and sectors, not just telecoms.

Enlightened self-interest

STL Partners believes that telcos and the telecoms industry can play a significant role in addressing these issues, and moreover that the industry should move in this direction for both business and social reasons.

This should not be treated as a PR opportunity as it sometimes has in the past, as a kind of fop to regulators and governments in exchange for regulatory preferences.

It is a serious and significant problem to solve for humanity – and solving such problems is also how industries create new value in the economy.

Nonetheless, STL Partners believes that if telecoms industry players genuinely take on the challenges of addressing these issues, it may well have a significant impact on their sometimes-troubled relationships with governments and regulators. It’s one thing to be a big economic player in a market, which most telcos are, and quite another to be a big economic and social partner in an economy.

By truly aligning these goals and interests with governments telcos can start to foster a new dialogue “what do we need to do together for our economy?” This requires a very different level of heart-and-soul engagement than a well-intentioned but peripheral gesture under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) banner.

Moving the needle…

Internally, the industry has long faced two self-defeating challenges.

First, the idea of ‘moving the needle’. So many new opportunities are dismissed because they simply don’t seem big enough for a telco to bother, and telcos continue to search for the next ‘killer app’ like mobile data or SMS.

Despite looking for many years, it still hasn’t been found. Yet somehow the telecoms industry has missed out on capitalising on social media, search, online commerce – pretty much all growth industries of the last twenty years.

Why? For many reasons, no doubt. But there has certainly been a kind of well-fed corporate complacency, a general aversion to commitment to new ideas, and a huge reduction in investment in R&D and innovation. Telcos’ R&D spends are minuscule compared to technology players. We will publish more on this soon, and why we think telcos need to change.

This has gone arm-in-arm with a failure to understand that new business models are not linear and predictable. A sound business case is all very well when you have a predictable business environment. This is typically the case when looking at incremental changes to existing businesses where the consequences are relatively predictable.

In new areas, especially where there are network effects and other unpredictable and non-linear relationships, it’s very hard to do. Even if you succeeded in making a numerical model, most would frown heavily at the assumptions and their consequences, and the decision-making process would stagnate on uncertainty.

Where companies have been successful in building new value, they have at some point made a serious management commitment against a need that they recognise will persist in their market, continued to invest in it, and be willing to admit and learn from mistakes. We would cite TELUS in Healthcare, and Vodafone’s M-PESA as examples where leadership has protected and nurtured the fragile flower of innovation through to growth.

… and moving the people

The second big internal challenge to change and growth has been much of the telecoms industry’s inability to excite its people to buy in to the uncertain and worrying process of change.

Change and its accompanying uncertainties are uncomfortable for most people, and they need support, guidance and ultimately leadership to see them through. Too often, companies only truly address change when they sense the ‘burning platform’ – a (usually threatening) reason that means they simply must abandon their current beliefs and behaviours.

And frankly, why should most employees care about, for example, their company ‘becoming digital’? They care about being paid, having a job with some status, and being reasonably comfortable with what they must do and who they do it with. They are working to support themselves and their families. To most, “becoming digital” sounds like another excuse for a round of job cuts – which in some cases it is.

Our argument is that there is now a powerful new job for telecoms companies to do in the Coordination Age, and that this means we all must change. If we don’t do that job and make those changes, the future will potentially be much worse for us and them as we age, and their kids as they grow.

We believe that the additional insight in the story as we now see it should make it compelling to customers, employees, governments and shareholders. But first, the management of the telecoms industry need to grasp it, improve it and lead the rest forward.

Contact us to get a full copy of the report.

