How telcos can provide a tonic for transport

5G can help revolutionise public transport

With the advent of 5G, STL Partners believes telcos have a broad opportunity to help coordinate better use of the world’s resources and assets, as outlined in the report: The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms. Reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources.

In urban and suburban transport markets, one precious resource is in short supply – space. Trains can be crowded, roads can be congested and there may be nowhere to park. Following the enormous changes in working patterns in the wake of the pandemic, both individuals and policymakers are reviewing their transport choices.

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This report explores how the concept of mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) is evolving, while outlining the challenges facing those companies looking to transform public transport. In particular, it considers how telcos and 5G could support the development and deployment of automated shuttle buses, which are now beginning to appear on the world’s roads. Whereas self-driving cars are taking much longer to develop than their proponents expected, automated shuttle buses look like a more realistic mid-term prospect. Running on relatively short set routes, these vehicles are easier to automate and can be monitored/controlled by dedicated connectivity infrastructure.

This report also examines the role of 5G connectivity in other potentially-disruptive transport propositions, such as remotely controlled hire cars, passenger drones and flying cars, which could emerge over the next decade. It builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Where is transport headed?

Across the world, transport is in a state of flux. Growing congestion, the pandemic, concerns about air quality and climate change, and the emergence of new technologies are taking the transport sector in new directions. Urban planners have long recognised that having large numbers of half-empty cars crawling around at 20km/hour looking for somewhere to park is not a good use of resources.

Experimentation abounds. Many municipalities are building bike lanes and closing roads to try and encourage people to get out of their cars. In response, sales of electric bikes and scooters are rising fast. The past 10 years has also seen a global boom (followed by a partial bust) in micro-mobility services – shared bikes and scooters. Although they haven’t lived up to the initial hype, these sharing economy services have become a key part of the transport mix in many cities (for more on this, see the STL Partners report: Can telcos help cities combat congestion?).

Indeed, these micro-mobility services may be given a shot in the arm by the difficulties faced by the ride hailing business. In many cities, Uber and Lyft are under intense pressure to improve their driver proposition by giving workers more rights, while complying with more stringent safety regulations. That is driving costs upwards. Uber had hoped to ultimately replace human drivers with self-driving vehicles, but that now looks unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Tesla, which has always been bullish about the prospects autonomous driving, keeps having to revise its timelines backwards.

Tellingly, the Chinese government has pushed back a target to have more than half of new cars sold to have self-driving capabilities from 2020 to 2025. It blamed technical difficulties, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, in a 2020 statement issued by National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Still, self-driving cars will surely arrive eventually. In July, Alphabet (Google’s parent) reported that its experimental self-driving vehicle unit Waymo continues to grow. “People love the fully autonomous ride hailing service in Phoenix,” Sundar Pichai, CEO Alphabet and Google, enthused. “Since first launching its services to the public in October 2020, Waymo has safely served tens of thousands of rides without a human driver in the vehicle, and we look forward to many more.”

In response to analyst questions, Pichai added: “We’ve had very good experience by scaling up rides. These are driverless rides and no one is in the car other than the passengers. And people have had a very positive experience overall. …I expect us to scale up more through the course of 2022.”

More broadly, the immediate priority for many governments will be on greening their transport systems, given the rising public concern about climate change and extreme weather. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” to stabilise the earth’s climate. This pressure will likely increase the pace at which traditional components of the transport system become all-electric – cars, motorbikes, buses, bikes, scooters and even small aircraft are making the transition from relying on fossil fuel or muscle power to relying on batteries.

