Telecoms industry set to reveal its hopes and fears

It’s that time of the year when Telecoms.com once again conducts the signature Annual Industry Survey. Answering it will not only let us know what you think, but will benefit the telecoms industry as a whole, and in turn, yourselves too.

The 2019 Annual Industry Survey (AIS) has just gone live. True to its mission, this survey is designed to take the pulse of the telecoms industry, in particular of those topics most pertinent to operators, suppliers, technology vendors, analysts, consultants, and everyone else with a stake in the telecoms ecosystem. It’s my job to write collate the responses and present them to you.

This year’s survey covers many of the core technology topics the telecoms decision-makers are most interested in reading about, including Industry Landscape, 5G, Digital Transformation, IoT, and BSS/OSS. Undoubtedly the readers of this story, you, are in the best position to tell us, and the industry, how you see the current status of the industry and where you see it heading for. So, please, click here to answer it.

I was thinking about giving this story a title like “Your Industry Needs You”, but that would be too Kitchener-esque, plus I don’t have the beard to go with it. Instead, I’ll go full Churchillian: I have nothing to offer but a high-quality survey report for free, a sense of contribution, and the chance to win a new Apple Watch.

If this is your first experience with our AIS, or if you’re simply interested in finding out how correct (or incorrect) we have been with our understanding and predictions, feel free to check out last year’s results.

Another Vodafone billing fail hits roaming customers

Vodafone UK suffered yet another billing-related PR disaster as some of its customers piled up huge charges while roaming and were consequently disconnected.

The incidents took place over the weekend, just in time to make it onto mainstream media grateful for something to report on a Monday morning. One of the first Vodafone customers to flag the matter up on Twitter was David Maddison, whose trip to Malta was compromised by him suddenly being hit with five grand in charges that he wasn’t expecting.

After a few hours Vodafone tweeted that it was aware of the problem and promised customers would not be incorrectly billed. This was apparently insufficient for Andy Pearch, also travelling in Malta, who was seriously stressing out about being incorrectly billed. He was eventually placated by Vodafone, but remained unimpressed by the speed with which the problem was addressed.

“We are very sorry that yesterday, some customers could not use data or calling services when roaming abroad,” said Vodafone’s emailed statement. “This was due to a technical error, which we have now fixed. Any affected customer should restart their phone to ensure that services are resumed.

“As a result of the issue, some customers are receiving billing messages in error; we are working through these as an urgent priority and removing any errors from customer accounts. Customers will not be charged and do not need to worry about contacting us as we are proactively checking accounts and fixing any issues.”

Vodafone also explained that The spending limit cap was inadvertently triggered by a software change, which must have brought back bad memories of is major BSS fail three years ago. It added that it affected around 40,000 customers, but it’s now fixed. Hopefully for Vodafone this was an isolated glitch, and it’s bad luck that it happened on a Friday, but it still represents another setback for a company that has historically been criticised for its customer service.

Rakuten delays network launch to work out the bugs

Japan’s fourth mobile operator has said it will delay its launch, originally set for October 1, in favour of a limited trial for 5,000 users.

The announcement will put a dampener on the spirits of those who are closely watching developments in Japan. With the barriers set so high on entering the mobile connectivity game for new-comers, cash-rich technology companies will be looking for tips and tricks to develop their own game-plans, though this was not supposed to be part of the story.

“In order to ensure the stability and quality of its service for customers and continue to improve the network based on customer feedback and requests, the company will initially open applications to 5,000 subscribers free of charge through the Free Supporter Program,” the firm said in a statement.

The official launch of the service will now be at some point before 31 March 2020, with the Free Support Program set to conclude at that point. Those subscribers who are assisting with the network trial will continue to get free services through to 31 March however.

The trial will focus on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya City and Kobe City, with KDDI and Okinawa Cellular to provide roaming services outside of these regions. Those on the trial will receive unlimited calls and data services through the period, in exchange for providing regular feedback to the telco.

