Telcos CAPEX is here to stay. Optimizing it is the way to go.

“A lot of people have been talking about how capex is going to come down with SDN and I’ve said, ‘No, it’s going to stay the same for Verizon’  – Fran Shammo, CFO, Verizon. May 2016

This comment right from the head honcho of one of the largest Telcos in US cannot be taken lightly. Despite lot of talk in the industry about SDN / NFV CAPEX reduction benefits, we’re seeing skeptical questions around smooth transition to virtualization. But I will keep SDN /NFV discussion for some other day. Let us focus on the topic – CAPEX spends. Verizon’s CFO has confirmed its CAPEX spend going to stay, despite network virtualization!

The CAPEX focus could be different for different Telcos. For some Telcos like Verizon, their CAPEX spend mainly focused on future technologies, leading the market, greater customer experience etc. For some other Telcos, their budget constraints force them to think hard and do delicate trade-off between strategical “revenue-growth” projects and tactical maintenance projects to keep up with network growth, retain customers, improve quality of experience etc. With this hard balancing at hand, what if Telcos are equipped with smart tools & methodologies that could help in optimizing their on-going CAPEX? But, is such thing exist? I will get there in a moment. Please bear with me.

First, let us go through few industry trends.  In our recent study from Gartner, we got few interesting insights.

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Here is short summary on the insights:

  • On an average Telco spends 15% – 20% of annual revenue on yearly Capital Expenditure
  • Increase in Capex spends w.r.t revenue (CAPEX Intensity = Capex / Revenue) is not translating into equivalent increase in revenue growth
  • Correlation between CAPEX Intensity and Revenue growth is a weak factor for Telcos mentioned in the regions. This means revenue growth is not linearly correlated with CAPEX spends
  • 5-year flat growth in revenues across geographies is not encouraging. Max 20% 5-year top-line growth in North America region and deep negative for Europe region (-11%)
  • Cost of capital over last decade is higher than RoI on an average across the industry
  • Notable positive point is the margins are maintained in 25 – 35% range across geographies. And it is imperative to maintain this margins to generate free cash to fund next CAPEX cycle but if not completely.

The above stats where CAPEX spends are not reaping substantial revenue growth indicates two major viewpoints:

  1. Strategic capital investments have a slightly long gestation period but not comparable to capital cycles of traditional industries like manufacturing industry.
  2. Bulk of CAPEX go into maintenance projects. That is, to keep-up with current network demand juggernaut, customer retention, quality of service etc.

For instance, a good chunk of leading Tier 1 North American operator’s CAPEX goes into wireless network for densification and getting future ready for 5G deployments. This could be a case for many big Telcos – investing on future technologies. On the contrary, we have also seen majority of Telcos’ CAPEX going in for second type of investment – meeting current network data growth. This is nothing wrong as such and very much required to keep customers happy.

However, if one looks at this fact in light of recent market research findings from one of the big four audit firms, it gives a different perspective. The research reveals that majority of the Telcos not equipped with enough tools or industry best practices to assess the CAPEX spends on projects, evaluate ROI for each such investment and perform sustainable capital allocation. This is a surprising revelation. It simply means that many Telcos are servicing on-going CAPEX without rigorous assessment on actual RoI vs planned RoI, are not taking forward lessons learned from previous CAPEX cycle. Even the Telcos who do have rigorous processes, right incentive structure, accountability of results etc. actually misses a critical point.

What Telcos underestimate?

The critical point is – generally the assets, especially the network assets are viewed from monetary value perspective only in this whole CAPEX scheme of things. The value that can be derived from un-lit or under-used network asset capacities for the CAPEX planned is not given deserved thought or action. This is because of the fundamental reason that financial and network data of assets are lying in silos. This data is never used together to gather useful insights to put the network assets to sweat to furthest possible aligning with ever growing network demand and broader strategic CAPEX – RoI goals. Telcos can do more with their data. It would require collaborative efforts with right partner to unleash the power residing underneath the siloed systems.