The rest of this 45-page report explores how public transport is evolving, and the role of 5G connectivity and telcos can play in enabling the shift.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Where is transport headed?
    • Mobility-as-a-service
    • The role of digitisation and data
    • Rethinking the bus
    • Takeaways
  • How telcos are supporting public transport
    • Deutsche Telekom: Trying to digitise transport
    • Telia: Using 5G to support shuttle buses
    • Takeaways
  • The key challenges
    • A complex and multi-faceted value chain
    • Regulatory caution
    • Building viable business models
    • Takeaways
  • Automakers become service providers
    • Volvo to retrieve driving data in real-time
    • Automakers and tech companies team up
    • Takeaways
  • Taxis and buses take to the air
    • The prognosis for passenger drones
    • Takeaways
  • Conclusions: Strategic implications for telcos

 

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Uber and Tesla: What telcos should do

Introduction

This report analyses the market position and strategies of Tesla and Uber, two of four Internet-based disruptors that might be able to break into the top tier of consumer Internet players, which is made up of Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google. The other two challengers – Spotify and Netflix – were the subject of the recent STL Partners report: Can Netflix and Spotify make the leap to the top tier?

Tesla, Uber, Spotify and Netflix 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 have challenged the conventions of the industries in which they operate, driving disruption and forcing incumbents to 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 could use 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.


This report explores how improvements in digital technologies and consumer electronics are changing the automotive market, enabling Tesla and Uber to rethink personal transport almost from the bottom up. In particular, it considers how self-driving vehicles could become a key platform within the digital economy, offering a range of commerce services linked to transportation and logistics. The report also explores how the high level of regulation in transportation, as in telecoms, is complicating Uber’s efforts to build economies of scale and scope.

The final section provides a high-level overview of the opportunities for telcos as the automobile becomes a major computing and connectivity platform, including partnership strategies, and the implications for telcos if Uber or Tesla were able to make the jump to become a tier one player.

The report builds on the analysis in two previous STL Partners’ executive briefings that explore how artificial intelligence is changing the automotive sector:

Self-driving disruption

Uber, the world’s leading ride-hailing app, and Tesla, the world’s leading producer of all-electric vehicles, could evolve to become tier one players in the digital economy, as the car could eventually become a major control point in the digital value chain. Both companies could use the disruption caused by the arrival of self-driving cars to become a broad digital commerce platform akin to that of Amazon or Google.  As well as matching individuals with journeys, Uber is gearing up to use self-driving vehicles to connect people with shops, restaurants, bars and many other merchants and service providers.  With a strong brand, Tesla could potentially play a similar role in the premium end of the market as Apple has done in the PC, tablet and smartphone sectors.

However, Uber and Tesla are just two of the scores of technology and automotive companies jostling for a preeminent position in a future in which the car is a major computing and connectivity platform. As well as investing heavily in the development of self-driving technologies, many of these companies are splurging on M&A to get the skills and competences they will need in the personal transportation market of the future.  For example, Intel bought Mobileye, a maker of autonomous-driving systems, for US$15.3 billion in March 2017. Delphi, a big auto parts maker, bought nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle start-up, for US$450 million, and has since reinvented itself as an autonomous vehicle company called Aptiv.

Self-driving vehicles will change the world and the way people live in a myriad of different ways, just as cars themselves transformed society during the 20th century. Some shops, hotels and restaurants could become mobile, while car parks, garages and even traffic lights could eventually become obsolete, potentially heralding new business opportunities for many kinds of companies, including telcos. But the most important change for Uber and Tesla will be a widespread shift from owning cars to sharing cars.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • How Uber and Tesla are creating new opportunities for telcos
  • Uber’s and Tesla’s future prospects
  • Lessons for telcos
  • Introduction
  • Self-driving disruption
  • Making car ownership obsolete
  • From here to autonomy
  • The convergence of car rental, taxi-hailing and car making
  • Business models beyond transport
  • Opportunities for telcos
  • Uber: At the bleeding edge
  • Uber’s chequered history
  • Uber looks beyond the car
  • Uber’s strengths and weaknesses: From fame to notoriety
  • Tesla: All electric dreams
  • Tesla’s strengths and weaknesses: Beautiful but small
  • Conclusions and lessons for telcos
  • The future of Uber and Tesla
  • The future of connected cars
  • Lessons from Uber and Tesla

