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Several telecom operators to run into financial problems in the next three years…

November 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In 2017 several telecom operators will run into financial problems, with Vodafone being the most known, unless they start changing today. Why?

The telecom business is a very capital intensive business. Buying spectrum, rolling out the next-generation mobile networks and bringing fiber connections to each home and business is extremely capital intensive. Traditionally operators were the main users of their networks and got large margins on the services that ran on top of them. The truth today is that telecom operators have been completely sidetracked. They no longer have any control of the mobile devices that are used on their networks and neither the services. Data is growing exponentially and is already clogging their networks. A data tsunami is on the horizon. Operators see costs ballooning and ARPU shrinking. There is no way they can start asking substantially more for broadband access. Obama just killed any hope of adding a speed tax on the Internet. The EU wants to kill juicy roaming charges. However the future will be even worse.

New disruptive competitors have entered the market in recent years. Google Fiber is offering gigabit speeds both for uploading and downloading. Youtube and Netflix are generating the majority of Internet traffic in most countries.  Most streaming videos are broadcasted in SD quality. However Netflix is already broadcasting in 4K or ultra high-definition quality on Google Fiber. This means traffic volumes of between 7 to 19GB per hour depending on the codec that is used. Take into account that often different family members can be looking at two or more programmes at the same time. The end result is that today’s networks and spectrum are completely insufficient. Now add the nascent IoT revolution. Every machine on earth will get an IP address and be able to “share its feelings with the world”. Every vital sign of each person in the richer parts of the world will be collected by smart watches and tweeted about on social networks. 90% of the communication that is running inside Facebook’s data centre is machine to machine communication, not user-related communication. Facebook hasn’t even introduced IoT or wearables yet. You can easily imagine them helping even the biggest geek with suggestions on which girl to talk to and what to talk about via augmented reality goggles and with the help of smart watches. Yes it is a crazy example but which telecom marketing department would have given even $1 to Zuckerberg if he would have pitched Facebook to them when it was still known as TheFacebook. It is the perfect example of how “crazy entrepreneurs” make telecom executives look like dinosaurs.

This brings us to the internals on how telecom operators are ran. Marketing departments decide what customers MUST like. Often based on more than doubtful market studies and business plans. In contrast the mobile app stores of this world just let customers decide. Angry Bird might not be the most intelligent app but it sure is a money maker. Procurement departments decide which network and IT infrastructure is best for the company. Ask them what NFV or SDN means and the only thing they can sensibly response is an RFP identifier. Do you really think any procurement department can make a sensible decision on what network technology will be able to compete with Google? More importantly make sure these solutions are deployed at Google speed, integrated at Google speed and scale out at Google speed? If they pick a “Telecom-Grade Feature Monster” that takes years to integrate, then they have killed any chance of that operator being innovative. With all the telecom-grade solutions operators have, why is it that Google’s solutions are more responsive, offer better quality of service and are always available? Vittorio Colao, the Vodafone CEO, was quoted in a financial newspaper yesterday saying Vodafone is going to have to participate in the crazy price war around digital content because BT has moved into mobile. So one of the biggest telecom operators in the world has executive strategies like launching new tariff plans [think RED in 2013], pay crazy money to broadcast football matches, bundle mobile with fixed to be able to discount overall monthly tariffs and erode ARPU even more, etc. If you can get paid millions to just look at what competitors are doing and just badly copy them and dotcoms [the list is long: hosted email, portals, mobile portals, social networks, virtual desktops, IaaS, streaming video, etc.] then please allow me to put your long term viability into question.

So can it actually be done differently. YES, for sure. What if operators would enable customers to customise communication solutions towards their needs. Communication needs have not gone away, if any they augmented. Whatsapp, Google Hangout, etc. are clear examples of how SMS and phone calls can be improved. However they are just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible and what should be done. Network integrated apps via Telco App Stores would give innovators a chance to launch services that customers really like. Hands up who would pay to get rid of their current voicemail? Hands up who really loves their operator’s conference bridge and thinks it is state of the art? Hands up who is of the opinion a bakery is absolute not interested in knowing what its customers think about its products after they have left the shop?

