5G standalone (SA) core: Why and how telcos should keep going

Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays…

There is a widespread opinion among telco industry watchers that deployments of the 5G Standalone (SA) core are taking longer than originally expected. It is certainly the case that some of the world’s leading operators, and telco cloud innovators, are taking their time over these deployments, as illustrated below:

  • AT&T: Has no current, publicly announced deadline for launching its 5G SA core, which was originally expected to be deployed in mid-2021.
  • Deutsche Telekom: Launched an SA core in Germany on a trial basis in September 2022, having previously acknowledged that SA was taking longer than originally expected. In Europe, the only other opco that is advancing towards commercial deployment is Magenta Telekom in Austria. In 2021, the company cited various delay factors, such as 5G SA not being technically mature enough to fulfil customers’ expectations (on speed and latency), and a lack of consumer devices supporting 5G SA.
  • Rakuten Mobile: Was expected to launch an SA core co-developed with NEC in 2021. But at the time of writing, this had still not launched.
  • SK Telecom: Was originally expected to launch a Samsung-provided SA core in 2020. However, in November 2021, it was announced that SK Telecom would deploy an Ericsson converged Non-standalone (NSA) / SA core. By the time of writing, this had still not taken place.
  • Telefónica: Has carried out extensive tests and pilots of 5G SA to support different use cases but has no publicly announced timetable for launching the technology commercially.
  • Verizon: Originally planned to launch its SA core at the end of 2021. But this was pushed back to 2022; and recent pronouncements by the company indicate a launch of commercial services over the SA core only in 2023.
  • Vodafone: Has launched SA in Germany only, not in any of its other markets; and even then, nationwide SA coverage is not expected until 2025. An SA core is, however, expected to be launched in Portugal in the near future, although no definite deadline has been announced. A ‘commercial pilot’ in three UK cities, launched in June 2021, had still not resulted in a full commercial deployment by the time of writing.

…but other MNOs are making rapid progress

In contrast to the above catalogue of delay, several other leading operators have made considerable progress with their standalone deployments:

  • DISH: Launched its SA core- and open RAN-based network in the US, operated entirely over the AWS cloud, in May 2022. The initial population coverage of the network was required to be 20%. This is supposed to rise to 70% by June 2023.
  • Orange: Proceeding with a Europe-wide roll-out, with six markets expected to go live with SA cores in 2023.
  • Saudi Telecom Company (STC): Has launched SA services in two international markets, Kuwait (May 2021) and Bahrain (May 2022). Preparations for a launch in Saudi Arabia were ongoing at the time of writing.
  • Telekom Austria Group (A1): Rolling out SA cores across four markets in Central Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia), although no announcement has been made regarding a similar deployment in its home market of Austria. In June 2022, A1 also carried out a PoC of end-to-end, SA core-enabled network slicing, in partnership with Amdocs.
  • T-Mobile US: Has reportedly migrated all of its mobile broadband traffic over to its SA core, which was launched back in 2020. It also launched one of the world’s first voice-over-New Radio (VoNR) services, run over the SA core, in parts of two cities in June 2022.
  • Zain (Kuwait): Launched SA in Saudi Arabia in February 2022, while a deployment in its home market was ongoing at the time of writing.
  • There are also a number of trials, and prospective and actual deployments, of SA cores over the public cloud in Europe. These are serving the macro network, not edge or private-networking use cases. The most notable examples include Magenta Telekom (Deutsche Telekom’s Austrian subsidiary, partnering with Google Cloud); Swisscom (partnering with AWS); and Working Group Two (wgtwo) – a Cisco and Telenor spin-off – that offers a multi-tenant, cloud-native 5G core delivered to third-party MNOs and MVNOs via the AWS cloud.
  • The three established Chinese MNOs are all making rapid progress with their 5G SA roll-outs, having launched in either 2020 (China Telecom and China Unicom) or 2021 (China Mobile). The country’s newly launched, fourth national player, Broadnet, is also rolling out SA. However, it is not publicly known what share of the country’s reported 848 million-odd 5G subscribers (at March 2022) were connected to SA cores.
  • At least eight other APAC operators had launched 5G SA-based services by July 2022, including KT in South Korea, NTT Docomo and SoftBank in Japan and Smart in the Philippines.

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Many standalone deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines

So, 5G standalone deployments are definitely a mixed bag: leading operators in APAC, Europe, the Middle East and North America are deploying and have launched at scale, while other leading players in the same regions have delayed launches, including some of the telcos that have helped drive telco cloud as a whole over the past few years, e.g. AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Rakuten, Telefónica and Vodafone.

In the July 2022 update to our Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, which contained a ‘deep dive’ on 5G core roll-outs, we presented an optimistic picture of 5G SA deployments. We pointed out that the number of SA and converged NSA / SA cores. We expect to be launched in 2022 outnumbered the total of NSA deployments. However, as illustrated in the figure below, SA and converged NSA/SA cores are still the minority of all 5G cores (29% in total).

We should also point out that some of the SA and converged NSA / SA deployments shown in the figure below are still in progress and some will continue to be so in 2023. In other words, the launch of these core networks has been announced and we have therefore logged them in our tracker, but we expect that the corresponding deployments will be completed in the remainder of 2022 or in 2023, based on a reasonable, typical gap between when the deployments are publicly announced and the time it normally takes to complete them. If, however, more of these predicted deployments are delayed as per the roll-outs of some of leading players listed above, then we will need to revise down our 2022 and 2023 totals.

Global 5G core networks by type, 2018 to 2023

 

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays
    • …but other MNOs are making rapid progress
    • Many SA deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines
  • What is holding up deployments?
    • Mass-market use cases are not yet mature
    • Enterprise use cases exploiting an SA core are not established
    • Business model and ROI uncertainty for 5G SA
    • Uncertainty about the role of hyperscalers
    • Coordination of investments in 5G SA with those in open RAN
    • MNO process and organisation must evolve to exploit 5G SA
  • 5G SA progress will unlock opportunities
    • Build out coverage to improve ‘commodity’ services
    • Be first to roll out 5G SA in the national market
    • For brownfield deployments, incrementally evolve towards SA
    • Greenfield deployments
    • Carefully elaborate deployment models on hyperscale cloud
    • Work through process and organisational change
  • Conclusion: 5G SA will enable transformation

    Related research

    Previous STL Partners reports aligned to this topic include:

  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive
  • Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain
  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

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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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The three telco Metaverse strategies

The Metaverse offers opportunities beyond connectivity for telcos

The Metaverse is the increasingly accepted term for a set of interconnected virtual worlds. One way to think about the Metaverse is to see it as a 3D version of the world wide web in which organizations operate their own virtual 3D worlds, rather than 2D web sites. Represented by avatars, visitors to a virtual world can interact with other users or with avatars controlled by artificial intelligence. The term Metaverse entered the popular consciousness when Facebook renamed itself Meta in October 2021.

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The renaming of Facebook sparked a surge of interest in the Metaverse

Source: Google Trends

Whereas the existing Internet is essentially a 2D digital overlay of the world, composed of text, voice, images and video, the Metaverse will provide a 3D digital overlay. This is the way Nvidia’s CEO Jensen Huang, portrayed the Metaverse in a speech in November 2021. As a leading provider of graphics chips, Nvidia is thinking deeply about how to build a business case for the Metaverse, which could drive rapid growth in demand for its products.

For a fully immersive experience, the Metaverse will need to be accessed through virtual reality (VR) headsets, but it could also be explored by moving through 3D environments using a conventional handset, laptop or television. Indeed, it is important to stress that the fortunes of the Metaverse won’t necessarily depend on the fortunes of VR. Hundreds of millions of people already play video games in 3D, interacting with each other, without wearing headsets.

The Metaverse looks set to host both entirely fictional virtual spaces where people can socialise, play and enjoy entertainment, as well as simulations of the real world, where people can test new product designs, learn new skills or watch concerts and sports events they can’t attend in person.

The first part of this report considers how the Metaverse could create value and the obstacles that lie in its way. It also outlines the strategies of Improbable, Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft and Nvidia – four companies developing many of the key enabling technologies.

The second part explores the Metaverse strategies of telcos. Broadband networks and related telco services are fundamental to the smooth running of digital environments today, and will be the building blocks of the Metaverse. We believe that telcos could play a coordination role that will help prevent the Metaverse from fragmenting into silos that are unable to interoperate with each other.

Our landmark report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms explained how reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources. In the case of Metaverse, telcos can help people and businesses to interact and transact with each other safely and securely in 3D environments.