The Steady Decline in Operating Cash Flow for Telcos

How does one gauge the financial performance of a telco?   Earnings growth, commonly measured using EBITDA, is favored by many analysts.  But how much of the story does this metric tell?   For a telco, OIBDA (Operating Income Before Depreciation and Amortization) may be a bit more insightful given that it generally excludes income and financial events outside of the core business.   Of course, there are many secondary metrics that often get attention during earnings calls and we know them well: ARPU, postpaid vs. prepaid mix, subscriber growth & churn, etc.   I’m going to make my case in this space for another metric that should be top-of-mind for executives, corporate boards and analysts: Operating Cash Flow or OCF.

Let’s start with a key component of OCF which is Capex Intensity.  This is simply the ratio of Capex to Revenue.   Ideally, it should be normalized to exclude one-time significant events like investments in spectrum.   Subex conducted a study of financial results for 44 large tier operators between 2011-2015*.   One of the interesting, if unsurprising, findings is that Capex Intensity has been rising steadily.  Consider the following chart.  In 2011, the average Capex Intensity was 15.9% for the operators in our study.   In 2015 it was 18.9%.   We also have data going back to 2008 which shows an industry average of 13.3%!

OCF_Chart_1

The chart shows Capex Intensity for Americas and Europe are slowly tracking upward.   In 2015, there was a huge spike for the big groups while there was a dip for APAC.  This is largely explained by inclusion of the big Chinese operators (China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom) in the “Groups” category provided by Gartner due to their scale.  Capex Intensity for these three was over 38% in 2015 as China scrambles to build out LTE infrastructure for all those folks using WeChat and shopping on Alibaba!

Now consider the five-year trend for OIBDA.

OCF_Chart_2

Between 2011 and 2015, for the operators in the study, OIBDA margin declined an average of 2.2%

This brings me back to Operating Cash Flow (OCF).   Anyone who runs a business will tell you that free cash from operations is their most watched number.   I ran a commercial kitchen with 5 employees for several years and, believe me, I lost many nights sleep over our cash position.  Then I got back into telecom.  What was I thinking?  But I digress…

My argument is that the influence of Capex tends to get buried in financial statements.   Certainly telcos have to invest in networks to fuel subscriber growth and deliver a rich customer experience.  But the trends in Capex Intensity (up) and OIBDA margins (down) are unmistakable and they compound each other.  Take a look at the next chart.

OCF_Chart_3

OCF = (OIBDA – Capex)/Revenue, or equivalently, OIBDA Margin – Capex Intensity.    So it is a fairly complete measure of the operational health of an operator because it considers Revenue, Opex and Capex.  Anything left over can be used for debt service, taxes and dividends.   Between 2011 and 2015, OCF among operators globally fell 5.3%.   This is a significant observation.

What can reverse the trend?  In the long term, business models that better compete with OTT players is certainly a hot topic of discussion.  Perhaps SDN and NFV will tilt network economics back in the telcos’ favor.   In the near term, it is clear that better Capex governance and controls can at least slow the trend.  Keep in mind that 100% of Capex savings flows to the bottom line, while an incremental dollar of revenue only contributes the margin amount.

I see these industry numbers as a call to action—managing and reducing Capex should be an imperative at the corporate board level for every telco.   Capex governance includes:

  • Giving commercials and finance teams some of the same visibility to asset utilization as the network teams.
  • Aggressively exploiting cases where assets can be reused before purchasing new
  • Proactively selling off excess assets while they still have value to other telcos
  • Keeping financial and technical records of assets fully aligned
  • Placing better controls on high-risk assets at the edges of the network such as CPE, set top boxes, access points, small cells and handsets

I’ll close with this observation— while SDN and NFV bring the promise of reducing Capex via virtualization and commoditization, the economics are not yet proven and the transition will take years.  Early adopters of NFV have found, for example, that it may take multiple Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) to replace the same function performed by one instance of legacy software on dedicated hardware.  This erodes Capex savings from virtualization.  The lesson is that exploiting approaches to reduce Capex in the existing network should not get lost when chasing the promise of virtualization.

If you would like more background on the methodology used for our analysis, and the operators we included, please write to me.

*Raw financial data supplied by Gartner.  Analysis by Subex.

IoT Settlements – Leverage the world of opportunity

The Scenario

Of late IoT has gained a lot of attention and every operator is at least thinking of leveraging this latest platform to offer innovative products, but the big question is how?