The launch of Rakuten has caught the attention of many inside and outside of Japan for several reasons. In the country, consumers have had to deal with three providers to date and the introduction of a fourth player will provide additional competition, as well as a potential disruption to create a new status-quo when it comes to pricing. Just look at the impact Reliance Jio had on India to see the potential a new player can inspire.

Outside of Japan, there will of course be vendors rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a genuine greenfield project, though those who have an interest in muscling in on the connectivity game.

Starting with the vendors, this is a potential gold mine. If Rakuten is going to be competitive, it will have to get its network up-and-running very quickly. Aggressive network deployment and expansion to reduce the reliance on roaming requires some serious investment. The more success Rakuten can generate in the early days, the more quickly it will be able to mobilise investment to fuel further expansion.

And now for the disruptors. There will be several companies which will be keeping an eye on developments here, hoping to understand what works and what doesn’t when deploying a new network.

Dish is one company which falls into this category. Should the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger survive the legal challenges it is facing, Dish will become the fourth MNO in the US through acquiring the Boost prepaid brand from Sprint. It will then have to try and build its own network as quickly as possible.

There are of course other companies who have already declared their interest in the mobile connectivity game, 1&1 Drillisch in Germany for example, however internet companies have also been rumoured to be getting involved.

Amazon is the company which immediately comes to mind, a rumour about Amazon mobile is never too far away, however this is applicable to any internet firm which has a lot of money. Owning and managing a network is one way to make money, another opportunity to collect valuable data on consumers and a chance to own the relationship with the consumer end-to-end.

If Rakuten can prove an internet company can deploy an end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native network cost-effectively and in a timely manner, as well as attract the right people to manage the network to meet customer expectations, why wouldn’t others believe they can do the same.

Amazon has buckets of cash, as does Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Baidu or Microsoft. If Rakuten can do it, why couldn’t they? Or how about investment companies and venture capitalists who are always looking for a way to make money?

5G pricing: the best is yet to come

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece, Jennifer Kyriakakis, Founder and VP of Marketing at Matrixx, explores best practice in the pricing of telecoms services in the 5G era.

The advent of 5G technology will bring a monumental shift in how traditional telcos operate their business. In the run up to full scale 5G deployments, many forward thinking telcos have launched digital brands. These are essentially 100% digital versions of their businesses packaged as a different brand. Many of them are using their digital brands to experiment with customer experience, service offerings, and business models that will become mainstream with 5G. The theorem: If we don’t have the pricing models and business infrastructure in place to properly extract value from a 5G offering, we’ll end up losing out to the next wave of OTT players. So let’s figure it out now, before the networks are in place.

As operators debate how best to price 5G, some early examples, such as Three in the UK are offering 5G at no additional cost to current 4G plans. The idea seems sound as a starting point, particularly as there is little 5G network availability and devices haven’t yet caught up. But does it make sense in the medium to long term, or do these tactics risk further devaluing the very asset that differentiates them? Are these early pricing models really strategies for 5G, or merely placeholders as telcos continue with transformation efforts that will set them up to compete with OTTs and digital players?

Operators have a powerful opportunity to create a competitive advantage with their 5G offering. Getting the pricing model right is a strong place to start. With the industry already throwing different pricing models at the wall, which one will stick?

The Pay-for-Speed approach

This approach started in some markets with 4G and while it’s simple and straightforward for the consumer, it also sets the precedence that speed is the only value lever telcos have to offer. For example, Vodafone became the first UK network to offer unlimited 5G data plans. Ditching the monthly data allocations, Vodafone offers three speeds; 2Mpbs, 10Mpbs and then the fastest speed possible. People have the choice on how fast they want to download or stream content.

If you are a super user or have a family of six who are always on their phones, it makes sense to pay for those faster speeds. If you are in retirement, don’t necessarily have a job in tech or could care less about YouTube, then having the choice for lower speeds may be a good option.

But is this model sustainable? When in the future, the amount of data – everything from gaming to connected home, health apps, IoT, streaming video and more -could outweigh the speed? Would an operator lose a revenue opportunity on super users who take advantage of accessing large amounts of data at the fastest speeds?

