Why and how to go telco cloud native: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten

The telco business is being disaggregated

Telcos are facing a situation in which the elements that have traditionally made up and produced their core business are being ‘disaggregated’: broken up into their component parts and recombined in different ways, while some of the elements of the telco business are increasingly being provided by players from other industry verticals.

By the same token, telcos face the pressure – and the opportunity – to combine connectivity with other capabilities as part of new vertical-specific offerings.

Telco disaggregation primarily affects three interrelated aspects of the telco business:

  1. Technology:
    • ‘Vertical’ disaggregation: separating out of network functions previously delivered by dedicated, physical equipment into software running on commodity computing hardware (NFV, virtualisation)
    • ‘Horizontal’ disaggregation: breaking up of network functions themselves into their component parts – at both the software and hardware levels; and re-engineering, recombining and redistributing of those component parts (geographically and architecturally) to meet the needs of new use cases. In respect of software, this typically involves cloud-native network functions (CNFs) and containerisation
    • Open RAN is an example of both types of disaggregation: vertical disaggregation through separation of baseband processing software and hardware; and horizontal disaggregation by breaking out the baseband function into centralised and distributed units (CU and DU), along with a separate, programmable controller (RAN Intelligent Controller, or RIC), where all of these can in theory be provided by different vendors, and interface with radios that can also be provided by third-party vendors.
  2. Organisational structure and operating model: Breaking up of organisational hierarchies, departmental siloes, and waterfall development processes focused on the core connectivity business. As telcos face the need to develop new vertical- and client-specific services and use cases beyond the increasingly commoditised, low-margin connectivity business, these structures are being – or need to be – replaced by more multi-disciplinary teams taking end-to-end responsibility for product development and operations (e.g. DevOps), go-to-market, profitability, and technology.

Transformation from the vertical telco to the disaggregated telco

3. Value chain and business model: Breaking up of the traditional model whereby telcos owned – or at least had end-to-end operational oversight over – . This is not to deny that telcos have always relied on third party-owned or outsourced infrastructure and services, such as wholesale networks, interconnect services or vendor outsourcing. However, these discrete elements have always been welded into an end-to-end, network-based services offering under the auspices of the telco’s BSS and OSS. These ensured that the telco took overall responsibility for end-to-end service design, delivery, assurance and billing.

    • The theory behind this traditional model is that all the customer’s connectivity needs should be met by leveraging the end-to-end telco network / service offering. In practice, the end-to-end characteristics have not always been fully controlled or owned by the service provider.
    • In the new, further disaggregated value chain, different parts of the now more software-, IT- and cloud-based technology stack are increasingly provided by other types of player, including from other industry verticals. Telcos must compete to play within these new markets, and have no automatic right to deliver even just the connectivity elements.

All of these aspects of disaggregation can be seen as manifestations of a fundamental shift where telecoms is evolving from a utility communications and connectivity business to a component of distributed computing. The core business of telecoms is becoming the processing and delivery of distributed computing workloads, and the enablement of ubiquitous computing.

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Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation

Telco industry disaggregation is part of a broader evolution in the domains of technology, business, the economy, and society. This evolution comprises ‘computerisation’. Computing analyses and breaks up material processes and systems into a set of logical and functional sub-components, enabling processes and products to be re-engineered, optimised, recombined in different ways, managed, and executed more efficiently and automatically.

In essence, ‘telco disaggregation’ is a term that describes a moment in time at which telecoms technology, organisations, value chains and processes are being broken up into their component parts and re-engineered, under the impact of computerisation and its synonyms: digitisation, softwarisation, virtualisation and cloud.

This is part of a new wave of societal computerisation / digitisation, which at STL Partners we call the Coordination Age. At a high level, this can be described as ‘cross-domain computerisation’: separating out processes, services and functions from multiple areas of technology, the economy and society – and optimising, recombining and automating them (i.e. coordinating them), so that they can better deliver on social, economic and environmental needs and goals. In other words, this enables scarce resources to be used more efficiently and sustainably in pursuit of individual and social needs.

NFV has computerised the network; telco cloud native subordinates it to computing

In respect of the telecoms industry in particular, one could argue that the first wave of virtualisation (NFV and SDN), which unfolded during the 2010s, represented the computerisation and digitisation of telecoms networking. The focus of this was internal to the telecoms industry in the first instance, rather than connected to other social and technology domains and goals. It was about taking legacy, physical networking processes and functions, and redesigning and reimplementing them in software.