Many operators are relying on their vendors to come up with IoT use cases, the challenge here is that even the Vendors are still in process of deep diving as IoT is still a niche market.

One of the major factor that makes IoT an unknown area is the lack of visible use cases to be seen in our day to day life, though the developed counties have made significant progress, developing world is yet to embrace the “Smart” systems. With lot of emphasis on Smart cities, IoT business is here to stay.

When it comes to IoT Settlements, both Telcos and Vendors should start thinking out of the traditional wholesale approach. Telcos are looking for vendors who can support them with their traditional as well as new business areas with the centralized solution.

The Concept

Understanding “Internet of Things” concept is very simple, it is a network of “Things”. Things are physical objects that can be added to a network, have sensors and can be controlled using software. These things can be as common as day to day devices like a Fridge, a Car, a thermostat and so on. The purpose of connecting ‘things’ is to have a centralized access to their features and to control enormous data they are capable of producing.

One very obvious fact that can be identified from IoT is to have a medium for keeping things connected. This creates an immense opportunity for telecom operators to provide medium for supporting the connected items. According to Gartner by 2020, the Internet of Things will grow to 26 billion units installed which excludes connected PCs and smartphones. This will add $1.9 trillion to the global economy. Intel estimates 31 billion devices to be connected by 2020. According to Cisco by 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected, whereas Morgan Stanley feels that the number is much higher and it can go up to 75 billion.  The good news is, there is a substantial growth opportunity for everyone, right from smart device manufacturers to the smart service providers everyone can get their share of business from IoT.

The Process

Let us consider an example of a smart home. There are multiple interconnected devices which are installed for security, entertainment, utility etc. These are all connected to a centralized hub, which in turn is connected to the IoT platform. IoT platform consumes the data generated by these smart devices for insights and to make sense of this huge data.

To establish this network of devices connected to hub and IoT Platform, internet is needed. This gap is filled by the Telcos. So bringing in smartness requires lot of partners to work together. Let us enrich above example to get more clear understanding of the multi partner involvement.

A  leading furniture retailer has introduced a new Smart Home Solution, where consumer can install smart devices such as TV, Fridge, Air conditioner, Washing Machine, Radio, lighting solution, thermostat and security solution. Finally these devices are connected to hub to have a centralized control of the devices.

A smart Hub ensures all smart devices speak the same language, this enables user to remotely control the devices even if the user is far away from the home. To bring in more intelligence the data gets transmitted from smart devices to the IoT Platform. The IoT platform analyzes the data, apply rules and makes devices more smart based on the usage patterns.

Finally the most important piece of this setup is facilitated by a Telecom operator to ensure internet connectivity for all the devices to communicate. Telecom operators can also bundle voice and SMS services along with data to take actions based on the defined rules. E.g. in case there is a security breach, device can initiate a call & SMS to the owner and insurance company to inform this breach.

So in this particular eco system, we have seen multiple partners working together to establish a Smart Home solution.  Similarly there are multi partner IoT use cases for Smart Car Fleet, Smart Healthcare, Smart Grids, etc. In all the IoT use cases irrespective of the catered domain, Telecom Operators and IoT platform vendors will always play a significant role, directly or indirectly they will contribute to billions of dollars in the IoT economy.

For a Telco, providing backbone is not the only important thing in IoT space. With the complex partnership models, Partner Management, Billing and Settlements are other crucial activities that will result in the Cost and Revenue identification.

The Solution – Partner Management, Billing & Settlement

With the cut throat competition and reducing margins in the traditional Wholesale business, operators are adding new dimensions to their business with immense revenue generation capabilities of Internet of Things.

A new age partner Settlement solution cannot limit its functionalities to just traditional business models. There is a requirement for settlement solutions to be more agile in accepting and delivering new business requirements with short time to market. If we talk about IoT for a Telco, now partners are not limited to Voice or Content providers, rather the list is getting much diversified with partners coming in from various domains like health care, agriculture, utility, etc.

For a smart home solution, a telecom operator can provide IoT backbone to a furniture retailer , where the Telco will ensure internet connectivity and will enable IoT platform in collaboration with a cloud computing platform. Here the furniture retailer becomes the Telecom operator’s customer and the cloud platform provider is Telco’s vendor.

