Beating the crash: What’s coming?

Signs of tougher times

Tough times are ahead…

As we look ahead, the world faces a number of significant challenges:

  • Global / OECD consumer confidence is diving to startling new depths as people increasingly feel the impact of inflation, supply constraints and a cost of living crisis.
  • This follows the war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic and long Covid, stresses resulting from diverging political ideologies, growing social unrest, and the ever increasing realisation of the impact of climate change.
  • These seismic tensions are all driven by nearly 8 billion (and growing) people vying for resources and a vision of the future that they can continue to thrive in.

…but it’s not our first rodeo…

We have previously written about, for example:

And before that, there was the Credit Crunch series (2008), the Eurozone Crisis (2012), and technology and market disruptions too numerous to name.

There is always a temptation to think that the latest crisis is the worst. Each one tends to temporarily obliterate one’s view of the future as our imaginations are so absorbed in dealing with the nearby threat that all other considerations become secondary.

…and we believe we can bring some hope

Our solution to these challenges is two-fold. First, there is a lot that can be learned by looking at the lessons from previous traumas. Secondly, it is extremely helpful to be able to position all the individual events within an overall context, as it enables us to more rapidly reorientate after the latest shock.

Our context is The Coordination Age – the vision that the world is entering into a new era where:

  • The primary need is to make better use of available resources (e.g. money, carbon, time, assets, etc)
  • And that connecting technologies (e.g. telecommunications, data, automation and AI) are key elements of the solution.

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Making the Coordination Age work

making-the-coordination-age-work

Source: STL Partners

This report uses these learnings to look ahead to what we see as a challenging time. While some of the forces we outline in this report may seem alarming, this is not a pessimistic picture. We believe that the vision we describe brings opportunities for telecoms – but only if leaders in telecoms and elsewhere act on the vision. We are striving to make this happen, and we hope we can help you do that too.

A scale of discovery

To help contextualise the many forces of change, we have developed a six-stage schematic to generalise how people deal with new forces and changes in their lives. It progresses from the first recognition of a new theme or issue through to normalisation, the point where something is no longer new or different. The graphic below highlights the six stages, and general heuristic descriptions of what you might hear said, risks and threats, mitigations, and the general psychological and emotional mindset of those processing the change or issue in question.

Six stages of dealing with new ideas

six-stages-dealing-with-new-ideas-stl-partners

Source: STL Partners

The body of the report covers the drivers, their impact and consequences for telecoms:

  • Economic drivers, such as consumer confidence, inflation, and rising living costs
  • Environmental drivers, including climate change and carbon reduction
  • Political drivers, including the War in Ukraine, China / US tensions, trade wars and tensions
  • Social drivers, including Covid and Long Covid, inequalities and social polarisation.

Economic drivers: A crisis of confidence

In this section we examine drivers in consumer confidence, inflation / cost-of-living concerns and the consequences for telecoms.

Consumer confidence: An all-time low

The OECD consumer confidence index is a barometer of consumer sentiment. It reflects people’s confidence in their economic prospects. The chart below shows that it is currently reaching record new lows.

The OECD Consumer confidence index is at its lowest ever level

OECD-consumer-inflation-index-june-2022

Source: OECD

This means that consumers feel extremely pessimistic about their economic prospects. The average score is now below where it was at the peak of anxiety about Covid in early 2020, and below where it was in the financial crash in 2008-09. Indeed, the OECD average is now at its lowest ever level since global measures were introduced in the early 1970s, with only Mexico and Indonesia bucking the downward trend.

People are now preparing for a tough period in their economies. Some are worried about making ends meet – having enough to live to the standard they normally expect. This usually means that they will look to cut back on spending, especially for non-essential things.

Inflation is worrying everyone in Summer 2023

The pressures behind this trend are a generalised concern about inflation (rising prices on essential items like food) leading to a cost-of-living crisis.

Inflation overtook other global concerns in April 2022

Inflation-overtook-global-concerns-april-2022-stl-partners

Source: Ipsos

The Google trends chart below shows search interest in ‘inflation’ globally, which is an even more immediate signal of concern. It clearly spikes in July 2022.

Google Trends – searches for “inflation” spiked in Summer 2022

google-trends-searches-for-inflation-summer-2022-stl-partners

Source: Google

The problem is not confined to one or two economies: it is widespread, as the image from the interactive chart below shows.

inflation-global-challenge-2022-stl-partners

Source: FT

The rest of the analysis in this report reviews the macro-economic trends – i.e. the economic, environmental, political and social drivers of change. In a second report, we will cover telecoms industry trends, including technologies, policy, propositions and industry structure.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Not one crash, but many
    • 1. Actively realigning with stakeholders
    • 2. Accelerating operational innovation
    • 3. Enhancing resilience and customer security offerings
    • Next steps
  • Introduction: Signs of tougher times
    • A scale of discovery
  • Economic drivers: A crisis of confidence
    • Consumer confidence: An all-time low
    • Inflation is worrying everyone in summer 2022
    • Interest rates: A blunt tool?
    • Stock markets: Not quite sure…yet
    • Moving out of denial on economic problems
    • Consequences in telecoms demand
    • Recommendations
  • Environmental factors: Heating up fast
    • Climate change: Denial is hard these days
    • Decarbonisation: Digitising the industrial landscape, fast
    • Environmental concerns are now mainstream
    • Consequences for telecoms
    • Recommendations
  • Political: Drawing new lines
    • Ideo-conflict: Who’s side are you on?
    • The war in Ukraine: The first Coordination Age war?
    • China and Taiwan: Watching, waiting, wondering
    • Trade wars and barriers in general
    • Global instability: More trouble ahead
    • Consequences for telecoms
    • Recommendations
  • Social: A new order
    • Covid and Long Covid: Living with the virus
    • Rising resentment of inequalities
    • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
    • Consequences and recommendations for telecoms
  • Analysis
    • Getting the news in context
  • Appendix 1: Waste, pollution and air quality
    • Waste and pollution: Cleaning up
    • Refugees and migrations: Seeking solace in troubling times
  • Appendix 2: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

 

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Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive

Deep dive: 5G core deployments 

In this July 2022 update to STL Partners’ Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, we present granular information on 5G core launches. They fall into three categories:

