The new telcos: A field guide

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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Field guides are collections/lists of natural & human phenomena

animal-species-telcos-stl-partners

Source: Amazon, respective publishers’ copyright

The historical landscape

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

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

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

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

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

Why are “new telcos” emerging now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

virtualisation-cloudification-networks-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?

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

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

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

This report sets out…

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

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

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

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

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

Table of contents

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

Related Research

 

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VoLTE: Voice beyond the phone call?

Introduction

Telephony is still necessary in the 4G era

Some people in the telecom industry believe that “voice is dead” – or, at least, that traditional phone calls are dying off. Famously, many younger mobile users eschew standalone realtime communications, instead preferring messaging loaded with images and emoji, via apps such as Facebook Messenger and WeChat, or those embedded e.g. in online gaming applications. At the other end of the spectrum, various forms of video-based communications are important, such as SnapChat’s disappearing video stories, as well as other services such as Skype and FaceTime.

Even for basic calling-type access, WhatsApp and Viber have grown huge, while assorted enterprise UC/UCaaS services such as Skype for Business and RingCentral are often “owning” the business customer base. Other instances of voice (and messaging and video) are appearing as secondary features “inside” other applications – games, social networks, enterprise collaboration, mobile apps and more – often enabled by the WebRTC standard and assorted platforms-as-a-service.

Smartphones and the advent of 4G have accelerated all these trends – although 3G networks have seen them as well, especially for messaging in developing markets. Yet despite the broad uptake of Internet-based messaging and voice/video applications, it is still important for mobile operators to provide “boring old phone calls” for mobile handset subscribers, not least in order to enable “ubiquitous connection” to friends, family and businesses – plus also emergency calls. Plenty of businesses still rely on the phone – and normal phone numbers as identifiers – from banks to doctors’ practices. Many of the VoIP services can “fall back” to normal telephony, or dial out (or in) from the traditional telco network. Many license terms mandate provision of voice capability.

This is true for both fixed and mobile users – and despite the threat of reaching “peak telephony”, there is a long and mostly-stable tail of calling that won’t be displaced for years, if ever.

Figure 1: Various markets are beyond “peak telephony” despite lower call costs

Source: Disruptive Analysis, National Regulators

In other words, even if usage and revenues are falling, telcos – and especially mobile operators – need to keep Alexander Graham Bell’s 140-year legacy alive. If the network transitions to 4G and all-IP, then the telephony service needs to do so as well – ideally with feature-parity and conformance to all the legacy laws and regulation.

(As a quick aside, it is worth noting that telephony is only one sort of “voice communication”, although people often use the terms synonymously. Other voice use-cases vary from conferencing, push-to-talk, audio captioning for the blind, voice-assistants like Siri and Alexa, karaoke, secure encrypted calls and even medical-diagnostics apps that monitor breathing noise. We discuss the relevance of non-telephony voice services for telcos later in this report).

4G phone calls: what are the options?

  • CSFB (Circuit-Switched Fallback): The connection temporarily drops from 4G, down to 3G or 2G. This enables a traditional non-IP (CS – circuit-switched) call to be made or received on a 4G phone. This is the way most LTE subscribers access telephony today.
  • VoLTE: This is a “pure” 4G phone call, made using the phone’s in-built dialler, the cellular IP connection and tightly-managed connectivity with prioritisation of voice packets, to ensure good QoS. It hooks into the telco’s IMS core network, from where it can either be directly connected to the other party (end-to-end over IP), go via a transit provider or exchange, or else it can interwork with the historic circuit-based phone network.
  • App-based calling: This involves making a VoIP call over the normal, best-efforts, data connection. The function could be provided by a telco itself (eg Reliance Jio’s 4GVoice app), an enterprise UC provider, or an Internet application like Skype or Viber. Increasingly, these applications are also integrated into phones “native dialler” interface and can share call-logs and other functions. [Note – STL’s Future of The Network research stream does not use the pejorative, obsolete and inaccurate term “OTT”.]

None of these three options is perfect.