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Self-driving vehicles will become commonplace by 2030
  • Figure 2: The two different routes to self-driving vehicles
  • Figure 3: The first self-driving cars could appear within two years
  • Figure 4: Money is pouring into ride hailing and self-driving companies
  • Figure 5: Waymo is way ahead with respect to self-driving disengagements
  • Figure 6: Uber’s vision of a “vertiport” serving a highway intersection
  • Figure 7: Uber believes VTOL can be much cheaper than helicopters
  • Figure 8: Uber’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis
  • Figure 9: Growth in Tesla’s automotive revenues has been subdued
  • Figure 10: Tesla’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  • Figure 11: Tesla loses money most quarters
  • Figure 12: Tesla is having to cut back on capex

NTT DoCoMo: The Digital Pathfinder

The need for telco transformation

Shrinking revenues in voice and data mean telcos need to change

Telcos are facing difficult times; as we wrote in a recent report – Which operator growth strategies will remain viable in 2017 and beyond? – the days of meteoric growth are in the past, and telcos need to find a new approach to prevent a dramatic decline in their revenues. This is not a new story; STL Partners has been writing about this phenomenon and the need for business model change since 2006. In the afore-mentioned report we discussed seven different growth strategies used by telcos between 2009 and mid-2016, and came to the conclusion that only one, which involves developing or acquiring new businesses and services, is viable for 2017 and beyond if the industry is to reignite sustainable growth.

Digital services are an important part of this growth strategy. In fact, as Figure 1 shows, STL Partners estimates that digital business should represent 25+% of Telco revenue by 2020 to avoid long-term industry decline.

Figure 1 – Transformation priorities are different for every operator

However, the move to digital is difficult for telcos, who have traditionally relied on an infrastructure-based business model. Digital businesses are very different, and to be successful here telcos will need to make a fundamental shift from their traditional infrastructure-based business model to a complex amalgam of infrastructure, platform, and product innovation businesses.

One of STL Partners’ global observations is that all operators have different goals in the pursuit of transformation. This was also true with the group in Singapore, as shown by the following chart of a vote on the priorities assigned to different transformation objectives.

NTT DoCoMo – an example for other operators

With this in mind, telcos need to think about how they will develop new businesses and services. NTT DoCoMo provides a useful example for other telcos because it has done more than any other operator globally to develop digital services.

However, some people claim that the Japanese mobile market is so unique that it does not provide a useful role model for telcos in other markets. STL Partners disagrees with this point of view. Although the Japanese mobile market does have some unique characteristics, in some cases what was originally thought of as “unique” has just been proved to be “advanced.” An example of this is the popularity of apps and the iPhone – before this it was claimed that Japanese consumers were more engaged than those in other markets with mobile games and gadgets – however, the worldwide popularity of the iPhone and smartphones has disproved this.

In fact, although not advanced in every area, the Japanese mobile market has experienced several key phenomena earlier than other countries, such as an early peak in revenues and market disruption from non-telcos. Therefore, STL Partners thinks telcos should be examining the Japanese market to help them prepare for the future challenges of their own. Examples of this can be found in NTT DoCoMo’s annual reports – as early as 1999 the company was talking about the need to develop new sources of revenue (such as digital services and machine-to-machine communications) because of the inevitable decline in voice.

We therefore think that, although telcos in different markets cannot replicate NTT DoCoMo’s strategy in Japan like-for-like, they can certainly adopt similar practices to help them succeed in the digital telco world.

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Objectives
  • Methodology
  • The need for telco transformation
  • Shrinking revenues in voice and data mean telcos need to change
  • NTT DoCoMo – an example for other operators
  • A snapshot of the Japanese mobile market
  • NTT DoCoMo’s history
  • A mature home market…
  • Softbank disrupts the market
  • NTT DoCoMo’s digital journey
  • Early recognition of the telco challenge, but regulation dictates the direction of evolution
  • An incremental journey to digital success
  • Adapting to the post-iPhone world
  • Can NTT DoCoMo’s digital success work overseas?
  • What was i-mode and why did it fail outside Japan?
  • What can other operators learn from NTT DoCoMo’s digital journey?

