How telcos can make the world a safer place

Telecoms networks can support public safety

In the wake of the pandemic and multiple natural disasters, such as fire and flooding, both policymakers and people in general are placing a greater focus on preserving health and ensuring public safety. This report begins by explaining the concept of a digital nervous system – large numbers of connected sensors that can monitor events in real-time and thereby alert organizations and individuals to imminent threats to their health and safety.

With the advent of 5G, 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. The application of reliable and ubiquitous connectivity to enable governments, companies and individuals to live in a safer world is one way in which operators can contribute to the Coordination Age.

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The chapters in this report consider the potential to use the data collected by telecoms networks to help counter the health and safety threats posed by:

  • Environmental factors, such as air pollution and high-levels of pollen,
  • Natural disasters, such as wildfires, flooding and earthquakes,
  • Infectious diseases
  • Violence, such as riots and shooting incidents
  • Accidents on roads, rivers and coastlines

In each case, the report considers how to harness new data collected by connected sensors, cameras and other monitors, in addition to data already captured by mobile networks (showing where people are and where they are moving to).  It also identifies who telcos will need to work with to develop and deploy such solutions, while discussing potential revenue streams.  In most cases, the report includes short case studies describing how telcos are trialling or deploying actual solutions, generally in partnership with other stakeholders.

The final chapter focuses on the role of telcos – the assets and the capabilities they have to improve health and safety.

It builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Managing an unstable world

Prior to the damage wrought by the pandemic, the world was gradually becoming a safer place for human beings. Global life expectancy has been rising steadily for many decades and the UN expects that trend to continue, albeit at a slower pace. That implies the world is safer than it was in the twentieth century and people are healthier than they used to be.

Global gains in life expectancy are slowing down

health and safety

Source: United Nations – World Population Prospects

But a succession of pandemics, more extreme weather events and rising pollution may yet reverse these positive trends. Indeed, many people now feel that they live in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. Air pollution and over-crowding are worsening the health impact of respiratory conditions and infections, such as SARS-CoV-2. As climate change accelerates, experts expect an increase in flash flooding, wildfires, drought and intense heat. As extreme weather impacts the food and water supplies, civil unrest and even armed conflict could follow. In the modern world, the four horsemen of the apocalypse might symbolize infectious disease, extreme weather, pollution and violence.

As the human race grapples with these challenges, there is growing interest in services and technologies that could make the world a safer and healthier place. That demand is apparent among both individuals (hence the strong sales of wearable fitness monitors) and among public sector bodies’ rising interest in environment and crowd monitoring solutions.

As prevention is better than cure, both citizens and organisations are looking for early warning systems that can help them prepare for threats and take mitigating actions. For example, an individual with an underlying health condition could benefit from a service that warns them when they are approaching an area with poor air quality or large numbers of densely-packed people. Similarly, a municipality would welcome a solution that alerts them when large numbers of people are gathering in a public space or drains are close to being blocked or are overflowing.  The development of these kinds of early warning systems would involve tracking both events and people in real-time to detect patterns that signal a potential hazard or disruption, such as a riot or flooding.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the falling cost of cameras and other sensors, together with the rollout of increasingly dense telecoms networks, could make such systems viable. For example, a camera mounted on a lamppost could use image and audio recognition technologies to detect when a crowd is gathering in the locality, a gun has been fired, a drain has been flooded or an accident has occurred.

Many connected sensors and cameras, of course, won’t be in a fixed location – they will be attached to drones, vehicles and even bicycles, to support use cases where mobility will enhance the service. Such uses cases could include air quality monitoring, wildfire and flooding surveillance, and search and rescue.

Marty Sprinzen, CEO of Vantiq (a provider of event-driven, real-time collaborative applications) believes telecoms companies are best positioned to create a “global digital nervous system” as they have the networks and managed service capabilities to scale these applications for broad deployment. “Secure and reliable connectivity and networking (increasingly on ultrafast 5G networks) are just the beginning in terms of the value telcos can bring,” he wrote in an article for Forbes, published in November 2020. “They can lead on the provisioning and management of the literally billions of IoT devices — cameras, wearables and sensors of all types — that are integral to real-time systems. They can aggregate and analyze the massive amount of data that these systems generate and share insights with their customers. And they can bring together the software providers and integrators and various other parties that will be necessary to build, maintain and run such sophisticated systems.”