Then, the second wave of virtualisation (cloud-native – which is happening now) is what enables telecoms networking to play a part in the second wave of societal computerisation more broadly (the Coordination Age). This is because the different layers and elements of telecoms networks (services, network functions and infrastructure) are redefined, instantiated in software, broken up into their component parts, redistributed (logically and physically), and reassembled as a function of an increasing variety of cross-domain and cross-vertical use cases that are enabled and delivered, ultimately, by computerisation. Telecoms is disaggregated by, subordinated to, and defined and controlled by computing.

In summary, we can say that telecoms networks and operations are going through disaggregation now because this forms part of a broader societal transformation in which physical processes, functions and systems are being brought under the control of computing / IT, in pursuit of broader human, societal, economic and environmental goals.

In practice, this also means that telcos are facing increasing competition from many new types of actor, such as:

  • Computing, IT and cloud players
  • More specialist and agile networking providers
  • And vertical-market actors – delivering connectivity in support of vertical-specific, Coordination Age use cases.

 

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Three critical success factors for Coordination Age telcos
    • What capabilities will remain distinctively ‘telco’?
    • Our take on three pioneering cloud-native telcos
  • Introduction
    • The telco business is being disaggregated
    • Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation
  • The disaggregated telco landscape: Where’s the value for telcos?
    • Is there anything left that is distinctively ‘telco’?
    • The ‘core’ telecoms business has evolved from delivering ubiquitous communications to enabling ubiquitous computing
    • Six telco-specific roles for telecoms remain in play
  • Radical telco disaggregation in action: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten
    • Servco, netco or infraco – or a patchwork of all three?
    • AT&T Network Cloud sell-off: Desperation or strategic acuity?
    • DISH Networks: Building the hyperscale network
    • Rakuten Mobile: Ecommerce platform turned cloud-native telco, turned telco cloud platform provider
  • Conclusion

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Commerce and connectivity: A match made in heaven?

Rakuten and Reliance: The exceptions or the rule?

Over the past decade, STL Partners has analysed how connectivity, commerce and content have become increasingly interdependent – as both shopping and entertainment go digital, telecoms networks have become key distribution channels for all kinds of consumer businesses. Equally, the growing availability of digital commerce and content are driving demand for connectivity both inside and outside the home.

To date, the top tier of consumer Internet players – Google, Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent and Facebook – have tended to focus on trying to dominate commerce and content, largely leaving the provision of connectivity to the conventional telecoms sector. But now some major players in the commerce market, such as Rakuten in Japan and Reliance in India, are pushing into connectivity, as well as content.

This report considers whether Rakuten’s and Reliance’s efforts to combine content, commerce and connectivity into a single package is a harbinger of things to come or the exceptions that will prove the longstanding rule that telecoms is a distinct activity with few synergies with adjacent sectors. The provision of connectivity has generally been regarded as a horizontal enabler for other forms of economic activity, rather than part of a vertically-integrated service stack.

This report also explores the extent to which new technologies, such as cloud-native networks and open radio access networks, and an increase in licence-exempt spectrum, are making it easier for companies in adjacent sectors to provide connectivity. Two chapters cover Google and Amazon’s connectivity strategies respectively, analysing the moves they have made to date and what they may do in future. The final section of this report draws some conclusions and then considers the implications for telcos.

This report builds on earlier STL Partners research, including:

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Mixing commerce and connectivity

Over the past decade, the smartphone has become an everyday shopping tool for billions of people, particularly in Asia. As a result, the smartphone display has become an important piece of real estate for the global players competing for supremacy in the digital commerce market. That real estate can be accessed via a number of avenues – through the handset’s operating system, a web browser, mobile app stores or through the connectivity layer itself.

As Google and Apple exercise a high degree of control over smartphone operating systems, popular web browsers and mobile app stores, other big digital commerce players, such as Amazon, Facebook and Walmart, risk being marginalised. One way to avoid that fate may be to play a bigger role in the provision of wireless connectivity as Reliance Industries is doing in India and Rakuten is doing in Japan.

