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Unlimited data is inevitable with 5G, but try telling operators that

Ericsson Mobility Report June 2018 smartphones

We’re quickly moving into the 5G era and many assume the concept of unlimited data bundles will be commonplace, but how will the telcos fare in this new world?

As it stands, the telcos are under pressure. This is not to say they are not profitable, but many shareholders will question whether they are profitable enough. Tight margins and a squeeze on core revenue streams are common enough phrases when describing telco balance sheets, but this could get a lot worse when you factor in unlimited data packages.

As Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight pointed out, when you offer unlimited data you are effectively killing off any prospect of revenue growth per subscriber in the future. In some markets, there are still fortunes to be made, but in some, such as the UK where 4G subscription penetration is north of 100%, where are you going to make the growth revenues from when consumers are demanding more for less?

More consumers are seeking unlimited or higher data allocations but are not willing to pay for the experience. Some MNOs might be able to resist, but the more rivals who offer such tariffs the more the rest will be forced into line. It’s the race to the bottom which is profitable in the short-term, but growth will end quickly. The price per GB is only heading one direction and unlimited data allocations will end the prospect of upgrading customers.

O2 fighting for air

This is the conundrum which the telcos are facing in the UK right now. All four have announced their 5G intentions and all four are promising big gains when it comes to the next era of connectivity.

Starting with O2, the only one of the four MNOs not to have released 5G pricing to date, this is a telco which looks to be in the most uncomfortable position. Over the last few quarters, the management team has boasted of increased subscriber numbers, but this can only go on for so long in the consumer world. Soon enough, a glass ceiling will be met and then the team will have to search for new revenues elsewhere.

This is of course assuming it plans to go down the route of unlimited data, it might want to stick with the status quo. That said, if everyone else does, it will not be able to fight against the tide for fear of entering the realm of irrelevance.

The issue here is one of differentiation. The idea of attracting new customers by offering ‘bigger, meaner, faster’ data packages will soon end and telcos will have to talk about something else. O2 does have its Priority loyalty programme, but with rivals launching their own version this USP will fade into the noise.

Differentiation and convergence are two words which have been thrown around a lot over the last few years, though O2 has thus far resisted. Last year, CEO Mark Evans suggested he was not bought into the convergence trend and would continue as a mobile-only telco, though this opinion does seem to be softening.

If O2 is going to be competitive in the almost inevitable era of unlimited data, it will have to source growth revenues from somewhere. It is making a push into the enterprise connectivity world, which will bring new profits to the spreadsheets, though does it want its consumer mobile business to stand still?

Bundles of fun

This is where the other telcos in the UK have perhaps got more of a running start in the 5G era. EE has its connectivity assets in broadband and wifi to add value, as well as a content business of some description. Three is already known as the data-intensive brand, while its FWA push will take it into some interesting connectivity bundling options. Vodafone also has FWA, a fibre partnership with CityFibre and is arguably the leader in the enterprise connectivity market. The rivals are offering more than mobile connectivity as a stand-alone product.

Looking at Vodafone to begin with, the recent announcement is certainly an interesting one. The innovative approach to pricing, tiering tariffs on speeds not data allocation, will attract some headlines, while it is also super-charging its own loyalty programme, VeryMe. It has secured content partnerships with the likes of Sky, Amazon, Spotify and gaming company Hatch, while its FWA offering also includes a free Amazon Alexa for those who sign-up early enough.

Combining the FWA product or its fibre broadband service, courtesy of CityFibre, also gives them the ‘connectivity everywhere’ tag, a strength of BTs in recent years, to allow them to communicate and sell to customers in a different way. Perhaps it is missing a content play to complete the convergence bundle, but it is in a strong position to tackle the 5G world and seek additional revenues should the unlimited craze catch.

The same story could be said of Three. With the acquisition of UK Broadband, it has forced itself into the convergence game and kicked off the ‘race to the bottom’ with an unlimited 5G data offer. As long as you have a Three 4G contract, you can get 5G for no additional cost, assuming you have a 5G compatible phone of course.

Three’s strength and weakness lies in its reputation. It is known for being the best telco if you have an insatiable data appetite, this works very well for the 5G era, though it is also known for having a poor network. Three regularly features at the bottom of the network performance rankings, especially outside of the big cities where it has not done nearly enough to satisfy demands.