  • 5G Non-standalone core (5G NSA core) deployments: The 5G NSA core (agreed as part of 3GPP Release in December 2017), involves using a virtualised and upgraded version of the existing 4G core (or EPC) to support 5G New Radio (NR) wireless transmission in tandem with existing LTE services. This was the first form of 5G to be launched and still accounts for 75% of all 5G core network deployments in our Tracker.
  • 5G Standalone core (5G SA core) deployments: The SA core is a completely new and 5G-only core. It has a simplified, cloud-native and distributed architecture, and is designed to support services and functions such as network slicing, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) and enhanced Machine-Type Communications (eMTC, i.e. massive IoT). Our Tracker indicates that the upcoming wave of 5G core deployments in 2022 and 2023 will be mostly 5G SA core.
  • Converged 5G NSA/SA core deployments: this is when a dual-mode NSA and SA platform is deployed; in most cases, the NSA core results from the upgrade of an existing LTE core (EPC) to support 5G signalling and radio. The principle behind a converged NSA/SA core is the ability to orchestrate different combinations of containerised network functions, and automatically and dynamically flip over from an NSA to an SA configuration, in tandem – for example – with other features and services such as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing and the needs of different network slices. For this reason, launching a converged NSA/SA platform is a marker of a more cloud-native approach in comparison with a simple 5G NSA launch. Ericsson is the most commonly found vendor for this type of platform with a handful coming from Huawei, Samsung and WorkingGroupTwo. Albeit interesting, converged 5G NSA/SA core deployments remain a minority (7% of all 5G core deployments over the 2018-2023 period) and most of our commentary will therefore focus on 5G NSA and 5G SA core launches.

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75% of 5G cores are still Non-standalone (NSA)

Global 5G core deployments by type, 2018–23

  • There is renewed activity this year in 5G core launches since the total number of 5G core deployments so far in 2022 (effective and in progress) stands at 49, above the 47 logged in the whole of 2021. At the very least, total 5G deployments in 2022 will settle between the level of 2021 and the peak of 2020 (97).
  • 5G in whichever form now exists in most places where it was both in demand and affordable; but there remain large economies where it is yet to be launched: Turkey, Russia and most notably India. It also remains to be launched in most of Africa.
  • In countries with 5G, the next phase of launches, which will see the migration of NSA to SA cores, has yet to take place on a significant scale.
  • To date, 75% of all 5G cores are NSA. However, 5G SA will outstrip NSA in terms of deployments in 2022 and represent 24 of the 49 launches this year, or 34 if one includes converged NSA/SA cores as part of the total.
  • All but one of the 5G launches announced for 2023 are standalone; they all involve Tier-1 MNOs including Orange (in its European footprint involving Ericsson and Nokia), NTT Docomo in Japan and Verizon in the US.

The upcoming wave of SA core (and open / vRAN) represents an evolution towards cloud-native

  • Cloud-native functions or CNFs are software designed from the ground up for deployment and operation in the cloud with:​
  • Portability across any hardware infrastructure or virtualisation platform​
  • Modularity and openness, with components from multiple vendors able to be flexibly swapped in and out based on a shared set of compute and OS resources, and open APIs (in particular, via software ‘containers’)​
  • Automated orchestration and lifecycle management, with individual micro-services (software sub-components) able to be independently modified / upgraded, and automatically re-orchestrated and service-chained based on a persistent, API-based, ‘declarative’ framework (one which states the desired outcome, with the service chain organising itself to deliver the outcome in the most efficient way)​
  • Compute, resource, and software efficiency: as a concomitant of the automated, lean and logically optimal characteristics described above, CNFs are more efficient (both functionally and in terms of operating costs) and consume fewer compute and energy resources.​
  • Scalability and flexibility, as individual functions (for example, distributed user plane functions in 5G networks) can be scaled up or down instantly and dynamically in response to overall traffic flows or the needs of individual services​
  • Programmability, as network functions are now entirely based on software components that can be programmed and combined in a highly flexible manner in accordance with the needs of individual services and use contexts, via open APIs.​

Previous telco cloud tracker releases and related research

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

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Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain

Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?

Over a number of years – starting in around 2014, and gathering pace from 2016 onwards – telcos have invested a large amount of money and effort on the development and deployment of their ‘telco cloud’ infrastructure, virtualised network functions (VNFs), and associated operations: long enough to expect to see measurable returns. As we set out later in this report, operators initially hoped that virtualisation would make their networks cheaper to run, or at least that it would prevent the cost of scaling up their networks to meet surging demand from spiralling out of control. The assumption was that buying commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and running network functions as software over it would work out less costly than buying proprietary network appliances from the vendors. Therefore, all things being equal, virtualisation should have translated into lower opex and capex.

However, when scrutinising operators’ reported financials over the past six years, it is impossible to determine whether this has been the case or not:

  • First, the goalposts are constantly shifting in the telecoms world, especially in recent years when massive 5G and fibre roll-outs have translated into substantial capex increases for many operators. But this does not mean that what they buy is more (or less) expensive per unit, just that they need more of it.
  • Most virtualisation effort has gone into core networks, which do not represent a large proportion of an operator’s cost base. In fact, overall expenditure on the core is dwarfed by what needs to be spent on the fixed and mobile access networks. As a ballpark estimate, for example, the Radio Access Network (RAN) represents 60% of mobile network capex.
  • Finally, most large telco groups are integrated operators that report capex or opex (or both) for their fixed and mobile units as a whole; this makes it even more difficult to identify any cost savings related to mobile core or any other virtualisation.

For this reason, when STL Partners set out to assess the economic benefit of virtualisation in the first half of 2022, it quickly became apparent that the only way to do this would be through talking directly to telcos’ CTOs and principal network engineers, and to those selling virtualisation solutions to them. Accordingly, STL Partners carried out an intensive interview programme among leading operators and vendors to find out how they quantify the benefits, financial or otherwise, from telco cloud.

What emerged was a complex and nuanced picture: while telcos struggle to demonstrate RoI from their network cloudification activities to date, many other benefits have accrued, and telcos are growing in their conviction that further cloudification is essential to meet the business, innovation and technology challenges that lie ahead – many of which cannot (yet) be quantified.