Sprinzen regards multi-access edge computing, or MEC, as the key to unlocking this market. He describes MEC as a new, distributed architecture that pushes compute and cloud-like capabilities out of data centres and the cloud to the edge of the network — closer to end-users and billions of IoT devices. This enables the filtering and processing of data at the edge in near real-time, to enable a rapid response to critical events.

This kind of digital nervous system could help curb the adverse impact of future pandemics. “I believe smart building applications will help companies monitor for and manage symptom detection, physical distancing, contact tracing, access management, safety compliance and asset tracking in the workplace,” Sprinzen wrote. “Real-time traffic monitoring will ease urban congestion and reduce the number and severity of accidents. Monitoring and management of water supplies, electrical grids and public transportation will safeguard us against equipment failures or attacks by bad actors. Environmental applications will provide early warnings of floods or wildfires. Food distribution and waste management applications will help us make more of our precious resources.”

Vantiq says one if its telco customers is implementing AI-enabled cameras, IoT sensors, location data and other technologies to monitor various aspects of its new headquarters building. He didn’t identify the telco, but added that it is the lead technology partner for a city that’s implementing a spectrum of smart city solutions to improve mobility, reduce congestion and strengthen disaster prevention.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Managing an unstable world
  • Monitoring air quality
    • Exploiting existing cellular infrastructure
    • Is mobile network data enough?
    • Smart lampposts to play a broad role
    • The economics of connecting environmental sensors
    • Sensors in the sky
  • Natural disasters
    • Spotting wildfires early
    • Earthquake alert systems
    • Crowdsourcing data
    • Infectious diseases
  • On street security
  • Conclusions – the opportunities for telcos
    • Ecosystem coordination – kickstarting the market
    • Devices – finding the right locations
    • Network – reliable, low cost connectivity
    • Data platform
    • Applications
  • Index

 

 

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Coordinating the care of the elderly

Are telcos ready to enable digital health?

The world has been talking about connected healthcare – the use of in-home and wearable systems to monitor people’s condition – for a long time. Although adoption to date has been piecemeal and limited, the rapid rise in the number of elderly people is fuelling demand for in-home and wearable monitoring systems. The rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus is putting the world’s healthcare systems under huge strain, further underlining the need to reform the way in which many medical conditions are diagnosed and treated.

This report explores whether telcos now have the appetite and the tools they need to serve this very challenging, but potentially rewarding market. With the advent of the Coordination Age (see STL Partners report: Telco 2030: New purpose, strategy and business models for the Coordination Age), telcos could play a pivotal role in enabling the world’s healthcare systems to become more sustainable and effective.

This report considers demographic trends, the forces changing healthcare and the case for greater use of digital technologies to monitor chronic conditions and elderly people. It explores various implementation options and some of the healthcare-related activities of Tele2, Vodafone, Telefónica and AT&T, before drawing conclusions and recommending some high-level actions for telcos looking to support healthcare for the elderly.

This executive briefing builds on previous STL Partners reports including:

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Why healthcare needs to change

During the twentieth century, life expectancy in most countries in the world rose dramatically.  This was down to advances in medical science and diagnostic technology, as well as rising awareness about personal and environmental hygiene, health, nutrition, and education. Average global life expectancy continues to rise, increasing from 65.3 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013.  In some countries, the increase in lifespans has been dramatic. The life expectancy for a Chilean female has risen to 82 years today from 33 years in 1910, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Figure 1: Across the world, average life expectancy is rising towards 80

raising lift expectancy to 2050

Source: The UN

Clearly, the increase in the average lifespan is a good thing. But longer life expectancy, together with falling birth rates, means the population overall is aging rapidly, posing a major challenge for the world’s healthcare systems. According to the WHO, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old will double from about 11% to 22% between 2000 and 2050, equivalent to a rise in the absolute number of people over 60 from 605 million to an extraordinary two billion. Between 2012 and 2050, the number of people over 80 will almost quadruple to 395 million, according to the WHO. That represents a huge increase in the number of elderly people, many of whom will require frequent care and medical attention. For both policymakers and the healthcare industry, this demographic time bomb represents a huge challenge.

Rising demand for continuous healthcare

Of particular concern is the number of people that need continuous healthcare. About 15% of the world’s population suffers from various disabilities, with between 110 million and 190 million adults having significant functional difficulties, according to the WHO. With limited mobility and independence, it can be hard for these people to get the healthcare they need.