Partner Management & Settlement solution deployed at Telco should take care of partner (Customer & Vendor) lifecycle management, easy on-boarding, business transparency along with IoT billing & settlements. Partner Settlement solution should also be capable of managing plethora of Meta data that will be provided by the IoT Platform for billing and Partner analysis. The volume of IoT data can be much more compared to traditional usage data.

The system should also be capable of providing innovative products and should do billing accordingly. Key point here is to have personalized plans created based on the business need. Some of the products that can be offered as a part of IoT platform are:

  1. Flat Rating – Flat rates for data, call and SMS for each units.
  2. Fixed Charges – Fixed product price for unlimited data, voice & SMS
  3. One time & Recurring Charges – Product to support one time and recurring charge capabilities
  4. Device Based – Charge based on number of devices connected
  5. Slab & Tired based – Data, Voice and SMS to be defined, rates varies based on the slabs & Tiers
  6. Pay-as-you-go – Charge only based on the usage, deduction from Prepaid Balance
  7. Cross Domain Products – IoT clubbed with content or other interactive services

IoT billing & settlement is not just limited to the Telco and their direct partners, it has to be extended to the associated MVNOs in from of Billing as a service. There can be a multi-level partner involvement as well, say based on the movie genre analysis information available in meta data generated by a Smart TV, a latest movie can be suggested for subscription through an entertainment company , and hence the entertainment company can become 2nd level Advert/Content partner.

IoT is still evolving, there can be many aspect that are yet to be explored. This is the right time for Telcos, platform and equipment vendors to start investing in IoT to stay ahead of the competition.

Infographic :

partner-settlement-solution

Customer Analytics: Data Breaches and Consumer Trust

In this (possibly) final blog of this series I will be looking at how customers are becoming increasingly concerned at companies’ inability to keep their data safe, and how high publicity data breaches are eroding public confidence.

I previously wrote how it was possible to know where someone stood on issues of internet security just by checking their birth date. Those born after 1980, the so called Generation Y, or Millennials, are generally more comfortable sharing information online.   But things are gradually changing. In a 2014 survey by eMarketer it was found that Generation Y and Z were also becoming significantly more concerned about how well companies protected their personal data.

eMarketer

This concern can have a major impact on a company’s profits, as a recent report by the Ponemon Institute’s 2015 Cost of Data Breach Study (in conjunction with IBM) showed:-

Lost business has, potentially, the most severe financial consequences for an organization. The cost increased from a total average cost of $1.33 million last year to $1.57 million in 2015. This cost component includes the abnormal turnover of customers, increased customer acquisition activities, reputation losses and diminished goodwill. The growing awareness of identity theft and consumers’ concerns about the security of their personal data following a breach has contributed to the increase in lost business

By studying many data breaches across many industries, Ponemon have developed an approach whereby they can attach cost per record lost in order to estimate the cost of data breaches. What they have found is that, not only are data breaches becoming more common, but they are also becoming more costly.

The average cost paid for each lost or stolen record containing sensitive and confidential information increased 6 percent, jumping from $145 in 2014 to $154 in 2015.

2015 was perhaps the worst year so far for data breaches. NetworkWorld’s Top-10 data breaches of 2015 reported that many firms became the victim of very public data breaches including

  • Children’s toy companies (vTech)
  • Phone companies (T-Mobile, TalkTalk)
  • Healthcare firms (Premera, Anthem)
  • Dating agencies (Ashley Madison)
  • Government departments (IRS)
  • Security consultancies (Hacking Team)

+ Many more.

The trend does not look good, with the number of breaches predicted to increase in both size and cost for the foreseeable future.

Graph

Consumers are now realising that many companies are not vigilant enough in protecting their data, but just as bad, that customer data is being used in ways that are inappropriate and may adversely affect the consumer.

In a poll conducted by leading consultancy Radius Global 78% of internet users said they only purchased from companies they trusted.

The message is clear. If companies are to use customer’s data to provide a better service then they must do everything in their power to ensure the security of their systems and the responsible use of customer data, or run the risk of facing big fines and a catastrophic loss of consumer trust.