Contents:

  • Executive summary
  • Problems, problems, problems…
  • The telecoms industry’s big problem
  • What are the big problems the world needs to solve now?
  • Enlightened self-interest
  • Moving the needle…
  • … and moving the people
  • The Three Ages of Telecoms
  • The first age: The Communications Age, 1850s onwards
  • The second age: The Information Age, 1990s onwards
  • The third age: The Coordination Age, 201Xs onwards
  • So, what is the Coordination Age opportunity for telcos?
  • The telecoms industry has some important assets
  • Two possible jobs for telecoms
  • Having a clear role is motivational
  • So, what should telcos and the industry do?
  • Finally, a need for the technologies we’re developing
  • Conclusions and next steps

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Revenue growth is grinding to a halt
  • Figure 2: 30 years of telecoms in context
  • Figure 3: How macro forces are creating a common global need
  • Figure 4: Global population worries reflect underlying concerns about the availability and distribution of resources
  • Figure 5: What does “the world need now”?
  • Figure 6: The three ages of telecoms
  • Figure 7: The Communication Age
  • Figure 8: An early manual telephone exchange
  • Figure 9: Electro-mechanical ‘Strowger’ exchanges automated analogue switching
  • Figure 10: The Information Age
  • Figure 11: The Coordination Age
  • Figure 12: What are the unique assets of the telecoms industry?
  • Figure 13: Broadly, there are two possible jobs for telcos
  • Figure 14: Battle of the business models – Technology vs Telco
  • Figure 15: A new corporate reality
  • Figure 16: How a unifying purpose (a “why?”) helps create value

[1] The New Scientist, Vol 240 No. 3199, page 1.

Personal data: Treasure or trash?

Introduction

This report analyses how the Telefónica Group is looking to reshape the digital services market so that both telcos and individuals play a greater role in the management of personal data. Today, most Internet users share large amounts of personal information with the major online platforms: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Tencent and Alibaba. In many cases, this process is implicit and somewhat opaque – the subject of the personal data isn’t fully aware of what information they have shared or how it is being used. For example, Facebook users may not be aware that the social network tracks their location and can, in some cases, trace a link between offline purchases and its online advertising.

Beyond the tactical deployment of personal data to personalise their services and advertising, the major Internet players increasingly use behavioural data captured by their services to train machine learning systems how to perform specific tasks, such as identify the subject of an image or the best response to an incoming message. Over time, the development of this kind of artificial intelligence will enable much greater levels of automation saving both consumers and companies time and money.

Like many players in the digital economy and some policymakers, Telefónica is concerned that artificial intelligence will be subject to a winner-takes-all dynamic, ultimately stifling competition and innovation. The danger is that the leading Internet platforms’ unparalleled access to behavioural data will enable them to develop the best artificial intelligence systems, giving them an unassailable advantage over newcomers to the digital economy.

This report analyses Telefónica’s response to this strategic threat, as well as examining the actions of NTT DOCOMO, another telco that has sought to break the stranglehold of the Internet platforms on personal data. Finally, it considers whether Mint, a web service that has succeeded in persuading millions of Americans to share very detailed financial information, could be a model for telco’s personal data propositions.

As well as revisiting some of the strategic themes raised in STL Partners’ 2013 digital commerce strategy report, this report builds on the analysis in three recent STL Partners’ executive briefings that explore the role of telcos in digital commerce:

In pursuit of personal cloud services

For the best part of a decade, STL Partners has been calling for telcos to give customers greater control over their personal data. In doing so, telcos could differentiate themselves from most of the major Internet players in the eyes of both consumers and regulators. But now, the entire digital economy is moving in this direction, partly because the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires companies operating in the EU to give consumers more control and partly because of the outcry over the cavalier data management practices of some Internet players, particularly Facebook.

In a world in which everyone is talking about protecting personal data and privacy, is there still scope for telcos to differentiate themselves and strengthen their relationships with consumers?

