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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The European Telecoms market in 2020, Report 1: Evaluating 10 forces of change

Introduction

Telecoms – the times they are a changin’

The global telecoms market is experiencing change at an unprecedented pace.  As recently as 2012 , few would have predicted that consumer voice and messaging would be effectively ‘given away’ with data packages in 2015.  Yet today, the shift towards data as the ‘valuable’ part of the mobile bundle has been made in many European markets and, although many operators still allocate a large proportion of revenue to voice and messaging, the value proposition is clearly now ‘data-led’.

Europe, in particular, is facing great uncertainty

While returns on investment have steadily reduced in European telecoms, the market has remained structurally fragmented with a large number of disparate players – fixed-only; mobile-only; converged; wholesalers; enterprise-only; content-oriented players (cablecos); and so forth. Operators generally have continued to make steady economic returns for investors and have been considered ‘defensive stocks’ by the capital markets owing to an ability to generate strong dividend yields and withstand economic down-turns (although Telefonica’s woes in Spain will attest to the limitations of the telco business model to recession).

But the forces of change in Europe are growing and, as a company’s ‘Safe Harbor’ statement would put it, ‘past performance does not guarantee future results’. Strategists are puzzling over what the European telecoms industry might look like in 2020 (and how might that affect their own company) given the broad range of forces being exerted on it in 2015.

STL Partners believes there are 12 questions that need to be considered when considering what the European telecoms market might look like in 2020:

  1. How will regulation of national markets and the wider European Union progress?
  2. How will government policies and the new EC Digital Directive impact telecoms?
  3. How will competition among traditional telecoms players develop?
  4. How strong will new competitors be and how will they compete with operators?
  5. What is the revenue and margin outlook for telecoms core services?
  6. Will new technologies such as NFV, SDN, and eSIM, have a positive or negative effect on operators?
  7. How will the capital markets’ attitude towards telecoms operators change and how much capital will be available for investment by operators?
  8. How will the attitudes and behaviours of customers – consumer and enterprise – evolve and what bearing might this have on operators’ business models?
  9. How will the vision and aspirations of telecoms senior managers play out – will digital services become a greater focus or will the ‘data pipe’ model prevail? How important will content be for operators? What will be the relative importance of fixed vs mobile, consumer vs enterprise?
  10. Will telcos be able to develop the skills, assets and partnerships required to pursue a services strategy successfully or will capabilities fall short of aspirations?
  11. What M&A strategy will telco management pursue to support their strategies: buying other telcos vs buying into adjacent industries? Focus on existing countries only vs moves into other countries or even a pan-European play?
  12. How effective will the industry be in reducing its cost base – capex and opex – relative to the new competitors such as the internet players in consumer services and IT players in enterprise services?

Providing clear answers to each of these 12 questions and their combined effect on the industry is extremely challenging because:

  • Some forces are, to some extent at least, controllable by operators whereas other forces are largely outside their control;
  • Although some forces are reasonably well-established, many others are new and/or changing rapidly;
  • Establishing the interplay between forces and the ‘net effect’ of them together is complicated because some tend to create a domino effect (e.g. greater competition tends to result in lower revenues and margins which, in turn, means less capital being available for investment in networks and services) whereas other forces can negate each other (e.g. the margin impact of lower core service revenues could be – at least partially – offset by a lower cost base achieved through NFV).

The role of this report

In essence, strategists (and investors) are finding it very difficult to understand the many and varied forces affecting the telecoms industry (this report) and predict the structure of and returns from the European telecoms market in 2020 (Report 2). This, in turn, makes it challenging to determine how operators should seek to compete in the future (the focus of a STL Partners report in July, Four strategic pathways to Telco 2.0).

In summary, the European Telecoms market in 2020 reports therefore seek to:

  • Identify the key forces of change in Europe and provide a useful means of classifying them within a simple and logical 2×2 framework (this report);
  • Help readers refine their thoughts on how Europe might develop by outlining four alternative ‘futures’ that are both sufficiently different from each other to be meaningful and internally consistent enough to be realistic (Report 2);
  • Provide a ‘prediction’ for the future European telecoms market based on the responses of two ‘wisdom of crowds’ votes conducted at a recent STL Partners event for senior managers from European telcos plus our STL Partners’ own viewpoint (Report 2).
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Telecoms – the times they are a changin’
  • Europe, in particular, is facing great uncertainty
  • The role of this report
  • Understanding and classifying the forces of change
  • External (market) forces
  • Internal (telco) forces
  • Summary: The impact of internal and external forces over the next 5 years
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game

 

  • Figure 1: O2’s SIM-only pay monthly tariffs – many with unlimited voice and messaging bundled in
  • Figure 2: A framework for classifying telco market forces: internal and external
  • Figure 3: Telefonica dividend yield vs Spanish 10-year bond yield
  • Figure 4: Customer attitudes to European telecoms brands – 2003 vs 2015
  • Figure 5: Summarising the key skills, partnerships, assets and culture needed to realise ambitions
  • Figure 6: SMS Price vs. penetration of Top OTT messaging apps in 2012
  • Figure 7: Summary of how internal and external forces could develop in the next 5 years