The new telcos: A field guide

Introduction

The traditional industry view is that “telcos” are a well-defined and fairly cohesive group. Industry associations like GSMA, ETNO, CTIA and others have typically been fairly homogeneous collections of fixed or mobile operators, only really varying in size. The third-ranked mobile operator in Bolivia has not really been that different from AT&T or Vodafone in terms of technology, business model or vendor relationships.

Our own company, STL Partners used to have the brand “Telco 2.0”. However, our main baseline assumption then was that the industry was mostly made up the same network operators, but using a new 2.0 set of business models.

This situation is now changing. Telecom service providers – telcos – are starting to emerge in a huge variety of new shapes, sizes and backgrounds. There is fragmentation in technology strategy, target audiences, go-to-market and regional/national/international scope.

This report is not a full explanation of all the different strategies, services and technological architecture. Instead of analysing all of the “metabolic” functions and “evolutionary mechanisms”, this is more of a field-guide to all the new species of telco that the industry is starting to see. More detail on the enablers – such as fibre, 5G and cloud-based infrastructure – and the demand-side (such as vertical industries’ communications needs and applications) can be found in our other output.

The report provides descriptions with broad contours of motivation, service-offerings and implications for incumbents. We are not “taking sides” here. If new telcos push out the older species, that’s just evolution of those “red in tooth and claw”. We’re taking the role of field zoologists, not conservationists.

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Field guides are collections/lists of natural & human phenomena

animal-species-telcos-stl-partners

Source: Amazon, respective publishers’ copyright

The historical landscape

The term “telco” is a little slippery to define, but most observers would likely agree that the “traditional” telecoms industry has mostly been made up of the following groups of CSPs:

  • MNOs: Countries usually have a few major mobile network operators (MNOs) that are typically national, or sometimes regional.
  • Fixed operators: Markets also have infrastructure-based fixed telcos, usually with one (or a small number) that were originally national state-owned monopolies, plus a select number of other licensed providers, often with greenfield FTTX fibre. Some countries have a vibrant array of smaller “AltNets”, or competitive carriers (originally known as CLECs in the US).
  • Converged operators: These combine fixed and mobile operations in the same business or group. Sometimes they are arms-length (or even in different countries), but many try to offer combined or converged service propositions.
  • Wholesale telcos: There is a tier of a few major international operators that provide interconnect services and other capabilities. Often these have been subsidiaries (or joint ventures) of national telcos.

In addition to these, the communications industry in each market has also often had an array of secondary connectivity or telecom service providers as a kind “supporting cast”, which generally have not been viewed as “telecom operators”. This is either because they fall into different regulatory buckets, only target niche markets, or tend to use different technologies. These have included:

  • MVNOs
  • Towercos
  • Internet Exchanges
  • (W)ISPs
  • Satellite operators

Some of these have had a strong overlap with telcos, or have been spun-out or acquired at various times, but they have broadly remained as independent organisations. Importantly, many of these now look much more like “proper telcos” than they did in the past.

Why are “new telcos” emerging now?

To some extent, many of the classes of new telco have been “hiding in plain sight” for some time. MVNOs, towercos and numerous other SPs have been “telcos in all but name”, even if the industry has often ignored them. There has sometimes been a divisive “them and us” categorisation, especially applied when comparing older operators with cloud-based communications companies, or what STL has previously referred to as “under the floor” infrastructure owners. This attitude has been fairly common within governments and regulators, as well as among operator executives and staff.

However, there are now two groups of trends which are leading to the blurring of lines between “proper telcos” and other players:

  • Supply-side trends: The growing availability of the key building blocks of telcos – core networks, spectrum, fibre, equipment, locations and so on – is leading to democratisation. Virtualisation and openness, as well as a push for vendor diversification, is helping make it easier for new entrants, or adjacent players, to build telecom-style networks
  • Demand-side trends: A far richer range of telecom use-cases and customer types is pulling through specialist network builders and operators. These can start with specific geographies, or industry verticals, and then expand from there to other domains. Private 4G/5G networks and remote/underserved locations are good examples which need customisation and specialisation, but there are numerous other demand drivers for new types of service (and service provider), as well as alternative business models.

Taken together, the supply and demand factors are leading to the creation of new types of telcos (sometimes from established SPs, and sometimes greenfield) which are often competing with the incumbents.

