The Top 5 Telecommunications & Mobility Trends for 2021
The 5G Divide – Reality for Some and Hype for Others
Despite the economic challenges in 2020, GSMA reports that the global 5G subscriptions doubled QoQ in Q2 2020 to hit at least 137.7 million subscribers. This accounts for 1.5% of total subscribers – and is expected to rise to 30% by 2025.
The value of 5G will become increasingly mainstream in the next few years. 5G offers a tailored user-centric approach to network services, low latency and significantly higher number of connections which will power a new era of mobile Internet of Everything (IoE).
However, there are many operators who are still sceptical about 5G. In the US, many operators failed to get any tangible positives from 5G. In the near term, many operators will continue to evolve their 5G capabilities – a full grown standalone 5G technology implementation in some verticals might take longer.
The unsuccessful launch of 5G by the US operators does not mean that 5G is a failure, however. It also implies that we need to look at other geographies to lead us into 5G – and Asia Pacific may well emerge as a leader in this space. China, for example, leads the drive in 5G adoption; and 5G smartphones account for more than half of global sales in recent months.
Telecom Operators Will Accelerate Digital Transformation
Telecom operators are facing increasing demands for cutting-edge services and top-notch customer experience (CX). The global pandemic has caused revenue loss, due to struggling economies and many operators will aim to reduce OpEX to circumvent these financial pressures, raise the quality of CX and retain existing customers. To realise this, there will be much focus on improvement in efficiencies, better operations management as well as improving the IT stack. These digital transformation efforts will enable rapid and flexible services provisioning, which will be better prepared for the tailored services customers now demand.
Many operators are increasingly incorporating cloudification alongside the 5G network deployment. Operators are moving towards transforming their operations and business support systems to a more virtualised and software-defined infrastructure. 5G will operate across a range of frequencies and bands – with significantly more devices and connections becoming software-defined with computing power at the Edge. Operators will also harness the power of AI to analyse massive volumes of data from the networks accessed by millions of devices in order to improve CX, ramp up operational efficiencies as well as introduce new services tailored to customer needs to increase revenue.
Remote Working Will Transform Telecommunications Networks
The changing patterns in peak network traffic and the substantial movement of traffic from central business districts to residential areas require a fundamental rethink in network traffic management. In addition, many businesses continue to ramp up digital transformation efforts to conduct business online as physical channels will remain limited. Consumer onboarding will also be fervent, as organisations look at business recovery – resulting in increase in bandwidth requirements.
The increasing remote working trend is amplifying the need for greater cybersecurity. Cybersecurity has catapulted in importance as the pandemic has seen a worrying increase in attacks on banks, cloud servers and mobile devices, among others. Cyber-attack incidents specifically due to remote working, has seen a rise. A telecom operator’s compromised security can have country-wide, and even global consequences.
SASE Will Grow – and Sprawl
Although it was perhaps originally seen as an Over-The-Top (OTT) provisioned competitive service to operators’ MPLS services, many telecom service providers have been embracing SD-WAN over the years as part of their managed services portfolio. “Traditional” SD-WAN offers some of the flexibility needed to address the change towards a more distributed access and the workload requirements that the pandemic has accelerated – the technology does not address all of the issues related to this transformed workspace.
Employees are now working from a variety of locations and workloads are becoming increasingly distributed. To address this change, organisations are challenged to move workloads and applications between platforms, potentially compromising security. Despite all the challenges that the pandemic brought with it – both human and technical – it has also provided organisations with an opportunity to rethink their IT and WAN architectures and to adopt an approach that has security at its core.
We believe that secure access service edge (SASE), which is a model for combining SD-WAN and security in a cloud-based environment, will see a drastic rise in adoption in 2021 and beyond.
OTT Players Will Continue their Expansion in the Telecommunications Space
Facebook, Google, Amazon are no longer considered as web companies as they moved from standalone ‘web’ companies to become OTT providers and are now significant players in telecom space. With the Facebook-Jio deal in India earlier this year, and with Google and Amazon actively eyeing the telecom space, these players will continue to explore this space especially in the emerging markets of Asia and Africa. There are telecom providers in these countries which will be prime targets for partnerships. These operators could be those that have a large customer base, are struggling with their bottom lines or are already looking at exit routes. OTT players were already offering services like voice, messaging, video calling and so on which have been the domain expertise of mobile operators for a long time. The market will see instances where telecom providers will sell small stakes to OTT players at a premium and get access to the vast array of services that these OTT providers offer.