Big data and advanced analytics are forcing governments to bring in new regulations to ensure that companies use customer data responsibly, but it’s in every companies interest to ensure that the bond of trust is not broken.

Customer Analytics: Securing our Future

In the previous blog in this series I looked at how the use of persona, and creating customer journey maps for those persona, can give new insights on how to engage customers. By collecting customer data and tracking user interactions across all touchpoints, it’s possible to not only create an revealing profile of a customer’s interests and behaviour, but also better understand if the products and marketing are addressing customer’s wants and needs.

Technology is now rapidly opening up new sources of customer data including everything from health and well-being apps to our children’s activity online. Soon our heating systems, cars, refrigerators and every other connected appliance that’s about to hit the shelves will be churning out a stream of data back to the marketing departments of big corporations. The effective use of this big data undoubtedly has great potential to improve our lives, but there is also an increased risk that the individual’s privacy could be compromised, or the data could also be used to discriminate against an individual unfairly. In a recent case in the UK vulnerable customers were advised to buy energy on tariffs that were far higher than others available.   The same is true of insurance and medical care, and many cases exist where it’s been found that corporations are exploiting data to prey on the vulnerable. Add to this the substantial risks of identity theft and fraud as a consequence of data breaches, and consumers could be forgiven for feeling anxious about how well their data is being protected, and how it’s being used.

In an effort to stop corporations from exploiting big data negatively and better protect consumers the European Union has raised the bar on data protection by drafting the the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This new set of rules will apply not only to countries within the EU, but also to companies operating outside the EU, if they have networks or trade data with partners within the EU. Enforcement is expected to start in the spring of 2018.

The European commission’s website states that:

The objective of this new set of rules is to give citizens back control over of their personal data, and to simplify the regulatory environment for business.

Furthermore, as reported by consultancy group itgovernance,

The Regulation will enforce tough penalties – proposed fines up to 4% of annual global revenue or €20million, whichever is greater

For a large multinational the fines could get very substantial and significantly impact on share prices.

The GDPR sets out 8 Data Protection Principles that must be followed. The ICO, UK’s independent Information Commission, has provided clarification of how these principles need to be applied. For example, Principle 1 refers to Processing personal data fairly and lawfully. As described on their website,

In practice means that you must:

  • have legitimate grounds for collecting and using the personal data;
  • not use the data in ways that have unjustified adverse effects on the individuals concerned;
  • be transparent about how you intend to use the data, and give individuals appropriate privacy notices when collecting their personal data;
  • handle people’s personal data only in ways they would reasonably expect; and
  • make sure you do not do anything unlawful with the data

Perhaps one of the key new areas is in the use of big data and analytics for customer profiling. This is covered under Principle 6 of the GDPR under the somewhat obtuse description of ‘automated decision making’. ComputerWeekly have produced a number of documents and guides to help businesses to understand how the GDPR will affect them. In one of their latest blogs they explain

The regulation introduces a number of restrictions on profiling, including the right for an individual not to be subject to a decision which significantly affects the individual and which is based on automated profiling. In many cases, profiling will only be permitted where the explicit consent of the individual has been obtained. 

The implications for targeted marketing are unclear, but potentially significant, as it makes companies accountable for ensuring that customers

  1. Are made fully aware of exactly how their data will be used
  2. Explicitly agree to the way in which the data will be used
  3. Do not suffer any negative consequences from the use of their data.

As ComputerWeekly reports

These restrictions are likely to have a considerable impact on businesses engaging in, for example, big data analytics, as well as more general business activities, such as credit scoring and employee monitoring

In an article by the International Association of Privacy Professionals , they add that data subjects (customers)

…may also request to know the purposes of processing, the period of time for which data will be stored, the identity of any recipients of the data, the logic of automatic data processing, and the consequences of any profiling.

Corporations are now in real danger of drifting into a situation in which they are in breach of the new regulations, face substantial fines and seriously damage customer relations.

In the final blog of this series I will be looking at how customers are becoming increasingly concerned at the inability of corporations to keep their data safe, and how high publicity data breaches are eroding public confidence.

Press & Analyst Contact

Sandeep Banga
E-mail : sandeep.banga@subex.com