For telcos, this is potentially a worrisome prospect. By rolling out its own greenfield mobile network, e-commerce, and financial services platform Rakuten has brought disruption and low prices to Japan’s mobile connectivity market, putting pressure on the incumbent operators. There is a clear danger that digital commerce platforms use the provision of mobile connectivity as a loss leader to drive to traffic to their other services.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Mixing connectivity and commerce
    • Why Rakuten became a mobile network operator
    • Will Rakuten succeed in connectivity?
    • Why hasn’t Rakuten Mobile broken through?
    • Borrowing from the Amazon playbook
    • How will the hyperscalers react?
  • New technologies, new opportunities
    • Capacity expansion
    • Unlicensed and shared spectrum
    • Cloud-native networks and Open RAN attract new suppliers
    • Reprogrammable SIM cards
  • Google: Knee deep in connectivity waters
    • Google Fiber and Fi maintain a holding pattern
    • Google ramps up and ramps down public Wi-Fi
    • Google moves closer to (some) telcos
    • Google Cloud targets telcos
    • Big commitment to submarine/long distance infrastructure
    • Key takeaways: Vertical optimisation not integration
  • Amazon: A toe in the water
    • Amazon Sidewalk
    • Amazon and CBRS
    • Amazon’s long distance infrastructure
    • Takeaways: Control over connectivity has its attractions
  • Conclusions and implications for telcos in digital commerce/content
  • Index

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Open RAN: What should telcos do?

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Related webinar: Open RAN: What should telcos do?

In this webinar STL Partners addressed the three most important sub-components of Open RAN (open-RAN, vRAN and C-RAN) and how they interact to enable a new, virtualized, less vendor-dominated RAN ecosystem. The webinar covered:

* Why Open RAN matters – and why it will be about 4G (not 5G) in the short term
* Data-led overview of existing Open RAN initiatives and challenges
* Our recommended deployment strategies for operators
* What the vendors are up to – and how we expect that to change

Date: Tuesday 4th August 2020
Time: 4pm GMT

Access the video recording and presentation slides

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For the report chart pack download the additional file on the left

What is the open RAN and why does it matter?

The open RAN’ encompasses a group of technological approaches that are designed to make the radio access network (RAN) more cost effective and flexible. It involves a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible

The traditional, legacy radio access network (RAN) uses dedicated hardware to deliver the baseband function (modulation and management of the frequency range used for cellular network transmission), along with proprietary interfaces (typically based on the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) standard) for the fronthaul from the baseband unit (BBU) to the remote radio unit (RRU) at the top of the transmitter mast.

Figure 1: Legacy RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

This means that, typically, telcos have needed to buy the baseband and the radio from a single vendor, with the market presently dominated largely by the ‘big three’ (Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia), together with a smaller market share for Samsung and ZTE.

The architecture of the legacy RAN – with BBUs typically but not always at every cell site – has many limitations:

  • It is resource-intensive and energy-inefficient – employing a mass of redundant equipment operating at well below capacity most of the time, while consuming a lot of power
  • It is expensive, as telcos are obliged to purchase and operate a large inventory of physical kit from a limited number of suppliers, which keeps the prices high
  • It is inflexible, as telcos are unable to deploy to new and varied sites – e.g. macro-cells, small cells and micro-cells with different radios and frequency ranges – in an agile and cost-effective manner
  • It is more costly to manage and maintain, as there is less automation and more physical kit to support, requiring personnel to be sent out to remote sites
  • It is not very programmable to support the varied frequency, latency and bandwidth demands of different services.

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Moving to the open RAN: C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN

There are now many distinct technologies and standards emerging in the radio access space that involve a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

We have adopted ‘the open RAN’ as an umbrella term which encompasses all of these technologies. Together, they are expected to make the RAN more cost effective and flexible. The three most important sub-components of the open RAN are C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN.

Centralised RAN (C-RAN), also known as cloud RAN, involves distributing and centralising the baseband functionality across different telco edge, aggregation and core locations, and in the telco cloud, so that baseband processing for multiple sites can be carried out in different locations, nearer or further to the end user.