 

  • Figure 1: Traditional telco revenues forecast to continue declining
  • Figure 2: NTT Corporation, NTT DoCoMo’s parent company
  • Figure 3: Japanese mobile subscriber data, 1999-2015
  • Figure 4: Japanese mobile operators’ annual revenues, 1994-2014
  • Figure 5: NTT DoCoMo quarterly revenue – by business segment
  • Figure 6: NTT DoCoMo’s digital innovation milestones
  • Figure 7: Before and after DoCoMo ID
  • Figure 8: +d’s social value in health, education and agriculture
  • Figure 8: i-mode subscriptions – a runaway success in Japan

The STL Partners Digital Investment Database: August 2016 Update

The STL Partners Digital Investment Database

We published our Digital Investment Database in early July, together with a report titled Digital M&A and Investment Strategies. Given recent high profile activities, we’ve now issued an updated version.

While there have been a number of smaller investments and acquisitions, two major acquisitions have hit the headlines since we published our report. On 18 July, it was announced that SoftBank was buying the UK chip manufacturer ARM Holdings for £24.3bn. Then, on 24 July, Verizon bought Yahoo! for $4.8bn. Here, we take a quick look at these two acquisitions.

SoftBank and ARM: (big) business as usual?

Why ARM? For its £24.3bn, SoftBank has gained one of the world’s leading processor manufacturers, with a strong existing business designing processors for smartphones and tablets, and an excellent opportunity to develop new revenues from the IoT. The attraction is clear, but the sums involved are huge.

Yet in some ways, this acquisition is the progression of business as usual. Our analysis based on v1.0 of our database suggests that SoftBank has long been one of the most active telcos in digital M&A. Among the 31 investments and acquisitions we tracked from 2012-1H2016, SoftBank was outstripped only by Deutsche Telekom, Singtel, and Telstra.

However, while the ARM deal fits with this prior interest in digital businesses, the bulk of SoftBank’s recent purchases have had a software focus: ARM marks a shift towards hardware. Moreover, the size of the transaction dwarfs SoftBank’s previous efforts.

Much media coverage has suggested that the ARM deal might be closely associated with the recent return of CEO Masayoshi Son, an adventurous, ambitious leader with a history of bold purchases. Looking at our database, the ARM deal certainly breaks the mould of telco acquisitions, as SoftBank’s £24.3bn deal for ARM is by far the biggest non-core-business acquisition tracked by our database.[1] But £24.3bn rarely changes hands on a whim, and we intend to publish further in-depth analysis on this in future.

Verizon and Yahoo!: Can a telco challenge Google and Facebook on advertising?

Verizon’s purchase of Yahoo! for $4.8bn was, in financial terms, far smaller than the SoftBank/ARM deal. Yet it received a great deal of media attention, partly, of course, because Yahoo! remains a significant household name in the US in particular, and a salient reminder of how the corporate landscape of the internet has changed.

At its peak in 2000, Yahoo! was worth $125bn. So there are clear questions: have Verizon snapped up an undervalued business, or has it splashed cash on a dinosaur?

Verizon has been very clear that its intention with Yahoo! is to join the advertising business with its 2015 purchase of AOL for $4.4bn, and become the third player in digital advertising behind Google and Facebook. CEO Lowell McAdam made no bones about the business’s ambitions in oft-repeated comments shortly after the deal was announced: ‘Are we going to challenge Google and Facebook? I just say, look, we’re planning on being a significant player here. The market is going to grow exponentially.’[2]

Currently, Google and Facebook together have over 50% of the US digital advertising market. AOL and Yahoo! combined have 6%. 1bn users view Yahoo! content each month, and Verizon only therefore needs to persuade a few advertisers to switch to them in order to grow market share.

From a telco point of view, one key facet of this argument is that potential synergies between Yahoo! and Verizon’s network do not appear to be essential. While telcos have classically searched for M&A opportunities that directly complemented their core business, Verizon might be understood as using its market value to finance deals that have independent value – not unlike Softbank and ARM. However, there are questions around the true value of Yahoo!’s share of digital advertising.

At the moment of Facebook’s IPO in 2012, Yahoo! had greater revenue. But since then. Google and Facebook have transformed digital advertising by making it targetable. Google knows what you want, when you want it (a search for ‘buy blue jeans’, for instance), and Facebook knows what you like (as users are encouraged to document their preferences). It can use this data to give advertisers access to the most relevant sections of a vast potential online audience.

