Tech and Business, Telco

Embedded Connectivity: The next wave of telco growth

Telcos have transformed their business once every decade since the 80s: fixed voice, mobile voice, fixed data, mobile data. Fixed and mobile data for homes, offices and individuals will continue to be required in ever greater quantity, but will be difficult to monetize further (see Connectivity Explosion). The next wave for the 2020s seems embedded connectivity for everything. Embedded connectivity holds substantial promise but requires a rethink of many traditional telco orthodoxies.

A sector in continuous revolution over half a century

Telco might be a 100-year old sector but Moore’s law has allowed a continuous transformation of the products it offers during the last four decades:

  • The 80s were the last decade fully devoted to fixed voice in the home and the business premises. It was also a decade of transformation, with voice lines being fully automated and digitalized, finally eliminating human operators in calls. I am old enough to have seen some of the last human operators routing calls in a small village of northern Spain when I was a young boy.
  • The 90s were the decade of mobile voice for the individual. First in the car and briefcase, moving gradually to pockets. While early analog systems launched in the 1980s (1979 was NTT in Japan, the earliest system), it was only the decade of the 1990s with 2G that really saw the explosion of mobile phones. Deploying mobile telephony at scale was a huge undertaking which required creating new companies, often owned by the former fixed monopolies but independent from them.
  • The 2000s saw the resurgence of fixed, through fixed data for internet connections. In the late 90s no one expected fixed and cable players to be able to capture much value from the internet revolution. Up to 2001 ISPs like America Online or mobile players with 3G seemed to be a much more attractive investment. However, the open internet based on a standard TCP/IP and HTML broke down walled gardens and was powered into broadband by ADSL and cable (DOCSIS). This gave back value to fixed operators who gradually transformed their business from voice to data, and over the next decade from copper to fiber
  • The 2010s saw the promise of mobile data finally materialize through the smartphone. The mobile data promise of 3G didn’t materialize, except in Japan where i-Mode created a walled mobile internet one decade ahead of the rest of the world. This lead to a crisis for mobile players in the 2000s, with voice penetration already saturating which was somewhat alleviated by SMS and blackberries. It was only in 2008 when Steve Jobs and his iPhone saved the industry and provided a way to leverage mobile data fully. The smartphone came to its own with the deployment of 4G and created a mobile internet which has quickly overtaken the fixed one in time spent. It is dominated by the two smartphone OS duopolists, Apple and Google, who have created a “semiwalled garden”

All these developments were always unexpected and full of uncertainty. Today they might look like sure things, but at the time they were uncertain strategic bets. Mobile telephony was a niche proposition. According to a mythical consulting study mobile phones had a ceiling of 3 million subscribers globally (they got it at least three orders of magnitude wrong). Fixed data came out of the internet, something that seemed reserved for tech geeks in the 1990s and only came to the fore in the internet boom. Even in the internet boom it was ISPs and browsers that where expected to capture most of the value, not telcos. Mobile data took a decade longer than expected in coming, and was created almost singlehandedly by an industry outsider with an iconic device that a decade later has created the first trillion dollar company.

The candidates for the next wave

There are many candidates for the “Next Big Thing” beyond the smartphone in terms of the next user interface: Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain… As covered in Connectivity Explosion all these technologies will indeed require exponentially more connectivity with significantly enhanced performance, which telco technology is perfectly ready to provide.

However, as we are already seeing over the last five years, regulation and the ultra competition it engenders will not allow to capture increasing revenues in the individual mobile connection or the home/office fixed connection. Users will get increasingly better performance that will cover the needs for these “Next Big Things” at similar prices. The telco sector will continue to provide its 99,5% price-performance discount as it has done decade after decade (only semiconductors and hardware have managed a similar feat). This will slightly shrink the weight of communications on household expenditure and business expenditure, as traditional connectivity revenues grow slower than GDP.

The next wave will take us beyond individual and home connections, to connect everything else in the world. This phase has been called “Internet of Things” or “Internet of Everything”, embedded connectivity seems more precise. It has to do with embedding connectivity in everything in the physical world, so intelligence and interactivity expands from digital to physical. This explosion has the potential to be as transformative and significant as fixed data or mobile data.