Last week the TAD Summit in Turkey had a very special presentation from Truphone, one of the few disruptive mobile operators in the world. No wonder it won the best presentation award. Truphone, with the help of partners, deployed a telecom solution in minutes that included key components like IMS, SDP, HLR integration, one hundred numbers, dashboards, interactive voice responses, etc. Once deployed, the audience could immediately start calling and participate. All numbers of the people in the audience, their home operator, the operator that sold them their SIM initially, their age and responses to interactive questions were registered and results shown on a real-time dashboard. If the audience would have been in different locations, they could have been put on an interactive map as well. The whole solution took only a few weeks to build with a team of people that all had day jobs. The surprising thing is that it was all build with open source software. It is technically possible to innovate big time in telecom and bring to market new services daily. All at a fraction of today’s cost. The technology is no longer a limiting factor. Old-school thinking, bureaucracy and incompetence are the only things that hold back operators from changing their destiny. Whatever they do, they shouldn’t act like former-Nokia executives in some years and tell the world that Android and the iPhone took them by surprise. Dear mister operator, you have been warned. You have been giving good advise and examples of how to do it better. Now it is time to act upon them…

What if making a business case is not possible?

Innovation is a high-risk activity. You invest in something with the only certainty that you know (some of) your costs and none of your future revenues. Traditional wisdom tells managers to focus on a business case. If the business case is more positive than the other alternatives and gives a good return-on-investment, then you should invest. However this approach is flawed when dealing with innovative projects. There is not reference to calculate future revenues. Yes you can “guestimate” and make nice assumptions. However no business case would have indicated that you should invest in a 23-year-old that has put photo’s of his fellow students online. Some years later that photo page is worth many billions. For every positive example unfortunately there are a long list of failures.

The solution: focus on incremental innovation. Or not?

Nokia would be the best example of this strategy. You make the best hardware platform, a relatively easy software and make sure people can reliably make calls and send messages. Every investment decision had a positive ROI and positive margins. Unfortunately Nokia’s stock is close to becoming junk.

Can you make a business case for highly innovative projects?

Yes you can make a business case. Especially costs can be estimated and some high-level revenue estimates can be made. As long as this business case is used to validate if the project is economically viable, then there is no problem. The major problem is when this business case is compared with incremental innovation projects or investments in the core business. The outcome will be always negative. Disruptive innovations tend to go for lower margin business with inferior offerings that often cannibalize the core business. Over time the disruptive innovation will move up the value ladder and will be able to substitute the core business. Unfortunately the Innovator Dilemma in which you attack your core business and substitute it with an inferior margin business is difficult to accept by conventional managers. There are some companies that have excelled at this. The best example is Amazon that is seeing its core business of book sales being threatened by electronic books. The answer has been to provide e-book readers and tablets below the hardware costs with the idea to dominate the electronic book market by offering a total solution to easily buy books.

Ostrich techniques

The technique used by most companies when faced with disruptive innovation attacks is to consider them inferior and to ignore them. Unfortunately over time these solutions will substitute the existing offerings. This process is currently happening: e.g. SMS versus Whatsapp, LBS versus Mobile Phone location, calls versus Skype or Voxtrot, etc.

Unlike incremental innovation, being first in the market for disruptive innovation is key because the winner takes most of market. Number two can still take some market share but number three is no longer profitable. Examples: Google Search/Adwords/Youtube, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, etc.

The worst strategy for operators is the ostrich technique because implementing LTE will offer disruptive innovators all the tools they need to offer voice services over the top.

Discovery-driven planning versus business cases

In 1995 Harvard Business Review came up with discovery-driven planning. The idea has been successfully implemented by venture capitalists. You do not give money to a new venture to develop a new product, launch it and expand globally. You give money to develop a prototype in a few months. If this goal is met, you give money to validate the prototype with early adopters, etc.