This is a strong business model that has proved more valuable as these companies have refined it. Yahoo!’s digital advertising is not quite as sophisticated, and it remains to be seen if Verizon will be able to develop the revenue it envisages.

Verizon and Fleetmatics: Under the radar

Yahoo! garnered the majority of media attention, but Verizon also spent $2.4bn on Fleetmatics, a digital business that provides SaaS for fleet management. M2M fleet tracking is nothing new, but as well as its core software business, the company has the potential to play an important role in the industrial IoT as connected vehicles become more common.

Together, the two acquisitions might suggest a drive to develop profitable plays in markets beyond core telco revenue: from Fleetmatics, the IoT, and from AOL-Yahoo, digital advertising. Moreover, for strategists and practitioners placing the two together may have greater significance than viewing them separately.

Highlighting such deals and longer term trends behind them are two of the key goals of our M&A database.

Accessing the database

Our Digital Investment Database documents key digital investments and acquisitions for twenty-two operators during the period 2012 – August 2016.

An illustrative snapshot of part of the database

[1] To be precise, ‘non-core-business’ excludes telcos buying businesses involved in delivering the quadruple play of fixed, mobile, internet, and TV – for example, BT’s purchase of EE, or AT&T’s purchase of DirecTV.

[2] Financial Times, 26 July 2016.

Self-Disruption: How Sprint Blew It

Introduction

At the beginning of 2013, we issued an Executive Briefing on the proposed take-over of Sprint-Nextel by Softbank, which we believed to be the starting gun for disruption in the US mobile market.

At the time, not only was 68% of revenue in the US market controlled by the top two operators, AT&T and Verizon, it was also an unusually lucrative market in general, being both rich and high-spending (see Figure 1, taken from the The Future Value of Voice & Messaging strategy report). Further, the great majority of net-adds were concentrated among the top two operators, with T-Mobile USA flat-lining and Sprint beginning to lose subscribers. We expected Sprint to initiate a price war, following a plan similar to Softbank’s in Japan, separating the cost of devices from that of service, making sure to offer the hero smartphone of the day, and offering good value on data bundles.

Figure 1: The US, a rich country that spends heavily on telecoms

The US a rich country that spends heavily on telecoms feb 2014

Source: STL Partners

In the event, the fight for control of Sprint turned out to be more drawn out and complex than anyone expected. Add to this the complexity of Sprint’s major network upgrade, Network Vision, as shown in Figure 2, and the fact that the plans changed in order to take advantage of Softbank’s procurement of devices for the 2.5GHz band, and it is perhaps less surprising that we have yet to see a major strategic initiative from Sprint.

Figure 2: The Softbank deal brought with it major changes to Network Vision
The Softbank deal brought with it major changes to Network Vision feb 2014

Source: Sprint Q3 earnings report

Instead, T-Mobile USA implemented a very similar strategy, having completed the grieving process for the AT&T deal and secured investment from DTAG for their LTE roll-out and spectrum enhancements. So far, their “uncarrier” strategy has delivered impressive subscriber growth at the expense of slashing prices. The tale of 2013 in terms of subscribers can be seen in the following chart, updated from the original Sprint/Softbank note. (Note that AT&T, VZW, and T-Mobile have released data for calendar Q3, but Sprint hasn’t yet – the big question, going by the chart, will be whether T-Mobile has overtaken Sprint for cumulative net-adds.)

Figure 3: The duopoly marches on, T-Mobile recovers, Sprint in trouble

The duopoly marches on, T-Mobile recovers, Sprint in trouble Feb 2014

Source: STL Partners

However, Sprint did have a major strategic initiative in the last two years – and one that went badly wrong. We refer, of course, to the shutdown of the Nextel half of Sprint-Nextel.