This enables more effective control and programming of capacity, latency, spectrum usage and service quality, including in support of 5G core-enabled technologies and services such as network slicing, URLLC, etc. In particular, baseband functionality can be split between more centralised sites (central baseband units – CU) and more distributed sites (distributed unit – DU) in much the same way, and for a similar purpose, as the split between centralised control planes and distributed user planes in the mobile core, as illustrated below:

Figure 2: Centralised RAN (C-RAN) architecture

Cloud RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Virtual RAN (vRAN) involves virtualising (and now also containerising) the BBU so that it is run as software on generic hardware (General Purpose Processing – GPP) platforms. This enables the baseband software and hardware, and even different components of them, to be supplied by different vendors.

Figure 3: Virtual RAN (vRAN) architecture

vRAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Open-RANnote the hyphenation – involves replacing the vendor-proprietary interfaces between the BBU and the RRU with open standards. This enables BBUs (and parts thereof) from one or multiple vendors to interoperate with radios from other vendors, resulting in a fully disaggregated RAN:

Figure 4: Open-RAN architecture

Open-RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

 

RAN terminology: clearing up confusion

You will have noticed that the technologies above have similar-sounding names and overlapping definitions. To add to potential confusion, they are often deployed together.

Figure 5: The open RAN Venn – How C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN fit together

Open-RAN venn: open-RAN inside vRAN inside C-RAN

Source: STL Partners

As the above diagram illustrates, all forms of the open RAN involve C-RAN, but only a subset of C-RAN involves virtualisation of the baseband function (vRAN); and only a subset of vRAN involves disaggregation of the BBU and RRU (open-RAN).

To help eliminate ambiguity we are adopting the typographical convention ‘open-RAN’ to convey the narrower meaning: disaggregation of the BBU and RRU facilitated by open interfaces. Similarly, where we are dealing with deployments or architectures that involve vRAN and / or cloud RAN but not open-RAN in the narrower sense, we refer to those examples as ‘vRAN’ or ‘C-RAN’ as appropriate.

In the coming pages, we will investigate why open RAN matters, what telcos are doing about it – and what they should do next.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • What is the open RAN and why does it matter?
    • Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible
    • The open RAN: disaggregated and flexible
    • Terminology, initiatives & standards: clearing up confusion
  • What are the opportunities for open RAN?
    • Deployment in macro networks
    • Deployment in greenfield networks
    • Deployment in geographically-dispersed/under-served areas
    • Deployment to support consolidation of radio generations
    • Deployment to support capacity and coverage build-out
    • Deployment to support private and neutral host networks
  • How have operators deployed open RAN?
    • What are the operators doing?
    • How successful have deployments been?
  • How are vendors approaching open RAN?
    • Challenger RAN vendors: pushing for a revolution
    • Incumbent RAN vendors: resisting the open RAN
    • Are incumbent vendors taking the right approach?
  • How should operators do open RAN?
    • Step 1: Define the roadmap
    • Step 2: Implement
    • Step 3: Measure success
  • Conclusions
    • What next?

SoftBank: An overstretched telco or a unique innovator?

SoftBank’s history: How it got to where it is

The story of SoftBank’s history – first as a software distribution company, followed by its contribution to the dotcom bubble, and then a gradually expanding telecoms footprint throughout the 2000s – is important because it gives context to its current investment strategy, dubbed the Vision Fund. SoftBank has never been a traditional telco and its outside perspective helped it to shake up the Japanese telecoms market. The Vision Fund’s ambition stretches far beyond telecoms, with an aim to transform all industries through the adoption and advancement of artificial intelligence (AI). Will this unique approach enable SoftBank to weather the softwarisation of telecoms, which will likely be accelerated by the newest Japanese entrant Rakuten, better than others?

Figure 1: SoftBank’s evolution

SoftBank's evolution 1981 - 2019

Source: SoftBank Group annual report 2019

The early days: Software distribution

Founded by Masayoshi Son in 1981, SoftBank began not as a telecoms operator but as a software distributor. Son had recognized an important niche in the Japanese market: while computer hardware manufacturers were having issues sourcing quality software to run on their machines, software makers lacked the cash to properly advertise their products. As a distributor, Son acted as a matchmaker between computer software and hardware companies. Though exclusivity agreements with Japan’s major hardware vendors, SoftBank’s monthly sales reached US$2.4 million by the end of its first year of operation.

Not satisfied with a sole focus on software distribution, just six months after starting the software business, Son branched out into the computer magazine publishing segment, eventually producing over 20 periodicals. Son used his magazines to advertise the software products SoftBank was distributing. Right from the start, he aimed to create value through exploiting synergies across different business units.