The people we spoke to comprised senior, programme-leading engineers, executives and strategists from eight operators and five vendors.

The operators concerned included: four Tier-1 players, three Tier-2 and one Tier-3. These telcos were also evenly split across the three deployment pathways explained below: two Pathway 1 (single-vendor/full-stack); three Pathway 2 (vendor-supported best-of-breed); and three Pathway 3 (DIY best-of-breed).

Four of the vendors interviewed were leading global providers of telco cloud platforms, infrastructure and integration services, and one was a challenger vendor focused on the 5G Standalone (SA) core. The figure below represents the geographical distribution of our interviewees, both telcos and vendors. Although we lacked interviewees from the APAC region and did not gain access to any Chinese operators, we were able to gain some regional insight through interviewing a new entrant in one of the major Asian markets.

Geographical distribution of STL Partners’ telco cloud benefit survey

 

Source: STL Partners

Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways

This process of telco cloudification has already gone through two phases and is entering a third phase, as illustrated below and as decribed in our Telco Cloud Manifesto, published in March 2021:

Phases of telco cloudification

Source: STL Partners

Effectively, each of these phases represents an approximately three to five-year investment cycle. Telcos have begun these investments at different times: Tier-1 telcos are generally now in the midst of their Phase 2 investments. By contrast, Tier-2s and -3s, smaller MNOs, and Tier-1s in developing markets are generally still going through their initial, Phase 1 investments in virtualisation.

Given that the leading Tier-1 players are now well into their second virtualisation investment cycle, it seems reasonable to expect that they would be able to demonstrate a return on investment from the first phase. This is particularly apt in that telcos entered into the first phase – Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) – with the specific goal of achieving quantifiable financial and operational benefits, such as:

  • Reduction in operational and capital expenditures (opex and capex), resulting from the ability to deliver and run NFs from software running on COTS hardware (cheaper per unit, but also more likely to attract economies of scale), rather than from expensive, dedicated equipment requiring ongoing, vendor-provided support, maintenance and upgrades
  • Greater scalability and resource efficiency, resulting from the ability to dynamically increase or decrease the capacity of network-function Virtual Machines (VMs), or to create new instances of them to meet fluctuating network capacity and throughput requirements, rather than having to purchase and maintain over-specified, redundant physical appliances and facilities to guarantee the same sort of capacity and resilience
  • Generation of new revenue streams, resulting from the ability that the software-centricity of virtualised networks provides to rapidly innovate and activate services that more closely address customer needs.

Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation

Some of the leading telco advocates of virtualisation have claimed variously to have achieved capex and/or opex reductions, and increases in top-line revenues, thanks to their telco cloud investments. For example, in January 2022, it was reported that some technical modelling had vindicated the cost-reduction claims of Japanese greenfield, ‘cloud-native’ operator Rakuten Mobile: it showed that Rakuten’s capex per cell site was around 40% lower, and its opex 30% lower, than the MNO incumbents in the same market. Some of the savings derived from automation gains related to virtualisation, allowing cell sites to be activated and run remotely on practically a ‘plug and play’ basis.

Similarly, Vodafone claimed in 2020 that it had reduced the cost of its mobile cores by 50% by running them as VNFs on the VMware telco cloud platform.

The problem is that the few telcos that are willing to quantify the success of their virtualisation programmes in this way are those that have championed telco cloud most vocally. And these telcos have also gone further and deeper with cloudification than the greater mass of the industry, and are now pushing on with Phase 3 virtualisation: full cloud-native. This means that they are under a greater pressure to lay claim to positive RoI and are able to muster data points of different types that appear to demonstrate real benefits, without being explicit about the baseline underpinning their claims: what their costs and revenues would, or might, have been had they persisted with the old physical appliance-centric model.

But this is an unreal comparison. Virtualisation has arisen because telco networks need to do more, and different things, than the old appliance-dependent networks enabled them to do. In the colourful expression of one of the industry experts we interviewed as part of our research, this is like comparing a horse to a computer.

In the first part of this report, we discuss the reasons why telcos generally cannot unequivocally demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date. In the second part, we discuss the range of benefits, actual and prospective, that telcos and vendors have observed from network cloudification, broken down by the three main pathways that telcos are following, as referred to above.

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?
    • Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways
    • Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation
  • Why do operators struggle to demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date?
    • For some players, it is clear that NFV did not generate RoI
    • It has also proved impossible to measure any gains, even if achieved
  • Is virtualisation so important that RoI does not matter?
  • Short-term pain for long-term gain: Why telco cloud is mission-critical
    • Cost savings are achievable
    • Operational efficiencies also gather pace as telcos progress through the telco cloud phases
    • Virtualisation both drives and is driven by organisational and process change
    • Cloud-native and CI/CD are restructuring telcos’ business models and cost base
  • Conclusion: Telco cloud benefits are deferred but assured
  • Index

Related research

Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: Open RAN deep dive

Telco Cloud: Open RAN is a work in progress

This report accompanies the latest release and quarterly update of STL Partners ‘Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of VNFs (Virtual Network Functions), CNFs (cloud-native network functions) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. In this update we have added some additional categories to the database to reflect the different types of virtualised / open RAN:

  1. Open RAN / O-RAN: Fully open, disaggregated, virtualised / cloud-native, with CU / DU split
  2. vRAN: Virtualised CU/DU, with open interfaces but implemented as an integrated, single-vendor platform
  3. Cloud RAN: Single-vendor, virtualised / centralised BU, or CU only, with proprietary / closed interfaces

Cloud RAN is the most limited form of virtualised RAN: It is based on porting part or all of the functionality of the legacy, appliance-based BU into a Virtual Machine. vRAN and open RAN are much more significant, in both technology and business-model terms, breaking open all parts of the RAN to more competition and opportunities for innovation.

Accordingly, the report presents data on only open RAN and vRAN deployments however a granular analysis of each category of RAN deployment can be carried out using the Telco Cloud Tracker tool.