As the population ages, this number will rise and rise. For example, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, which results in memory loss and other symptoms of dementia, is set to rise to 16 million by 2050 from five million today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The growth in the number of older people, combined with an increase in sedentary lifestyles and diets high in sugars and fats, also means many more people are now living with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and asthma. Furthermore, poor air quality in many industrial and big cities is giving rise to cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as asthma, and lung diseases. Around 235 million people are currently suffering from asthma and about 383,000 people died from asthma in 2015, according to the WHO.

Half of all American adults have at least one chronic condition with one in three adults suffering from multiple chronic conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Most other rich countries are experiencing similar trends, while middle-income countries are heading in the same direction. In cases where a patient requires medical interventions, they may have to travel to a hospital and occupy a bed, at great expense. With the growing prevalence of chronic conditions, a rising proportion of GDP is being devoted to healthcare. Only low-income countries are bucking this trend (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Spending on healthcare is rising except in low income countries

Public health as % of government spending WHO

Public health spending as % of GDP WHO

Source: The WHO

However, there is a huge difference in absolute spending levels between high-income countries and the rest of the world (see Figure 3). High-income countries, such as the U.S., spend almost ten times as much per capita as upper middle-income countries, such as Brazil. At first glance, this suggests the potential healthcare market for telcos is going to be much bigger in Europe, North America and developed Asia, than for telcos in Latin America, developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Yet these emerging economies could leapfrog their developed counterparts to adopt connected self-managed healthcare systems, as the only affordable alternative.

Figure 3: Absolute health spending in high income countries is far ahead of the rest

per capita health spending by country income levelSource: The WHO

The cost associated with healthcare services continues to rise due to the increasing prices of prescription drugs, diagnostic tools and in-clinic care. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90% of the nation’s US$3.3 trillion annual healthcare expenditure is spent on individuals with chronic and mental health conditions.

On top of that figure, the management of chronic conditions consumes an enormous amount of informal resources. As formal paid care services are expensive, many older people rely on the support of family, friends or volunteers calling at their homes to check on them and help them with tasks, such as laundry and shopping. In short, the societal cost of managing chronic conditions is enormous.

The particular needs of the elderly

Despite the time and money being spent on healthcare, people with chronic and age-related conditions can be vulnerable. While most elderly people want to live in their own home, there are significant risks attached to this decision, particularly if they live alone. The biggest danger is a fall, which can lead to fractures and, sometimes, lethal medical complications. In the U.S., more than one in four older people fall each year due to illness or loss of balance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But less than half tell their doctor. One out of five falls causes a serious injury, such as broken bones or a head injury. In 2015, the total medical costs for falls was more than US$50 billion in the U.S. Beyond falls, another key risk is that older people neglect their own health. A 2016 survey of 1,000 U.K. consumers by IT solutions company Plextek, found that 42% of 35- to 44-year-olds are concerned that their relatives aren’t telling them they feel ill.

Such concerns are driving demand for in-home and wearable systems that can monitor people in real-time and then relay real-time location and mobility information to relatives or carers. If they are perceived to be reliable and comprehensive, such systems can provide peace of mind, making home-based care a more palatable alternative for both patients and their families.

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Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Barriers to more in-home healthcare
  • Introduction
  • Why healthcare needs to change
    • Rising demand for continuous healthcare
    • The particular needs of the elderly
    • Shift to value-based care
    • Demands for personalised healthcare and convenience
  • How healthcare is changing
    • Barriers to more in-home healthcare
  • Implementation options
    • Working with wearables
    • Cameras and motion sensors
    • The connectivity
    • Analysing the data
  • How telcos are tackling healthcare
    • KPN: Covering most of the bases
    • Tele2 and Cuviva: Working through healthcare centres
    • Vodafone and Vision: An expensive system for Alzheimer’s
    • Telefónica’s Health Moonshot
    • AT&T: Leveraging a long-standing brand
  • Conclusions and recommendations
    • Recommendations

Digital Health: How Can Telcos Compete with Google, Apple and Microsoft?

Introduction

With the ever-increasing amount of data collected by smartphones, fitness monitors and smart watches, telcos and other digital players are exploring opportunities to create value from consumers’ ability to capture data on many aspects of their own health and physical activity. Connected devices leverage inbuilt sensors and associated apps to collect data about users’ activities, location and habits.