The Rewards approach

Others are taking an ecosystem approach banking on potential new revenue streams by creating value-added services, which often come to life through rewards-based programs. These programs offer incentives such as discounts, coupons and first-access to concerts and movies, to entice users and make the app experience more sticky. By building loyalty around an ecosystem now, as 5G services arrive they have established channel relationships with partners who will be leveraging 5G in the future for AR/VR services and are actively participating in the revenue chain.

Verizon’s Up Program is a great example of this, as they offer discounts and rewards on technology, dining, sports experiences and stage-side concerts. They tout deals monthly and even daily, driving people to check in on the app frequently. Once there, they encourage users to manage their services, often upselling them on new benefits.

By creating these rewards-based programs they are not only appealing to the next generation of users, but they are also creating a more valued relationship between consumers and their brand. This brand strategy is one that few operators have navigated successfully, but it is crying out for change in a new 5G era if operators expect to compete with OTT players.

The Marketplace & Bundled approach

Operators that create marketplaces are offering users opportunities to connect with friends, form inner social groups, gift data to friends, and also manage their plans in real-time. These marketplaces are highly sticky, driving customers to spend lots of time within the marketplace, which breeds more opportunities to sell products and boost revenue.

Another approach are operators who are choosing to bundle the price of data with a specific service. For example, if you want Netflix delivered in high-definition to your smartphone, you’ll pay a flat monthly fee for that service and the data will be included. These bundled-service options work well for a variety of value-adds, including VR gaming, augmented reality services, IoT of the home and more.

This sets the market up nicely for two-sided business models which will emerge with full scale 5G. Getting consumers used to paying carriers for services vs. network access is phase one to future multi-faceted models in which the carriage is monetized through different partners and models.

So have any 5G pricing models arrived yet?

While these offerings are all based on 4G today, they set the foundation for turning customers into high-engagement fans, in turn increasing their revenue streams.

5G introduces hundreds and even thousands of possibilities to utilize the network efficiently and generate additional revenue. Operators that are moving now to innovate and distinguish themselves from their competitors are setting themselves up to reimagine pricing for 5G and drive new revenue vs. defend against price wars and the resulting churn.

 

Pod 15 jul Jennifer croppedMATRIXX Founder and Vice President of Marketing, Jennifer Kyriakakis, brings deep expertise in both telecoms and software with roles ranging from complex systems delivery to technical sales to strategic marketing. Her 20 plus years of experience helping Telcos reinvent themselves has propelled the growth of MATRIXX into markets all over the globe.

Mobileum grows assurance profile with WeDo acquisition

Mobileum has announced it will acquire risk and business management solutions provider WeDo Technologies, bringing together two of the bigger names in this niche segment.

Following the purchase of Evolved Intelligence in October 2018, Mobileum is seemingly on the move to dominant the market. The acquisition of WeDo adds additional weight to its analytics armoury, aiding telcos to detect and prevent fraud on their networks, as well as increasing the physical presence of the firm around the world.

“We are excited to partner with WeDo and support them in the next phase of their growth,” said Bobby Srinivasan, CEO of Mobileum. “As we continue to grow Mobileum, organically and inorganically, the addition of WeDo’s strong product engineering, customer footprint, consulting and services teams to our existing talented workforce around the world will allow us to expand the depth and breadth of our offerings.”

“The combined business offers our customers a richer and more diverse portfolio of solutions in the domains of Revenue Assurance, Fraud Management, Network Security, Roaming and Interconnect. As the mobile industry continues to evolve, this transaction will allow us to continue to invest in the future architecture, assuring the success of our customers along a journey of continuous transformation.”

The newly combined business will have 1,100 employees in 30 offices, serving 700 customers in 180 different countries. The existing WeDo platform and architecture will be maintained, though it will also be integrated with the Mobileum Active Intelligence platform.

Pinning down how big the revenue assurance and risk management software market actually is, however, is not the easiest of tasks.