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Ecosystm research shows that enterprises in Southeast Asia are increasingly considering telecom operators as go-to-market partners (Figure 1). Enterprises are demanding more than just devices and connectivity and with the fervent digital transformation (DX) efforts underway, services such as managed services, business application services, cybersecurity and network services are in demand. Technology vendors have an opportunity to partner with the right telecom operator in each market to enhance their IT market offerings, ahead of the 5G rollouts.
The broad 5G ecosystem inculcates cross-sector innovation and greater collaboration leading to new business models and exciting new opportunities. Singtel is the leading operator in the region and has the enterprise segment contributing approximately 65% to its revenue in its domestic market. In the World Communications Award 2019, Singtel won both “Best Enterprise Service” and “The Broadband Pioneer” awards. This places Singtel in a fine position to capitalise on the 5G enterprise services.
5G Needed Now More Than Ever
The pandemic has seen a rise in network traffic, onboarding of the digital customer and rapid DX of businesses which has whetted the appetite for faster broadband speeds and new services. Southeast Asia countries stand to profit from the trade war between the US and China and 5G features of low latency and higher security can boost adoption of IoT, Smart Manufacturing and broader Industry 4.0 goals to drive the economy.
Fixed Wireless in Southeast Asia is expected to be very popular considering the low penetration of fibre to the home (with the exception of Singapore) and will provide enterprises with a viable secondary connection to the internet. Popular applications – including video streaming and gaming – which are speed, latency and volume hungry will also be a target market for operators. Mobile operators that do not have a fixed broadband offering can enter this space and provide a serious “wireless fibre” alternative to homes and businesses.
Governments and telecom regulators ought to make spectrum available to the major telecom operators as soon as possible in order to ensure that the cutting edge 5G communications services are made available to consumers and businesses. Many experts believe 5G can raise the competitiveness of a nation.
US-China Trade War Threatens to Change Equipment Supplier Landscape
Despite severe pressures caused by the US-China trade war, Huawei posted an impressive 13.1% YoY growth in 1H 2020 registering revenue of USD 64.88 billion. Both Huawei and ZTE generate approximately 60% of their business from their domestic markets which is critical with the current unfavourable global sentiments. Huawei has diversified its business and built its consumer devices business which should withstand the disruptions caused by the political challenges.
Ericsson and Nokia stand to benefit from Huawei’s current global position and this was evident with the wins for the 5G contracts by Singtel and JVCo (Singtel and M1). The JVCo announced it selected Nokia to build the Radio Access Network (RAN) for the 5G standalone (SA) mmWave network infrastructure in the 3.5GHz radio frequency band. Singtel selected Ericsson to provide for the RAN on the same mmWave network.
However, while there is an opportunity for NEC and Samsung to join the party, Huawei is expected to do well in most other countries in Southeast Asia.
The Indonesia market is the largest in the region and is expected to hit USD 133 billion from USD 40 billion in 2025. Indonesia’s lack of a world-class telecom infrastructure coupled with their slowness in 5G adoption has not impeded the country’s attractiveness for global technology investors who see the 270 million population as an immense opportunity. US tech giants, Facebook, Google, and PayPal have invested in Indonesia to reap the benefits from the growing digital economy powered by unicorns such as Gojek, Bukalapak, Tokopedia. In June 2020, Google Cloud launched in Jakarta, only the second in the region after Singapore with the four big unicorns being anchor customers.
In 2025, Google predicts Thailand to be the second-largest internet economy worth USD 50 billion. The internet economy for Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are estimated to be over USD 27 billion each. Shopee and Lazada are the top eCommerce apps in the region and have seen an increase in sales due to the disruption in the Retail industry. In-store shopping contributes to more than 50% of Retail in Singapore and Malaysia – this provides a tremendous opportunity for eCommerce players.