In a strategy report published in October 2013, STL Partners argued that there were two major strategic opportunities for telcos in the digital commerce space:

  1. Real-time commerce enablement: The use of mobile technologies and services to optimise all aspects of commerce. For example, mobile networks can deliver precisely targeted and timely marketing and advertising to consumer’s smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions.
  2. Personal cloud: Act as a trusted custodian for individuals’ data and an intermediary between individuals and organisations, providing authentication services, digital lockers and other services that reduce the risk and friction in every day interactions. An early example of this kind of service is financial services web site Mint.com (profiled in this report). As personal cloud services provide personalised recommendations based on individuals’ authorised data, they could potentially engage much more deeply with consumers than the generalised decision-support services, such as Google, TripAdvisor, moneysavingexpert.com and comparethemarket.com, in widespread use today.

Back in October 2013, STL Partners saw those two opportunities as inter-related — they could be combined in a single platform. The report argued that telcos should start with mobile commerce, where they have the strongest strategic position, and then use the resulting data, customer relationships and trusted brand to expand into personal cloud services, which will require high levels of investment.

Today, telcos’ traction in mobile commerce remains limited — only a handful of telcos, such as Safaricom, Turkcell, KDDI and NTT Docomo, have really carved out a significant position in this space. Although most telcos haven’t been able or willing to follow suit, they could still pursue the personal cloud value proposition outlined in the 2013 report. For consumers, effective personal cloud services will save time and money. The ongoing popularity of web comparison and review services, such as comparethemarket.com, moneysavingexpert.com and TripAdvisor, suggests that consumers continue to turn to intermediaries to help through them cut through the “marketing noise” on the Internet. But these existing services provide limited personalisation and can’t necessarily join the dots across different aspects of an individual’s lives. For example, TripAdvisor isn’t necessarily aware that a user is a teacher and can only take a vacation during a school holiday.

STL Partners believes there is latent demand for trusted and secure online services that act primarily on behalf of individuals, providing tailored advice, information and offers. This kind of personal cloud could evolve into a kind of vendor relationship management service, using information supplied by the individual to go and source the most appropriate products and services.

The broker could analyse a combination of declared, observed and inferred data in a way that is completely transparent to the individual. This data should be used primarily to save consumers time and give them relevant information that will enrich their lives. Instead of just putting the spotlight on the best price, as comparison web sites do, personal cloud services should put the spotlight on the ‘right’ product or service for the individual.

Ideally, a mature personal cloud service will enrich consumers’ lives by enabling them to quickly discover products, services and places that are near perfect or perfect for them. Rather than having to conduct hours of research or settle for second-best, the individual should be able to use the service to find exactly the right product or service in a few minutes. For example, an entertainment service might alert you to a concert by an upcoming band that fits closely with your taste in music, while a travel site will know you like quiet, peaceful hotels with sea views and recommend places that meet that criteria.

As a personal cloud service will need to be as useful as possible to consumers, it will need to attract as many merchants and brands as possible. In 2013, STL Partners argued that telcos could do that by offering merchants and brands a low risk proposition: they will be able to register to have their products and services included in the personal cloud for free and they will only have to pay commission if the consumer actually purchases one of their products and services. In the first few years, in order to persuade merchants and brands to actually use the site the personal cloud will have to charge a very low commission and, in some cases, none at all.

Since October 2013, much has changed. But the personal cloud opportunity is still valid and some telcos continue to explore how they can get closer to consumers. One of the most prominent of these is Madrid-based Telefónica, which has operations in much of Europe and across Latin America. The next chapter outlines Telefónica’s strategy in the personal data domain.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Recommendations for telcos
  • Introduction
  • In pursuit of personal cloud services
  • Telefonica’s personal data strategy
  • Questioning the status quo
  • Backing blockchains
  • Takeaways
  • What is Telefónica actually doing?
  • The Aura personal assistant
  • Takeaways
  • Telefonica’s external bets
  • Investment in Wibson
  • Partnership with People.io
  • The Data Transparency Lab
  • Takeaways
  • Will Telefónica see financial benefits?
  • Takeaways
  • What can Telefónica learn from DOCOMO?
  • DOCOMO’s Evolving Strategy
  • Takeaways
  • Mint – a model for a telco personal data play?
  • Takeaways