While there is a stereotypical lobbying complaint about “level playing fields”, the reality is that there are now a whole range of different telecom “sports” emerging, with competitors arranged on courses, tracks, fields and hills, many of which are inherently not “level”. It’s down to the participants – whether old or new – to train appropriately and use suitable gear for each contest.

Virtualisation & cloudification of networks helps newcomers as well as existing operators

virtualisation-cloudification-networks-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?

Most new telcos tend to focus initially on specific niche markets. Only a handful of recent entrants have raised enough capital to build out entire national networks, either with fixed or mobile networks. Jio, Rakuten Mobile and Dish are all exceptions – and ones which came with a significant industrial heritage and regulatory impetus that enabled them to scale broadly.

Instead, most new service providers have focused on specific domains, with some expanding more broadly at a later point. Examples of the geographic / customer niches for new operators include:

  • Enterprise private 4G/5G networks
  • Rural network services (or other isolated areas like mountains, offshore areas or islands)
  • Municipality / city-level services
  • National backbone fibre networks
  • Critical communications users (e.g. utilities)
  • Wholesale-only / shared infrastructure provision (e.g. neutral host)

This report sets out…

..to through each of the new “species” of telcos in turn. There is a certain level of overlap between the categories, as some organisations are developing networking offers in various domains in parallel (for instance, Cellnex offering towers, private networks, neutral host and RAN outsourcing).

The new telcos have been grouped into categories, based on some broad similarities:

  • “Evolved” traditional telcos: operators, or units of operators, that are recognisable from today’s companies and brands, or are new-entrant “peers” of these.
  • Adjacent wireless providers: these are service provider categories that have been established for many years, but which are now overlapping ever more closely with “traditional” telcos.
  • Enterprise and government telcos: these are other large organisations that are shifting from being “users” of telecoms, or building internal network assets, towards offering public telecom-type services.
  • Others: this is a catch-all category that spans various niche innovation models. One particular group here, decentralised/blockchain-based telcos, is analysed in more detail.

In each case, the category is examined briefly on the basis of:

  • Background and motivation of operators
  • Typical services and infrastructure being deployed
  • Examples (approx. 3-4 of each type)
  • Implications for mainstream telcos

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Overview
    • New telco categories and service areas
    • Recommendations for traditional fixed/mobile operators
    • Recommendations for vendors and suppliers
    • Recommendations for regulators, governments & advisors
  • Introduction
    • The historical landscape
    • Why are “new telcos” emerging now?
    • Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?
    • Structure of this document
  • “Evolved” traditional telcos
    • Greenfield national networks
    • Telco systems integration units
    • “Crossover” Mobile, Fixed & cable operators
    • Extra-territorial telcos
  • Adjacent wireless providers
    • Neutral host network providers
    • TowerCos
    • FWA Fixed Wireless Access (WISPs)
    • Satellite players
  • Enterprise & government telcos
    • Industrial / vertical MNOs
    • Utility companies offering commercial telecom services
    • Enterprises’ corporate IT network service groups
    • Governments & public sector
  • New categories
    • Decentralised telcos (blockchain / cryptocurrency-based)
    • Other “new telco” categories
  • Conclusions

Related Research

 

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Regulation: A Good Case for Change (at last)

Introduction

As one of the most regulated sectors of the economy, telecoms services are the product of a complex mix of market forces and a multitude of rules governing everything from prices to the availability of spectrum. Many of these rules date from the days when an incumbent telco, often state-owned, was the dominant player in the market and needed to be carefully scrutinised by regulators. However, some of these rules, such as those governing Net Neutrality, are relatively new and relate to telcos’ role as the gateway to the Internet, which has become so fundamental to modern life. For more on this topic, please see STL Partners’ recent report: Net Neutrality 2021: IoT, NFV and 5G ready?

As telcos’ profitability has come under increasing pressure, they are lobbying hard for greater regulatory freedom. This report outlines and analyses telcos’ various campaigns to improve the business case for infrastructure investment and level the playing field with Internet players, such as Google and Facebook. It also considers whether telcos are actually putting their money where their mouth is. Is the current regulatory and competitive climate actually prompting them to cut back on investment? What will be the impact on 5G?