New health-focused platforms are emerging that use the data collected by sensors to advise individual users on how to improve their health (e.g. a reminder to stand up every 60 minutes), while enhancing their ability to share data meaningfully with healthcare providers, whether in-person or remotely. This market has thus far been led by the major Internet and device players, but telecoms operators may be able to act as distributors, enablers/integrators, and, in some cases, even providers of consumer health and wellness apps (e.g., Telefonica’s Saluspot).

High level drivers for the market

At a macro level, there are a number of factors driving digital healthcare.  These include:

  • Population ageing – The number of people globally who are aged over 65 is expected to triple over the next 30 years , and this will create unprecedented demand for healthcare.
  • Rising costs of healthcare provision globally – Serving an aging population, the increase globally in lifestyle and chronic diseases, and rising underlying costs, is pushing up healthcare spending – while at the same time, due to economic pressures there are more limited funds available to pay for this.
  • Limited supply of trained clinicians – Policy issues and changes in job and lifestyle preferences are limiting both educational capacity and ability to recruit and retain appropriately trained healthcare staff in most markets.
  • Shift in funding policy – In many countries, funding for healthcare is shifting away from being based on reimbursement-for-events (e.g., a practice or hospital is paid for every patient visit, for each patient they register, for each vaccination administered), to a greater emphasis on ‘value-based care’ – reimbursement based on successful patient health outcomes.
  • Increased focus on prevention in healthcare provision – in some cases funding is starting to be provided for preventative population health measures, such as weight-loss or quit-smoking programmes.
  • Development of personalised medicine – Personalised medicine is beginning to gain significant attention. It involves the delivery of more effective personalised treatments (and potentially drugs) based on an individual’s specific genomic characteristics, supported by advances in genotyping and analytics, and by ongoing analysis of individual and population health data.
  • Consumerisation of healthcare – There is a general trend for patients – or rather, consumers – to take more responsibility for their own health and their own healthcare, and to demand always-on access both to healthcare and to their own health information, at a level of engagement they choose.

The macro trends above are unlikely to disappear or diminish in the short-to-medium term; and providers, policymakers and payers  are struggling to cope as healthcare systems increasingly fall short of both targets and patients’ expectations.

Digital healthcare will play a key role in addressing the challenges these trends present. It promises better use and sharing of data, of analytics offering deep insight on health trends for individuals and across the wider population, and of the potential for greater convenience, efficacy and reach of healthcare provisioning.

While many (if not most) of the opportunities around digital health will centre on advances in healthcare providers’ ICT systems, there is significant interest in how consumer wellness and fitness apps and devices will contribute to the digital health ecosystem. Consumer digital health and wellness is particularly relevant to two of the trends above: consumerisation of healthcare, and the shift to prevention as a focus of both healthcare providers and payers.

Fitness trackers and smartwatches, and the associated apps for these devices, as well as wellness and fitness apps for smartphone users, could open up new revenue streams for some service providers, as well as a vast amount of personal data that could feed into both medical records and analytics initiatives. The increasing use of online resources by consumers for both health information and consultation, as well as cloud-based storage of and access to their own health data, also creates opportunities to make more timely and effective healthcare interventions.  For telcos, the question is where and how they can play effectively in this market.

Market Trends and Overview

The digital healthcare market is both very large and very diverse. Digital technologies can be applied in many different segments of the healthcare market (see figure below), both to improve efficiency and enable the development of new services, such as automated monitoring of chronic conditions.

The different segments of the digital healthcare market

Source: STL Partners based on categories identified by Venture Scanner

The various segments in Figure 1 are defined as below:

Wellness

  • Mobile fitness and health apps enable consumers to monitor how much exercise they are doing, how much sleep they are getting, their diet and other aspects of their lifestyle.
  • Wearable devices, such as smart watches and fitness bands, are equipped with sensors that collect the data used by fitness and health apps.
  • Electronic health records are a digital record of data and information about an individual’s health, typically collating clinical data from multiple sources and healthcare providers.

Information

  • Services search are digital portals and directories that help individuals find out healthcare information and identify potential service providers.
  • Online health sites and communities provide consumers with information and discussion forums.
  • Healthcare marketing refers to digital activities by healthcare providers to attract people to use their services.