As it considers the opportunities for telcos, this report draws on the experiences and actions of SKT, Telefónica and Verizon, which are each deploying strategies to help coordinate the development of the Metaverse.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • What is the Metaverse for?
    • The lure of the virtual road
    • Corporate worlds take over from web sites
    • Dominance or democracy?
    • The non-fungible flexibility paradox
    • Facebook pursues metamorphosis
    • Microsoft has most of the pieces
  • What will the Metaverse mean for telcos?
    • Recreating the real world is challenging
    • Traffic implications for telcos
    • Opportunities for telcos
    • SK Telecom – the full stack standard bearer
    • Telefónica looks to play coordination role
    • AT&T and Verizon – connectivity plus edge
  • Conclusions
  • Index

Related Research

 

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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 plays in live entertainment

Enhancing live entertainment

Live entertainment spans everything from a handful of people enjoying stand-up comedy in a pub to a football match attended by 100,000 fans. Although there are many different forms and formats of live entertainment, they share three inter-related characteristics – immediacy, interactivity and immersion. The performers make things happen and people tend to react, by clapping, shouting, singing or gesticulating at the performers or by interacting with each other. A compelling event will also be immersive in the sense that the spectators will focus entirely on the action.

For telcos, live events present specific challenges and opportunities. Simultaneously providing millions of people with high quality images and audio from live events can soak up large amounts of bandwidth on networks, forcing telcos to invest in additional capacity. Yet, it should be feasible to make a return on that investment: live events are an enormously popular form of entertainment on which people around the world are prepared to spend vast sums of money. This is a market where demand often outstrips supply: tickets for top tier sports events or music concerts can cost US$150 or more.

With the advent of 5G and Wi-Fi 6E, telcos have an opportunity to improve spectators’ enjoyment of live events both within a venue and in remote locations. Indeed, telcos could play a key role in enabling many more people to both participate in and appreciate live entertainment, thereby helping them to enjoy more fulfilling and enriching lives.

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The opportunities to use new technologies to enhance live events

Live entertainment

Source: STL Partners

More broadly, telecoms networks and related services have become fundamental to the smooth running of our increasingly digital economy. Our landmark report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms explained how reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources. In the case of live entertainment, telcos can help people to make better use of their leisure time – a precious and very finite resource for most individuals.

This report begins by providing an overview of the live entertainment opportunity for telcos, outlining the services they could provide to support both professional and amateur events. It then considers the growing demand for high-definition, 360-degree coverage of live events, before discussing why it is increasingly important to deliver footage in real-time, rather than near real-time. Subsequent sections explore the expanding role of edge computing in facilitating live broadcasts and how augmented reality and virtual reality could be used to create more immersive and interactive experiences.

This report draws on the experiences and actions of AT&T, BT, NTT and Verizon, which are all very active in the coverage of live sports. It also builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Opportunities to enhance live entertainment
    • Amateur entertainment – a B2C play
  • Delivering high-definition/360-degree video
    • New broadcast technologies
    • Real-time encoding and compression
    • Traffic management and net neutrality
  • Real real-time coverage and stats
    • More data and more stats
    • Personalised advertising and offers
  • Edge computing and the in-event experience
    • Refereeing automation/support
    • In-venue security and safety
    • Wi-Fi versus 5G
  • Augmented reality – blurring the lines
  • Conclusions
    • Tech can enrich people’s experience of live events
    • The role of telcos
  • Index

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Lessons from AT&T’s bruising entertainment experience

How AT&T entered and exited the media business

AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak

In 2014, AT&T announced it was buying DirecTV. By that time, AT&T was already bundling DirecTV with its phone and internet service and had approximately 5.9 million linear pay-TV (U-Verse) video subscribers. However, this pay-TV business was already experiencing decline, to the extent that when the DirecTV merger completed in mid-2015, U-Verse subscribers had fallen to 5.6 million by the end of that year.

With the acquisition of DirecTV, AT&T went from a small player in the media and entertainment industry to one of the largest media players in the world adding 39.1 million (US and Latin American) subscribers and paying $48.5bn ($67bn including debt) to acquire the business. The rationale for this acquisition (the satellite business) was to compete with cable operators by being able to offer broadband, increasing AT&T’s addressable market beyond its fibre-based U-Verse proposition which was only available in certain locations/states.

AT&T and DirecTV enjoyed an initial honeymoon, period recording growth up until the end of 2016 when DirecTV subscribers peaked at just over 21 million in the US.

From this point onwards however, AT&T’s satellite subscribers went into decline as customers switched to cheaper competitor offers as well as online streaming services. The popularity of streaming services was reflected by moves among traditional media players to develop their own streaming services such as Time Warner’s HBO GO and HBO NOW. In 2015, DirectTV’s satellite competitor Dish TV likewise launched its own streaming service Sling TV.

Even though it was one of the largest TV distributors on a satellite platform, AT&T also believed online streaming was its ultimate destination. Prior to the launch of its streaming service in late 2016, Bloomberg reported that AT&T envisioned DirecTV NOW as its primary video platform by 2020.

A softwarised platform delivered lowered costs as the service could be self-installed by customers and didn’t rely on expensive truck roll installation or launching satellites. The improved margins would enable AT&T to promote TV packages at attractive price points which would balance inflation demands from broadcasters for the cost of TV programming. AT&T could also more easily bundle the softwarised TV service with its broadband, fibre and wireless propositions and earn more lucrative advertising revenue based on its own network and viewer insights.

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The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV

AT&T’s foray into satellite and streaming TV can be characterised by a series of confusing service propositions for both consumers and AT&T staff, expensive promotional activity and overall pricing/product design misjudgements as well as troubled relations with TV broadcasters resulting in channel blackouts and ultimately churn.

Promotion, pull back and decline of DirecTV NOW

DirectTV NOW launched in November 2016, as AT&T’s first over the top (OTT) low cost online streaming service. Starting at $35 per month for 60+ channels with no contract period, analysts called the skinny TV package as a loss leader given the cost of programming rights and high subscriber acquisition costs (SACs). The loss leader strategy was aimed at acquiring wireless and broadband customers and included initiatives such as:

  • Promotional discounts to its monthly $60 mid-tier 100+ channel package reduced to $35 per month for life (subject to programming costs).
  • Device promotions and monthly waivers. The service eventually became available on popular streaming devices (Roku, Xbox and PlayStation) and included promotions such as an Apple TV 4K with a four month subscription waiver, a Roku Streaming Stick with a one month waiver or a $25 discount on the first month.
  • Customers could also add HBO or Cinemax for an additional $5 per month, which again was seen as a costly subsidy for AT&T to offer.

The service didn’t include DirecTV satellite’s popular NFL Sunday Ticket programming as Verizon held the smartphone rights to live NFL games, nor did it come with other popular shows from programme channels such as CBS. Features such as cloud DVR (digital video recording) functionality were also initially missing, but would follow as AT&T’s TV propositions and functionalities iterated and improved over time.

The DirecTV NOW streaming service enjoyed continuous quarterly growth through 2017 but peaked in Q3 2018 with net additions turning immediately negative in the final quarter of 2018 as management pulled back on costly promotions and discounted pricing.

The proposition became unsustainable financially in terms of its ability to cover rising programming costs and was positioned comparatively as a much less expensive service to its larger DirecTV satellite pay-TV propositions.

The DirecTV satellite service sold some of the most expensive TV propositions on the market and reported higher pay-TV ARPU ($131) than peers such as Dish ($89) and Comcast ($86) in Q4 2019.

  • The launch of a $35 DirecTV NOW streaming service with no contract and with a similar sounding name to the full linear service confused both new and existing DirecTV satellite customers and some would have viewed their satellite package as expensive compared to the cheaper steaming option.

Rising programming costs

AT&T’s low-cost skinny TV packages brought them into direct confrontation with TV programmers in terms of negotiating fees for content. When the streaming service launched, analysts highlighted the channels within AT&T’s base package were expected to rise in price annually by around 10% each year and this would eventually require AT&T to eventually balance programming costs with rising monthly package pricing.

Confrontations with programmers included a three-week dispute with CBS and an eight week dispute with Nexstar in 2019, which resulted in a blackout of both CBS and Nexstar channels across AT&T’s TV platforms such as Direct TV, U-Verse, DirectTV NOW. Commenting on the blackouts in Q3 2019, Randall Stephenson noted there were “a couple of significant blackouts in terms of content, and those blackouts drove some sizable subscriber losses”.

AT&T’s confrontation with content owners may have been a contributory reason to consider acquiring a content creation platform of its own in the form of Time Warner.