Access our online Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker tool here

Download the additional file for the full dataset of Telco Cloud deployments

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Open RAN and vRAN deployments, 2018 – 2022

Open-RAN-Deployments-Apr-2021-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Open RAN and vRAN

Both Open RAN and vRAN are virtualised (with the exception of NTT DoCoMo as outlined in the report), but ‘open RAN’ implies full disaggregation of the different parts of the RAN (hardware, software and radio), and open interfaces between them. By contrast, vRAN incorporates the open interfaces but is generally deployed as a pre-integrated, single-vendor solution: hardware, software and radio supplied by the same vendor.

To date, there have been significantly more open RAN than vRAN deployments. But vRAN is emerging as a potentially competitive alternative to pure open RAN: offering the same operational benefits and – in theory – multi-vendor openness, but without the overhead of integrating components from multiple vendors, and a ‘single neck to choke’ if things go wrong. Deployments in 2020 were mostly small-scale and / or 4G, including trials which continued to carry live traffic after the trial period came to an end.

The stark contrast between 2021 and 2022 reflects a slight hiatus in commercial deployments as work intensified around integration and operational models, trials, performance optimisation, and cost economics. However, major deployments are expected in 2022, including greenfield networks 1&1 Drillisch (Germany) and DISH (US), Verizon, Vodafone UK, and MTN (Africa and ME).

Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the latest update of our interactive tool and database covers the period up to March 2022, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to deploy a 5G standalone core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive tool containing line-by-line analysis of over 900 individual deployments of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, which can be used to drill down by:

  • Region where deployed
  • Operator
  • Technology vendor
  • Primary purpose
  • Type of telco cloud function deployed
  • …and more filters

Telco Cloud Trial Deployment Tracker

Take a look at the trial of our interactive tool with live, commercial deployments of VNFs, CNFs and SDN technologies worldwide

Previous telco cloud tracker releases

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

 

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VNFs on public cloud: Opportunity, not threat

VNF deployments on the hyperscale cloud are just beginning

Numerous collaboration agreements between hyperscalers and leading telcos, but few live VNF deployments to date

The past three years have seen many major telcos concluding collaboration agreements with the leading hyperscalers. These have involved one or more of five business models for the telco-hyperscaler relationship that we discussed in a previous report, and which are illustrated below:

Five business models for telco-hyperscaler partnerships

Source: STL Partners

In this report, we focus more narrowly on the deployment, delivery and operation by and to telcos of virtualised and cloud-native network functions (VNFs / CNFs) over the hyperscale public cloud. To date, there have been few instances of telcos delivering live, commercial services on the public network via VNFs hosted on the public cloud. STL Partners’ Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker contains eight examples of this, as illustrated below:

Major telcos deploying VNFs in the public cloud

Source: STL Partners

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Telcos are looking to generate returns from their telco cloud investments and maintain control over their ‘core business’

The telcos in the above table are all of comparable stature and ambition to the likes of AT&T and DISH in the realm of telco cloud but have a diametrically opposite stance when it comes to VNF deployment on public cloud. They have decided against large-scale public cloud deployments for a variety of reasons, including:

  • They have invested a considerable amount of money, time and human resources on their private clouddeployments, and they want and need to utilise the asset and generate the RoI.
  • Related to this, they have generated a large amount of intellectual property (IP) as a result of their DIY cloud– and VNF-development work. Clearly, they wish to realise the business benefits they sought to achieve through these efforts, such as cost and resource efficiencies, automation gains, enhanced flexibility and agility, and opportunities for both connectivityand edge compute service innovation. Apart from the opportunity cost of not realising these gains, it is demoralising for some CTO departments to contemplate surrendering the fruit of this effort in favour of a hyperscaler’s comparable cloud infrastructure, orchestration and management tools.
  • In addition, telcos have an opportunity to monetise that IP by marketing it to other telcos. The Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) marketed by Rakuten Symphony is an example of this: effectively, a telco providing a telco cloud platform on an NFaaS basis to third-party operators or enterprises – in competition to similar offerings that might be developed by hyperscalers. Accordingly, RCP will be hosted over private cloud facilities, not public cloud. But in theory, there is no reason why RCP could not in future be delivered over public cloud. In this case, Rakuten would be acting like any other vendor adapting its solutions to the hyperscale cloud.
  • In theory also, telcos could also offer their private telcoclouds as a platform, or wholesale or on-demand service, for third parties to source and run their own network functions (i.e. these would be hosted on the wholesale provider’s facilities, in contrast to the RCP, which is hosted on the client telco’s facilities). This would be a logical fit for telcos such as BT or Deutsche Telekom, which still operate as their respective countries’ communications backbone provider and primary wholesale provider

BT and Deutsche Telekom have also been among the telcos that have been most visibly hostile to the idea of running NFs powering their own public, mass-market services on the public and hyperscale cloud. And for most operators, this is the main concern making them cautious about deploying VNFs on the public cloud, let alone sourcing them from the cloud on an NFaaS basis: that this would be making the ‘core’ telco business and asset – the network – dependent on the technology roadmaps, operational competence and business priorities of the hyperscalers.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: VNF deployments on the hyperscale cloud are just beginning
    • Numerous collaboration agreements between hyperscalers and leading telcos, but few live VNF deployments to date
    • DISH and AT&T: AWS vs Azure; vendor-supported vs DIY; NaaCP vs net compute
  • Other DIY or vendor-supported best-of-breed players are not hosting VNFs on public cloud
    • Telcos are looking to generate returns from their telco cloud investments and maintain control over their ‘core business’
    • The reluctance to deploy VNFs on the cloud reflects a persistent, legacy concept of the telco
  • But NaaCP will drive more VNF deployments on public cloud, and opportunities for telcos
    • Multiple models for NaaCP present prospects for greater integration of cloud-native networks and public cloud
  • Conclusion: Convergence of network and cloud is inevitable – but not telcos’ defeat
  • Appendix

Related Research

 

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Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

Telco cloud 2.0, fuelled by 5G standalone and RAN, is on the starting grid

This report accompanies the latest release and update of STL Partners ‘Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of VNFs (Virtual Network Functions), CNFs (cloud-native network functions) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. It builds on an extensive body of analysis by STL Partners over the past nine years on NFV and SDN strategies, technology and market developments.