In 1990, SoftBank also branched out into trade shows, acquiring Ziff Communication’s trade show division for $200 million and then, in 1995, the COMDEX trade show from the Interface group for an eyebrow-raising $800 million, taking on $500 million in debt. Later that year, SoftBank cemented its status as a leader in computer-magazine publishing, investing $2.1 billion in Ziff-Davis Publishing, making SoftBank the largest PC magazine distributor in the world. To finance this, SoftBank Group added $1 billion in debt and issued $649 million in new shares (SoftBank having gone public on the Tokyo Stock exchange in 1995, at a $3 billion valuation). It is clear from the beginning that SoftBank was not averse to accruing sizeable debt liabilities to finance strategic acquisitions.

SoftBank’s Internet pivot

SoftBank’s defining play in the 1990s was a pivot towards Internet services. Believing that the Internet would be the next technological revolution – eclipsing the invention of the personal computer – SoftBank made a dizzying number of investments in Internet companies. Many of these investments were made indirectly through a network of SoftBank venture capital funds, mainly overseen by SoftBank Investment Corp, which managed $5.25 billion worth of funds by 2000; SoftBank itself contributed over $2 billion. The investments included big name sites in e-commerce and e-finance, notably GeoCities, Yahoo!, ZD Net, e-buy-com, E-loan and E* TRADE Group.

The dotcom bust

SoftBank was heavily invested in – and therefore heavily exposed to – Internet stocks. Moreover, with a reputation as the largest investor in the world, owning as much as 25% of cyberspace by value at its peak, SoftBank became regarded by the market as fundamentally an Internet company. At the height of the dotcom bubble in February 2000, SoftBank’s market cap soared to $180 billion, far exceeding the equity value of the stakes in its subsidiaries and affiliates.

The dotcom bubble began to burst by early March 2000. Between SoftBank’s peak market cap in late February 2000, and its low point two years later, SoftBank lost over 95% of its market value. Masayoshi Son lost $70 billion of personal wealth during the crash. Many of SoftBank’s Internet investments had to be written-off entirely, including dotcom big names such as Webvan, Kozmo.com and Global Crossing – the latter filing one of the largest bankruptcies in corporate history.

However, across the graveyard of dotcom duds, SoftBank made several investments which delivered extraordinarily high returns. One resulted from a $20 million pledge Son made to Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, in January 2000. According to Ma, Son made the investment without first inspecting Alibaba’s business model or revenue stream, but rather based on Son’s impression of Ma. The Alibaba investment would turn out to be one of the most successful in history. Moreover, SoftBank’s investment in Yahoo! was still fruitful relative to Son’s initial pledge, despite falling foul of the dotcom bust. This is testimony to the efficacy of Son’s ability to adapt US companies to meet the needs of the Japanese market, delivering growth long past the NASDAQ stock crash. It is also one of the key reasons why SoftBank was able to attract nearly $100bn of investment for its Vision Fund in 2017.

Does SoftBank’s approach work for telecoms?

SoftBank Group is deeply tied to its charismatic CEO Masayoshi Son’s grand visions about how new technologies such as the Internet, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) will transform the world. Son’s ambition to play a key role in driving the development of these technologies has led SoftBank to achieve some remarkable successes – notably an early investment in Alibaba and building a successful Japanese telecoms business – and survive some major setbacks, such as the dotcom crash and, more recently, the WeWork scandal.

The key question for telecoms operators is whether SoftBank’s telecoms assets gain any competitive advantage from being a part of SoftBank Group. Since SoftBank took ownership of Vodafone KK in Japan in 2006 and Sprint in 2013, both telecoms operators have become more profitable. While SoftBank’s stake in Yahoo Japan and willingness to take risks have contributed to success, neither operator is really exceptional in the way they manage their core business.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • SoftBank’s history: How it got to where it is
    • The early days: SoftBank the software distributor
    • SoftBank’s move into telecoms
  • Masayoshi Son’s 300-year plan: Sprint, Arm and the Vision Fund
    • Sprint: SoftBank’s move into US telecoms
    • Arm: Hardware and IoT are the foundations of AI
    • The Vision Fund
  • Can SoftBank pull off its grand plans?
    • Internal risks: Cracks beneath the surface
    • External risks: Rakuten goes after SoftBank’s core
  • Conclusions