In mid-2018, as AT&T withdrew promotions and discounts for DirecTV NOW (later rebranded it to AT&T TV NOW), customers began to drop the OTT TV service.

  • AT&T TV NOW went from a peak of 1.86 million subscribers in Q3 2018 to 656,000 at the end of 2020.

DirecTV NOW subscriptions

DirecTV-subs-AT-T-stlpartners

Source: STL Partners, AT&T Q2 Earnings 2021

Name changes and new propositions create more confusion

In 2019, DirecTV NOW was re-branded to AT&T TV NOW , and continued to be promoted as a skinny bundle operating alongside AT&T TV, a new full fat live TV streaming version of the DirecTV satellite TV proposition. AT&T TV  was first piloted in August 2019 and soft launched in November 2019. The AT&T TV service included an Android set-top box with cloud DVR functionality and supported other apps such as Netflix.
AT&T TV required a contract period and offered pricing (once promotional discount periods ended) resembling a linear pay-TV service, i.e. $90+. This was, in effect, the very type of pay-TV proposition customers were abandoning.
AT&T TV was seen as an ultimate replacement for the satellite business based on the advantages a softwarised platform provided and the ability to bundle it with AT&T broadband, fibre and wireless services.

Confusion amongst staff and customers

The new AT&T TV proposition confused not only customers but also AT&T staff, as they were found mixing up the AT&T TV proposition with the skinny AT&T TV NOW proposition. By 2019 the company diverted its attention away from AT&T TV NOW  pulling back on promotional activity in order to focus on its core AT&T TV live TV service.

According to Cord Cutters News, both services used the same app but remained separate services. AT&T’s app store marketing incorrectly communicated the DirectTV NOW service was now AT&T TV when in fact it was AT&T TV NOW. Similarly, technical support was also incorrectly labelled with online navigation sending customers to the wrong support channels.

AT&T’s own customer facing teams misunderstood the new propositions

DirecTV-Cordcutter-news

Source: Cord Cutters News

Withdrawal of AT&T TV NOW

By January 2021, AT&T TV NOW was no longer available to new customers but continued to be available to existing customers. The AT&T TV proposition, which was supposed to offer “more value and simplicity” was updated to include some features of the skinny bundle such as the option to go without an annual contract requirement. Customers were also not required to own the set-top box but could instead stream over Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV.  In terms of pricing, AT&T TV was twice the price of the originally launched DirecTV NOW proposition costing $70 to $95 per month.

The short life of AT&T Watch TV

In April 2018, while giving testimony for AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, AT&T’s then CEO Randall Stephenson positioned AT&T Watch TV as a potential new low-cost service that would benefit consumers if the merger was successful. Days following AT&T’s merger approval in the courts, the low cost $15 per month, ultra-skinny bundle launched as a suitable low-cost cord-cutter/cord-never option for cable, broadband and mobile customers from any network. The service was also free to select AT&T Unlimited mobile customers.

By the end of 2018, the operator claimed it had 500,000 AT&T Watch TV“established accounts”. By the end of 2019 the operator had updated its mobile tariffs removing Watch TV for new customers subscribing to its updated Unlimited mobile tariffs. Some believed the company didn’t fully commit to the service, referring to the lack of roll out support for streaming devices such as Roku. The operator was now committed to rolling out its new service HBO Max in 2020. AT&T has informed Watch TV subscribers the service will close 30 November 2021.

Timeline of AT&T entertainment propositions

AT-T-Timeline-Entertainment

Source: STL Partners

The decline of DirecTV

As the graphic belowshows, in June 2021 there were 74.3 million pay-TV households in the US, reflecting continued contraction of the traditional pay-TV market supplied by multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) players such as cable, satellite, and telco operators. According to nScreenMedia, traditional pay-TV or MVPD market lost 6.3 and 6.2 million customers over 2019 and 2020, but not all were cord-cutters. Cord-shifters dropped their pay-TV but shifted across to virtual MVPD (vMVPD) propositions such as Hulu Live, Sling TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV NOW, Fubo TV and Philo. Based on current 2021 cord-cutting levels, nScreenMedia predicts 2021 will be the highest year of cord-cutting yet.

Decline in traditional pay-TV households

pay-tv-decline-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

Satellite subscribers to Dish and DirecTV 2015-2020

Satellite-pay-tvdish-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

When considering AT&T’s management of DirecTV, nScreenMedia research shows the market number of MVPD subscribers declined by over 20 million between 2016 and 2020. In that time, DirecTV lost eight million subscribers. While it represented 20% of the MVPD market in 2016, DirecTV accounted for 40% of the pay-TV losses in the market (40% of 20 million equals ~8 million). AT&T’s satellite rival Dish weathered the decline in pay-TV slightly better over the period.

  • In Q4 2020 the operator wrote down $15.5bn on its premium TV business, which included DirecTV decline, to reflect the cord cutting trend as customers found cheaper streaming alternatives online. The graphic (below) shows a loss of 8.76 million Premium TV subscribers between 2017 and 2020 with large losses of 3.4 million and 2.9 million subscribers in 2019 and 2020.

AT&T’s communications business has also been enduring losses in legacy voice and data (DSL) subscriptions in recent years. AT&T has used a bundling strategy for both products. As customers switched to AT&T fibre or competitor broadband offerings this also impacted the video subscription.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What can others learn from AT&T’s experience?
  • How AT&T entered and exited the media business
    • AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak
    • The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV
    • Vertical integration strategy: The culture clash
    • AT&T’s telco mindset drives its video strategy
    • HBO MAX performance
  • The financial impact of AT&T’s investments
    • Reversing six years of strategic change in three months
  • Lessons from AT&T’s foray into media

Related Reports

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Private networks: Lessons so far and what next

The private networks market is rapidly developing

Businesses across a range of sectors are exploring the benefits of private networks in supporting their connected operations. However, there are considerable variations between national markets, reflecting spectrum and other regulatory actions, as well as industrial structure and other local factors. US, Germany, UK, Japan and the Nordics are among the leading markets.

Enterprises’ adoption of digitalisation and automation programmes is growing across various industries. The demand from enterprises stems from their need for customised networks to meet their vertical-specific connectivity requirements – as well as more basic considerations of coverage and cost of public networks, or alternative wireless technologies.

On the supply side, the development in cellular standards, including the virtualisation of the RAN and core elements, the availability of edge computing, and cloud management solutions, as well as the changing spectrum regulations are making private networks more accessible for enterprises. That said, many recently deployed private cellular networks still use “traditional” integrated small cells, or major vendors’ bundled solutions – especially in conservative sectors such as utilities and public safety.

Many new players are entering the market through different vertical and horizontal approaches and either competing or collaborating with traditional telcos. Traditional telcos, new telcos (mainly building private networks or offering network services), and other stakeholders are all exploring strategies to engage with the market and assessing the opportunities across the value chain as private network adoption increases.

Following up on our 2019 report Private and vertical cellular networks: Threats and opportunities, we explore the recent developments in the private network market, regulatory activities and policy around local and shared spectrum, and the different deployment approaches and business cases. In this report we address several interdependent elements of the private networks landscape

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What is a private network?

A private network leverages dedicated resources such as infrastructure and spectrum to provide precise coverage and capacity to specific devices and user groups. The network can be as small as a single radio cell covering a single campus or a location such as a manufacturing site (or even a single airplane), or it can span across a wider geographical area such as a nationwide railway network or regional utility grids.

Private networks is an umbrella term that can includes different LAN (or WAN) connectivity options such as Wi-Fi and LPWAN. However, more commonly, the term is being associated with private cellular networks based on 3GPP mobile technologies, i.e. LTE or 5G New Radio (NR).

Private networks are also different from in-building densification solutions like small cells and DAS which extend the coverage of public network or strengthen its capacity indoors or in highly dense locations. These solutions are still part of the public network and do not support customised control over the local network access or other characteristics. In future, some may support local private networks as well as public MNOs’ services.

Besides dedicated coverage and capacity, private networks can be customised in other aspects such as security, latency and integration with the enterprise internal systems to meet business specific requirements in ways that best effort public networks cannot.

Unlike public networks, private networks are not available to the public through commercially available devices and SIM cards. The network owner or operator controls the authorisation and the access to the network for permissioned devices and users. These definitions blur somewhat if the network is run by a “community” such as a municipality.

Typically, devices will not work outside the boundaries of their private network. That is a requirement in many use cases, such as manufacturing, where devices are not expected to continue functioning outside the premise. However, in a few areas, such as logistics, solutions can include the use of dual-SIM devices for both public and private networks or the use of other wide area technologies such as TETRA for voice. Moreover, agreements with public networks to enable roaming can be activated to support certain service continuity outside the private network boundaries.