Access our Telco Cloud Tracker here

Download the additional file for the full dataset of Telco Cloud deployments

Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the latest update of our interactive tool and database covers the period up to September 2021, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to deploy a 5G standalone core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive tool containing line-by-line analysis of over 900 individual deployments of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, which can be used to drill down by:

  • Region where deployed
  • Operator
  • Technology vendor
  • Primary purpose
  • Category of NFV/SDN technology deployed
  • …and more filters

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5G standalone (SA) will hit an inflection point in 2022

5G standalone (SA) core is beginning to take off, with 19 deployments so far expected to be completed in 2022. The eventual total will be higher still, as will that of NSA core, as NSA 5G networks continue to be launched. As non-standalone (NSA) cores are replaced by SA, this will result in another massive wave of core deployments – probably from 2023/4 onwards.

Standalone 5G vs non-standalone 5G core deployments

STL-5G-standalone-core-cloud-tracker-2021

Source: STL Partners

 

Previous telco cloud tracker releases

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

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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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O-RAN: What is it worth?

Introducing STL Partners’ O-RAN Market Forecast

This capex forecast is STL Partners’ first attempt at estimating the value of the O-RAN market.

  • This is STL Partners’ first O-RAN market value forecast
  • It is based on analysis of telco RAN capex and projected investment pathways for O-RAN
  • The assumptions are informed by public announcements, private discussions and the opinions of our Telco Cloud team
  • We look forward to developing it further based on client feedback

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What is O-RAN?

We define O-RAN as virtualised, disaggregated, open-interface architectures.

  • Our O-RAN capex forecasts cover virtualised, disaggregated, open-interface architectures in the Radio Access Network
  • They do not include vRAN or O-RAN compliant but single vendor deployments

O-RAN definition open RAN

O-RAN will account for 76% of active RAN capex by 2030

As mobile operators upgrade their 4G networks and invest in new 5G infrastructure, they can continue purchasing single vendor legacy RAN equipment or opt for multi-vendor open-standard O-RAN solutions.

Each telco will determine its O-RAN roadmap based on its specific circumstances (footprint, network evolution, rural coverage, regulatory pressure, etc)1. For the purpose of this top-level O-RAN capex forecast, STL has defined four broad pathways for transitioning from legacy RAN/vRAN to O-RAN and categorised each of the top 40 mobile operators in one of the pathways, based on their announced or suspected O-RAN strategy.

Through telcos’ projected mobile capex and the pathway categorisation, we estimate that by 2026 annual sales of O-RAN active network elements (including equipment and software) will reach USD12 billion, or 21% of all active RAN capex (excluding passive infrastructure). By 2030, these will reach USD43 billion and 76%, respectively.

Total annual O-RAN capex spend

Table of content

  • Executive summary
    • O-RAN forecast 2020-2030
    • Brownfield vs greenfield
    • Four migration pathways
  • Modelling assumptions
  • Migration pathways
    • Committed O-RAN-philes
    • NEP-otists
    • Leap-froggers
    • Industrial O-RAN
  • Next steps

 

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2020 in review and focus on North America: How should telcos do cloud?

Tenth update of the Telco Cloud Tracker

This report accompanies the tenth release of STL Partners’ ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation), SDN (Software Defined Networking) and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. This analytical report focuses on trends in North America, set in global context.

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Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the tenth update covers the period up to the end of January 2021, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media. However, it also includes a smaller set of deployment data disclosed to us confidentially by operators and vendors. This information is added to the aggregate data sections of the ‘Tracker’ spreadsheet, which do not refer to the specific solutions supplied or the operators where they were deployed.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of virtual network functions (VNFs), CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to implement a virtualised mobile core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

Accordingly, some of the deployments contained in the database comprise multiple elements, which are listed separately, including details about the category of NFV / SDN / CNF, and vendor and product name where known.

In addition to these mainly public-domain deployments, there are many non-publicised deployments that are inevitably omitted from the ‘Tracker’. However, the ever-growing ‘Tracker’ database now constitutes a considerable body of research that in our view offers a reliable snapshot of the overall market and the main trends in the evolution of telco cloud. In addition, as the ‘Tracker’ contains details only of deployments in live, commercial telco networks (either completed or in progress), this provides a useful corrective to the hype of some vendors’ pronouncements about agreements with operators, which often relate only to collaboration arrangements and preliminary trials, rather than commercial roll-outs.

The one exception to this rule of including only deployments that are implemented to support commercial services is a limited set of data on some of the current live network trials of open and / or virtual RAN (vRAN). The reason for making this exception is the very high level of interest currently in open RAN.

In terms of the telcos included, we limit the database mainly to Tier-One international and national telecoms operators, along with national fixed and mobile operators in smaller markets. For subsequent updates, we may expand the range and types of service providers included, because telco cloud is opening up opportunities for new players to provide cloud- and CNF-based connectivity and related services that are competing strongly with classic telco services.

SD-WAN in focus

In this update of the Tracker we have included a deep dive on SD-WAN, which was one of the main early drivers of SDN/NFV deployments, particularly among North American operators. It is worth exploring in more detail because, as it evolves into an increasingly cloud-centric and cloud-native service, it is emerging as another battleground between operators, hyperscalers and vendors.

5G is driving deployments – but will it drive business model change?

This is the first update to the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ in 2021, which provides an opportunity to review 2020 and discuss the key trends in 2021.

Despite the global pandemic, the pace of virtualised network function (VNF) deployments has continued at a strong level.

Total deployments by region, 2016 to 2021

Our projection is that the final number of deployments in 2020 will be at around the same level as 2019 (182 in total). Many live deployments are confirmed some time after the event, swelling the totals for previous years. Accordingly, some of the deployments currently recorded as ‘in progress’ will be added to the tally for 2020.

5G core dominates the scene but is done largely via single-vendor, ‘vertical’ NFV

The main driver of deployments in 2020 was 5G network launches around the world, particularly in the second half of the year. This meant that many Non-standalone (NSA) 5G cores – the platform supporting almost all live 5G networks – also went live, as is illustrated below:

 Deployments by leading network function, 2016 to 2021

We recorded 76 completed deployments of NSA cores in 2020, up from 56 in 2019. A further ten deployments were either completed or pending in the first quarter of 2021.