The 2020s and embedded connectivity

This new wave of embedded connectivity has already started haltingly with M2M and IoT. However, it is not growing at a pace at which it looks poised to transform the industry yet. It is like fixed data before the internet craze really got on, or mobile data before the iPhone. Something that looks like an attractive niche rather than a transformative wave of growth. Telco valuations are suffering from this, as the previous waves of growth have already saturated and the new one is not ready to take off.

Embedded connectivity also seems to require a rethinking of the model at several levels. First, connections will be numbered in the billions and trillions, so current ARPU levels are completely out of questions, we need to move from “connection scarcity” to “connection abundance”. Moreover, it is just too complex for the customer to pay a monthly fee for each object, so we can expect one-offs that are embedded in the initial purchase price or in a subscription related to other services. Finally, customers don’t want connectivity, they want intelligence, so connectivity will become a component in a larger value proposition sold by another business to a third party, an “Intel Inside” B2B2X model.

The last part of the 2010s is proving a very tough period for telcos, as the new wave still needs to take off. As usual, financial markets can not see beyond what is already in the P&L and this has lead to extremely low valuations, similar to fixed assets before the ADSL boom. We can expect the cycle to reverse as embedded connectivity kicks into high gear during the 2020s, but it is difficult to forecast if we will have a specific event that triggers the change (like the iPhone or the internet boom) or if we will see a steady growth beyond all previous expectations (like with mobile voice in the 90s).

Tech and Business, Telco

Connectivity Explosion

After two decades of increasing use connectivity continues to explode for the home/office, for the individual, and now for inanimate objects. New technologies being deployed like AR/VR, AI, cloud, Blockchain and IoT only promise increased connectivity needs and requirements. 5G, Fiber, Edge Computing and softwarization present a clear path to fulfilling these exploding needs over the next decade. Prepare for a world in which everything is connected at ultra-high bandwidth, securily, automagically and with ultra low latency: it will have its advantages, but we will also have to fight Orwellian nightmares.

Connectivity continues to explode

It has been already almost two decades since the internet boom and bust. Quaint 48kbps and 56kbps modems that loaded the initial text versions of Yahoo! have been replaced by homes connected at hundreds of megabits per second (x10.000 from 1997) and smartphones routinely reaching tens of megabits (x1.000). Load times of minutes have given way to trying to reduce hundreds of milliseconds of a web page or app load. Progress has been staggering and cost has plummeted. The cost per Mbps for consumers is at least 99,98% lower in an internet connection comparing the late nineties with today.

We can expect this explosion to continue. All projections of connectivity use point towards continued exponential growth. Taking Cisco for the 2016-2021 period, it is projecting a tripling of internet data, at least a doubling of speeds, more than three connections per capita and close to two thirds of the world connected.

We can imagine this predictions being fulfilled just with streaming video and file sharing. However, customer needs will go even forward. New emerging technologies have increased needs and requirements for connectivity:

  • VR/AR represents an order of magnitude increase in content size compared with video, and it has interactivity making connectivity make or break. The amount of data that needs to be send bidirectionally for AR and VR will strain even today’s connections. And latency will need to be reduced below 100ms to avoid degraded user experience and motion sickness.
  • AI requires great quantities of data, including live video and audio feeds as well as huge datasets to be effective. Integrating AI seamlessly in customers lives also requires extremely low latency so the lag between command and response is not perceptible. Connectivity and data security becomes critical in a context in which we are continuously monitored and commands can control the real world.
  • Cloud is increasingly distributing computing and storage, requiring connectivity to tie it back together in a way in which the distributed nature of the system is invisible to both human and machines. Connectivity needs and requirements (i.e. latency, security) to make apparently simple tasks, like editing a document remotely, work seamlessly are still significantly greater than what we have today.
  • Blockchain’s key problem at this point is scalability, and scalability has to do with network performance. A blockchain is a distributed system and as such requires the network to make it work effectively. To run our most critical trust infrastructure on the blockchain would require extreme bandwidths together with low latency and first rate security.
  • Finally, IoT, the connection of all things to the internet, is itself a tremendous connectivity challenge. Not so much in terms of bandwidth, but in terms of latency, power consumption, architectures that allow millions of connected things, and the security to protect us from cybercriminals.