While movement restrictions are gradually being lifted, some things may never return where they were before COVID-19. Public debts have risen with numerous aids and handouts impacting economic growth forecast and rising unemployment is impacting customer spending power. On the plus side, DX of businesses and sharp onboarding of customers have redefined interactions, and sectors such as Education, are going online which will boost the digital economy. While the challenges are evident, exciting times are ahead for the technology and telecom sector in Southeast Asia.
For more insights on the key trends in the telecom services market in Southeast Asia, read Shamir’s report
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Last month, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced that Singtel and JVCo (formed by Starhub and M1) has won the 5G Call for Proposal. They will be required to provide coverage for at least half of Singapore by end-2022, scaling up to nationwide coverage by end 2025. While Singtel and JVCo will be allocated radio frequency spectrum to deploy nationwide 5G networks, other mobile operators, including MVNOs, can access these network services through a wholesale arrangement. The networks will also be supplemented by localised mmWave deployments that will provide high capacity 5G hotspots.
In October 2019, IMDA and the National Research Foundation had set aside $40 million to support 5G trials in strategic sectors such as maritime, aviation, smart estates, consumer applications, Industry 4.0 and government applications. Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Jannat Maqbool says, “Reach, performance and robustness of connectivity and devices have long held back the ability to scale with the IoT as well as successful deployment of some solutions altogether. The integration of 5G with IoT has the potential to change that immensely. However, and possibly even more importantly, 5G will see the emergence of a true ‘Internet’, defined as ‘interconnected networks using standardised communication protocols’, made up of ‘things’ enabling never-before contemplated innovation – supporting economic development and community well-being.”
“While 5G offers enormous potential to produce economic and social benefits, to reach that potential we need to evaluate from a strategic perspective what it could mean for industries, employers and communities – then we need to invest in the infrastructure, innovation and associated development required to leverage the technology.”
Singapore’s Industry 4.0 Transformation
The Government is also focused on getting the industry ready for the transformation that 5G will bring. Last week, Singapore announced its first Industry 4.0 trial, where IMDA collaborates with IBM, M1 and Samsung to design, develop, test and benchmark 5G-enabled Industry 4.0 solutions that can be applied across various industries. The trials will begin at IBM’s facility in Singapore and involve open source infrastructure solutions from Red Hat to test Industry 4.0 use cases.
The project will test 5G-enabled use cases for Manufacturing, focusing on areas such as automated visual inspection using image recognition and video analytics, equipment monitoring and predictive maintenance, and the use of AR in increasing productivity and quality. The focus is also on leveraging 5G to reduce the cost of processing, by shifting the load from the edge device to centralised systems.
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Kaushik Ghatak says, “For some time now, the Singapore Manufacturing industry has been in the quest for higher productivity in order to regain its foothold as a destination of choice for global manufacturing outsourcing. The 5G Industry 4.0 trial is a great initiative to fast-track identification and adoption of the right use cases in Manufacturing, in the areas of automation, visibility, analytics, as well as for opening new revenue streams through servitisation of smart products.”
5G will see increased collaboration in the Tech industry
With the advent of 5G, the market will see more collaboration between government agencies, telecom providers and cloud platform providers and network equipment providers. Governments globally have invested in 5G and so have the network and communications equipment providers. However, telecom providers are unsure of how to monetise 5G and cater to the shift in their customer profile from consumers to enterprises. IBM and Samsung had already announced the launch of a joint platform in late 2019. Collaborations such as these will be key to widespread 5G deployment and uptake.
Talking about the benefits of collaborative efforts such as this, Maqbool says, “Robustness and security built into 5G deployment from the outset is essential to enable the applications and innovation that many are promising the technology will deliver, including the ability to self-scale, automate fault management and support edge processing.”
It is interesting that the solutions developed will be featured at IBM’s Industry 4.0 Studio 5G Solutions Showcase, and that IBM and Samsung will evaluate successful solutions developed during the project for possible use in their operations in a broad range of markets and sectors. “Availability of proven use cases at IBM’s Solutions Showcase centre would benefit local manufactures greatly; in terms of easy access to right skills and proven technology architectures,” says Ghatak. “This initiative is a huge step towards realising the promise of the cyber physical world. The collaboration between the leaders in communications, equipment and software will ensure that the use case development is truly cutting edge.”