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • 5G core drives deployments
    • SD-WAN: Telco value moves from the WAN to the edge
    • The industry is facing an existential question: How should telcos do cloud?
    • Conclusion from North America analysis: Can a brownfield MNO be more cloud-native than a greenfield one?
  • Introduction
    • Tenth update of the Telco Cloud Tracker
    • Scope and content of the Tracker
    • SD-WAN in focus
  • 5G is driving deployments – but will it drive business model change?
    • 5G core dominates the scene but is done largely via single-vendor, ‘vertical’ NFV
    • The industry faces an existential question: how should telcos do cloud?
    • Focus on North America: four divergent answers to the existential question
  • SD-WAN: While WAN moves to the cloud, new software-defined value migrates to the edge
    • SD-WAN was one of the success stories of the first phase of SDN / NFV
    • SD-WAN has been largely made in America
    • Changes accelerated by Covid favour SD-WAN vendors over telcos – but telcos retain strengths in key areas
    • Main opportunities currently for telcos in SD-WAN, and challenge from vendors
    • ‘SD’ moves towards the edge, while ‘WAN’ moves to the cloud
  • Conclusion: Can a brownfield MNO be more cloud-native than a greenfield one?

 

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The Telco Cloud Manifesto

Telco cloud: A key enabler of the Coordination Age

The Coordination Age is coming

As we have set out in our company manifesto, STL Partners believes that we are entering a new ‘Coordination Age’ in which technological developments will enable governments, enterprises, and consumers to coordinate their activities more effectively than ever before. The results of better and faster coordination will be game-changing for society as resources are distributed and used more effectively than ever before leading to substantial social, economic, and health benefits.

A critical component of the Coordination Age is the universal availability of flexible, fast, reliable, low-latency networks that support a myriad of applications which, in turn, enable a complex array of communications, decisions, transactions, and processes to be completed quickly and, in many cases, automatically without human intervention.  The network remains key: without it being fit for purpose the ability to match demand and supply real-time is impossible.

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How telecoms can define a new role

Historically, telecoms networks have been created using specialist dedicated (proprietary) hardware and software.  This has ensured networks are reliable and secure but has also stymied innovation – from operators and from third-parties – that have found leveraging network capabilities challenging.  In fact, innovation accelerated with the arrival of the Internet which enabled services to be decoupled from the network and run ‘over the top’.

But the Coordination Age requires more from the network than ever before – applications require the network to be flexible, accessible and support a range of technical and commercial options. Applications cannot run independently of the network but need to integrate with it. The network must be able to impart actionable insights and flex its speed, bandwidth, latency, security, business model and countless other variables quickly and autonomously to meet the needs of applications using it.

Telco cloud – the move to a network built on common off-the-shelf hardware and flexible interoperable software from best-of-breed suppliers that runs wherever it is needed – is the enabler of this future.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telco cloud: A key enabler of the Coordination Age
    • The Coordination Age is coming
    • How telecoms can define a new role
  • Telco cloud: The growth enabler for the telecoms industry
    • Telecoms revenue growth has stalled, traffic has not
    • Telco cloud: A new approach to the network
    • …a fundamental shift in what it means to be an operator
    • …and the driver of future telecoms differentiation and growth
  • Realising the telco cloud vision
    • Moving to telco cloud is challenging
    • Different operator segments will take different paths

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Telecoms priorities: Ready for the crunch?

The goal of this research is to understand how telecoms operators’ investment priorities and investments are likely to change as the COVID-19 crisis recedes.  To do this, we collected 144 survey responses from participants in telecoms operators, telecoms vendors, and analysts and consultants and other groups. All responses are treated in strict personal and company confidence. Take the survey here.

This research builds on our previous content on the impact of the pandemic to the telecoms industry: COVID-19: Now, next and after (March 2020), COVID-19: Impact on telco priorities (May 2020), based on a survey undertaken in April and early May 2020 and Recovering from COVID: 5G to stimulate growth and drive productivity (August 2020).  STL Partners has also hosted three webinar on the topic (March to July 2020).

This deck summarises the findings of our industry research on telecoms priorities at the start of 2021.

We explored the research in our webinar,  State of the Industry: 2021 Priorities (click on the link to view the recording).

Background to the telecoms priorities survey – January 2021

The respondents were fairly evenly split between telcos, vendors, and ‘others’ (mainly analysts and consultants). This sample contained a higher proportion of European and American respondents than industry average, so is not fully globally representative. The split of company types and geography was broadly similar to the May 2020 survey, with the exception of the MENA region, where there were less than half the prior respondents – a total of 7. However those respondents were senior and well known to STL.

Who took the survey?

telco industry breakdown

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

48% of respondents were C-Level/VP/SVP/Director level. Functionally, most respondents work in senior HQ and operational management areas. Compared to May 2020, there were proportionally slightly more senior respondents, and slightly less in product and strategy roles.

What are their roles?

Senior participants

Source: STL telecoms priorities survey, 144 respondents, 31st January 2021

How respondents perceive priorities, as the COVID threat recedes

There were increases in respondent confidence in almost every category we surveyed from May 2020 to Jan 2021.

  • Telecoms automation and agility remain top priorities across the industry – and transformation has moved up the agenda.
  • Appetite for 5G investments increased the most of all areas surveyed in the last 8 months.
  • The ‘consumerisation’ of enterprise continues, although security and work from home (WFH) services have overtaken conferencing and VPNs in priority.
  • Healthcare remains the most accelerated vertical / application opportunity of all those impacted in the current crisis.
  • The priority of consumer services has significantly increased yet confidence in making any additional money in the sector is low.
  • Leadership and transformation: COVID 19 has empowered an industry-wide belief that change is possible.
  • Transformation and innovation are high priorities, and appetite for sustainability and recruitment has returned, but there are doubts about some telco leaders’ commitment and ability to grasp and invest in new opportunities.

STL Partners assesses the telecoms industry to be at a crunch point: COVID has injected further pace to the rapid evolution of the world economy. Telcos that have been focused on responding to immediate pandemic-induced challenges, will emerge from the crisis faced with an urgency to respond to this evolution – key choices that telcos might have had 5-10 years to ponder are being crunched into the next 0-3 years.

Our findings suggest that most telcos are only partly ready for this disruptive opportunity.