For their part, governments are increasingly aware of the need to stimulate new investments and new solutions in the digital economy. Greater digitisation could help solve important socio-economic problems. For example, most governments believe that digital technologies can improve the business environment, and support lower-cost, but effective, healthcare, education and security services, that will make their economies function and grow. The EU, for example, is trying to build a Digital Single Market, while the Indian government’s Digital India initiative aims to make all public services available online.

Thus governments need telcos and tech companies to succeed. Given that telcos are typically more national than global in their outlook and organisation, they tend to seem a more natural partner for national governments than the giant Internet players, such as Google and Apple.

In light of these factors, this report explores whether policymakers’ priorities are changing and how regulatory principles and competition policy are evolving. In particular, it considers whether policymakers and regulators are now taking a tougher stance with the major Internet platforms. Finally, the report analyses several areas of uncertainty – arenas in which telcos and others are likely to concentrate their lobbying efforts in future, and gives our high level analysis of areas of potential for telcos – and regulators – to make progress.

 

  • Introducton
  • Executive Summary
  • The regulatory constraints on telcos
  • Telcos’ lobbying efforts
  • More than just talk?
  • Policymakers change their priorities
  • Taking a tougher line with Internet players
  • Conclusions and areas of uncertainty

 

  • Figure 1: EBIT margins for various segments of the digital economy
  • Figure 2: ROCE in various segments of the digital value chain
  • Figure 3: Western Europe isn’t investing enough in telecoms infrastructure
  • Figure 4: Europe’s big five have stepped up capital spending
  • Figure 5: Vodafone & Telecom Italia invest more than 20% of revenues
  • Figure 6: The capital intensity of European telcos has been rising
  • Figure 7: Europe’s large telcos are seeing ROCE fall
  • Figure 8: Europe lags behind on LTE availability
  • Figure 9: In the UK, mobile operators already share infrastructure
  • Figure 10: The EU alleges Google uses Android to unfairly promote its apps
  • Figure 11: The key issues in telecoms regulation & their relative importance
  • Figure 12: The flywheel that can be driven by ROCE-aware regulation

‘Under-The-Floor’ (UTF) Players: threat or opportunity?

Introduction

The ‘smart pipe’ imperative

In some quarters of the telecoms industry, the received wisdom is that the network itself is merely an undifferentiated “pipe”, providing commodity connectivity, especially for data services. The value, many assert, is in providing higher-tier services, content and applications, either to end-users, or as value-added B2B services to other parties. The Telco 2.0 view is subtly different. We maintain that:

  1. Increasingly valuable services will be provided by third-parties but that operators can provide a few end-user services themselves. They will, for example, continue to offer voice and messaging services for the foreseeable future.
  2. Operators still have an opportunity to offer enabling services to ‘upstream’ service providers such as personalisation and targeting (of marketing and services) via use of their customer data, payments, identity and authentication and customer care.
  3. Even if operators fail (or choose not to pursue) options 1 and 2 above, the network must be ‘smart’ and all operators will pursue at least a ‘smart network’ or ‘Happy Pipe’ strategy. This will enable operators to achieve three things.
  • To ensure that data is transported efficiently so that capital and operating costs are minimised and the Internet and other networks remain cheap methods of distribution.
  • To improve user experience by matching the performance of the network to the nature of the application or service being used – or indeed vice versa, adapting the application to the actual constraints of the network. ‘Best efforts’ is fine for asynchronous communication, such as email or text, but unacceptable for traditional voice telephony. A video call or streamed movie could exploit guaranteed bandwidth if possible / available, or else they could self-optimise to conditions of network congestion or poor coverage, if well-understood. Other services have different criteria – for example, real-time gaming demands ultra-low latency, while corporate applications may demand the most secure and reliable path through the network.
  • To charge appropriately for access to and/or use of the network. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Telco 1.0 business model – that of charging the end-user per minute or per Megabyte – is under pressure as new business models for the distribution of content and transportation of data are being developed. Operators will need to be capable of charging different players – end-users, service providers, third-parties (such as advertisers) – on a real-time basis for provision of broadband and maybe various types or tiers of quality of service (QoS). They may also need to offer SLAs (service level agreements), monitor and report actual “as-experienced” quality metrics or expose information about network congestion and availability.