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Making its largest foray into the Indian market yet, last week Facebook announced that it is investing US$5.7 billion in Jio Platforms – India’s largest telecom operator – for a 9.9% minority stake. Facebook makes its intentions very clear and is targeting the 60 million small and medium enterprises (SMEs) who can be the backbone of India’s growing digital economy. This includes a rather unorganised retail sector, which has had to adopt digital at breakneck speed following the Government’s earlier financial reforms, which impacted the smaller retailers, dependent primarily on cash transactions. Facebook is by no means the only global giant with an interest in India’s retail business – with Amazon and Walmart leading the way.
The JioMart and WhatsApp Pilot
Just days after the announcement, JioMart – an eCommerce venture also a wholly-owned subsidiary of Reliance Industries, like Jio Platforms – has launched a pilot in Mumbai which allows users to order groceries through WhatsApp. Customers can now place grocery orders through WhatsApp Business with JioMart reaching out to small-scale retailers and brick and mortar stores – or “Kirana stores” as they are referred to in India – to fulfil the order. More than 1,200 local stores have been engaged for this pilot. It currently does not include a digital payment option and invoices and alerts are sent through WhatsApp. Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and MD of Reliance Industries, says that the JioMart and WhatsApp collaboration has the potential to make it possible for around 30 million neighbourhood stores to transact digitally.
India Emerging as the New Battlefield
India is an important eCommerce market for global giants such as Facebook and Amazon, who have struggled with establishing a presence in China. Walmart has also set it its sights on India, with its recent acquisition of Flipkart. Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Kaushik Ghatak says. “India represents the final frontier, where the battle lines are being drawn, and the three are heading towards a collision path. Facebook’s recent move has just upped the game for Amazon and Walmart, as well as for the eCommerce and Fintech start-ups who have been eyeing this market.”
Amazon has been the early mover, establishing its eCommerce presence in India way back in 2013. Ghatak says, “From its initial marketplace approach of curating suppliers to start selling on its platform, Amazon graduated to offering its own delivery and fulfilment services, by establishing dozens of warehouses across India. This was to ensure the quality and timeliness of deliveries, upholding its ‘Fulfilment by Amazon’ (FBA) brand promise. There was a considerable cost though, in terms of time to ramp up and investments – with the associated asset risks. Also, reaching out to the diffused retail sector, with their non-existent or very low level of digitalisation, has been difficult for all the major eCommerce players such as Amazon and Flipkart. Jeff Bezos’ announcement of an additional investment of $ 1 billion, earlier this year, to digitise SMEs, allowing them to sell and operate online, is a step to extend its reach into this diffused retail market.”
JioMart’s model, according to Ghatak is in stark contrast to Amazon’s. “JioMart’s currently ongoing pilot in Mumbai is a classic B2C marketplace model, with little or no asset risk. The orders placed by the customers are routed to the nearest Kirana store based on stock availability, with the customers going to pick up the ordered items themselves at times.”
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Niloy Mukherjee says, “Jio has unparalleled market access in India with reports showing north of 370 million subscribers. Even at a $1.7 per month revenue from such a huge number, one can get to a $7.5 billion-dollar annual business. But even this is dwarfed by what that subscriber base itself is worth – through the data it provides, the products that can be sold and so on. Similarly, WhatsApp will prove to be more important than Facebook in India, with more than 400 million users. Using WhatsApp to get Kirana stores to do delivery can be a true game-changer.”
Talking about how this competes with Amazon, Mukherjee says, “This can eat into the business of an Amazon and my guess is, it will be far more efficient. The proximity to the customer will allow multiple deliveries per day at short notice, and fresh produce guarantees – maybe even door returns if not satisfied – that would be hard to match. Given the traffic situation in large Indian cities, delivery logistics from a more distant source will always struggle to compete. This is one tip of a multi-pronged spear – there are obviously other products that can be contemplated, leading to additional revenues.”
The Possibilities Ahead
Mukherjee explains why he thinks Facebook invested in Jio Platforms, rather than just forging a collaboration model. “Clearly both parties want to tie the other down and make sure that this alliance is long term. And this possibly means revenue will be shared instead of the usual commission model. Also, the go-to-market implications can run to more than just the Indian market. WeChat Pay is huge in China but not really elsewhere. If this works, there could be a potential “WhatsApp Pay” in the rest of the world. For Jio who already dominates the telecom landscape in India, this deal is a step towards taking their earnings to a new level, above the top end of the telecom category – they can access profit pools available to hardly any telecom provider worldwide.”