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Telefónica’s tally of active users of the major apps
  • Figure 2: Telefónica’s view of digital market openness in Brazil
  • Figure 3: Investors’ valuation of Internet platforms implies long-term dominance
  • Figure 4: Key metrics for Telefónica’s four platforms
  • Figure 5: How Wibson intends to allow individuals to trade their data
  • Figure 6: Telefónica’s digital services business is growing steadily
  • Figure 7: Telefónica’s pay TV business continues to expand
  • Figure 8: DOCOMO’s Smart Life division has struggle to grow
  • Figure 9: NTT DOCOMO’s new strategy puts more emphasis on enablers
  • Figure 10: DOCOMO continues to pursue the concept of a personal assistant
  • Figure 11: DOCOMO is using personal data to enable new financial services
  • Figure 12: Mint provides users with advice on how to manage their money
  • Figure 13: Intuit sees Mint as a strategically important engagement tool

Telco edge computing: Turning vision into practice

The emerging opportunity for edge compute

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

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

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

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

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

Key questions arising for telcos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telco 2.0: Choose your future – while you still can

Introduction

Time to update Telco 2.0

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

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

The original Telco 2.0 two-sided business model

original telco 2.0

Source: STL Partners

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

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


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

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

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

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

Few telcos are putting real resources into product & platform innovation

2 digital dimensions

Source: STL Partners

Four developments driving our Telco 2.0 update

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

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

telco myth vs reality

Source: STL Partners

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

Contents:

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

Figures:

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

RCS: Walking the commerce tightrope

Introduction

Thanks initially to WeChat in China and now Facebook in the west, mobile messaging is fast becoming a key platform for digital commerce, mounting a challenge to Google Search, Amazon’s Marketplace and other two-sided platforms.

As explained in our June 2016 report, Google/Telcos’ RCS: Dark Horse or Dead Horse?, many of the world’s largest telcos are working with Google to develop and deploy multimedia communications services using the RCS specification. Like SMS, RCS is intended to work across networks, be network-based and be the default mobile messaging service, but it also goes far beyond SMS, by supporting rich features, such as video calling, location sharing, group chat and file sharing.  Proponents of RCS believe it can ultimately offer greater reach, reliability, privacy and security than online messaging services, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat.

The rollout of RCS-based services was one of the strategic options explored in STL Partners’ April 2017 report, Consumer communications: Can telcos mount a comeback?, which made different recommendations for different kinds of telcos. It argued that strong incumbent telcos in markets where the Internet players are also strong, such as AT&T, Verizon, BT and Deutsche Telekom, should seek to differentiate their communications proposition through reliability, security, privacy and reach, while also embedding communications into other services.

Building on those two reports, this executive briefing analyses the progress of RCS over the past two years, considering the development of business tools for the specification, while outlining Facebook Messenger’s, WhatsApp’s and Apple’s simultaneous push into the market for so-called conversational commerce, in which messaging and transactions are increasingly interwoven. It concludes by updating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis in the June 2016 report and the subsequent recommendations for telcos.

RCS: What has changed in the past two years?

New networks, more interoperability and rising usage

The RCS (Rich Communications Services) specification, the heir apparent to SMS, has been around for a decade. Whereas SMS’s functionality is limited by its usage of old-school mobile technology, RCS employs Internet protocols to provide a raft of features similar to those available from leading chat apps. However, up until now, RCS has had little impact on the mobile messaging market – WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Apple’s iMessage and other chat apps have been accumulating hundreds of millions of users, diminishing the role of mobile operators in this key pillar of the communications market.