Closing Nextel: The Optimistic Case

There is much that is good inside Sprint, which explains both why so much effort went into its “turnaround” and why Masayoshi Son was interested. For example, its performance in terms of ARPU is strong, to say the least. The following chart, Figure 4, illustrates the point. Total ARPU in post-paid, which is most of the business, is both high at just under $65/mo and rising steadily. ARPU in pre-paid is essentially flat around $25/mo. The problem was Nextel and specifically, Nextel post-paid – while pre-paid hovered around $35/mo, post-paid trended steadily down from $45/mo to parity with pre-paid by the end.

Figure 4: Sprint-Nextel ARPU

Sprint-Nextel ARPU feb 2014

Source: STL Partners

The difference between the two halves of Sprint that were doing the work here is fairly obvious. Nextel’s unique iDEN network was basically an orphan, without a development path beyond the equivalent of 2005-era WCDMA speeds, and without smartphones. Sprint CDMA, and later LTE, could offer wireless broadband and could offer the iPhone. Clearly, something had to be done. You can see the importance of smartphone adoption from the following graphic, Figure 5, showing that smartphones drove ARPU on Sprint’s CDMA network.

Figure 5: Sprint CDMA has reached 80% smartphone adoption

Sprint CDMA has reached 80% smartphone adoption feb 2014

Source: STL Partners

It is true that smartphones create opportunities to substitute OTT voice and messaging, but this is less of a problem in the US. As the following chart from the Future Value of Voice and Messaging strategy report shows, voice and messaging are both cheap in the US, and people spend heavily on mobile data.

Figure 6: US mobile key indicators

US mobile key indicators feb 2014

Source: STL Partners

So far, the pull effect of better devices on data usage has helped Sprint grow revenues, while it also drew subscribers away from Nextel. Sprint’s strategy in response to this was to transition Nextel subscribers over to the mainline platform, and then shut down the network, while recycling savings and spectrum from the closure of Nextel into their LTE deployment.

 

  • Closing Nextel: The Scoreboard
  • Recapture
  • The Double Dippers
  • The Competition: AT&T Targets the Double Dippers
  • Developers, Developers, Devices
  • Conclusions

 

  • Figure 1: The US, a rich country that spends heavily on telecoms
  • Figure 2: The Softbank deal brought with it major changes to Network Vision
  • Figure 3: The duopoly marches on, T-Mobile recovers, Sprint in trouble
  • Figure 4: Sprint-Nextel ARPU
  • Figure 5: Sprint mainline has reached 80% smartphone adoption
  • Figure 6: US mobile key indicators
  • Figure 7: Tale of the tape – something goes wrong in early 2012
  • Figure 8: Sprint’s “recapture” rate was falling during 3 out of the 4 biggest quarters for Nextel subscriber losses, when it needed to be at its best
  • Figure 9: Nextel post-paid was 72% business customers in 3Q 2011
  • Figure 10: The loss of high-value SMB customers dragged Sprint’s revenues into negative territory
  • Figure 11: The way mobile applications development used to be

Sprint-Softbank: how it will disrupt the US market

Summary:

The Japanese and French markets have both been disrupted through the entry of low-cost competitors offering substantial price reductions. We think that Softbank’s acquisition of Sprint is a signal that the same is to soon come in the US given Softbank’s experience as a successful disruptor in Japan. (January 2013, Executive Briefing Service)

Digital Commerce Flywheel December 2012

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Below is an extract from this 23 page Telco 2.0 Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service here. Non-members can subscribe here or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

We’ll also be discussing our findings at the New Digital Economics Brainstorm in Silicon Valley, 19-20 March, 2013.

Overview

Once upon a time…

Japan used to be a mobile market with two serious competitors, high ARPUs and margins, and three laggard players that nobody took too seriously. France’s mobile market had three operators, a highly tolerant regulator, and high margins. And the US mobile market once had a relatively laissez-faire regulator, high ARPUs, two mighty duopolists, and two laggards.

The Japanese and French markets have both been disrupted through the entry of low-cost competitors offering substantial price reductions, and in Japan’s case the disruptor was Softbank. The US now has a regulator seemingly more influenced by voices from Silicon Valley than ‘big telco’ lobbyists, the duopolists have attractive margins, and Softbank now stands behind Sprint. The scene appears set for a disruptive play.

