October 26, 2021

The 10 Digital Transformation Journeys of the Telco


There’s an ancient parable
about a group of blind men examining an elephant, and trying to work out what sort
of creature it really is. Each touches the elephant in a different place: the
trunk, the tusk, the leg, the tail, and so on. Each comes to a radically
different conclusion about what sort of animal they’re dealing with. Some
believe it’s a snake, some think it’s a bull, some a wall, some a rope. While
this parable has its root in texts over 2,000 years old, it continues to
express a universal truth. When we don’t manage to take in the full picture we
can end up drawing wildly diverse conclusions.

Digital transformation
runs into the same problem. We all become obsessed with the pieces we’re
interested in, and accordingly, we see transformation as primarily a technology
challenge; or a new digital service opportunity; or a cultural change; or a
customer engagement issue. Transformation is all of the above, and more.

In my recent book Transforming the Telco I talk about telco digital transformation in terms of 10 distinct journeys that embrace every aspect of the telco. Each journey represents a distinct transformation challenge that the Telco must address to fully deal with digital transformation.

  • Journey 1: From discrete network elements to an autonomously managed, virtualized communications and cloud infrastructure. 
  • Journey 2: From reactive product-specific security to a uniformly orchestrated security-centric organization.
  • Journey 3: From limited data exploitation to a uniformly orchestrated data-centric enterprise.
  • Journey 4: From closed management systems to an open API driven platform-centric architecture. 
  • Journey 5: From a limited portfolio of traditional services to a diverse portfolio of digital services. 
  • Journey 6: From managing a limited set of suppliers to thriving in a vibrant ecosystem of partners.
  • Journey 7: From operating a limited set of Business Models to utilizing multiple Business Models in core and adjacent markets.
  • Journey 8: From a traditional Telco organization and culture, to a digitally native organization and culture. 
  • Journey 9: From focusing on traditional channels to adopting multiple channels to market.   
  • Journey 10: From one dimensional management of customer relationships to 360o omni-channel management of the customer experience.
Figure 1: the 10 transformation journeys of the Telco

The complexity and breadth of digital transformation means
that effective transformation of the telco is going to take many years.
Furthermore, the cycle of this transformational change is out of sync with the
speed of change in the industry in terms of technology and business model. As a
result, many telcos have embarked on comprehensive digital transformation
programs only to find 12 months into the program that there has been a game-changing
shift in technology or competition that forces them to re-evaluate their entire
transformation plan.

To be fair, in each of the 10 transformation journeys, it’s
possible to find a range of interesting and valuable projects that represent
real transformation progress. While telcos understand the potential scope of
each of the 10 transformation journeys, there’s a consistency to which bits
they’re comfortable addressing and which pieces they try to steer clear of. As
with any enterprise, they’re looking for the high impact initiatives for the
least cost/risk.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen strong transformation
progress on some of the journeys such as virtualization and cloudification of infrastructure
(core, RAN and Edge), streamlining of the customer journey and the end-to-end
customer experience, and in the trialling of a whole range of new B2C and B2B
digital services. Unfortunately, we’ve seen much less progress in the whole
area of cultural change, the shift towards being cloud native and the evolution
of the telco business model to better compete with the new generation of
digital service providers. 

the 5G business case work

Competing at the level of digital services is not simply a nice
to have capability for the digitally transformed telco. In a recent piece of
work I was involved in with Keystone Consulting, we looked at the business case
for 5G in 2025 – assessing the new “connectivity-based
revenue” potential that 5G offers against the total cost of rolling out
and operating 5G. The first simple but devastating takeaway from this
analysis is that the cost of rollout of 5G in 2025 will be higher than the new “connectivity-based revenue”that
will be generated from consumers and enterprises by 5G.

This means that if the telco rolls out 5G and behaves in
the same way as it behaved with 2G, 3G and 4G it will not make a return on that
investment. And the gap between “new
connectivity-based revenue” from 5G and the cost of rolling out and operating
a 5G network will be substantial – to the order of approximately US$160 billion
per annum (somewhere between 6 to 10 percent of the value of the

There are of course alternative projections on the size of
the 5G industry by 2025 that vary in scale from the above numbers, but many of
them agree with the fundamental point that new connectivity-based revenue
growth from 5G will be less than the cost of deploying and maintaining that 5G
network. Furthermore, the experience of most telcos in rolling out 5G during
2019 and early 2020 reinforces this argument. There are very few telcos that have
managed thus far to price 5G at any significant premium to 4G. As a result, the
long-term success of 5G will depend on whether the telco can use it as a
mechanism to open up new “non-connectivity” revenue sources.

the new revenue

There are no shortage of ideas for where this new “non-connectivity”
revenue will come from. Telcos are exploring everything including Industrial
IoT, digital health, home entertainment & gaming, smart retail, smart events,
smart homes, connected cars and beyond to find the sweet spot for generating
new 5G digital service revenue to close that predicted 5G revenue gap. Each of
these opportunities shows promise assuming that telcos can focus in on the
right use case, orchestrate the right ecosystem of players to bring a complete
solution to the customer, and execute at the speed the market demands. 