While the technology and market are still developing, several terms are being used interchangeably to describe 3GPP private networks such dedicated networks, standalone networks, campus networks, local networks, vertical mobile network and non-public networks (NPN) as defined by the 3GPP.

The emergence of new telcos

Many telcos are not ready to support private networks demands from enterprises on large scale because they lack sufficient resources and expertise. Also, some enterprises might be reluctant to work with telcos for different reasons including their concerns over the traditional telcos’ abilities in vertical markets and a desire to control costs. This gap is already catalysing the emergence of new types of mobile network service providers, as opposed to traditional MNOs that operate national or regional public mobile networks.

These players essentially carry out the same roles as traditional MNOs in configuring the network, provisioning the service, and maintaining the private network infrastructure. Some of them may also have access to spectrum and buy network equipment and technologies directly from network equipment vendors. In addition to “new telcos” or “new operators”, other terms have been used to describe these players such as specialist operators and alternative operators. Throughout this report, we will use new telcos or specialist operators when describing these players collectively and traditional/public operators when referring to typical wide area national mobile network provider. New players can be divided into the following categories:

Possible private networks service providers

private networks ecosystem

Source: STL Partners

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • What next
    • Trends and recommendations for telcos, vendors, enterprises and policymakers
  • Introduction
  • Types of private network operators
    • What is a private network?
    • The emergence of new telcos
  • How various stakeholders are approaching the market
    • Technology development: Choosing between LTE and 5G
    • Private network technology vendors
    • Regional overview
    • Vertical overview
    • Mergers and acquisitions activities
  • The development of spectrum regulations
    • Unlicensed spectrum for LTE and 5G is an attractive option, but it remains limited
    • The rise of local spectrum licensing threatens some telcos
    • …but there is no one-size fits all in local spectrum licensing
    • How local spectrum licensing shapes the market and enterprise adoption
    • Recommendations for different stakeholders
  • Assessing the approaches to network implementation
    • Private network deployment models
    • Business models and roles for telcos
  • Conclusion and recommendations
  • Index
  • Appendix 1:  Examples of private networks deployments in 2020 – 2021

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Why the consumer IoT is stuck in the slow lane

A slow start for NB-IoT and LTE-M

For telcos around the world, the Internet of Things (IoT) has long represented one of the most promising growth opportunities. Yet for most telcos, the IoT still only accounts for a low single digit percentage of their overall revenue. One of the stumbling blocks has been relatively low demand for IoT solutions in the consumer market. This report considers why that is and whether low cost connectivity technologies specifically-designed for the IoT (such as NB-IoT and LTE-M) will ultimately change this dynamic.

NB-IoT and LTE-M are often referred to as Massive IoT technologies because they are designed to support large numbers of connections, which periodically transmit small amounts of data. They can be distinguished from broadband IoT connections, which carry more demanding applications, such as video content, and critical IoT connections that need to be always available and ultra-reliable.

The initial standards for both technologies were completed by 3GPP in 2016, but adoption has been relatively modest. This report considers the key B2C and B2B2C use cases for Massive IoT technologies and the prospects for widespread adoption. It also outlines how NB-IoT and LTE-M are evolving and the implications for telcos’ strategies.

This builds on previous STL Partners’ research, including LPWA: Which way to go for IoT? and Can telcos create a compelling smart home?. The LPWA report explained why IoT networks need to be considered across multiple generations, including coverage, reliability, power consumption, range and bandwidth. Cellular technologies tend to be best suited to wide area applications for which very reliable connectivity is required (see Figure below).

IoT networks should be considered across multiple dimensions

IoT-networks-disruptive-analysis-stl-2021
Source: Disruptive Analysis

 

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The smart home report outlined how consumers could use both cellular and short-range connectivity to bolster security, improve energy efficiency, charge electric cars and increasingly automate appliances. One of the biggest underlying drivers in the smart home sector is peace of mind – householders want to protect their properties and their assets, as rising population growth and inequality fuels fear of crime.

That report contended that householders might be prepared to pay for a simple and integrated way to monitor and remotely control all their assets, from door locks and televisions to solar panels and vehicles.  Ideally, a dashboard would show the status and location of everything an individual cares about. Such a dashboard could show the energy usage and running cost of each appliance in real-time, giving householders fingertip control over their possessions. They could use the resulting information to help them source appropriate insurance and utility supply.

Indeed, STL Partners believes telcos have a broad opportunity to help coordinate better use of the world’s resources and assets, as outlined in the report: The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms. Reliable and ubiquitous connectivity is a key enabler of the emerging sharing economy in which people use digital technologies to easily rent the use of assets, such as properties and vehicles, to others. The data collected by connected appliances and sensors could be used to help safeguard a property against misuse and source appropriate insurance covering third party rentals.

Do consumers need Massive IoT?

Whereas some IoT applications, such as connected security cameras and drones, require high-speed and very responsive connectivity, most do not. Connected devices that are designed to collect and relay small amounts of data, such as location, temperature, power consumption or movement, don’t need a high-speed connection.

To support these devices, the cellular industry has developed two key technologies – LTE-M (LTE for Machines, sometimes referred to as Cat M) and NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT). In theory, they can be deployed through a straightforward upgrade to existing LTE base stations. Although these technologies don’t offer the capacity, throughput or responsiveness of conventional LTE, they do support the low power wide area connectivity required for what is known as Massive IoT – the deployment of large numbers of low cost sensors and actuators.

For mobile operators, the deployment of NB-IoT and LTE-M can be quite straightforward. If they have relatively modern LTE base stations, then NB-IoT can be enabled via a software upgrade. If their existing LTE network is reasonably dense, there is no need to deploy additional sites – NB-IoT, and to a lesser extent LTE-M, are designed to penetrate deep inside buildings. Still, individual base stations may need to be optimised on a site-by-site basis to ensure that they get the full benefit of NB-IoT’s low power levels, according to a report by The Mobile Network, which notes that operators also need to invest in systems that can provide third parties with visibility and control of IoT devices, usage and costs.

There are a number of potential use cases for Massive IoT in the consumer market:

  • Asset tracking: pets, bikes, scooters, vehicles, keys, wallets, passport, phones, laptops, tablets etc.
  • Vulnerable persontracking: children and the elderly
  • Health wearables: wristbands, smart watches
  • Metering and monitoring: power, water, garden,
  • Alarms and security: smoke alarms, carbon monoxide, intrusion
  • Digital homes: automation of temperature and lighting in line with occupancy

In the rest of this report we consider the key drivers and barriers to take-up of NB-IoT and LTE-M for these consumer use cases.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Do consumers need Massive IoT?
    • The role of eSIMs
    • Takeaways
  • Market trends
    • IoT revenues: Small, but growing
  • Consumer use cases for cellular IoT
    • Amazon’s consumer IoT play
    • Asset tracking: Demand is growing
    • Connecting e-bikes and scooters
    • Slow progress in healthcare
    • Smart metering gains momentum
    • Supporting micro-generation and storage
    • Digital buildings: A regulatory play?
    • Managing household appliances
  • Technological advances
    • Network coverage
  • Conclusions: Strategic implications for telcos

 

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A3 for enterprise: Where should telcos focus?

A3 capabilities operators can offer enterprise customers

In this research we explore the potential enterprise solutions leveraging analytics, AI and automation (A3) that telcos can offer their enterprise customers. Our research builds on a previous STL Partners report Telco data monetisation: What’s it worth? which modelled the financial opportunity for telco data monetisation – i.e. purely the machine learning (ML) and analytics component of A3 – for 200+ use cases across 13 verticals.

In this report, we expand our analysis to include the importance of different types of AI and automation in implementing the 200+ use cases for enterprises and assess the feasibility for telcos to acquire and integrate those capabilities into their enterprise services.

We identified eight different types of A3 capabilities required to implement our 200+ use cases.

These capability types are organised below roughly in order of the number of use cases for which they are relevant (i.e. people analytics is required in the most use cases, and human learning is needed in the fewest).

The ninth category, Data provision, does not actually require any AI or automation skills beyond ML for data management, so we include it in the list primarily because it remains an opportunity for telcos that do not develop additional A3 capabilities for enterprise.

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Most relevant A3 capabilities across 200+ use cases

9-types-of-A3-analytics-AI-automation

Most relevant A3 capabilities for leveraging enterprise solutions

People analytics: This is the strongest opportunity for telcos as it uses their comprehensive customer data. Analytics and machine learning are required for segmentation and personalisation of messaging or action. Any telco with a statistically-relevant market share can create products – although specialist sales capabilities are still essential.