The lessons of history

In Japan, back in 2006, when Vodafone sold its Japanese operation to Masayoshi Son’s Softbank, the mobile market was relatively stable with two large players – NTT Docomo and KDDI – and three much smaller ones including Softbank which were not making money (hence Vodafone’s decision to withdraw from Japan). Softbank spotted the disruptive possibilities of the Apple iPhone, the advantages of being Japan’s only operator on the UMTS world standard, and the fat margins of the duopolists. It became the iPhone exclusive carrier, benefited from world 3G infrastructure competition, and set keen prices on data to cut into the duopoly.  And the results have been spectacular: Operating income has increased 6 times since Softbank acquired the business from Vodafone, and net additions in 2012 were running 127% higher than those of NTT DoCoMo and 51% higher than KDDI.

In France back in 2011, three French operators shared out the market, under the eyes of ARCEP, a regulator much more enthusiastic about planning for infrastructure development than driving competition. That year, Free.fr, a company that had already disrupted the fixed ISP market through mastering software and therefore having the best customer premises devices and the lowest costs, finally got a 3G licence. Using a radical new network design based on small cells and WLAN-cellular integration, Free tore into the oligopolists at staggeringly low prices.

In the United States, between 2005 and 2009, the friendly regulator – FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin – permitted three great mergers in wireless, creating the new AT&T, the new Verizon, and the new Sprint-Nextel. Out of those, execution was successful in the first two. Sprint-Nextel misjudged the importance of Nextel’s specialism in voice, made a bad bet on WiMAX, leaving itself excluded from the emerging smartphone arena, and anyway had the hardest integration challenge. This is now acknowledged by Daniel R. Hesse, Sprint-Nextel’s CEO.

“Hesse said that the AT&T’s failed attempt to consolidate two of the Big 4 made him realize that there was no longer such a thing as the Big 4. The industry had bifurcated into the Big 2 and everybody else.” … “With 20/20 hindsight, the Nextel merger was a mistake,” Hesse said. “The synergies, if you will, that we had hoped for and planned for didn’t materialize.” 

Source: GigaOm

AT&T and Verizon, however, made it across the merger swamp to found an effective duopoly, a dominating force that controls 68% of revenue in the world’s critical wireless market, and which regularly achieves 30+% margins while its rivals struggle to break even. Verizon’s decision to end the standards wars and go with LTE effectively killed the CDMA development path and left Sprint stuck with WiMAX. Was it strategy or happy accident?

So, what’s next?

Now, things have changed. Sprint has been bought out by none other than Softbank – the original Japanese disruptor. It is a reminder that strategic advantage is temporary and disruption is inevitable.

We expect that the new Sprint will take the pain to push ahead with its transition to LTE. The previous Softbank and Sprint experiences have shown that being outside the world standard is deadly from a devices point of view, which remains critical to success in mobile. We expect that they may make a much bigger effort with carrier WLAN, far better standardised, far more available, and in many ways technically more robust than WiMAX.

We also expect that Sprint/Softbank will aim for the simplest form of disruption, price war. Oligopolies are always either in a state of price stability or of price war. Whether a cartel controls the market, or a tacit balance of fear constrains action, stability reigns, until it doesn’t. Then, price war rages, as no-one can afford to resist. Customers will benefit. T-Mobile, trying to fight its way to the start-line, will suffer most of all.

Another lesson from Softbank, though, is that disruption on price needs a killer product if it is to be more than a race to the bottom. We explore some further strategy options for Sprint in the body of this report.

In addition to its impact on the core US telecoms market, the prospect of forthcoming disruption also raises the stakes on the question of whether the US telcos are transforming to new Telco 2.0 business models fast enough (see our report A Practical Guide to Implementing Telco 2.0). This is a topic that we will explore further in our research and at the next Silicon Valley Executive Brainstorm, March 19-20, 2013.

Orientation: The Softbank Experience

Masayoshi Son’s strategy at Softbank, after acquiring the Vodafone stake, was simple – sharp pricing, especially on data, and hot gadgets.