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Notes on interpreting the research findings

  • The way research respondents perceive any given question is generally dependent on their current situation and knowledge. To get relevant answers, we asked all respondents if they were interested or involved in specific areas of interest (e.g. ‘consumer services’), and to not answer questions they couldn’t (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) or simply didn’t know or have a clear opinion.
  • We saw no evidence that respondents were ‘gaming’ the results to be favourable to their interests.
  • Results need to be seen in the context that telcos themselves vary widely in size, profitability and market outlook. For example, for some, 5G seems like a valid investment, whereas for others the conditions are currently much less promising. COVID-19 has clearly had some impact on these dynamics, and our analysis attempts to reflect this impact on the overall balance of opinions as well as some of the specific situations to bring greater nuance.
  • In December 2020 / January 2021, the worldwide impact of COVID-19 is increasingly well understood and less of a shock than was the case in May / June 2020. Vaccines are beginning to be rolled out but it is an early stage in the process, and new variants of COVID-19 have evolved in the UK, South Africa and Brazil (and possibly elsewhere). There are geo-political wrangles on vaccine distribution, and varying views on effectiveness and the most appropriate responses. Nonetheless, respondents appear overall more optimistic, although there is still considerable uncertainty.
  • We’ve interpreted the results as best we can given our knowledge of the respondents and what they told us, and added in our own insights where relevant.
  • Inevitably, this is a subjective exercise, albeit based on 144 industry respondents’ views.
  • Nonetheless, we hope that it brings you additional insights to the many that you already possess through your own experiences and access to data.
  • Finally, things continue to change fast. We will continue to track them.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary: Opportunities are in overdrive, but can telcos catch them?
  • High-level findings
  • Research background
  • Technology impacts: Automation, cloud and edge come of age
  • Network impacts: 5G is back
  • Enterprise sector impacts: Healthcare still leads
  • Consumer sector impacts: Mojo aplenty, money – not so much
  • Leadership impacts: good talking, but enough walking?

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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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Telco Cloud Europe update: Open RAN approaching tipping point

Telco Cloud deployments on track for growth again in 2020

Ninth update of the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’: from ‘NFV’ to ‘telco cloud’

This report accompanies the ninth release of STL Partners’ ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation), SDN (Software Defined Networking) and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. This analytical report focuses on trends in Europe, set in global context.

For this update and hereafter, we have changed the name of the database from ‘NFV Deployment Tracker’ to ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’. The name change reflects STL Partners’ new focus on ‘Telco Cloud’ as both a research stream and consultancy practice. But the change also corresponds to the fact that the telecoms industry has now embarked on the second phase of its journey towards more integrally software-based networks – the first phase of which went under the banner of ‘NFV’. This journey is not just about a migration towards ‘software in general’, but cloud-native software: based on design principles developed by the cloud industry, which have the potential to bring cloud-scale economics, programmability and automation to connectivity and connectivity-dependent services.

The Tracker database is provided as an interactive Excel tool containing line-by-line analysis of more than 760 individual deployments of NFV, SDN and CNFs, which can be used to drill down on trends by company and region.

We will produce further research and reports on different aspects of cloud-native software and its impact over the coming months.

Growth in 5G core offset by declines in other areas

Telco cloud deployments so far

After a slight drop in the overall number of deployments in 2019, 2020 is set to be a year of modest growth, as is illustrated by the figure below:

Total number of deployments worldwide, 2014 to July 2020

Source: STL Partners

The data for 2020 is split up into completed, ‘pending’ and estimated additional deployments. We have recorded 63 completed deployments between January and July 2020. Pending deployments (totalling 72) are those previously announced that we are expecting to be completed during 2020 but which – to our knowledge – had not yet gone live in the commercial network by the end of July. The estimated additional deployments are derived from extrapolating to the full year 2020 from the total of completed implementations in the first seven months. This results in around 45 further deployments. On this basis, the total for the year as a whole would reach around 180 deployments: just above the previous record year of 2018 (178).

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Telco cloud deployments on track for growth again in 2020
    • Ninth update of the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’: from ‘NFV’ to ‘telco cloud’
    • Scope and content of the Tracker
  • 5G core drives new growth in 2020
    • Deployments are on the rise again
    • Growth has been consistent across almost all regions
    • Europe also on track to maintain its record of year-on-year growth
    • Deployments in Europe are still dominated by the major players, but smaller telcos are catching up
    • Vendors: Ericsson in close second place behind Cisco owing to strong presence in mobile core
  • Open RAN at a TIPping point in Europe
    • European telcos are playing a leading role in open RAN
  • Conclusion: Growth being driven by 5G – with open RAN waiting in the wings
    • Worldwide surge in NSA 5G core deployments
    • NSA 5GC is now nearly the leading VNF overall in Europe
    • … with cloud-native, SA 5GC coming down the pipeline
    • … and waiting in the wings: open RAN
    • These overlapping waves of innovation will make telco cloud mainstream

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Building telco edge infrastructure: MEC, Private LTE and VRAN

Reality check: edge computing is not yet mature, and much is still to be decided

Edge computing is still a maturing domain. STL Partners has written extensively on the topic of edge computing over the last 4 years. Within that timeframe, we have seen significant change in terminology, attitudes and approaches from telecoms and adjacent industries to the topic area.  Plans for building telco edge infrastructure have also evolved.

Within the past twelve months, we’ve seen high profile partnerships between hyperscale cloud providers (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google) and telecoms operators that are likely to catalyse the industry and accelerate route to market. We’ve also seen early movers within the industry (such as SK Telecom) developing MEC platforms to enable access to their edge infrastructure.

In the course of this report, we will highlight which domains will drive early adoption for edge, and the potential roll out we could see over the next 5 years if operators move to capitalise on the opportunity. However, to start, it is important to evaluate the situation today.

Commercial deployments of edge computing are rare, and most operators are still in the exploration phase. For many, they have not and will not commit to the roll out of edge infrastructure until they have seen evidence from early movers that it is a genuine opportunity for the industry. For even more, the idea of additional capex investment on edge infrastructure, on top of their 5G rollout plans, is a difficult commitment to make.

Where is “the edge”?