IoT analytics: Although telcos offering IoT products do not immediately have access to the payload data from devices, the largest telcos are offering a range of products which use analytics/ML to detect patterns or spot anomalies from connected sensors and other devices.

Other analytics: Similar to IoT, the majority of other analytics A3 use cases are around pattern or anomaly detection, where integration of telco data can increase the accuracy and success of A3 solutions. Many of the use cases here are very specific to the vertical. For example, risk management in financial services or tracking of electronic prescriptions in healthcare – which means that a telco will need to have existing products and sales capability in these verticals to make it worthwhile adding in new analytics or ML capabilities.

Real time: These use cases mainly need A3 to understand and act on triggers coming from customer behaviour and have mixed appeal to telcos. Telcos already play a significant role in a small number of uses cases, such as mobile marketing. Some telcos are also active in less mature use cases such as patient messaging in healthcare settings (e.g. real-time reminders to take medication or remote monitoring of vulnerable adults). Of the rest of the use cases that require real time automation, a subset could be enhanced with messaging. This would primarily be attractive to mobile operators, especially if they offer broader relevant enterprise solutions – for example, if a telco was involved in a connected public transport solution, then it could also offer passenger messaging.

Remote monitoring/control: Solutions track both things and people and use A3 to spot issues, do diagnostic analysis and prescribe solutions to the problems identified. The larger telcos already have solutions in some verticals, and 5G may bring more opportunities, such as monitoring of remote sites or traffic congestion monitoring.

Video analytics: Where telcos have CCTV implementations or video, there is opportunity to add in analytics solutions (potentially at the edge).

Human interactions: The majority of telco opportunities here relate to the provision of chatbots into enterprise contact centres.

Human learning: A group of low feasibility use cases around training (for example, an engineer on a manufacturing floor who uses a heads-up augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) display to understand the resolution to a problem in front of them) or information provision (for example, providing retail customers with information via AR applications).

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Which A3 capabilities should telcos prioritise?
    • What makes an investment worthwhile?
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
  • Vertical opportunities
    • Key takeaways
  • A3 technology: Where should telcos focus?
    • Key takeaways
    • Assessing the telco opportunity for nine A3 capabilities
  • Verizon case study
  • Details of vertical opportunities
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix 1 – full list of 200 use cases

 

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Fixed wireless access growth: To 20% homes by 2025

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Fixed wireless access growth forecast

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks use a wireless “last mile” link for the final connection of a broadband service to homes and businesses, rather than a copper, fibre or coaxial cable into the building. Provided mostly by WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) or mobile network operators (MNOs), these services come in a wide range of speeds, prices and technology architectures.

Some FWA services are just a short “drop” from a nearby pole or fibre-fed hub, while others can work over distances of several kilometres or more in rural and remote areas, sometimes with base station sites backhauled by additional wireless links. WISPs can either be independent specialists, or traditional fixed/cable operators extending reach into areas they cannot economically cover with wired broadband.

There is a fair amount of definitional vagueness about FWA. The most expansive definitions include cheap mobile hotspots (“Mi-Fi” devices) used in homes, or various types of enterprise IoT gateway, both of which could easily be classified in other market segments. Most service providers don’t give separate breakouts of deployments, while regulators and other industry bodies report patchy and largely inconsistent data.

Our view is that FWA is firstly about providing permanent broadband access to a specific location or premises. Primarily, this is for residential wireless access to the Internet and sometimes typical telco-provided services such as IPTV and voice telephony. In a business context, there may be a mix of wireless Internet access and connectivity to corporate networks such as VPNs, again provided to a specific location or building.

A subset of FWA relates to M2M usage, for instance private networks run by utility companies for controlling grid assets in the field. These are typically not Internet-connected at all, and so don’t fit most observers’ general definition of “broadband access”.

Usually, FWA will be marketed as a specific service and package by some sort of network provider, usually including the terminal equipment (“CPE” – customer premise equipment), rather than allowing the user to “bring their own” device. That said, lower-end (especially 4G) offers may be SIM-only deals intended to be used with generic (and unmanaged) portable hotspots.
There are some examples of private network FWA, such as a large caravan or trailer park with wireless access provided from a central point, and perhaps in future municipal or enterprise cellular networks giving fixed access to particular tenant structures on-site – for instance to hangars at an airport.

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FWA today

Today, fixed-wireless access (FWA) is used for perhaps 8-9% of broadband connections globally, although this varies significantly by definition, country and region. There are various use cases (see below), but generally FWA is deployed in areas without good fixed broadband options, or by mobile-only operators trying to add an additional fixed revenue stream, where they have spare capacity.

Fixed wireless internet access fits specific sectors and uses, rather than the overall market

FWA Use Cases

Source: STL Partners

FWA has traditionally been used in sparsely populated rural areas, where the economics of fixed broadband are untenable, especially in developing markets without existing fibre transport to towns and villages, or even copper in residential areas. Such networks have typically used unlicensed frequency bands, as there is limited interference – and little financial justification for expensive spectrum purchases. In most cases, such deployments use proprietary variants of Wi-Fi, or its ill-fated 2010-era sibling WiMAX.

Increasingly however, FWA is being used in more urban settings, and in more developed market scenarios – for example during the phase-out of older xDSL broadband, or in places with limited or no competition between fixed-network providers. Some cellular networks primarily intended for mobile broadband (MBB) have been used for fixed usage as well, especially if spare capacity has been available. 4G has already catalysed rapid growth of FWA in numerous markets, such as South Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy and the Philippines – and 5G is likely to make a further big difference in coming years. These mostly rely on licensed spectrum, typically the national bands owned by major MNOs. In some cases, specific bands are used for FWA use, rather than sharing with normal mobile broadband. This allows appropriate “dimensioning” of network elements, and clearer cost-accounting for management.

Historically, most FWA has required an external antenna and professional installation on each individual house, although it also gets deployed for multi-dwelling units (MDUs, i.e. apartment blocks) as well as some non-residential premises like shops and schools. More recently, self-installed indoor CPE with varying levels of price and sophistication has helped broaden the market, enabling customers to get terminals at retail stores or delivered direct to their home for immediate use.

Looking forward, the arrival of 5G mass-market equipment and larger swathes of mmWave and new mid-band spectrum – both licensed and unlicensed – is changing the landscape again, with the potential for fibre-rivalling speeds, sometimes at gigabit-grade.

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Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • FWA today
    • Universal broadband as a goal
    • What’s changed in recent years?
    • What’s changed because of the pandemic?
  • The FWA market and use cases
    • Niche or mainstream? National or local?
    • Targeting key applications / user groups
  • FWA technology evolution
    • A broad array of options
    • Wi-Fi, WiMAX and close relatives
    • Using a mobile-primary network for FWA
    • 4G and 5G for WISPs
    • Other FWA options
    • Customer premise equipment: indoor or outdoor?
    • Spectrum implications and options
  • The new FWA value chain
    • Can MNOs use FWA to enter the fixed broadband market?
    • Reinventing the WISPs
    • Other value chain participants
    • Is satellite a rival waiting in the wings?
  • Commercial models and packages
    • Typical pricing and packages
    • Example FWA operators and plans
  • STL’s FWA market forecasts
    • Quantitative market sizing and forecast
    • High level market forecast
  • Conclusions
    • What will 5G deliver – and when and where?
  • Index

How mobile operators can build winning 5G business models

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STL Partners has long believed that telecoms operators need to and can do more to add value to their consumer and enterprise customers and to society more generally. For the telecoms industry, the need to do more is illustrated by flat or declining revenues and rising capital expenditure and debt levels. The opportunity for telecoms to add more value is also clear. The demands of society now call for greater coordination between all players and new technology – 5G, analytics, AI, automation, cloud – is now spawning the Coordination Age.

Figure 1: The Coordination Age – new paradigm, new telco purposeThe coordination age overview

Source: STL Partners

Operators have the credibility, skills and relationships to contribute more in the Coordination Age. But the opportunity will not drop into their laps. Improved networks are not, of themselves, the driver of new value: it accrues to the provider of services that run on the network and it is up to operators to develop platforms and services that exploit ubiquitous, high-bandwidth connectivity.

So far, operators have found moving beyond connectivity challenging. There are a handful of success stories; most attempts to develop vertical solutions have failed to move the needle. In this report, we draw on successes and failures from within and outside telecoms to outline 8 core guiding principles for ambitious leaders within the telecoms industry who are determined to help their organisations to deliver more than connectivity.

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5G: A catalyst for change

In some ways, the challenge/opportunity for mobile operators has been present for the last 5-10 years: limited incremental revenue growth in voice, messaging, and data.