At a time when a market entry for foreign players in India is getting tougher with increasing regulatory pressures, a tie-up with the biggest player in India is indeed a very promising step – for both Facebook and Reliance. “For Facebook, this is a great opportunity to take its dependence away from a primarily ad-driven revenue model. The digitalisation of the diffused retail sector in India will open up new revenue opportunities from its WhatsApp Business App, WhatsApp Business API, and WhatsApp Pay-UPI gateway (pending regulatory approval). There is a potential of revenues from a variety of marketing services, membership fees, customer management services, product sales, commissions on transactions, and software service fees,” says Ghatak.
Talking about the potential for Reliance Industries, Ghatak says, “The technology horsepower of Facebook will help propel them ahead of Fintech and eCommerce companies in India – challenging already established players such as Amazon and Flipkart, and the newbie start-ups. Ability to drive transactions and digital payments in the diffused retail sector will open up huge revenue opportunities that were largely untapped until now, with low asset risks. Also, this sector has traditionally operated on a cash-based model and the recent COVID-19 crisis has exposed how vulnerable the sector is with a limited view of the supply chain, and limited funding for working capital. Developing relationships with the millions of Kirana stores spread across India also gives the opportunity of revenue generation through supply chain financing – a largely ignored sub-sector until now.”
Mukherjee thinks that this alliance will challenge players such as Amazon and Amazon Pay, Google Pay and PayTM. Ghatak also thinks that eventually, Jio Platform will have to either choose between or integrate the best features of WhatsApp Pay and the Jio Money Merchant payment gateways.
However, Ghatak offers a word of caution on the downside risks as well. “Partnering with Facebook is a hugely ambitious game plan for Reliance Industries. The success of its plans will also depend on how well it is able to curate the suppliers who are responsible for the actual delivery. In a consumer-driven business model, trust and customer experience cannot be compromised. The low asset, high leverage and high reach model can unravel itself if the customer gets the short end of the stick, in this rush for eCommerce domination.”
Like many countries, Malaysia has announced economic stimulus packages to ensure help for the poor and needy, that workers do not lose their jobs and that companies avoid bankruptcy – albeit with an inevitably reduced output – to keep the economy functioning. The stimulus offered is short-term covering a few months, and more assistance will be required should the epidemic linger and for the recovery period.
The Government announced a stimulus package on the 27th February worth RM20 billion (US$4.5 billion) and another one on the 27th March worth RM230 billion (US$52.6 billion). The packages comprise of direct fiscal injection of RM25 billion (US$5.7 billion) as well as loan deferments, one-off cash assistance, credit facilities and rebates. The focus of the stimulus packages is to assist people in the lower-income (B40) and mid-income (M40) groups, aid for employees in the private sector and for traders during the movement control order (MCO) which is to run until 14th April 2020.
An additional COVID-19 stimulus package worth RM10 billion (US$2.2 billion) was announced on the 6th April to address the challenges of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that employ two-thirds of the workforce and contribute to 40 percent of the GDP. The wage subsidy is to benefit 4.8 million workers earning less than RM4,000 (US$915) per month. In addition, SMEs will have access to interest free loans of RM200 million (US$45.7 million) from the National Entrepreneur Group Economic Fund and a further RM500 million (US$114.4 million) via Bank Simpanan Nasional. The Government allowed 750,000 SMEs to postpone income tax payment for three months from 1st April – companies in the tourism sector are allowed to postpone income tax for six months.
Impact on Industries
Banking & Financial Services. Banking institutions will support the Government’s stimulus initiatives by providing a six months’ loan repayment moratorium, corporate loan restructuring and conversion of credit card balance to long term loans. Banking and financial institutions are focussing on business continuity planning to ensure minimal disruption to their business and customer support. Many key business processes are now being put to test in-home working with scaled-down office operations. Digital Transformation (DX) has been accelerated as a result.