The iPhone: a disruptive innovation

Softbank was the launch partner for the iPhone in Japan and remained Apple’s exclusive carrier up to the release of the iPhone 4S. Softbank’s annual report shows the impact of the iPhone and repricing very clearly – the partnership with Apple was signed in June, 2008, and the iPhone 4S launch followed in Q3 2011. The disruption was transient, but it had lasting effects on the market, restoring Softbank as a serious competitor, in much the same way as it turbocharged AT&T in the US a year before.

Figure 1: iDisrupt – the June ‘08 iPhone launch reset the market in Japan

Softbank Results, January 2013Source: Softbank

The combination of keen pricing and iPhones had a lasting effect on subscriber growth, too. Throughout the exclusivity era, Softbank beat its rivals for net-adds handsomely.

The impact on price: enduring reduction in margins

However, this came at a price. On a quarterly basis, a steady erosion of operating margin is visible, driven partly by the pricing strategy and partly by the cost of the shiny, shiny gadgets. One way of mitigating this was to carve out the cost of the device from the cost of service. Rather than paying nothing up front, Softbank subscribers paid a monthly device charge, or else either paid cash or brought their own.

Softbank’s annual report says that their subscriber-acquisition cost was falling in their FY 2012 (i.e. 2011-12), but also that the average subscriber upgrade cost had increased – in a smartphone environment, users who were brought on board on a cheaper device will tend to eventually demand something better.

As a result, Softbank has been able to keep its share of net adds over 40%. In a market with four players, this is a major achievement. However, to do so, they have had to accept the erosion of their margins and pricing.

Figure 3: Softbank – keeping ahead of the competition…

Softbank Net Adds and Margins, January 2013Source: STL Partners, Softbank

Clearly, price disruption can work, and it is reasonable to think that something similar might happen in the US, a similar market. In the international context, US mobile operators are pricey: the US is the fourth-highest OECD market by ARPU.

On average, for instance, a triple-play package that bundles Internet, telephone and television sells for $160 a month with taxes. In France the equivalent costs just $38. For that low price the French also get long distance to 70 foreign countries, not merely one; worldwide television, not just domestic; and an Internet that’s 20 times faster uploading data and 10 times faster downloading it.

To read the note in full, including the following additional analysis…

  • Executive Summary
  • Orientation: The Softbank Experience
  • The iPhone: a disruptive innovation
  • The impact on price: enduring reduction in margins
  • The Disruption of EU High Price Markets
  • Target: The Duopoly
  • Context: Sources of the Duo
  • M&A Execution
  • AT&T: A Devil’s Bargain with Apple
  • Verizon – network leadership as a strategy
  • Sprint – post-merger distractions
  • The Future: Limits to the Duo
  • PSTN phaseout and Universal Service Fund transition
  • Very simply…a price war
  • Sprint: The Agenda
  • Recovering from the loss of the Nextel business
  • Future of the network
  • Future of the core
  • The spectrum issue
  • Sprint: the soft-shoe spectrum shuffle
  • Softbank: another 2.5GHz vision
  • Options for disruptive change
  • Happy Pipe
  • Telco 2.0
  • Comms-Focused
  • Conclusions


…and the following figures…

  • Figure 1: iDisrupt – the June ‘08 iPhone launch reset the market in Japan
  • Figure 2: Softbank accepted a drift-down in margins as the price of subscriber acquisition
  • Figure 3: Softbank – keeping ahead of the competition
  • Figure 4: Spain is a high-price market
  • Figure 5: Markets with premium pricing are the first to go
  • Figure 6: AT&T and Verizon Wireless dominate US mobile revenues and margins
  • Figure 7: The duopolists pull away in terms of subscribers
  • Figure 8: The duopolists’ subscriber gain has come without sacrificing ARPU
  • Figure 9: The duopolists dig in through capital investment
  • Figure 10: OneNet sent Vodafone UK powering ahead in the SMB market
  • Figure 11: Softbank Japan’s spectrum plan
  • Figure 12: Softbank and the US Carriers’ Spectrum Holdings
  • Figure 13: Softbank is more than confident on EBIT
  • Figure 14: Softbank ARPU – An “increasing trend” for one player, but only just


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