However, 5G is a catalyst for real change. There are internal pressures from the investments being made that mean operators must create new revenue streams. More positive reasons relate to increased demand for telco-driven services and the technological changes that telcos have implemented which will help the commercial side to adapt. Below are some of the main reasons why 5G has created a resurgent need to change business models.

  1. Making returns on network investments: It’s a given that 5G cannot be delivered without significant investment by the operators: be it in spectrum acquisition, upgrading the RAN and core network, managing a more distributed architecture of small cells, etc. Telcos can focus on ensuring that network runs efficiently to maintain margins, however many will need to look to new services. Data usage will surge, but the price customers will pay for each gigabyte will decline at a disproportionate rate.
  2. Building on telco cloud and edge computing platforms: Telcos have started to invest in developing their networks to become more like the cloud platforms that underpin the large cloud providers’ services. In fact, it’s a key part of the 5G core. Part of this has been the move towards SDN, network virtualisation and integrating edge computing. This flexible platform will allow telcos to innovate quickly and create new differentiated services on top if they have the desire to change their financial and operational models.
  3. Unlocking an enterprise business: Before 5G, mobile operators’ enterprise businesses have involved selling SIMs to enterprise customers with some forays into value-added services, such as cloud storage, mobile device management and M2M communications. Enterprises are genuinely interested in 5G and the capabilities it brings. For some, 5G has become an umbrella term for technological innovation. This is a good thing for the mobile industry, as it means enterprises will open doors to telcos and be keen to engage them for new solutions.
  4. Creating business value: 5G’s unique capabilities will enable use cases that solve real problems, particularly in industrial transformation. This last point is exemplified by research STL Partners previously conducted on the business value 5G brings to certain verticals by enhancing productivity, increasing output, creating efficiencies, etc. However, much of this value is extracted by the applications, solutions and services on top of the underlying network.

Figure 2: 5G enabled use cases could increase GDP by $1.5 trillion by 2030

Source: STL Partners

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • 5G: A catalyst for chang
  • Guiding principles for mobile operators seeking to move beyond connectivity
    1. Select priority verticals and how you will compete in the them
    2. Adopt a new approach to resource allocation: less CapEx and more OpEx
    3. Material OpEx should focus on building new skills, assets, capabilities, relationships
    4. Establish senior management commitment and independence for the new venture
    5. Focus on commercial as well as technological differentiation in order to disrupt verticals
    6. De-emphasise network integration – at least to start with
    7. Recognise that M&A will be needed for market entry in most cases
    8. Realise that organic growth can work in exceptional operator or market circumstances
  • Conclusion

 

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Apple Glass: An iPhone moment for 5G?

Augmented reality supports many use cases across industries

Revisiting the themes explored in the AR/VR: Won’t move the 5G needle report STL Partners published in January 2018, this report explores whether augmented reality (AR) could become a catalyst for widespread adoption of 5G, as leading chip supplier Qualcomm and some telcos hope.

It considers how this technology is developing, its relationship with virtual reality (VR), and the implications for telcos trying to find compelling reasons for customers to use low latency 5G networks.

This report draws the following distinction between VR and AR

  • Virtual reality: use of an enclosed headset for total immersion in a digital3D
  • Augmented reality: superimposition of digital graphics onto images of the real world via a camera viewfinder, a pair of glasses or onto a screen fixed in real world.

In other words, AR is used both indoors and outdoors and on a variety of devices. Whereas Wi-Fi/fibre connectivity will be the preferred connectivity option in many scenarios, 5G will be required in locations lacking high-speed Wi-Fi coverage.  Many AR applications rely on responsive connectivity to enable them to interact with the real world. To be compelling, animated images superimposed on those of the real world need to change in a way that is consistent with changes in the real world and changes in the viewing angle.

AR can be used to create innovative games, such as the 2016 phenomena Pokemon Go, and educational and informational tools, such as travel guides that give you information about the monument you are looking at.  At live sports events, spectators could use AR software to identify players, see how fast they are running, check their heart rates and call up their career statistics.

Note, an advanced form of AR is sometimes referred to as mixed reality or extended reality (XR). In this case, fully interactive digital 3D objects are superimposed on the real world, effectively mixing virtual objects and people with physical objects and people into a seamless interactive scene. For example, an advanced telepresence service could project a live hologram of the person you are talking to into the same room as you. Note, this could be an avatar representing the person or, where the connectivity allows, an actual 3D video stream of the actual person.

Widespread usage of AR services will be a hallmark of the Coordination Age, in the sense that they will bring valuable information to people as and when they need it. First responders, for example, could use smart glasses to help work their way through smoke inside a building, while police officers could be immediately fed information about the owner of a car registration plate. Office workers may use smart glasses to live stream a hologram of a colleague from the other side of the world or a 3D model of a new product or building.

In the home, both AR and VR could be used to generate new entertainment experiences, ranging from highly immersive games to live holograms of sports events or music concerts. Some people may even use these services as a form of escapism, virtually inhabiting alternative realities for several hours a day.

Given sufficient time to develop, STL Partners believes mixed-reality services will ultimately become widely adopted in the developed world. They will become a valuable aid to everyday living, providing the user with information about whatever they are looking at, either on a transparent screen on a pair of glasses or through a wireless earpiece. If you had a device that could give you notifications, such as an alert about a fast approaching car or a delay to your train, in your ear or eyeline, why wouldn’t you want to use it?

How different AR applications affect mobile networks

One of the key questions for the telecoms industry is how many of these applications will require very low latency, high-speed connectivity. The transmission of high-definition holographic images from one place to another in real time could place enormous demands on telecoms networks, opening up opportunities for telcos to earn additional revenues by providing dedicated/managed connectivity at a premium price. But many AR applications, such as displaying reviews of the restaurant a consumer is looking at, are unlikely to generate much data traffic. the figure below lists some potential AR use cases and indicates how demanding they will be to support.

Examples of AR use cases and the demands they make on connectivity


Source: STL Partners

Although telcos have always struggled to convince people to pay a premium for premium connectivity, some of the most advanced AR applications may be sufficiently compelling to bring about this kind of behavioural shift, just as people are prepared to pay more for a better seat at the theatre or in a sports stadium. This could be on a pay-as-you-go or a subscription basis.

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The pioneers of augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is essentially a catch-all term for any application that seeks to overlay digital information and images on the real-world. Applications of AR can range from a simple digital label to a live 3D holographic projection of a person or event.

AR really rose to prominence at the start of the last decade with the launch of smartphone apps, such as Layar, Junaio, and Wikitude, which gave you information about what you were looking at through the smartphone viewfinder. These apps drew on data from the handset’s GPS chip, its compass and, in some cases, image recognition software to try and figure out what was being displayed in the viewfinder. Although they attracted a lot of media attention, these apps were too clunky to break through into the mass-market. However, the underlying concept persists – the reasonably popular Google Lens app enables people to identify a product, plant or animal they are looking at or translate a menu into their own language.

Perhaps the most high profile AR application to date is Niantic’s Pokemon Go, a smartphone game that superimposes cartoon monsters on images of the real world captured by the user’s smartphone camera. Pokemon Go generated $1 billion in revenue globally just seven months after its release in mid 2016, faster than any other mobile game, according to App Annie. It has also shown remarkable staying power. Four years later, in May 2020, Pokemon Go continued to be one of the top 10 grossing games worldwide, according to SensorTower.

In November 2017, Niantic, which has also had another major AR hit with sci-fi game Ingress, raised $200 million to boost its AR efforts. In 2019, it released another AR game based on the Harry Potter franchise.

Niantic is now looking to use its AR expertise to create a new kind of marketing platform. The idea is that brands will be able to post digital adverts and content in real-world locations, essentially creating digital billboards that are viewable to consumers using the Niantic platform. At the online AWE event in May 2020, Niantic executives claimed “AR gamification and location-based context” can help businesses increase their reach, boost user sentiment, and drive foot traffic to bricks-and-mortar stores. Niantic says it is working with major brands, such as AT&T, Simon Malls, Starbucks, Mcdonalds, and Samsung, to develop AR marketing that “is non-intrusive, organic, and engaging.”

The sustained success of Pokemon Go has made an impression on the major Internet platforms. By 2018, the immediate focus of both Apple and Google had clearly shifted from VR to AR. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been particularly vocal about the potential of AR. And he continues to sing the praises of the technology in public.