Overall, the connectivity explosion for the next decade will not only mean much greater speeds and capacities, but will also provide lower latency, lower power consumption, greater security, and greater scalability in number of connections.

Telco technology is ready for the challenge

Given this extreme wave of connectivity needs coming, is telco technology ready to cope with them? The answer is a clear yes. The industry has pulled together to create technologies and standards with significant runway in terms of performance and flexibility to meet the challenge.

Fiber will underpin all connectivity. While it hasn’t been widely appreciated yet, fiber deployments taking place across the world are equivalent to the paved roads that allowed our automobile-based economy. We are moving from copper, equivalent to earth roads, to fiber, equivalent to paved roads, and we are doing it quickly and efficiently. Some countries like Japan, Korea or Spain are almost finished in their transition. Fiber infrastructure has the potential to take us very far, with GPON technology already capable of several orders of magnitude of improvement of our average speeds with negligible latency and much lower power consumption and line faults.

5G is built on fiber and softwarization. 5G is the latest industry buzzword and it represents the next standard for mobile communications. This standard is already built with fiber and softwarization in mind. Beyond gigabit speeds we can expect 5G to deliver millisecond latency, much greater flexibility in network architecture, and another level of security through network slicing. While speed and latency in 5G will be evolutionary with 4G, 4,5G and 4,9G, its architectural flexibility and the security provided by network slicing provide a paradigm jump similar to fiber.

Edge computing will optimize latency, bandwidth and data security. Increasing bandwidth, reducing latency and improving security and privacy in the last mile access with fiber and 5G won’t be enough for many applications. The datacenter needs to be closer to the customer, both for performance and data security. Fiber, softwarization and improved datacenter technology is making it possible to deploy “mini-datacenters” in telecom infrastructure or even at the customer’s home or office to make this real.

Softwarization will make the network liquid. Finally, the telco network is being digitized, with specialized hardware losing importance to edge computing and network software. Once the network is softwarized it becomes much more flexible, as happens in all transition from atoms to bits. This is the silent transformation that makes all the other technologies so powerful.

In summary, technology is ready. The only risk some countries might face is making the deployments economically unfeasible through regulation. A natural monopoly like telecommunications needs and benefits from regulation. However, some regulators, especially in the EU, have shortsightedly prioritized short term consumer price reduction (making the 99,98% cost per Mbps reduction a 99,985% reduction) vs. industrial policy for innovation and creation of the infrastructure for the long term economic growth and leadership. The EU hasn’t created any of the Big Techs, has almost managed to destroy its technological lead in mobile with Nokia overthrown in handsets, and the equipment providers are under siege from China and Korea’s much more long term focused industrial policy.

How will the next wave of connectivity change your life and your business?

Picture a world in which connectivity is so ubiquitous, powerful and secure that it can basically transfer all information (including live 360 video) instantly. Private secure connections can be created and decommissioned in milliseconds, completely through software. Processing and storage capacity in the edge allows to perform most computation and storage really close to where the information is being generated, without having to surrender ownership of the data.

A physical store might have even greater data granularity than ecommerce, understanding and analyzing continuous video feeds without compromising user privacy. A doctor might be able to experience a patient fully even if she is hundreds of kilometers away and call on a specialist for support if needed, without sensitive health data being in danger. A teacher might be able to take students into an immersive trip into whatever is being studied, with students attending physically or virtually and having real-time personalization adequate to their level of understanding. This is only some of what we can imagine now, but as the internet and the smartphone revolutions showed our current imagination is a poor guide to what could happen.

Of course, there are also dystopian scenarios already being deployed and many others that can be imagined. China’s social credit system with complete monitoring and censorship of citizen’s actions in the digital and physical world will only be further empowered through the new wave of connectivity. This kind of 1984-like monitoring is in conflict with western values like privacy and freedom. And we shouldn’t only fear state actors, the last months have put companies like Facebook or Google on the spotlight for similar reasons.

So prepare to take advantage of the instant ubiquitous connectivity, but also prepare to fight against whatever intrusions it starts to allow on our hard won rights. As Bill Gates famously said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”