Operators should start using discovery-driven planning to introduce disruptive innovations. Employees, partners, customers, etc. can “complain” about inefficiencies in the current offerings. The most urgent “inefficiencies” are selected, for instance via voting. Afterwards small innovation groups, made up out of experts in different domains, are formed to find solutions on paper for these “inefficiencies”. These paper-based solutions are presented to selected early adopters. Via continuous feedback the solution can be designed, the future price can be determined, the costs can be estimated and a high-level business case can be made. Early adopters are asked to find beta users. If a certain number of beta users express interest in the solution then the team will receive funding for a prototype.

Beta users are able to see the prototype come to live and to give continuous feedback. The prototype should evolve from paper to a real service in as few months as possible, 2-6. Afterwards the beta users get a limited amount of time to start subscribing to the real service and to extend the number of beta users. If a certain limit is reached within a certain time frame, then the beta product will get a next investment round. This investment round will bring the product from closed beta to a public launch. The last stage is expansion. If the public launch is successful then the last round of funding is provided that allows the service to expand, e.g. within all markets of the operator.

Any idea/service that does not make a stage gets killed. The complete disruptive innovation program should get a budget and should be initially independent from the core business. Direct support from the CEO and other senior executives is a must. Business cases are used to set prices, etc. but not to compare disruptive innovations with core business investments.

 

It will only get worse…

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

In a recent article on Gigaom, the author is saying that it’s the end of the line for telco. Several arguments are brought to the table to explain that the industry as we know it today has seen its best days. Similar to postal services and railways.

What if the article is true?

What if the complex telecom standards no longer live up to the dotcom flexibility? What if communication is so much more than calls and SMS? How can an industry that seems so alive on the Mobile World Congress be like a dinosaur just before the ice age?

Assuming the industry will only get worse. What are your options?

1) Denial – deny the end of the world is near and focus on daily business. Once the recession is over things will pick up again. Tomorrow an operator will find the solution…

2) Survival – accept the industry is going to get worse so try to focus on those things that still continue: 4G networks for sure but what else:

3) Surrender – move to the winners (Apple, Google, Amazon, etc.). However, what if they are not hiring?

4) Move on – change industry. Where? Hiring freezes are general in most industries. Where do they need SS7 specialists?

Since the list ran out of options, there is only one more thing you can do: revolution.

The current model has failed. Let’s try to focus on the next model.

What if calls and SMS are free? What if monthly mobile subscription charges are €10 max? Where will the money come from in this case?

I have some ideas. They might be good or bad. However for sure there are millions of people that will have ideas. The challenge will be how to test millions of ideas without spending billions on useless ideas.

This challenge sounds very much like the same challenge venture capitalists and business angels have. So why not use their techniques to solve the same problem?

Instead of investing in yet another useless large scale OSS or BSS transformation project, why not set-up a telecom venture capitalist business with this money? There are several companies that use a similar set-up to do product innovation. They allow the crowd to suggest ideas, rank them, complement them, etc. They set-up a team of internals and externals to build prototypes for the best ideas. They allow the crowd and social tools to make publicity and a darwin-like experience to get to a certain level of profits or get killed. External companies could even be willing to participate in some of the ventures.

The best way to motivate is to create a challenge. Every approved idea will get €250K for 6 months. Who can successfully launch a telecom product or service that makes €1M profit within 6 months after idea approval? The team that does, gets €1M investment and stock options. Next challenge €10M in 6 months.

To cater for these telco startups, operators would need to set up separate legal structures, innovation platforms and expert guidance teams. Startups should be owned partially by the operator but also by their founders. Innovation platforms should avoid re-inventing the wheel continuously. Expert guidance teams should help startups with technical, business, legal, marketing, etc. support.

The idea should not be to invent the next SMS but to invent a whole portfolio of profitable new services because the industry should no longer be built around two or three killer apps…

From Pain Points to Demand Creation

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

When you ask a company about innovation, they talk about how their product manager asks customers what they want and how their R&D delivers new features or new products. Lots of companies are following the pain points to solution approach and engage in evolutionary innovation.  Although evolutionary innovation is the best way to grow revenue from an existing customer base in the short run, there are several disadvantages that most underestimate.

Evolution means assuming the status quo will never change

Evolving products based on customer feedback assumes that the current solution is the best possible solution for the customer and only some features are missing. Showing status-quo-breaking innovations, a.k.a. disruptive innovation, to customers will often yield a negative response.

