Consumer strategy: What should telcos do?

Globally, telcos are pursuing a wide variety of strategies in the consumer market, ranging from broad competition with the major Internet platforms to a narrow focus on delivering connectivity.

Some telcos, such as Orange France, Telefónica Spain, Reliance Jio and Rakuten Mobile, are combining connectivity with an array of services, such as messaging, entertainment, smart home, financial services and digital health propositions. Others, such as Three UK, focus almost entirely on delivering connectivity, while many sit somewhere in between, targeting a single vertical market, in addition to connectivity. AT&T is entertainment-orientated, while Safaricom is financial services-focused.

This report analyses the consumer strategies of the leading telcos in the UK and the Brazil – two very different markets. Whereas the UK is a densely populated, English-speaking country, Brazil has a highly-dispersed population that speaks Portuguese, making the barriers to entry higher for multinational telecoms and content companies.

By examining these two telecoms markets in detail, this report will consider which of these strategies is working, looking, in particular, at whether a halfway-house approach can be successful, given the economies of scope available to companies, such as Amazon and Google, that offer consumers a broad range of digital services. It also considers whether telcos need to be vertically-integrated in the consumer market to be successful. Or can they rely heavily on partnerships with third-parties? Do they need their own distinctive service layer developed in-house?

In light of the behavourial changes brought about by the pandemic, the report also considers whether telcos should be revamping their consumer propositions so that they are more focused on the provision of ultra-reliable connectivity, so people can be sure to work from home productively. Is residential connectivity really a commodity or can telcos now charge a premium for services that ensure a home office is reliably and securely connected throughout the day?

A future STL Partners report will explore telcos’ new working from home propositions in further detail.

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The UK market: Convergence is king

The UK is one of the most developed and competitive telecoms markets in the world. It has a high population density, with 84% of its 66 million people living in urban areas, according to the CIA Factbook. There are almost 272 people for every square kilometre, compared with an average of 103 across Europe. For every 100 people, there are 48 fixed lines and 41 broadband connections, while the vast majority of adults have a mobile phone. GDP per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) is US$ 48,710, compared with US$ 65,118 in the US (according to the World Bank).

The strength of the state-funded public service broadcaster, the BBC, has made it harder for private sector players to make money in the content market. The BBC delivers a large amount of high-quality advertising-free content to anyone in the UK who pays the annual license fee, which is compulsory to watch television.

In the UK, the leading telcos have mostly eschewed expansion into the broader digital services market. That reflects the strong position of the leading global Internet platforms in the UK, as well as the quality of free-to-air television, and the highly competitive nature of the UK telecoms market – UK operators have relatively low margins, giving them little leeway to invest in the development of other digital services.

Figure 1 summarises where the five main network operators (and broadband/TV provider Sky) are positioned on a matrix mapping degree of vertical integration against the breadth of the proposition.

Most UK telcos have focused on the provision of connectivity

UK telco B2C strategies

Source: STL Partners

Brazil: Land of new opportunities

Almost as large as the US, Brazil has a population density is just 25 people per square kilometre – one tenth of the total UK average population density. Although 87% of Brazil’s 212 million people live in urban areas, according to the CIA Fact book, that means almost 28 million people are spread across the country’s rural communities.

By European standards, Brazil’s fixed-line infrastructure is relatively sparse. For every 100 people, Brazil has 16 fixed lines, 15 fixed broadband connections and 99 mobile connections. Its GDP per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) is US$ 15,259 – about one third of that in the UK. About 70% of adults had a bank account in 2017, according to the latest World Bank data. However, only 58% of the adult population were actively using the account.

A vast middle-income country, Brazil has a very different telecoms market to that of the UK. In particular, network coverage and quality continue to be important purchasing criteria for consumers in many parts of the country. As a result, Oi, one of the four main network operators, became uncompetitive and entered a bankruptcy restructuring process in 2016. It is now hoping to to sell its sub-scale mobile unit for at least 15 billion reais (US$ 2.8 billion) to refocus the company on its fibre network. The other three major telcos, Vivo (part of Telefónica), Claro (part of América Móvil) and TIM Brazil, have made a joint bid to buy its mobile assets.

For this trio, opportunities may be opening up. They could, for example, play a key role in making financial services available across Brazil’s sprawling landmass, much of which is still served by inadequate road and rail infrastructure. If they can help Brazil’s increasingly cash-strapped consumers to save time and money, they will likely prosper. Even before COVID-19 struck, Brazil was struggling with the fall-out from an early economic crisis.

At the same time, Brazil’s home entertainment market is in a major state of flux. Demand for pay television, in particular, is falling away, as consumers seek out cheaper Internet-based streaming options.