There is no one clear definition of edge computing. Depending on the world you are coming from (Telco? Application developer? Data centre operator? Cloud provider? etc.), you are likely to define it differently. In practice, we know that even within these organisations there are differences between technical and commercial teams around the concept and terminology used to describe “the edge”.

For the purposes on this paper, we will be discussing edge computing primarily from the perspective of a telecoms operator. As such, we’ll be focusing on edge infrastructure that will be rolled out within their network infrastructure or that they will play a role in connecting. This may equate to adding additional servers into an existing technical space (such as a Central Office), or it may mean investing in new microdata centres. The servers may be bought, installed and managed by the telco themselves, or this could be done by a third party, but in all cases the real estate (e.g. the physical location as well as power and cooling) is owned either by the telecoms operator, or by the enterprise who is buying an edge-enabled solution.

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Operators have choice and a range of options for where and how they might develop edge computing sites. The graphic below starts to map some of the potential physical locations for an edge site. In this report, STL Partners forecasts edge infrastructure deployments between 2020 and 2024, by type of operator, use-case domains, edge locations and type of computing.

There is a spectrum of edge infrastructure in which telcos may invest

mapping edge infrastructure investmentSource: STL Partners

This paper primarily draws on discussions with operators and others within the edge ecosystem conducted between February and March 2020. We interviewed a range of operators, and a range of job roles within them, to gain a snapshot of the existing attitudes and ambitions within the industry to shape our understanding of how telcos are likely to build out edge infrastructure.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Preface
  • Reality check: edge computing is not yet mature, and much is still to be decided
    • Reality #1: Organisationally, operators are still divided
    • Reality #2: The edge ecosystem is evolving fast
    • Reality #3: Operators are trying to predict, respond to and figure out what the “new normal” will be post COVID-19
  • Edge computing: key terms and definitions
    • Where is “the edge”?
    • What applications & use cases will run at edge sites?
    • What is inside a telco edge site?
  • How edge will play out: 5-year evolution
    • Modelling exercise: converting hype into numbers
    • Our findings: edge deployments won’t be very “edgy” in 2024
    • Short-term adoption of vRAN is the driving factor
    • New revenues from MEC remain a longer-term opportunity
    • Short-term adoption is focused on efficient operations, but revenue opportunity has not been dismissed
  • Addressing the edge opportunity: operators can be more than infrastructure providers
  • Conclusions: practical recommendations for operators

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COVID-19: Impact on telco priorities

The goal of this research is to understand how telecoms operators’ investment priorities and investments are likely to change in response to COVID-19.  To do this, we collected more than 200 survey responses from participants in telecoms operators, telecoms vendors, and analysts and consultants and other groups. All responses are treated in strict personal and company confidence. Take the survey here.

This research builds on our initial research on the impact of the pandemic to the telecoms industry, COVID-19: Now, next and after, published in March 2020.

Background to the telco COVID-19 survey

The respondents were fairly evenly split between telcos, vendors, and ‘others’ (mainly analysts and consultants). This sample contained a higher proportion of European and American respondents than industry average, so is not fully globally representative. We have drawn out regional comparisons where possible.

Who took the survey?

COVID-19 survey respondents by company and region

Source: STL COVID-19 survey, 202 respondents, May 8th 2020

Meanwhile, 44% of respondents were C-Level/VP/SVP/Director level. Functionally, most respondents work in senior HQ and operational management areas.

What are their roles?

COVID-19 survey respondents by seniority

Source: STL COVID-19 survey, 202 respondents, May 8th 2020

How respondents perceive the risks from COVID-19

Respondents were positive on the prospects for most areas overall. We have taken a slightly more pessimistic view in our analysis of the survey results and the categorisation below to balance this bias and factor in future economic risk.

While not all activities we have categorised as “at risk” will necessarily be delayed, we believe that in some telcos there may be more pressure in these areas if the financial impact of COVID-19 is harsher than expected at the time of the survey. We expect that when Q2 results come out, many operators will have a clearer view of how the crisis will affect them financially – and those that are ahead of the curve in adopting technologies such as automation will be in a good position to accelerate their impact, those that are behind the curve may face a more difficult uphill battle.

A relative view of how respondents perceived the outlook for telcos in different business areas and verticals

COVID-19 survey perceived risks to business

Source: STL Partners analysis of COVID-19 survey, 202 respondents, May 8th 2020

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Notes on the research findings

  • The way research respondents perceive any given question is generally dependent on their current situation and knowledge. To get relevant answers, we asked all respondents if they were interested or involved in specific areas of interest (e.g. ‘consumer services’), and to not answer questions they couldn’t (e.g. for confidentiality reasons) or simply didn’t know or have a clear opinion.
  • We saw no evidence that respondents were ‘gaming’ the results to be favourable to their interests.
  • Results need to be seen in the context that telcos themselves vary widely in size, profitability and market outlook. For example, for some, 5G seems like a valid investment, whereas for others the conditions are currently much less promising. COVID-19 has clearly had some impact on these dynamics, and our analysis attempts to reflect this impact on the overall balance of opinions as well as some of the specific situations to bring greater nuance.
  • As of mid May 2020, the total economic impact of COVID-19 was probably less clear to the majority of the respondents than the operational and lifestyle changes it has brought. It is therefore likely that as telco results for Q2 start to be circulated, and before then internally to the telcos, differing pressures will arise than that existed at the time of this survey. The resulting intentions may therefore become more or less extreme than shown in this research, though the relative positions of different activities in the various maps of risk and opportunity may change less than the absolute levels shown here.
  • We’ve interpreted the results as best we can given our knowledge of the respondents and what they told us, and added in our own insights where relevant.
  • Inevitably, this is a subjective exercise, albeit based on 200+ industry respondents’ views.
  • Nonetheless, we hope that it brings you additional insights to the many that you already possess through your own experiences and access to data.
  • Finally, things continue to change fast. We will continue to track them.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary: What’s most likely to change?
  • Research background
  • Technology impacts: Implementing automation, cloud and edge
  • Network impacts: Making sense of divergent 5G viewpoints
  • Enterprise sector impacts: Healthcare and consumerisation
  • Consumer sector impacts: What will last?
  • Leadership impacts: Building on new foundations
  • What next?

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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?

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5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

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5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat

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