In January 2020, for example, during a visit to Ireland, Cook described augmented reality as the “next big thing.”  In an earnings call later that month, Cook added:When you look at AR today, you would see that there are consumer applications, there are enterprise applications. … it’s going to pervade your life…, because it’s going to go across both business and your whole life. And I think these things will happen in parallel.”

Both Apple and Google have released AR developer tools, helping AR apps to proliferate in both Apple’s App Store and on Google Play.  One of the most popular early use cases for AR is to check how potential new furniture would look inside a living room or a bedroom. Furniture stores and home design companies, such as Ikea, Wayfair and Houzz, have launched their own AR apps using Apple’s ARKit. Once the app is familiar with its surroundings, it allows the user to overlay digital models of furniture anywhere in a room to see how it will fit. The technology can work in outdoor spaces as well.

In a similar vein, there are various AR apps, such as MeasureKit, that allow you to measure any object of your choosing. After the user picks a starting point with a screen tap, a straight line will measure the length until a second tap marks the end. MeasureKit also claims to be able to calculate trajectory distances of moving objects, angle degrees, the square footage of a three-dimensional cube and a person’s height.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • More mainstream models from late 2022
    • Implications and opportunities for telcos
  • Introduction
  • Progress and Immediate Prospects
    • The pioneers of augmented reality
    • Impact of the pandemic
    • Snap – seeing the world differently
    • Facebook – the keeper of the VR flame
    • Google – the leader in image recognition
    • Apple – patiently playing the long game
    • Microsoft – expensive offerings for the enterprise
    • Amazon – teaming up with telcos to enable AR/VR
    • Market forecasts being revised down
  • Telcos Get Active in AR
    • South Korea’s telcos keep trying
    • The global picture
  • What comes next?
    • Live 3D holograms of events
    • Enhancing live venues with holograms
    • 4K HD – Simple, but effective
  • Technical requirements
    • Extreme image processing
    • An array of sensors and cameras
    • Artificial intelligence plays a role
    • Bandwidth and latency
    • Costs: energy, weight and financial
  • Timelines for Better VR and AR
    • When might mass-market models become available?
    • Implications for telcos
    • Opportunities for telcos
  • Appendix: Societal Challenges
    • AR: Is it acceptable in a public place?
    • VR: health issues
    • VR and AR: moral and ethical challenges
    • AR and VR: What do consumers really want?
  • Index

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Telco edge computing: What is the operator strategy?

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Edge computing can help telcos to move up the value chain

The edge computing market and the technologies enabling it are rapidly developing and attracting new players, providing new opportunities to enterprises and service providers. Telco operators are eyeing the market and looking to leverage the technology to move up the value chain and generate more revenue from their networks and services. Edge computing also represents an opportunity for telcos to extend their role beyond offering connectivity services and move into the platform and the application space.

However, operators will be faced with tough competition from other market players such as cloud providers, who are moving rapidly to define and own the biggest share of the edge market. Plus, industrial solution providers, such as Bosch and Siemens, are similarly investing in their own edge services. Telcos are also dealing with technical and business challenges as they venture into the new market and trying to position themselves and identifying their strategies accordingly.

Telcos that fail to develop a strategic approach to the edge could risk losing their share of the growing market as non-telco first movers continue to develop the technology and dictate the market dynamics. This report looks into what telcos should consider regarding their edge strategies and what roles they can play in the market.

Following this introduction, we focus on:

  1. Edge terminology and structure, explaining common terms used within the edge computing context, where the edge resides, and the role of edge computing in 5G.
  2. An overview of the edge computing market, describing different types of stakeholders, current telecoms operators’ deployments and plans, competition from hyperscale cloud providers and the current investment and consolidation trends.
  3. Telcos challenges in addressing the edge opportunity: technical, organisational and commercial challenges given the market
  4. Potential use cases and business models for operators, also exploring possible scenarios of how the market is going to develop and operators’ likely positioning.
  5. A set of recommendations for operators that are building their strategy for the edge.

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What is edge computing and where exactly is the edge?

Edge computing brings cloud services and capabilities including computing, storage and networking physically closer to the end-user by locating them on more widely distributed compute infrastructure, typically at smaller sites.

One could argue that edge computing has existed for some time – local infrastructure has been used for compute and storage, be it end-devices, gateways or on-premises data centres. However, edge computing, or edge cloud, refers to bringing the flexibility and openness of cloud-native infrastructure to that local infrastructure.

In contrast to hyperscale cloud computing where all the data is sent to central locations to be processed and stored, edge computing local processing aims to reduce time and save bandwidth needed to send and receive data between the applications and cloud, which improves the performance of the network and the applications. This does not mean that edge computing is an alternative to cloud computing. It is rather an evolutionary step that complements the current cloud computing infrastructure and offers more flexibility in executing and delivering applications.

Edge computing offers mobile operators several opportunities such as:

  • Differentiating service offerings using edge capabilities
  • Providing new applications and solutions using edge capabilities
  • Enabling customers and partners to leverage the distributed computing network in application development
  • Improving networkperformance and achieving efficiencies / cost savings

As edge computing technologies and definitions are still evolving, different terms are sometimes used interchangeably or have been associated with a certain type of stakeholder. For example, mobile edge computing is often used within the mobile network context and has evolved into multi-access edge computing (MEC) – adopted by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) – to include fixed and converged network edge computing scenarios. Fog computing is also often compared to edge computing; the former includes running intelligence on the end-device and is more IoT focused.

These are some of the key terms that need to be identified when discussing edge computing:

  • Network edge refers to edge compute locations that are at sites or points of presence (PoPs) owned by a telecoms operator, for example at a central office in the mobile network or at an ISP’s node.
  • Telco edge cloud is mainly defined as distributed compute managed by a telco  This includes running workloads on customer premises equipment (CPE) at customers’ sites as well as locations within the operator network such as base stations, central offices and other aggregation points on access and/or core network. One of the reasons for caching and processing data closer to the customer data centres is that it allows both the operators and their customers to enjoy the benefit of reduced backhaul traffic and costs.
  • On-premise edge computing refers to the computing resources that are residing at the customer side, e.g. in a gateway on-site, an on-premises data centre, etc. As a result, customers retain their sensitive data on-premise and enjoy other flexibility and elasticity benefits brought by edge computing.
  • Edge cloud is used to describe the virtualised infrastructure available at the edge. It creates a distributed version of the cloud with some flexibility and scalability at the edge. This flexibility allows it to have the capacity to handle sudden surges in workloads from unplanned activities, unlike static on-premise servers. Figure 1 shows the differences between these terms.

Figure 1: Edge computing types

definition of edge computing

Source: STL Partners

Network infrastructure and how the edge relates to 5G

Discussions on edge computing strategies and market are often linked to 5G. Both technologies have overlapping goals of improving performance and throughput and reducing latency for applications such as AR/VR, autonomous vehicles and IoT. 5G improves speed by increasing spectral efficacy, it offers the potential of much higher speeds than 4G. Edge computing, on the other hand, reduces latency by shortening the time required for data processing by allocating resources closer to the application. When combined, edge and 5G can help to achieve round-trip latency below 10 milliseconds.

While 5G deployment is yet to accelerate and reach ubiquitous coverage, the edge can be utilised in some places to reduce latency where needed. There are two reasons why the edge will be part of 5G:

  • First, it has been included in the 5Gstandards (3GPP Release 15) to enable ultra-low latency which will not be achieved by only improvements in the radio interface.
  • Second, operators are in general taking a slow and gradual approach to 5G deployment which means that 5G coverage alone will not provide a big incentive for developers to drive the application market. Edge can be used to fill the network gaps to stimulate the application market growth.

The network edge can be used for applications that need coverage (i.e. accessible anywhere) and can be moved across different edge locations to scale capacity up or down as required. Where an operator decides to establish an edge node depends on:

  • Application latency needs. Some applications such as streaming virtual reality or mission critical applications will require locations close enough to its users to enable sub-50 milliseconds latency.
  • Current network topology. Based on the operators’ network topology, there will be selected locations that can meet the edge latency requirements for the specific application under consideration in terms of the number of hops and the part of the network it resides in.
  • Virtualisation roadmap. The operator needs to consider virtualisation roadmap and where data centre facilities are planned to be built to support future network
  • Site and maintenance costs. The cloud computing economies of scale may diminish as the number of sites proliferate at the edge, for example there is a significant difference in maintaining 1-2 large data centres to maintaining 100s across the country
  • Site availability. Some operators’ edge compute deployment plans assume the nodes reside in the same facilities as those which host their NFV infrastructure. However, many telcos are still in the process of renovating these locations to turn them into (mini) data centres so aren’t yet ready.
  • Site ownership. Sometimes the preferred edge location is within sites that the operators have limited control over, whether that is in the customer premise or within the network. For example, in the US, the cell towers are owned by tower operators such as Crown Castle, American Tower and SBA Communications.