Under the floor players threaten control (and smartness)

Either through deliberate actions such as outsourcing, or through external agency (Government, greenfield competition etc), we see the network-part of the telco universe suffering from a creeping loss of control and ownership. There is a steady move towards outsourced networks, as they are shared, or built around the concept of open-access and wholesale. While this would be fine if the telcos themselves remained in control of this trend (we see significant opportunities in wholesale and infrastructure services), in many cases the opposite is occurring. Telcos are losing control, and in our view losing influence over their core asset – the network. They are worrying so much about competing with so-called OTT providers that they are missing the threat from below.

At the point at which many operators, at least in Europe and North America, are seeing the services opportunity ebb away, and ever-greater dependency on new models of data connectivity provision, they are potentially cutting off (or being cut off from) one of their real differentiators.
Given the uncertainties around both fixed and mobile broadband business models, it is sensible for operators to retain as many business model options as possible. Operators are battling with significant commercial and technical questions such as:

  • Can upstream monetisation really work?
  • Will regulators permit priority services under Net Neutrality regulations?
  • What forms of network policy and traffic management are practical, realistic and responsive?

Answers to these and other questions remain opaque. However, it is clear that many of the potential future business models will require networks to be physically or logically re-engineered, as well as flexible back-office functions, like billing and OSS, to be closely integrated with the network.
Outsourcing networks to third-party vendors, particularly when such a network is shared with other operators is dangerous in these circumstances. Partners that today agree on the principles for network-sharing may have very different strategic views and goals in two years’ time, especially given the unknown use-cases for new technologies like LTE.

This report considers all these issues and gives guidance to operators who may not have considered all the various ways in which network control is being eroded, from Government-run networks through to outsourcing services from the larger equipment providers.

Figure 1 – Competition in the services layer means defending network capabilities is increasingly important for operators Under The Floor Players Fig 1 Defending Network Capabilities

Source: STL Partners

Industry structure is being reshaped

Over the last year, Telco 2.0 has updated its overall map of the telecom industry, to reflect ongoing dynamics seen in both fixed and mobile arenas. In our strategic research reports on Broadband Business Models, and the Roadmap for Telco 2.0 Operators, we have explored the emergence of various new “buckets” of opportunity, such as verticalised service offerings, two-sided opportunities and enhanced variants of traditional retail propositions.
In parallel to this, we’ve also looked again at some changes in the traditional wholesale and infrastructure layers of the telecoms industry. Historically, this has largely comprised basic capacity resale and some “behind the scenes” use of carriers-carrier services (roaming hubs, satellite / sub-oceanic transit etc).

Figure 2 – Telco 1.0 Wholesale & Infrastructure structure

Under The Floor (UTF) Players Fig 2 Telco 1.0 Scenario

Source: STL Partners

Content

  • Revising & extending the industry map
  • ‘Network Infrastructure Services’ or UTF?
  • UTF market drivers
  • Implications of the growing trend in ‘under-the-floor’ network service providers
  • Networks must be smart and controlling them is smart too
  • No such thing as a dumb network
  • Controlling the network will remain a key competitive advantage
  • UTF enablers: LTE, WiFi & carrier ethernet
  • UTF players could reduce network flexibility and control for operators
  • The dangers of ceding control to third-parties
  • No single answer for all operators but ‘outsourcer beware’
  • Network outsourcing & the changing face of major vendors
  • Why become an under-the-floor player?
  • Categorising under-the-floor services
  • Pure under-the-floor: the outsourced network
  • Under-the-floor ‘lite’: bilateral or multilateral network-sharing
  • Selective under-the-floor: Commercial open-access/wholesale networks
  • Mandated under-the-floor: Government networks
  • Summary categorisation of under-the-floor services
  • Next steps for operators
  • Build scale and a more sophisticated partnership approach
  • Final thoughts
  • Index

 

  • Figure 1 – Competition in the services layer means defending network capabilities is increasingly important for operators
  • Figure 2 – Telco 1.0 Wholesale & Infrastructure structure
  • Figure 3 – The battle over infrastructure services is intensifying
  • Figure 4 – Examples of network-sharing arrangements
  • Figure 5 – Examples of Government-run/influenced networks
  • Figure 6 – Four under-the-floor service categories
  • Figure 7: The need for operator collaboration & co-opetition strategies