Whoever went to the postal service to try to sell email servers as the next generation letter [letter 2.0], will have had a very negative reply. The postal service would not understand why they would want to offer free-of-charge instant delivery to their customers because it canabilizes their existing business. Instead if you would offer a sorting machine that can sort double the amount of letters in half the time for half the cost, you are a lot closer to a sale.

Whoever read “the innovator’s dilemma“, will understand that disruptive innovation is often rejected by the current customers because it either canabilizes their business or is not resolving their specific pain points.

World-leading companies focus at most 90% on evolution and at least 10% on disruptive innovation. Some like Amazon and Apple seem to invert the equation.

Companies that do not focus on disruptive innovation will sooner then later run into problems. Disruptive innovations are becoming more common place and occur more frequently. Whole industries are being transformed as we speak. Existing players can disappear in a few years:

Media:

  • Books versus Kindle and eBooks
  • CD, DVD and Blu-ray versus P2P, mp3 and DIVX

IT:

  • Harddisks versus memory cards
  • Data center per company versus Cloud IaaS
  • PC with Windows versus Tablet with Android

Telecom:

  • Physical PBX versus Cloud-based PBX
  • Roaming versus VoIP
  • Nokia feature phone versus iPhone and Android
  • Circuit networks with pay per minute versus flat fee data traffic
  • Physical routers, firewalls, loadbalancers versus virtual networks and Openflow
  • High priced spectrum licensed versus white spaces

Towards a world of demand creation

Companies that want to innovate disruptively should focus on demand creation. Demand creation is about understanding customers hassles. Customers hassles are different from their pain points in the sense that customers do not always understand their own hassles, and even less tell you.

People never told Nokia that their phones were such a hassle to navigate the internet and to install applications on. Customers will not tell you that you need to build a touchscreen phone and app store to solve the hassles.

Disruptive innovators find those activities that customers waste a lot of time with, think are ackward, cost a lot but deliver few value, etc. by questioning, observating, networking and experimenting.

Disruptive innovators at the same time focus on developing technology capabilities in innovations that have a potential to change industries, e.g. VoIP, cloud computing, big data, collective intelligence, etc.

Disruptive innovators work together with early adopters to map out their hassles into hassle maps. To understand if solutions for these hassles are like painkillers [big market] or just vitamines [no or small market]. They propose the simplest solutions possible. Those that do not require a user manual.  First on paper and only when everything is validated [technical solution, business model, distribution, purchasing stakeholders, marketing] do they build a real prototype. Ideally customers can personalize the new solution towards their individual needs. Listening to customers is key. Being able to add features frequently and validating in a statistical manner which one contribute to the bottom line, allows innovators to rapidly go from an early beta to a ground-breaking product.

Disruptive innovations do not need to cost millions to launch. Good books on the matter are: Nail it then scale it, Demand: creating what people love before they know they want it, the lean startup, etc.

Telecom predictions for 2012

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment
Let me try to make predictions for 2012. Some will be negative, others will be positive for the industry.

Positive predictions:

  1. European television will become Cloud-based. Netflix, Apple, Google, etc. will launch all-you-can-eat video on-demand in Europe and change the current industry.
  2. M2M will become successful in the consumer & SME space but with moderate successes in the Corporate space. Some disruptive players will become market leaders. Due to lack of standards corporate adoption will have to wait till 2013.
  3. Telecom cloud solution providers will change the European telecom landscape. Twilio is a potential game changer.
Negative predictions:
  1. One or more major telecom operators will fail. With the crisis continuing some major telecom operator will get into trouble due to the high costs of LTE licenses and the abrupt drop in ARPU.
  2. Consolidation in the telecom provider domain. Either ALU or NSN will be losing its independence or Chinese players will merge.
  3. Nokia and RIM will lose their independence. Microsoft will absorb Nokia.

Let’s hope my negative predictions are wrong and a lot more positive things happen.

What is the cloud and how to generate Cloud revenues?

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

An introduction  for telecom professionals on Cloud Computing and how to use the Cloud to generate new revenues…

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