But RCS, which is steered by the GSMA, seems to be finally gaining some traction: In 2017, RCS launches almost doubled from 30 to 55 and have the potential to double again in 2018, according to the GSMA. In December 2017, for example, América Movil, Telefónica, Oi and AT&T launched RCS messaging services to subscribers across Latin America. Although it will only work on handsets running Android, GSMA Intelligence estimates approximately 60% of subscribers across the Latin American region will be able to get access to the RCS messaging service. América Movil and Telefónica also plan to launch RCS Messaging in the UK, Germany, Spain, Austria and Central and Eastern Europe. As a result of these launches, GSMA Intelligence expects the number of active monthly RCS users to grow to 350 million by the end of 2018, from 159 million at the start of the year. However, for a messaging service, daily active users are a far more important metric than monthly active users.

To support RCS, telcos either need to embed an Internet multimedia subsystem (IMS) into their networks or used a cloud-based system that sits outside the network. The latter option requires less upfront capex and enables a quicker deployment. In Latin America, the operators are using the Jibe RCS Cloud from Google and the Jibe RCS Hub, thereby ensuring interoperability so that subscribers can send RCS messages across networks. Subscribers from other networks connected to the hub will also be able to send RCS messages regardless of their geographic location. Operators’ RCS networks are also being interconnected in other parts of the Americas and Europe. América Móvil, Rogers Communications and Sprint have interconnected their networks across the Americas, while Deutsche Telekom, Telenor Group, Telia Company and Vodafone Group have interconnected in Europe, enabling subscribers in these regions to access advanced RCS across 22 networks in 17 countries.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • RCS: What has changed in the past two years?
  • New networks, more interoperability and rising usage
  • Consistency is king
  • Vodafone’s sustained support for RCS
  • Google is finally prioritising RCS
  • Android Messages overshadows Allo
  • Android device makers mostly on board
  • What will Apple do?
  • Competing for the business messaging market
  • Facebook pushes into business messaging
  • The Facebook brand loses its lustre
  • How will RCS fare in the business market?
  • Veon tries a different route
  • Conclusions and Recommendations

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Recommendations for telcos in mobile messaging
  • Figure 2: The companies supporting the RCS Universal Profile
  • Figure 3: RCS now has a feature set designed for business-to-person usage
  • Figure 4: Vodafone is using RCS to promote its new pet tracking service
  • Figure 5: The iPhone accounts for less than one-fifth of the smartphones in use today
  • Figure 6: The pros and cons of Apple’s strategic options for iMessage
  • Figure 7: SMS still leads the Internet-based services in some metrics
  • Figure 8:  Using Facebook Messenger to book an in-store appointment
  • Figure 9: Almost 1.5 billion people access Facebook every day
  • Figure 10: The emerging ecosystem around RCS messaging-as-a-platform
  • Figure 11: Next steps for telcos in all-IP communications
  • Figure 12: China Mobile’s SMS traffic per customer has stabilised
  • Figure 13: Messaging is generating less and less revenue for China Mobile

Can Netflix and Spotify make the leap to the top tier?

Introduction

This is the first of two reports analysing the market position and strategies of four global technology companies – Netflix, Spotify, Tesla and Uber – that might be able to make the leap to become a top tier consumer digital player, akin to Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google. The two reports explore how improvements in digital technologies and consumer electronics are changing the entertainment and automotive markets, allowing the four companies to cause significant disruption in their sectors.

The first part of this report considers Netflix and Spotify, which are both trying to disrupt the entertainment market. For more on the increasing domination of online entertainment by the big Internet platforms, read the STL Partners report Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix: Whose digital content is king?

This report considers how well Netflix and Spotify are prepared for the likely technological changes in their markets. It also provides a high-level overview of the opportunities for telcos, including partnership strategies, and the implications for telcos if one of the companies were able to make the jump to become a tier one platform.

STL Partners is analysing the prospects of Netflix, Spotify, Tesla and Uber because all four have proven to be highly disruptive players in their relevant industries.