This will of course change over the next couple of months. Three is working to improve its network with additional sites and a new Nokia 5G core, however it will have to do a lot to shake off the reputation is has acquired over the last few years.

EE is perhaps the most interesting of the four. It has lost its position as the market share leader when it comes to 4G subscriptions, but it does have the reputation for being the best in terms of performance throughout the country. It is regularly the fastest for download speeds, but its 5G pricing is by far the most expensive to be released so far.

That said, with the BT assets it has for wifi and broadband, as well as the content options, there is plenty for the consumer to be interested in. Should BT be forced to readdress the pricing conundrum, it might not have the fear regarding a glass ceiling on revenues as there are plenty of other products to engage the consumer. It will be able to find additional revenues elsewhere.

MVNO no you didn’t

Outside of the MNOs, you might also start to see some competition. MVNOs are nothing more than ‘also rans’ today, but Sky has officially entered the 5G race. This is an interesting competitor, one who could cause chaos to the status quo.

Firstly, understand mobile is not the primary business for Sky. This is an add-on, where it is seeking to drive additional revenues and attract more customers through bundled services. It is the leader in the UK when it comes to premium content and has a thriving broadband unit also. Sky can add services on top of connectivity to make itself seem more attractive than the traditional mobile service providers.

Then again, there are only a couple of MVNOs who can pose this challenge. Sky is one, while there are persistent rumours Amazon wants to get involved with the connectivity game and Google has its own Fi service. These are also companies who are at the mercy of the MNOs in terms of the commercial agreement with the MVNOs, so damage is likely to be limited unless one network owner decides to go down the wholesale infrastructure route.

But you cannot ignore these companies. They are cash-rich, constantly searching for new ways to make money and have incredible relationships with the consumer. They are also the owners of platforms and/or services which are very attractive to the mass market; bundling could be taken into a new context with these firms.

Diversity is our strength

This is of course only looking at the services which are common throughout telco diversification plans today, there are other options. Orange has launched a bank, has experimented in energy services and is making a move towards the smart home in partnership with Deutsche Telekom. Over in Asia, gaming is an important element of many telcos relationships with consumers and this trend is becoming much more prominent in the European markets also.

Elsewhere, the smart home could certainly offer more opportunities for telcos to add-value to an emerging ecosystem, while the autonomous vehicles offers another opportunity and so does IOT. The issue which many of these telcos are facing is competition from the OTTs. Arguably, the battle for control of the smart home might already have been won by the OTTs, though the same could be said for autonomous vehicles and IOT.

In many of the emerging segments, telcos will remain a connectivity partner though they certainly need more than that. This will remain a consistent stream of revenue, though it will also sleepwalk telcos to utilitisation. In IOT, as an example, the major cloud players are crafting business units to engage enterprise businesses for edge and IOT services; this is a market which the telcos would love to capitalise on for both enterprise and consumer services.

Security is another which is increasingly becoming a possibility. The concept of cybersecurity is generating more headlines and consumers are becoming more aware to the dangers of the digital world. Arguably, the telcos are in the strongest position to generate revenue from this segment; there is trust in the brand and they have largely avoided all the scandals which are driving the introduction of new regulation.

Unlimited data is certainly not commonplace today, but with the services of tomorrow promising to gobble up data at an unfathomable pace, it would surprise few to see more people migrating to these tariffs. The question is how you make money once you have migrated everyone.

Diversification and the acquisition of new products is not a simple task, but then again, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how single revenue stream telcos will be able to survive in the world of tomorrow.

 

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3 comments

  1. Horace 01/08/2019 @ 2:14 pm

    “when you offer unlimited data you are effectively killing off any prospect of revenue growth per subscriber in the future”
    Why so? Can’t they just raise the price of the offer?

    • Jamie Davies Jamie Davies 01/08/2019 @ 2:19 pm

      The only that would work is if all the telcos raised prices at the same time and none undercut rivals to capture the p*ssed off subscribers. If they all did it at the same time, this would be very suspicious.

      The price of data is only going one direction – increasing tariffs prices would effectively be commercial suicide; why would anyone pay more for a service when its cheaper elsewhere? We’re still very much a nation which is driven by price and value adds, not the performance of the network

  2. Paul Hjul 02/08/2019 @ 11:48 am

    When you add EU roaming rules into the mix it becomes a total nightmare for the long term financials of MNOs flatlining their per client revenue on 5G, even where you are only dealing with LTE-A as a high speed high consumption data service that routes back home.

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