Interactions

  • Payments and insurance – digital apps and services that enable consumers to pay for healthcare or insurance.
  • Patient engagement refers to digital mechanisms, such as apps, through which healthcare providers can interact with the individuals using their services.
  • Doctor networks are online services that enable clinicians to interact with each other and exchange information and advice.

Research

  • Population health management refers to the use of digital tools by clinicians to capture data about groups of patients or individuals that can then be used to inform treatment.
  • Genomics: An individual’s genetic code can be collated in a digital form so it can be used to understand their likely susceptibility specific conditions and treatments.
  • Medical big data involves capturing and analysing large volumes of data from multiple sources to help identify patterns in the progression of specific illnesses and the effectiveness of particular treatment combinations.

In-hospital care

  • Electronic medical records: A digital version of a hospital or clinic’s records of a specific patient. Unlike electronic health records, electronic medical records aren’t designed to be portable across different healthcare providers.
  • Clinical admin: The use of digital technologies to improve the efficiency of healthcare facilities.
  • Robotics: The use of digital machines to perform specific healthcare tasks, such as transporting medicines or spoon-feeding a patient.

In-home care

  • Digital medical devices: All kinds of medical devices, from thermometers to stethoscopes to glucosometers to sophisticated MRI and medical imaging equipment, are increasingly able to capture and transfer data in a digital form.
  • Remote monitoring involves the use of connected sensors to regularly capture and transmit information on a patient’s health. Such tools can be used to help monitor the condition of people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes.
  • Telehealth refers to patient-clinician consultations via a telephone, chat or video call.

The wellness opportunity

This report focuses primarily primarily on the ‘wellness’ segment (highlighted in the figure below), which is experiencing major disruption as a result of devices, apps and services being launched by Apple, Google and Microsoft, but it also touches on some of these players’ activities in other segments.

This report focuses on wellness, which is undergoing major disruption

Source: STL Partners based on categories identified by Venture Scanner

 

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • High level drivers for the market
  • Market Trends and Overview
  • Market size and trends: smartwatches will overtake fitness brands
  • Health app usage has doubled in two years in the U.S.
  • Are consumers really interested in the ‘quantified self’?
  • Barriers and constraining factors for consumer digital health
  • Disruption in Consumer Digital Wellness
  • Case studies: Google, Apple and Microsoft
  • Google: leveraging Android and analytics capabilities
  • Apple: more than the Watch…
  • Microsoft: an innovative but schizophrenic approach
  • Telco Opportunities in Consumer Health
  • Recommendations for telcos

 

  • Figure 1: The different segments of the digital healthcare market
  • Figure 2: This report focuses on wellness, which is undergoing major disruption
  • Figure 3: Consumer digital health and wellness: leading products and services, 2016
  • Figure 4: Wearable Shipments by Type of Device, 2015-2020
  • Figure 5: Wearable OS Worldwide Market Share, 2015 and 2019
  • Figure 6: Take-up of different types of health apps in the U.S. market (2016)
  • Figure 7: % of health wearable and app users willing to share data US market (2016)
  • Figure 8: Elements of the ‘quantified self’, as envisioned by Orange
  • Figure 9: Less than two-third of US wearable buyers wear their acquisition long-term
  • Figure 10: Google Consumer Health and Fitness Initiatives
  • Figure 11: Snapshot of Google Fit User Interface, 2016
  • Figure 12: Google/Alphabet’s areas of focus in the digital healthcare market
  • Figure 13: Apple’s Key Digital Health and Wellness Initiatives
  • Figure 14: Apple Health app interface and dashboard
  • Figure 15: Apple’s ResearchKit-based EpiWatch App
  • Figure 16: Apple’s current areas of focus in the digital healthcare market
  • Figure 17: Microsoft Consumer Fitness/Wellness Device Initiatives
  • Figure 18: Microsoft Health can integrate data from a range of fitness trackers
  • Figure 19: Microsoft Consumer Fitness/Wellness Applications and Services
  • Figure 20: The MDLive Telehealth Proposition, August 2016
  • Figure 21: Microsoft’s areas of focus in the digital healthcare market
  • Figure 22: Telefónica’s Saluspot: Interactive online doctor consultations on-demand

Facebook: Telcos’ New Best Friend?