Contactless payments have seen a boost and many financial institutions have increased payment limits for such payments. Early last month the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Bank of England had issued advisories against the use of banknotes, as it could increase the chances of the virus spread, instead recommending the use of contactless payment where possible. This might give a boost to the use of Cryptocurrency and cross-border payment services in Malaysia. In 2019, cryptocurrency start-ups received an estimated 12 percent of Fintech funding – but, only three cryptocurrency exchanges were given conditional approval by the Securities Commission. The current situation may well see that changing.
Insurance. The Prime Minister announced that the Insurance industry is to create a fund of RM8 million (US$1.8 million) to cover the cost of RM300 (US$68.6) per policyholder to undergo COVID-19 tests. In addition to this, insurance companies are to offer a 3-month suspension on premiums for policyholders whose income is affected by the pandemic.
Agriculture. Even prior to COVID-19, there has been a brewing narrative against globalisation, favouring a nationalistic emphasis as reflected globally by Brexit and the China-US trade wars tension. Food security is key, and COVID-19 has further highlighted its importance with priorities shifting to local requirements over exports. The Government intends to distribute a food security fund of RM1 billion (US$228.8 million) to increase the local production of farms, fisheries and livestock. According to the Department of Statistics, Malaysia’s food and beverage imports amounted to RM54 billion (US$12.3 billion) in 2018 while food exports stood at RM35 billion (US$8.0 billion) resulting in a trade deficit of RM18.8 billion (US$4.3 billion). As countries focus on internal supplies instead of exports in the current scenario, Malaysia needs to address this risk by producing more locally.
Impact on Industry Transformation
Amidst the gloomy outlook, there are plenty of opportunities, especially to the country’s Digital Economy. Malaysia has been committed to the Digital Economy vision with the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) estimating that the country’s Digital Economy is worth US$3 trillion. The COVID-19 crisis may well be the key driver in achieving that vision. DX efforts are being accelerated with businesses adopting more cloud and mobility solutions. More workloads have to be digitalised and there is greater adoption of Cloud for storage and services. AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud will be beneficiaries in this area.
I have already spoken about the Financial Services industry – other industries are also getting transformed out of a necessity to survive this crisis. The Education sector has seen an increase in access to educational content and traffic to education portals and blogs. Some schools have implemented online lessons and group chats between teachers, students and parents to ensure education continues through this pandemic. Many universities have used their e-learning platforms to move lectures online.
The Telecommunications industry is being appreciated more than ever and it is the backbone to normal life, in both a social and business sense. The Government’s stimulus package includes offers of free internet to all customers until the MCO is over at RM600 million (US$137.3 million) and an investment of about RM400 million (US$91.5 million) to improve coverage and quality of service. Leading operators Maxis, Digi, Celcom and U Mobile have offered 1GB free data during the MCO period. The Axiata Group recently announced a cash fund of RM150 million (US$34.3 million) to assist micro-SMEs within the ecosystem providing eCommerce, digital payments and related services.
Video conferencing traffic is on the rise as it is the next best thing to face-to-face meetings. Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been the biggest winners so far. The home working trend should continue in the recovery stage and beyond, due to improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure and the impending rollout of 5G.
The eCommerce sector should see a major improvement in Malaysia with physical channels to the market being suspended. Malaysians have not embraced eCommerce like mature economies have, and it has significant room for improvement. Development of the SME sector and eCommerce are twin focus areas for the Digital Economy vision. Statista reports that the average Malaysian eCommerce shopper spent just US$159 on online consumer goods purchases in 2018, considerably lower than the global average of US$634. There is huge opportunity to provide for necessities such as online grocery, food and delivery of goods. As a consequence, the Transport & Logistics sector will have to adapt their business operations in order to ride this wave successfully.
Video streaming and gaming has also seen an increase in consumption in these times as they provide for entertainment for millions stuck at home. Netflix, YouTube, Microsoft Xbox and PlayStation are among the winners in this sector. YouTube provides for a primary news source and commentary on the epidemic for many. There provides a tremendous opportunity for both telecom operators and content providers to increase their number of services in this area.
Malaysia, like all other countries, will have to ride out this wave. It has made a positive step in the direction with the stimulus packages, especially for the SME sector. How well the country rides this wave out will depend on how targeted the future stimulus packages are and how fast industries can transform to handle the new world order that will emerge after the COVID-19 crisis.