All of Brazil’s major telcos are building a broad consumer play

Brazil telco consumer market strategy overview

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The UK market: Convergence is king
    • BT: Trying to be broad and deep
    • Virgin Media: An aggregation play
    • O2 UK: Changing course again
    • Vodafone: A belated convergence play
    • Three UK: Small and focused
    • Takeaways from the UK market: Triple play gridlock
  • Brazil: Land of new opportunities
    • The Brazilian mobile market
    • The Brazilian fixed-line market
    • The Brazilian pay TV market
    • The travails of Oi
    • Vivo: Playing catch-up in fibre
    • Telefónica’s financial performance
    • América Móvil goes broad in Brazil
    • TIM: Small, but perfectly formed?
    • Takeaways from the Brazilian market: A potentially treacherous transition
  • Index

AR/VR: Won’t move the 5G needle

Introduction

This report explores the potential impact of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) on the lives of consumers. It considers how quickly these technologies will go mass market and the implications for telcos, including those with their own entertainment proposition and those operators whose networks act as a conduit for other companies’ content.

Widespread use of VR and/or AR could fuel another major step-change in the traffic travelling over telecoms networks. All VR apps and many AR apps will require vast amounts of data to be processed to render the necessary digital images. In short, telecoms operators could and should benefit from mass-market adoption of VR and AR.

In the consumer market – the primary focus of the research stream for which this report was written – the promise of VR and AR is that they will transform digital entertainment and communications. In the 2015 report Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix: Whose Digital Content is King?, STL Partners identified the rise of increasingly immersive games and interactive videos enabled by VR and/or AR as one of the six key trends that could disrupt the entertainment industry.

If it lives up to its hype, VR could blur the line between live entertainment and the living room. The ultimate promise of VR is that people will be able to enjoy a movie or sports event from the inside, choosing from multiple viewpoints within a 360-degree video stream, potentially placing themselves in the midst of the action. For example, a consumer could use VR to “sit” next to the conductor at a classical music concert or alongside a manager at a football match, and hear every word he or she utters. They may even be able to experience a sports event from the perspective of an athlete by streaming live footage from mini-cameras mounted on helmets or other attire. Although still very expensive, VR production technology is already being used to create immersive games and interactive movies, as well as interactive documentaries and educational programmes.

Developing in parallel with VR, AR calls for digital graphics to be superimposed on live images of the real world. This can be used to create innovative new games, such as the 2016 phenomenon 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.

This report draws the following distinction between VR and AR

  • Virtual reality: use of an enclosed headset for total immersion in a digital 3D world.
  • Augmented reality: superimposition of digital graphics into the real world via a camera viewfinder, a pair of glasses or onto a screen fixed in the real world.

Note, an advanced form of AR is sometimes referred to as mixed reality. 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.

The net effect is that both live and living room entertainment could become much more personalised and interactive, particularly as bandwidth, latency, graphics processing and rendering technology all improve.

In time, mixed-reality services are likely to become almost universally 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. Engineers, for example, will use the technology to identify individual parts and detect faults, while consumers will rely on AR to retrieve information about whatever they are looking at, whether that be the route of an approaching bus, the menu of a nearby restaurant or the fat and salt content of a ready meal.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Takeaways for telcos
  • Introduction 
  • Progress and immediate prospects
  • VR: Virtually there?
  • Augmented reality springs back to life
  • 4K HD: Simple, but effective
  • Technical requirements
  • Image processing
  • Sensors and cameras
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Developer tools
  • Bandwidth and latency
  • Costs: Energy, weight and financial
  • Timeline for VR
  • Timeline for AR
  • 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?
  • Timelines and Forecasts
  • Conclusions for telcos
  • Opportunities for telcos

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Fantasy roleplaying title Skyrim VR has won praise from gaming critics
  • Figure 2: The definition of six degrees of freedom for VR
  • Figure 3: On paper, the Oculus Go looks impressive
  • Figure 4: Users of Ikea’s catalogue can see what furniture will look like in their room
  • Figure 5: A 3D holographic image of a sports event can appear in a living room
  • Figure 6: Google Lens can retrieve information about a shop or building you are looking at
  • Figure 7: How 3D sensors can map a room or an outdoor area in real time
  • Figure 8: Edge computing and telco cloud can get latency low enough for VR apps
  • Figure 9: The likely timeline for immersive VR with a wireless headset
  • Figure 10: The bulky Magic Leap One will be wired to a belt-mounted computer
  • Figure 11: Smart Sunglasses need to be chunky to fit in all the necessary tech
  • Figure 12: The timeline for live 3D holographic projections using wireless AR headsets
  • Figure 13: How AR and VR will develop over the next five years