How Facebook is changing

A history of adaptation

One of the things that sets Facebook apart from its largely defunct predecessors, such as MySpace, Geocities and Friends Reunited, is its ability to adapt to the evolution of the Internet and consumer behaviour. In its decade-long history, Facebook has evolved from a text-heavy, PC-based experience used by American students into a world-leading digital communications and commerce platform used by people of all ages. The basic student matchmaking service Zuckerberg and his fellow Harvard students created in 2004 now matches buyers and sellers in competition with Google, Amazon and eBay (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: From student matchmaking service to a leading digital commerce platform

Source: Zuckerberg’s Facebook page and Facebook investor relations

Launched in early 2004, Facebook initially served as a relatively basic directory with photos and limited communications functionality for Harvard students only. In the spring of 2004, it began to expand to other universities, supported by seed funding from Peter Thiel (co-founder of Paypal). In September 2005, Facebook was opened up to the employees of some technology companies, including Apple and Microsoft. By the end of 2005, it had reached five million users.

Accel Partners invested US$12.7 million in the company in May 2005 and Greylock Partners and others followed this up with another US$27.5 million in March 2006. The additional investment enabled Facebook to expand rapidly. During 2006, it added the hugely popular newsfeed and the share functions and opened up the registration process to anyone. By December 2006, Facebook had 12 million users.

The Facebook Platform was launched in 2007, enabling affiliate sites and developers to interact and create applications for the social network. In a far-sighted move, Microsoft invested US$240 million in October 2007, taking a 1.6% stake and valuing Facebook at US$15 billion. By August 2008, Facebook had 100 million users.

Achieving the 100 million user milestone appears to have given Facebook ‘critical mass’ because at that point growth accelerated dramatically. The company doubled its user base to 200 million in nine months (May 2009) and has continued to grow at a similar rate since then.

As usage continue to grow rapidly, it was increasingly clear that Facebook could erode Google’s dominant position in the Internet advertising market. In June 2011, Google launched the Google + social network – the latest move in a series of efforts by the search giant to weaken Facebook’s dominance of the social networking market. But, like its predecessors, Google+ has had little impact on Facebook.

2012-2013 – the paranoid years

Although Facebook shrugged off the challenge from Google+, the rapid rise of the mobile Internet did cause the social network to wobble in 2012. The service, which had been designed for use on desktop PCs, didn’t work so well on mobile devices, both in terms of providing a compelling user experience and achieving monetisation. Realising Facebook could be disrupted by the rise of the mobile Internet, Zuckerberg belatedly called a mass staff meeting and announced a “mobile first” strategy in early 2012.

In an IPO filing in February 2012, Facebook acknowledged it wasn’t sure it could effectively monetize mobile usage without alienating users. “Growth in use of Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently display ads, as a substitute for use on personal computers may negatively affect our revenue and financial results,” it duly noted in the filing.

Although usage of Facebook continued to rise on both the desktop and the mobile, there was increasing speculation that it could be superseded by a more mobile-friendly service, such as fast-growing photo-sharing service Instagram. Zuckerberg’s reaction was to buy Instagram for US$1 billion in April 2012 (a bargain compared with the $21 billion plus Facebook paid for WhatsApp less than two years later).

Moreover, Facebook did figure out how to monetise its mobile usage. Cautiously at first, it began embedding adverts into consumers’ newsfeeds, so that they were difficult to ignore. Although Facebook and some commentators worried that consumers would find these adverts annoying, the newsfeed ads have proven to be highly effective and Facebook continued to grow. In October 2012, now a public company, Facebook triumphantly announced it had one billion active users, with 604 million of them using the mobile site.

Even so, Facebook spent much of 2013 tinkering and experimenting with changes to the user experience. For example, it altered the design of the newsfeed making the images bigger and adding in new features. But some commentators complained that the changes made the site more complicated and confusing, rather than simplifying it for mobile users equipped with a relatively small screen. In April 2013, Facebook tried a different tack, launching Facebook Home, a user interface layer for Android-compatible phones that provides a replacement home screen.

And Zuckerberg continued to worry about upstart mobile-orientated competitors. In November 2013, a number of news outlets reported that Facebook offered to buy Snapchat, which enables users to send messages that disappear after a set period, for US$3 billion. But the offer was turned down.

A few months later, Facebook announced it was acquiring the popular mobile messaging app WhatsApp for what amounted to more than US$21 billion at the time of completion.

