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The winners and losers of telecoms will be decided by convergence

Marathon runners taking the position for the start of race

There are still naysayers about the benefits of convergence, but those who ignore this trend will fast find themselves sleep-walking the path to utilitisation and irrelevance.

First and foremost, let’s have a look at what convergence actually is. This strategy is not the silver bullet which some telcos are seeking. A convergence strategy which not recapture the lost fortunes of yesteryear overnight, and it will not turn the traditional telco into the sleek shape of an internet giant. However, it does future-proof the business against the rising tides of utilitisation.

For those companies who are happy to be utilities, fair enough. There are profits to be made through the commoditisation of data services, though it is a very different type of business. But those who think they can be a value-add business, simply focusing on a single revenue stream are fooling themselves. Those companies shall remain nameless here, but it is pretty obvious who they are.

Convergence is about layering the business through multiple service offerings and diversifying the way in which telcos can engage consumers. It could be through multiple connectivity opportunities, and increasingly content has become a common theme, but there are numerous options open to the telco which demonstrates a bit of bravery.

According to recent research from OSS/BBS firm Openet, 73% of consumers are open to purchasing more digital services from telcos. The result of the introduction of these services is not only more revenue, but increased loyalty. 65% said the presence of more digital services would make them feel more engaged with their telco, while 79% said it would increase their loyalty.

Firstly, this is an opportunity to avoid the dreaded race to the bottom. If a telco can offer a positive network experience (not a given in today’s world however) and a reasonable price, as well as digital services, churn will also theoretically decrease. But what do digital services actually mean?

Content is the most obvious one to start with. If a telco is flush enough, this can mean owning a content segment, such as football rights in Spain for example, though partnerships with OTTs is an increasingly popular option. The telcos can be very valuable partners to the OTTs, either through their billing relationship with the customer or a trusted link in regions were direct customer acquisition is more difficult.

Numerous telcos are taking this approach, and it is proving popular with customers. Using the Openet research once again, 38% of respondents would switch their provider for better content options, while another 38% would be interested in changing should there be a zero-rating offer attached also.

But content is only the start, and this is an area which could become increasingly commoditised if/when these partnerships become commonplace. Looking beyond these content bundles, offering a broad range of niche features could be the next battle ground. Think of the Vodafone partnership with Hatch for gaming. This will not appeal to everyone, but it will attract interest from a niche. O2’s Priority loyalty programme offers early access to music venues and festivals. Again, a niche, but it will appeal strongly to some.

Looking further afield once again is where you start to see the real leaders in the digital world. Orange is a perfect example, with its security products. This is where the world of connectivity and digital services can be blended to attract completely new revenues. And of course, as more of the world become digitised, there are more opportunities to add value on top of connectivity offerings.

The smart home presents opportunities, as does the connected car. The telcos have a unique opportunity to capitalise on the digital world as few consumers today would leave their home without their smartphone. This is a direct, and constant, link to the consumer. There are not many other industries which can boast this advantage.

Interestingly enough, the telcos will not even be cannibalising their own revenues with these new products. For most consumers, the money spent on connectivity is different from that which is spent on entertainment or security. If you can help them spend less through bundled services, this is a bonus, but asking the consumer to spend money on entertainment as well as connectivity is not going to decrease ARPU. Quite the opposite.

The consumer wants to spend money on entertainment and digital services, but the question is who they are going to spend it with.

Ideally, we would like to see more telcos take the Google approach to business. In 2015, Google undertook a business restructure, separating the two functions into very distinct business units. On one side, you have the core search business. Google knows it can make money from this without really trying. On the other side, you have ring-fenced funds which are used to fuel the ideas which drive diversification on the spreadsheets.

Through this structure, one side of the business is not influenced by the other until the right time. Ideas are given the opportunity to flourish and be what they are intended to be, without the limitations of the traditional business. Fi is an MVNO which has emerged from the research side, as is Sidewalk Labs and balloon connectivity firm Loon. Without the separation, would these ideas have evolved to their full potential which is currently being realised?

This is the challenge which the telcos are facing. Convergence and the evolution into a digital services provider requires an internal disruption. It demands executives think about priorities different and invest in areas which are alien to the organization. It means being forward thinking and preparing to fuel ideas with long-term ambitions. And it needs to be done quickly.

You don’t necessarily have to be first to market, but you need to be a fast-follower at the very least. A convergence strategy encourages loyalty from subscribers after all, and once the dust has settled, it will become increasingly difficult to lure valuable postpaid customers away from rivals.

Not every telco will get it right. Not every telco will believe in the convergence buzz. And not every telco will evolve fast enough. However, there could be the creation of a tiered industry for too long. The winners at the top who nail convergence and become a valuable part of the digital economy, and the losers who continue to trudge the path to commoditisation.

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