The potential locations for edge nodes can be mapped across the mobile network in four levels as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: possible locations for edge computing

edge computing locations

Source: STL Partners

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Recommendations for telco operators at the edge
    • Four key use cases for operators
    • Edge computing players are tackling market fragmentation with strategic partnerships
    • What next?
  • Table of Figures
  • Introduction
  • Definitions of edge computing terms and key components
    • What is edge computing and where exactly is the edge?
    • Network infrastructure and how the edge relates to 5G
  • Market overview and opportunities
    • The value chain and the types of stakeholders
    • Hyperscale cloud provider activities at the edge
    • Telco initiatives, pilots and plans
    • Investment and merger and acquisition trends in edge computing
  • Use cases and business models for telcos
    • Telco edge computing use cases
    • Vertical opportunities
    • Roles and business models for telcos
  • Telcos’ challenges at the edge
  • Scenarios for network edge infrastructure development
  • Recommendation
  • Index

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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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5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers

What’s the best 5G strategy?

When we published the report 5G: The First Three Years in December 2018, we identified that most of the hype – from autonomous cars to surgeons operating from the beach – is at best several years from significant volume. There are no “killer apps” in sight. Telco growth from 5G deployments will be based on greater capacity, lower cost and customer willingness to buy.

If carrier revenue doesn’t rise, the pressure to cut costs will grow

For the last five years, carrier revenue has been almost flat in most countries and we believe this trend is likely to continue.

STL Partners forecasts less than 1% CAGR in telecoms revenues

Mobile and fixed revenue forecast to 2022Source: STL Partners

In our 5G Strategies report series, STL Partners set out to established what 5G actually offers that will enable carriers to make more money in the next few years.

It builds on STL Partners’ previous insights into 5G, including:

The report explores the most recent activities in 5G by operators, vendors, phone makers and chipmakers.

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High-level takeaways from initial 5G deployments

This section provides a high-level overview of the current efforts and activities of select telcos around the world. Broadly, it shows that almost all are pushing ahead on 5G, some much faster than others.

  • Korea is the world’s most advanced 5G market, with two million Koreans having bought 5G phones by July.
    • Korea’s 3.5 GHz networks typically deliver download speeds of 100 – 500 Mbps. SK Telecom and KT are using Samsung equipment. LG Uplus is mostly Huawei. There is little evidence that either vendor has demonstrated superior performance. Korea’s government, supported by the operators, made a decision that speeding ahead on 5G would be valuable prestige and improve the Korean economy. Korea expects to have 200,000 radios in place by the end of 2019, compared with BT which anticipates fewer than 2,500.
  • China Mobile has confirmed Huawei’s estimate that the price of 5G phones will fall to under US$300 in 2020, which will stimulate a sharp increase in demand.
    • The Chinese and the Koreans are investing heavily in augmented and virtual reality and games for 5G. This will take time to mature.
  • Verizon has taken a radical approach to simplifying its core and transport network, partly in preparation for 5G but more generally to improve its cost of delivery. This simplification has allowed it to maintain and even cut some CAPEX investments while delivering performance improvements.
    • 5G mmWave in 28GHz works and often delivers a gigabit. The equipment is of modest size and cost. However, the apparent range of around 200 metres is disappointing (Verizon has not confirmed the range but there is evidence it is short). Verizon expects better range.
  • Sprint’s 160MHz of spectrum at 2.5GHz gives it remarkably wide coverage at 100 – 500 Mbps download speeds. Massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output with 64 or more antennas) at 2.5 GHz works so well that Sprint is achieving great coverage without adding many small cells.
  • Etisalat (UAE) shows that any country that can afford it can deliver 5G today. Around the Gulf, Ooredoo (Kuwait, Qatar), Vodaphone (Qatar), du Telecom (UAE) and STC (Saudi Arabia) are speeding construction to avoid falling behind.
  • BT claims it will “move quickly” and turn on 100 cells per month (which is relatively few in comparison to Korea). BT’s website also claims that 5G has a latency speed of <1 ms, but the first measured latency is 31 ms. At Verizon, latency tests are often a little better than the announced 30 ms. Edge Networks, if deployed, can cut the latency by about half. A faster air interface, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication (URLLC), expected around 2023, could shave off another 5-7 ms. The business case for URLLC is unproven and it remains to be seen how widely it is deployed. In the rest of the section we look at these and other operators in a little more detail.

Live commercial 5G deployments globally, August 2019

Live 5G commercial deployments as of August 2019

This is the best available information on 5G deployments globally as of August 2019, gathered from both public and private sources. We have excluded operators that have announced 5G launches, but where services are not yet available for consumers to buy, such as AT&T in the US and Deutsche Telekom in Germany.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • If carrier revenue doesn’t rise, the pressure to cut costs will grow
  • Operators
    • High-level takeaways
    • European operators
    • Asia Pacific and Middle Eastern operators
    • North America
  • Phone makers
  • 5G system vendors
    • Datang
    • Samsung
    • Ericsson
    • Huawei
    • Nokia
  • Chip makers
    • Qualcomm
    • Samsung
    • Intel
    • MediaTek
    • Huawei-HiSilicon
  • Conclusions: (Almost) all systems go

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NFV Deployment Tracker: North American data and trends

Introduction

NFV in North America – how is virtualisation moving forward in telcos against global benchmarks?

Welcome to the sixth edition of the ‘NFV Deployment Tracker’

This report is the sixth analytical report in the NFV Deployment Tracker series and is intended as an accompaniment to the updated Tracker Excel spreadsheet.

This extended update covers seven months of deployments worldwide, from October 2018 to April 2019. The update also includes an improved spreadsheet format: a more user-friendly, clearer lay-out and a regional toggle in the ‘Aggregate data by region’ worksheet, which provides much quicker access to the data on each region separately.

The present analytical report provides an update on deployments and trends in the North American market (US, Canada and the Caribbean) since the last report focusing on that region (December 2017).

Scope, definitions and importance of the data

We include in the Tracker only verified, live deployments of NFV or SDN technology powering commercial services. The information is taken mainly from public-domain sources, such as press releases by operators or vendors, or reports in reputable trade media. However, a small portion of the data also derives from confidential conversations we have had with telcos. In these instances, the deployments are included in the aggregate, anonymised worksheets in the spreadsheet, but not in the detailed dataset listing deployments by operator and geography, and by vendor where known.

Our definition of a ‘deployment’, including how we break deployments down into their component parts, is provided in the ‘Explanatory notes’ worksheet, in the accompanying Excel document.

NFV in North America in global context

We have gathered data on 120 live, commercial deployments of NFV and SDN in North America between 2011 and April 2019. These were completed by 33 mainly Tier-One telcos and telco group subsidiaries: 24 based in the US, four in Canada, one Caribbean, three European (Colt, T-Mobile and Vodafone), and one Latin American (América Móvil). The data includes information on 217 known Virtual Network Functions (VNFs), functional sub-components and supporting infrastructure elements that have formed part of these deployments.

This makes North America the third-largest NFV/SDN market worldwide, as is illustrated by the comparison with other regions in the chart below.

Total NFV/SDN deployments by region, 2011 to April 2019

total NFV deployments by region North America Africa Asia-Pacific Europe Middle East

Source: STL Partners

Deployments of NFV in North America account for around 24% of the global total of 486 live deployments (or 492 deployments counting deployments spanning multiple regions as one deployment for each region). Europe is very marginally ahead on 163 deployments versus 161 for Asia-Pacific: both equating to around 33% of the total.

The NFV North America Deployment Tracker contains the following data, to May 2019:

  • Global aggregate data
  • Deployments by primary purpose
  • Leading VNFs and functional components
  • Leading operators
  • Leading vendors
  • Leading vendors by primary purpose
  • Above data points broken down by region
  • North America
  • Asia-Pacific
  • Europe
  • Latin America
  • Middle East
  • Africa
  • Detailed dataset on individual deployments

 

Contents of the accompanying analytical report:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Welcome to the sixth edition of the ‘NFV Deployment Tracker’
  • Scope, definitions and importance of the data
  • Analysis of NFV in North America
  • The North American market in global context
  • SD-WAN and core network functions are the leading categories
  • 5G is driving core network virtualisation
  • Vendor trends: Open source and operator self-builds outpace vendors
  • Operator trends: Verizon and AT&T are the clear leaders
  • Conclusion: Slow-down in enterprise platform deployments while 5G provides new impetus