One of the key differentiators that the telco may be able to bring to bear in securing an opportunity in these new services will come through their deployment of edge cloud capabilities, either directly on the premises of the target industry, or at the edge of the network, accessible by all. Edge promises to be a critical capability for a wide range of emerging 5G 2C and 2B digital services and whoever controls the edge will be able to position themselves at the heart of new service revenue opportunities.

Figure 2: Operators interest in different edge use cases

A good example is the opportunity surrounding home
entertainment & gaming. The popularity of online gaming is high and set to
continue to increase demand for all types of advanced networking infrastructure
from fiber to the home to 5G mobile private networks. 

There are a growing number of partnerships being put in
place between telcos and online gaming providers such as Google Stadia and
Hatch gaming, and the services are proving popular. This is good news for the
telco, but it’s at the touch point between the network and the cloud that that
things really get interesting. The hyperscalers are seeing increasing demand
for more responsive cloud services to meet the needs of this market, and this
requires critical parts of the cloud service to be hosted near the consumer –
at the edge. Telcos are currently ramping up their investments and partnerships
to ensure that they have an important role to play in the future of the edge.

importance of platforms and their business models

Whichever services telcos eventually hit on to close the 5G
revenue gap, it’s widely accepted that platforms will play a hugely important
role in how these services are delivered. Multi-role platforms are becoming the
predominant business model in the digital era. They enable the platform owner
to grow revenue and market capitalization quicker and at lower cost than
traditional business models.

The capabilities of a generic telco platform will be hugely
important in enabling the telco to establish a strong position in either B2C or
B2B new digital services. These capabilities will include the traditional
strengths of the telco infrastructure offerings, combined with the more
advanced capabilities that next-generation autonomous networks are just now
beginning to offer such as network slicing, customized on demand, and
self-serve networks. On top of these capabilities will be the BSS and operations
systems that will be incorporated in the platform to offer a more complete
solution to the customer.

Time and again, vertical industries have expressed their
preference for buying “solutions” from telcos rather than simply buying “connectivity”,
so of critical importance to the future success of the telco will be how they
develop this platform and then build the necessary ecosystem to bring as
complete a solution as possible to the end customer.

future structure of the telco

The decisions facing the telco regarding where to position
themselves on the digital landscape are huge. Taken as a whole, the traditional
telco industry would be seen to have moderate expertise in the area of cloud
and AI and low expertise in the area of platforms and ecosystem development. If
they do nothing, their cloud and AI expertise will atrophy and they are likely
to end up as a hyperscale dependent telco in an unenviable low-margin
position, reliant on their hyperscaler partners for much of their network and
platform infrastructure. This industry position can be made to work for telcos
that are willing to compete primarily on price for a limited set of
undifferentiated services.

The telco also has the option of investing in the
development of their cloud and AI expertise to retain in a position of power in
a world of virtualized networks and cloud edge services. I call this the transitional
. In the short term it will prove to be an important position in
the industry, but may not be tenable in the long term as the speed of
innovation of the hyperscalers may make it difficult for these telcos to
compete on price with telcos that are simply taking whatever network and edge
capability the hyperscalers are offering.

They could instead decide to focus their investment on
developing their platforms and ecosystems and become a highly competitive services
. This could prove to be a good position for the telco to adopt,
particularly if they’re able to leverage their already impressive existing
customer base and relationships, and upsell into other services.  However, this position has relatively low
barriers to entry and so constant innovation by the telco in terms of services
and business models will be essential to thrive in this position.

Ultimately, the telco could choose to go big and invest in
both their cloud/AI capabilities and their platform/ecosystem capabilities. To do
this, the telco will not only need money but will also have to take a long hard
look at themselves and their internal processes in terms of how they stack up
against the real cloud native and digitally native players.  However, the few that manage to successfully
become this cloud-native telco have the opportunity to become a
true digital giant in the coming decades.


The future of the telco will be determined by how well the
telco handles the enormous challenge of 5G monetization and digital
transformation. If they handle it well the telco can secure a position as one
of the engines of growth of the digital economy for the coming decade. If they
handle it poorly, they will slide backwards to become a utility connectivity
provider competing primarily on price. The decisions the telco takes today in
terms investment in cloud, AI, platforms, and ecosystems will resonate out into
the future.

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