The four are defined by three key factors, which set them aside from their fellow challengers:

  • Rapid rise: They have become major mainstream players in a short space of time, building world-leading brands that rival those of much older and more established companies.
  • New thinking: Each of the four has challenged the conventions of the industries in which they operate, leading to major disruption and forcing incumbents to completely re-evaluate their business models.
  • Potential to challenge the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google: This rapid success has allowed the companies to gain dominant positions in their relative sectors, which they have used as a springboard to diversify their business models into parallel verticals. By pursuing these economies of scope, they are treading the path taken by the big four Internet companies (see Figure 1). Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have come from very diverse roots (ranging from an Internet search engine to a mobile device manufacturer), but are now directly competing with each other in a number of areas (communications, content, commerce and hardware).

Figure 1: How the leading Internet companies have diversified

Source: STL Partners

The evolution of online entertainment

As broadband networks proliferate and households are served by fatter pipes, telecoms networks are carrying more and more entertainment content. While there are major players in every country and region, there are essentially only six online entertainment platforms meeting this demand on a global scale – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Spotify. These six companies are delivering increasingly sophisticated real-time entertainment services that are generating a growing proportion of Internet traffic, at the expense of traditional web browsing, file sharing, download services and physical retail entertainment.

The six are building global economies of scale that can’t be matched by national/regional media companies and telcos. Global distribution is becoming increasingly important in the media industry, given the prohibitive costs of sourcing content and then packaging it and distributing it across multiple different devices and networks.

Scale is also important for another reason. As the volume of digital content proliferates, consumers increasingly rely on recommendations. The platform capturing the most behavioural data (people who watched this, also watched this) should be able to offer the best recommendations.

Although the platforms with scale have a competitive advantage, they are still vulnerable to disruption because the online entertainment market is evolving rapidly with providers, including rights owners, experimenting with new formats and concepts.

As outlined in the STL Partners report Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix: Whose digital content is king?, most of this experimentation relates to the following six key trends, which are likely to shape the online entertainment market over the next decade.

  1. Greater investment in exclusive content: The major online platforms are increasingly looking to either source or develop their own exclusive content, both as a competitive differentiator and in response to the rising cost of licensing third parties’ content. Exclusive content may be anything from live sports programming to original drama series and even blockbuster movies. This is an area in which both Netflix and Amazon Video have heavily invested, making the two direct competitors for talent in this space.
  2. Growing support for live programming: People like to watch major sports events and dramatic breaking news live. Some of the online platforms are responding to this demand by creating live channels and giving celebrities and consumers the tools they need to peercast – broadcast their own live video streams.
  3. The changing face of user-generated content: Although YouTube, Facebook and other social networks have always relied on user-generated content, advances in digital technologies are making this content more compelling. If they are in the right place, at the right time, even an amateur equipped with a smartphone or a drone can produce engaging video pictures.
  4. Increasingly immersive games and interactive videos: As bandwidth, latency, graphics processing and rendering technology all improve, online games are becoming more photorealistic making them increasingly akin to an interactive movie. Furthermore, virtual reality will enable people to adopt different viewpoints within a 360-degree video stream, enabling them to choose the perspective from which to watch a movie or a live sports event. For more info, please see the STL Partners’ report: AR/VR: Won’t move the 5G needle.
  5. Rising use of ad blockers and mounting privacy concerns: Many consumers are looking for ways to avoid video advertising, which is more intrusive than a static banner ad and uses more bandwidth. At the same time, many national and regional regulators are becoming increasingly alarmed by the privacy implications of the data mining of consumer services and products, leading to clashes between the major online advertising platforms and regulators.
  6. Ongoing net neutrality uncertainty: In many jurisdictions, net neutrality regulation is either still under development or is vaguely worded as regulators struggle to balance the legitimate need to prioritise some online services with the equally important need to ensure that small content and app developers aren’t discriminated against.