In 2014 – going on the offensive

By acquiring WhatsApp at great expense, Facebook alleviated immediate concerns that the social network could be dislodged by another disruptor, freeing up Zuckerberg to turn his attention to new technologies and new markets. The acquisition also put to rest investors’ immediate fears that Facebook could be superseded by a more fashionable, dedicated mobile service, pushing up the share price (see the section on Facebook’s valuation). In May 2014, Facebook wrong-footed many industry watchers and some of its rivals by announcing it had agreed to acquire Oculus VR, Inc., a leading virtual reality company, for US$2 billion in cash and stock.

Zuckerberg has since described the WhatsApp and Oculus acquisitions as “big bets on the next generation of communication and computing platforms.” And Facebook is also investing heavily in organic expansion, increasing its headcount by 45% in 2014, while opening another data center in Altoona, Iowa.

Zuckerberg also continues to devote time and attention to Internet.org, a multi-company initiative to bring free basic Internet services to people who aren’t connected. Announced in August 2013, Internet.org has since launched free basic internet services in six developing countries. For example, in February 2015, Facebook and Reliance Communications launched Internet.org in India. As a result, Reliance customers in six Indian states (Tamil Nadu, Mahararashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, and Telangana) now have access to about 40 services ranging from news, maternal health, travel, local jobs, sports, communication, and local government information.

Zuckerberg said that more than 150 million people now have the option to connect to the internet using Internet.org, and the initiative had, so far, succeeded in connecting seven million people to the internet who didn’t before have access. “2015 is going to be an important year for our long term plans,” he noted.

The Facebook exception – no fear, more freedom

Although it is now listed, Facebook is clearly not a typical public company. Its massive lead in the social networking market has given it an unusual degree of freedom. Zuckerberg has a controlling stake in the social network (he is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of the outstanding capital stock) and the self-confidence to ignore any grumblings on Wall Street. Facebook is able to make acquisitions most other companies couldn’t contemplate and can continue to put Zuckerberg’s long-term objectives ahead of those of short-term shareholders. Like Amazon, Facebook frequently reminds investors that it isn’t trying to maximise short-term profitability. And unlike Amazon, Facebook may not even be trying to maximize long-term profitability.

On Facebook’s quarterly earning calls, Zuckerberg likes to talk about Facebook’s broad, long-term aims, without explaining clearly how fulfilling these objectives will make the company money. “In the next decade, Facebook is focused on our mission to connect the entire world, welcoming billions of people to our community and connecting many more people to the internet through Internet.org (see Figure 2),” he said in the January 2015 earnings call. “Similar to our transition to mobile over the last couple of years, now we want to really focus on serving everyone in the world.”

Figure 2: Zuckerberg is pushing hard for the provision of basic Internet services

Source: Facebook.com

Not all of the company’s investors are entirely comfortable with this mission. On that earnings call, one analyst asked Zuckerberg: “Mark, I think during your remarks in every earnings call, you talk to your investors for a considerable amount of time about Facebook’s efforts to connect the world, and specifically about Internet.org which suggest you think this is important to investors. Can you clarify why you think this matters to investors?”

Zuckerberg’s response: “It matters to the kind of investors that we want to have, because we are really a mission-focused company. We wake up every day and make decisions because we want to help connect the world. That’s what we’re doing here.

“Part of the subtext of your question is that, yes, if we were only focused on making money, we might put all of our energy on just increasing ads to people in the US and the other most developed countries. But that’s not the only thing that we care about here.

“I do think that over the long term, that focusing on helping connect everyone will be a good business opportunity for us, as well. We may not be able to tell you exactly how many years that’s going to happen in. But as these countries get more connected, the economies grow, the ad markets grow, and if Facebook and the other services in our community, or the number one, and number two, three, four, five services that people are using, then over time we will be compensated for some of the value that we’ve provided. This is why we’re here. We’re here because our mission is to connect the world. I just think it’s really important that investors know that.”

Takeaways

Facebook may be a public company, but it doesn’t worry much about shareholders’ short-term aspirations. It often behaves like a private company that is focused first and foremost on fulfilling the goals of its founder. It is clear Zuckerberg is playing the long game. But it isn’t clear what yardsticks he is using to measure success. Although Zuckerberg knows Facebook needs to be profitable enough to ensure investors’ continued support, his primary goal may be to bring hundreds of millions more people online and secure his place in posterity. There is a danger that Zuckerberg’s focus on connecting people in Africa and developing Asia means that there won’t be sufficient top management attention on the multi-faceted digital commerce struggle with Google in North America and Western Europe.