“Edge computing has been widely touted as a necessary component of a viable 5G setup, as it offers a more cost-effective and lower latency option than a traditional infrastructure. Also, with IoT being a major part of the business case behind 5G, the number of connected devices and endpoints is set to explode in the coming years, potentially overloading an infrastructure based fully on centralised data centres for processing the data,” says Mortensen.
Although some are positioning the Edge as the ultimate replacement of cloud, Mortensen believes it will be a complementary rather than a competing technology. “The more embedded major cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft can become with 5G providers, the better they can service customers, who want to access cloud resources via the mobile networks. This is especially compelling for customers who need very low latency access.”
Affirmed Networks Brings Microsoft to the 5G Infrastructure Table
Microsoft recently announced that they were in discussions to acquire Affirmed Networks, a provider of network functions virtualisation (NFV) software for telecom operators. The company’s existing enterprise customer base is impressive with over 100 major telecom customers including big names such as AT&T, Orange and Vodafone. Affirmed Networks’ recently appointed CEO, Anand Krishnamurthy says that their virtualised cloud-native network, Evolved Packet Core, allows for scale on demand with a range of automation capabilities, at 70% of the cost of traditional networks. The telecom industry has been steadily moving away from proprietary hardware-based infrastructure, opting for open, software-defined networking (SDN). This acquisition will potentially allow Microsoft to leverage their Azure platform for 5G infrastructure and for cloud-based edge computing applications.
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Shamir Amanullah says, “The telecommunications industry is suffering from a decline in traditional services leading to a concerted effort in reducing costs and introducing new digital services. To do this in preparation for 5G, carriers are working towards transforming their operations and business support systems to a more virtualised and software-defined infrastructure. 5G will be dynamic, more than ever before, for a number of reasons. 5G will operate across a range of frequencies and bands, with significantly more devices and connections, highly software-defined with computing power at the Edge.”
The acquisition of Affirmed Networks is not the only Microsoft initiative to improve their 5G offerings. Last week also saw Microsoft announce Azure Edge Zones aimed at reducing latency for both public and private networks. AT&T is a good example of how public carriers will use the Azure Edge Zones. As part of the ongoing partnership with Microsoft, AT&T has already launched a Dallas Edge Zone, with another one planned for Los Angeles, later in the year. Microsoft also intends to offer the Azure Edge Zones, independent of carriers in denser areas. They also launched Azure Private Edge Zones for private enterprise networks suitable for delivering ultra low latency performance for IoT devices.
5G will remain a key area of focus for cloud and software giants. Amanullah sees this trend as a challenge to infrastructure providers such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. “History has shown how these larger software providers can be fast, nimble, innovative, and extremely customer-centric. Current infrastructure providers should not take this challenge lightly.”
Industries and governments have shifted focus to areas such as smart energy, Industry 4.0, autonomous driving, smart buildings, and remote healthcare, to name a few. In the coming days, most initial commercial deployments will centre around network speed and latency. Technologies like GPON, 5G, Wifi 6, WiGig, Edge computing, and software-defined networking are bringing new capabilities and altering costs.
Ecosystm’s telecommunications and mobility predictions for 2020, discusses how 5G will transform the industry in multiple ways. For example, it will give enterprises the opportunity to incorporate fixed network capabilities natively to their mobility solutions, meaning less customisation of enterprise networking. Talking about the opportunity 5G gives to telecom service providers, Amanullah says, “With theoretical speeds of 20 times of 4G, low latency of 1 millisecond and a million connections per square kilometre, the era of mobile Internet of Everything (IoE) is expected to transform industries including Manufacturing, Healthcare and Transportation. Telecom operators can accelerate and realise their DX, as focus shifts to solutions for not just consumers but for enterprises and governments.”
Changing Customer Profile
Amanullah adds, “Telecom operators can no longer offer “basic” services – they must become customer-obsessed and customer experience (CX) must be at the forefront of their DX goals.” But the real challenge is that their traditional customer base has steadily diverged. On the one hand, their existent retail customers expect better CX – at par with other service providers, such as the banking sector. Building a customer-centric capability is not simple and involves a substantial operational and technological shift.