To read on about Netflix and Spotify’s strategies and implications for telcos, please login and download the report, or contact us to subscribe.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Netflix: much loved, but too narrow
  • Spotify: leading a formidable pack
  • Lessons for telcos
  • Conclusions for telcos
  • Introduction
  • The evolution of online entertainment
  • Netflix: Keeping it original
  • Right time, right proposition
  • Competitive clouds gathering
  • Economies of scale, but not scope
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats
  • Spotify: The power of the playlist
  • Smaller than Netflix, but more rounded
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats
  • Takeaways for telcos
  • Lessons for telcos
  • Next steps for telcos

Figures:

  • Figure 1: How the leading Internet companies have diversified
  • Figure 2: Netflix revenue and paid subscriber growth, 2015-2017
  • Figure 3: Netflix has grown much faster than its rivals in the US
  • Figure 5: Netflix from a monolithic website to a flexible microservices architecture
  • Figure 6: Netflix: SWOT analysis
  • Figure 7: Tailoring movie artwork to the individual viewer
  • Figure 8: Netflix’s addressable market is growing steadily
  • Figure 9: The number of mobile broadband connections is rising rapidly
  • Figure 10: How studio films aim to make money using release windows
  • Figure 11: Hulu’s broad proposition is a challenge to Netflix
  • Figure 12: Growth in digital music is now offsetting declining sales of physical formats
  • Figure 13: Spotify’s rapid revenue and paid subscriber growth
  • Figure 14: Spotify’s fast-growing premium service is the profit engine
  • Figure 15: A SWOT analysis for Spotify
  • Figure 16: Spotify has significantly lower ARPU and costs than Netflix
  • Figure 17: Spotify’s losses continue to grow despite rapid revenue rises
  • Figure 18: Spotify’s costs are rising rapidly
  • Figure 19: YouTube is a major destination for music lovers

Monetising IoT: Four steps for success

Introduction

The internet of things (IoT) will revolutionise all industries, not just TMT. In addition to the benefits of connecting previously unconnected objects to monitor and control them, the data that IoT will make available could play a pivotal role in other major technological developments, such as big data analytics and autonomous vehicles.

It seems logical that, because IoT relies on connectivity, this will be a new growth opportunity for telcos. And indeed, as anyone who has attended MWC in the last few years can testify, most if not all major telcos are providing some kind of IoT service.

But IoT is not a quick win for telcos. The value of IoT connectivity is only a small portion of the total estimated value of the IoT ecosystem, and therefore telcos seeking to grow greater value in this area are actively moving into other layers, such as platforms and vertical end solutions.

Figure 1: Telcos are moving beyond IoT connectivity

Telcos are moving beyond IoT connectivity

Source: STL Partners

Although telco IoT strategies have evolved significantly over the past five years, this is a complicated and competitive area that people are still figuring out how to monetise. To help our clients overcome this challenge we are publishing a series of reports and best practice case studies over the next 12 months designed to help individual operators define their approach to IoT according to their size, market position, geographic footprint and other key characteristics such as appetite for innovation.

This report is the first in this series. The findings it presents are based upon primary and secondary research conducted between May and September 2017 which included:

  • A series of anonymous interviews with operators, vendors and other key players in the IoT ecosystem
  • A brainstorming session held with senior members from telco strategy teams at our European event in June 2017
  • An online survey about telcos’ role in IoT, which ran from May to June 2017

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • A four-step process to monetise IoT
  • Step 1: Look beyond connected device forecasts
  • Step 2: Map out your IoT strategy
  • Step 3: Be brave and commit
  • Step 4: Develop horizontal capabilities to serve your non-core verticals
  • Result: The T-shaped IoT business model
  • IoT data is a secondary opportunity
  • Conclusion

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Telcos are moving beyond IoT connectivity
  • Figure 2: IoT verticals and use-cases
  • Figure 3: Four possible roles within the IoT ecosystem
  • Figure 4: Telcos can play different roles in different verticals
  • Figure 5: IoT connectivity can be simplified into four broad categories
  • Figure 6: As the IoT field matures, use-cases become more complex
  • Figure 7: The technical components of an IoT platform
  • Figure 8: The T-shaped IoT business model