Financials and business model

Network effects still strong

Within that wider mission to connect the world, Facebook continues to do a great job of connecting people to Facebook. Fuelled by network effects, Facebook says that 1.39 billion people now use Facebook each month (see Figure 3) and 890 million people use the service daily, an increase of 165 million monthly active users and 133 million daily active users in 2014. In developed markets, many consumers use Facebook as a primary medium for communications, relying on it to send messages, organize events and relay their news. As a result, in parts of Europe and North America, adults without a Facebook account are increasingly considered eccentric.

Figure 3: Facebook’s user base continues to grow rapidly

Source: Facebook and STL Partners analysis

Having said that, some active users are clearly more active and valuable than others. In a regulatory filing, Facebook admits that some active users may, in fact, be bots: “Some of our metrics have also been affected by applications on certain mobile devices that automatically contact our servers for regular updates with no user action involved, and this activity can cause our system to count the user associated with such a device as an active user on the day such contact occurs. The impact of this automatic activity on our metrics varied by geography because mobile usage varies in different regions of the world.”

This automatic polling of Facebook’s servers by mobile devices makes it difficult to judge the true value of the social network’s user base. Anecdotal evidence suggests many people with Facebook profiles are kept active on Facebook primarily by their smartphone apps, rather than because they are actively choosing to use the service. Still, Facebook would argue that these people are seeing the notifications on their mobile devices and are, therefore, at least partially engaged.

 

  • Executive Summary
  • How Facebook is changing
  • A history of adaptation
  • The Facebook exception – no fear, more freedom
  • Financials and business model
  • Growth prospects for the core business
  • User growth
  • Monetisation – better targeting, higher prices
  • Mobile advertising spend lags behind usage
  • The Facebook Platform – Beyond the Walled Garden
  • Multimedia – taking on YouTube
  • Search – challenging Google’s core business
  • Enabling transactions – moving beyond advertising
  • Virtual reality – a long-term game
  • Takeaways
  • Threats and risks
  • Facebook fatigue
  • Google – Facebook enemy number one
  • Privacy concerns
  • Wearables and the Internet of Things
  • Local commerce – in need of a map
  • Facebook and communication services
  • Conclusions
  • Facebook is spread too thin
  • Partnering with Facebook – why and how
  • Competing with Facebook – why and how

 

  • Figure 1: From student matchmaking service to a leading digital commerce platform
  • Figure 2: Zuckerberg is pushing hard for the provision of basic Internet services
  • Figure 3: Facebook’s user base continues to grow rapidly
  • Figure 4: Facebook’s revenue growth has accelerated in the past two years
  • Figure 5: Facebook’s ARPU has risen sharply in the past two years
  • Figure 6: After wobbling in 2012, investors’ belief in Facebook has strengthened
  • Figure 7: Despite a rebound, Facebook’s valuation per user is still below its peak
  • Figure 8: Facebook could be serving 2.3 billion people by 2020
  • Figure 9: Share of digital advertising – Facebook is starting to close the gap on Google but remains a long way behind
  • Figure 10: The gap between click through rates for search and social remains substantial
  • Figure 11: Social networks’ revenue per click is rising but remains 40% of search
  • Figure 12: Facebook’s advertising has moved from the right column to centre stage
  • Figure 13: Facebook’s startling mobile advertising growth
  • Figure 14: Zynga’s share price reflects decline of Facebook.com as an app platform
  • Figure 15 – Facebook Connect – an integral part of the Facebook Platform
  • Figure 16: Leading Internet players’ share of social log-ins over time
  • Figure 17: Facebook’s personalised search proposition
  • Figure 18: Facebook’s new buy button – embedded in a newsfeed post
  • Figure 19: The rise and rise of Android – not good for Facebook
  • Figure 21: Facebook and Google are both heavily associated with privacy issues
  • Figure 22: Facebook wants to conquer the Wheel of Digital Commerce
  • Figure 23: Facebook’s cash flow is far behind that of Google and Apple
  • Figure 24: Facebook’s capital expenditure is relatively modest compared with peers
  • Figure 25: Facebook’s capex/revenue ratio has been high but is falling