On the 27th of September, I’m moderating a panel discussion at the ITU World 2017 conference in Busan, South Korea, on the theme of “The transformation of telecom operators: reinventing telcos.”
This is a topic we’ve heard discussed for at least the last 10 years in various forms, yet we still seem to be at or near the starting point. The panel will look at what can we do differently, to change the dynamics. In particular, it will focus on the internal organisation and processes of the telecom industry, both within and between telcos. Other conference sessions will consider new services, industry verticals, and the customer perspective.
Across the globe, traditional CSPs are trying to adapt their cultures and operational models, in the face of ever-increasing competition and substitution from new players. As well as other rival service providers such as cable operators, telcos now face challenges from Internet-based peers, niche specialist SPs (for example in IoT), and even enterprises and governments building their own networks. On the horizon, new technologies such as AI threaten to change the landscape even more. The nature of what it means to be a “service provider” is changing.
This goes beyond just implementing next-generation networks, whether fixed or wireless. While these are necessary, they are not sufficient for true reinvention – and they also require enormous new investment. The real question is what options exist for operators to best-allocate scarce resources (money, skills and time) to maximize the value from such investments in infrastructure. There is also a risk that emphasis on the “hard challenges” of raising finance, acquiring spectrum or sites, and building networks, means less focus on the “softer” problems of culture change, service design, organisation, customer-centricity and partnership.
This in turn poses problems for regulators, especially at national levels. Usually driven by domestic politics and local economic situations, they somehow need to ensure a strategically-important sector remains healthy, while also recognising the huge global-scale advances from many technologies and services that transcend national or regional boundaries.
It is not realistic for every country to have three or four competing local providers of social networks, IoT management tools or future AI platforms. Citizens and businesses expect similar functions to work internationally and immediately, with rapid incremental improvements. Unlike networks, innovation in services and applications often favours fast-evolving proprietary platforms, rather than committee-led interoperable services like the PSTN.
Telcos – and their regulators – have until recently been poorly-suited to this new world, although some are making interesting attempts to “turn the super-tanker”.
The session will touch on four or five key areas:
- Innovation: What is the best way for telcos to innovate, given regulatory & cultural constraints? Arms-length subsidiaries? Huge retraining programmes? Business units targeted on verticals / technologies? How much freedom should product units have, for example should they be forced to use the company-wide core network & NFV platforms, or should they be able to go “off piste” and act independently? Are “platforms plays” viable in telecoms, or just unrealistic wishful-thinking?
- Regulation: What should regulators be doing, to simultaneously encourage new entrants/innovators, but also allow telcos to make enough returns to take long-term investment views? And how can regulators deal with the overlaps, competition and tensions between very distinct groups, such as traditional infrastructure-oriented telcos and Internet-based “web-scale” platforms? One group has huge capex and strict regulatory constraints, the other huge R&D and greater risk of failure: how can one set of rules span both, where they intersect?
- Industry coordination: How do the current pan-industry structures (eg bodies like ITU & GSMA & 3GPP) need to change? Can they be made faster, more willing to take risks, faster to acknowledge errors, bring in non-traditional stakeholders?
- Technology catalysts: Are 5G & NFV really “transformational” enablers of re-invention? Or will prolonged hybrid/transition phases from older tech mean there can’t be fast shifts? How should telcos deploy technologies such as AI, blockchain or IoT internally, as part of their reinvention?
One other thing should frame the debate: language – how we describe the problems, or wider communications environment. Words, analogies and narrative arcs are psychologically important – they shape the way we perceive problems, and can either enhance or misdirect our responses. We should recognise the unhelpfulness of terms like:
- “Digital”: Morse Code was digital in 1843. Telecom networks have used digital technology for decades, as have most businesses. It’s about steady progress and evolution, not a “digitalisation” step change.
- “OTT”: usually said in a negative tone, I believe this prejudiced description of Internet services has hugely harmed the telecoms industry over the last decade. For example, it obscures the fact that larger Internet companies do more deep technology than telcos: they make network equipment and chips, build infrastructure and conduct billions of dollars of R&D.
- “Level playing field”: telco executives, regulators and lobbyists use this phrase with abandon. Yet the analogy is meaningless, when everyone is playing different sports entirely.
The narrative needs to change substantially. My ITU Telecom World 2017 session aims to reset the debate, and catalyse thoughtful (but rapid!) future action by operators, regulators and industry bodies alike.