Content:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Telephony is still necessary in the 4G era
  • 4G phone calls: what are the options?
  • The history of VoLTE
  • The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
  • The motivations for VoLTE deployment
  • The problems for VoLTE deployment?
  • Industry politics
  • Market Status & Forecasts
  • Business & Strategic Implications
  • Is VoLTE really just “ToLTE”?
  • Link to NFV & Cloud
  • GSMA Universal Profile: Heaven or Hell for Telcos?
  • Do telcos have a role in video communications?
  • Intersection with enterprise voice
  • Conclusions
  • Recommendations

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Various markets are beyond “peak telephony” despite lower call costs
  • Figure 2: VoLTE, mobile VoIP & LTE timeline
  • Figure 3: VoLTE coverage is often deployed progressively
  • Figure 4: LTE subscribers, by voice technology, 2009-2021

SD-WAN: New Enterprise Opportunity for Telcos, or a Threat to MPLS, SDN & NFV?

Rapid growth in SD-Wan networks

Software-defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) have catapulted to prominence in the enterprise networking world in the last 12 months. They allow businesses to manage their connections between sites, data-centres, the Internet and external cloud services much more cost-effectively and flexibly than in the past.

Driven by the growth of enterprise demand for access to cloud applications, and businesses’ desire to control WAN costs, various start-ups and existing network-optimisation vendors have catalysed SD-WAN’s emergence. Its rapid growth as a new “intermediary” layer in the network has the potential to disrupt telcos’ enterprise aspirations, especially around NFV/SDN.

In essence, SD-WAN allows the creation of an “OTT intelligent network infrastructure”, as an overlay on top of one or more providers’ physical connections. SD-WANs allow combinations of multiple types of access network – and multiple network providers. This can improve QoS in certain areas, reliability and security of corporate networks, while simultaneously reducing costs.  SD-WANs also enable greater flexibility and agility in allocating enterprise network resources.

Why SD-WAN is at least in in part a threat

However, SD-WAN potentially poses major risks to traditional telcos’ enterprise offerings. It allows enterprise customers to deploy least-cost-routing more easily, or highest-quality-routing, by arbitraging differences in price or performance between multiple providers. It enables high-margin MPLS connections to be (at least partly) replaced with commodity Internet connectivity. And it reduces loyalty / lock-in by establishing an “abstraction” layer above the network, controlled by in-house IT teams or competing managed service providers.

SD-WAN has another, medium-term, set of implications for telcos, when considered through the lens of the emerging world of NFV/SDN and “telco cloud” – a topic on which STL Partners has written widely. By disconnecting the physical provision of corporate networks and a business’s data/application assets or clouds, SD-WAN may make it harder for telcos to move up the value chain in serving enterprise customers. Capabilities such as security systems, or unified communications services, may become associated with the SD-WAN, rather than the underlying connection(s); and would thus be provisioned by the SD-WAN provider, rather than by the telco that is providing basic connectivity.

In other words, SD-WAN represents three distinct threats for telcos:

  • Potential reduction in MPLS & other WAN services revenues
  • Potential reduction in today’s enterprise solution value-adds such as UCaaS & managed security services
  • Potential restriction of future telco enterprise SDN/NFV services opportunities to basic Network as a Service (NaaS) offers, with lower scope for upsell.

The current global market for WAN services is $60-100bn annually, depending on how it is defined; therefore, any risk of significant change is central to many operators’ strategic concerns.
Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Background: Enterprise WANs
  • Shifting trends in WAN usage
  • The rise of SD-WAN
  • Overview – the holy grail of ‘good/fast/cheap’ in the WAN
  • SD-WAN technology and use-cases
  • SD-WAN vendors include start-ups and established enterprise market players
  • The role of service providers in SD-WAN
  • Bundling hosted voice/UCaaS and SD-WAN
  • Telcos Should take a Proactive Approach to SD-WAN
  • SD-WAN vs. SDN & NFV: Timing and Positioning
  • Future of SD-WAN and Recommendations
  • Recommendations

 

  • Figure 1: SD-WAN architecture example
  • Figure 2: SD-WAN & NaaS may help telcos maintain revenues in enterprise WAN
  • Figure 3: SD-WAN may reduce telco opportunities for SDN/NFV/cloud services
  • Figure 4: Different paths for SD-WAN service offer provision & procurement