On the other hand, as they bring newer products to market and change their business models, they are being forced to shift focus away from horizontal technologies and connecting people – to industry solutions and connecting machines. As their business becomes more solution-based, they are being forced to address their offerings at new buying centres, beyond IT infrastructure and Facilities. Their new customer base within organisations wants to talk about a variety of managed services such as VoIP, IoT, Edge computing, AI and automation.
The global Ecosystm AI study reveals the top priorities for telecom service providers, focused on adopting emerging technologies (Figure 1). It is very clear that the top priorities are driving customer loyalty (through better coverage, smart billing and competitive pricing) and process optimisation (including asset maintenance).
Technology as an Enabler of Telecom Transformation
Several emerging technologies are being used internally by telecom service providers as they look towards DX to remain competitive. They are transforming both asset and customer management in the telecom industry.
IoT & AI
Telecom infrastructure includes expensive equipment, towers and data centres, and providers are embedding IoT devices to monitor and maintain the equipment while ensuring minimal downtime. The generators, meters, towers are being fitted with IoT sensors for remote asset management and predictive maintenance, which has cost as well as customer service benefits. AI is also unlocking advanced network traffic optimisation capabilities to extend network coverage intelligently, and dynamically distribute frequencies across users to improve network experience.
Chatbots and virtual assistants are used by operators to improve customer service and assist customers with equipment set-up, troubleshooting and maintenance. These AI investments see tremendous improvement in customer satisfaction. This also has an impact on employee experience (EX) as these automation tools free workforce from repetitive tasks and they be deployed to more advanced tasks.
Telecom providers have access to large volumes of customer data that can help them predict customer usage patterns. This helps them in price optimisation and last-minute deals, giving them a competitive edge. More data is being collected and used as several operators provide location-based services and offerings.
In the end, the IoT data and the AI/Analytics solutions are enabling telecom service providers to improve products and solutions and offer their customers the innovation that they want. For instance, Vodafone partnered with BMW to incorporate an in-built SIM that enables vehicle tracking and provides theft protection. In case of emergencies, alerts can also be sent to emergency services and contacts. AT&T designed a fraud detection application to look for patterns and detect suspected fraud, spam and robocalls. The system looks for multiple short-duration calls from a single source to numbers on the ‘Do Not Call’ registry. This enables them to block calls and prevent scammers, telemarketers and identity theft issues.
Talking about the significance of increasing investments in cybersecurity solutions by telecom service providers, Amanullah says, “Telecom operators have large customer databases and provide a range of services which gives criminals a great incentive to steal identity and payment information, damage websites and cause loss of reputation. They have to ramp up their investment in cybersecurity technology, processes and people. A telecom operator’s compromised security can have country-wide, and even global consequences. As networks become more complex with numerous partnerships, there is a need for strategic planning and implementation of security, with clear accountability defined for each party.”
One major threat to the users is the attack on infrastructure or network equipment, such as routers or DDoS attacks through communication lines. Once the equipment has been compromised, hackers can use it to steal data, launch other anonymous attacks, store exfiltrated data or access expensive services such as international phone calls. To avoid security breaches, telecom companies are enhancing cybersecurity in such devices. However, what has become even more important for the telecom providers is to actually let their consumers know the security features they have in place and incorporate it into their go-to-market messaging. Comcast introduced an advanced router to monitor connected devices, inform security threats and block online threats to provide automatic seamless protection to connected devices.
Blockchain can bring tremendous benefits to the telecom industry, according to Amanullah. “It will undeniably increase security, transparency and reduce fraud in areas including billing and roaming services, and in simply knowing your customer better. With possibilities of 5G, IoT and Edge computing, more and more devices are on the network – and identity and security are critical. Newer business models are expected, including those provided for by 5G network slicing, which involves articulation in the OSS and BSS.”
Blockchain will be increasingly used for supply chain and SLA management. Tencent and China Unicom launched an eSIM card which implements new identity authentication standards. The blockchain-based authentication system will be used in consumer electronics, vehicles, connected devices and smart city applications.
Adoption of emerging technologies for DX may well be the key to survival for many telecom operators, over the next few years.
For more insights on the key trends in the telecom services market in Southeast Asia, read Shamir’s report
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