The Communications Fraud Control Association suggests fraud costs the telecoms industry more than $38 billion a year, with roaming fraud accounting for $10.8 billion of that figure. Estimates from Credence Research suggests the global revenue assurance software market was worth $2.5 billion in 2017, with growth projected at 11% CAGR through to 2026. This sounds promising, however Heavy Reading Analyst James Crawshaw has some doubts.

If we are to assume WeDo is the leading player in the revenue assurance software market, it will have a notable market share. Looking at WeDo’s financials, the team increased orders to more than €60 million for 2018. The numbers aren’t quite adding up here.

Either this is an incredibly fragmented market with thousands of suppliers making up the $2.5 billion, WeDo is not a leading name in the revenue assurance software market or the market is worth considerably less than $2.5 billion.

It is not necessarily the end of the world if the addressable market is smaller than analysts are currently estimating, as long as there is growth potential. There is of course opportunity to grow, though as Crawshaw points out, WeDo’s orders have not really increased significantly over the last few years, suggesting this is somewhat of a stagnant market.

Giffgaff managed to find a way to overcharge prepaid subscribers

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has fined MVNO Giffgaff £1.4 million for double-charging some of its pay-as-you-go customers.

Giffgaff specialises in prepaid SIM-only mobile phone deals, in which subscribers buy chunks of data, etc, marketed as ‘goodybags’, in advance and then buy more when those are used up. Any data used when a goodybag isn’t active is charged at 5p per MB. It looks like there was some delay in properly recognising when a fresh goodybag had been purchased from a billing perspective, resulting in people continuing to pay the metered rate at the same time.

This resulted in 2.6 million customers being overcharged by a total of £2.9 million, which might seem like a lot but is only a quid per punter. Once Giffgaff realised what it had done it grassed itself up to Ofcom, which proceeded to spend the next ten months ‘investigating’ what it had already been told. This resulted in Giffgaff being fined £1.4 million, which would have been more if Giffgaff hadn’t fessed up and already attempted to refund the overcharging.

“Getting bills right is a basic duty for every phone company,” pronounced Gaucho Rasmussen, Ofcom’s Director of Investigations and Enforcement. “But Giffgaff made unacceptable mistakes, leaving millions of customers out of pocket. This fine should serve as a warning to all communications providers: if they get bills wrong, we’ll step in to protect customers.”

Thanks Gaucho, but didn’t Giffgaff tell you what it had done and hasn’t it already taken remedial measures? What, exactly, have you done to further protect customers other than spend ten months mulling over how much to fine them? Even regulators can never resist an opportunity to self-promote.

Giffgaff seems to have missed a PR trick here too. There is nothing on its website or social media addressing this, so people are largely left to interpret the background to the fine themselves. For a prepaid brand that makes a virtue of transparency and value for money, this apparent shiftiness and surrendering of the narrative could end up being far more harmful than the fine itself.

Vodafone Australia admits to misleading carrier billing service

After an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) investigation, Vodafone Australia has admitted misleading consumers through its third-party Direct Carrier Billing (DCB) service.

The investigation looked into transactions made between 1 January 2013 to 1 March 2018, though it is most likely Vodafone broke the rules upon the introduction of an Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act in 2015.

“Through this service, thousands of Vodafone customers ended up being charged for content that they did not want or need, and were completely unaware that they had purchased,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims. “Other companies should note, money made by misleading consumers will need to be repaid.”

The service was first introduced in January 2013 allowing customers to purchase digital content from third party developers such as games, ringtones and apps, with charges being applied to pre-paid and post-paid accounts.

The issue which Vodafone seems to be facing is the service was automatically applied to customer accounts, with purchases being made with one or two clicks. As the customer was not suitably informed, the service has been deemed to be misleading.

Vodafone has already begun the process of contacting impacted customers and will be offering refunds where appropriate. The telco has phased out the majority of the service already, owing to an increasing number of complaints during 2014 and 2015.

While a final judgment has not been released just yet, a confirmation and fine will likely follow in the next couple of weeks, other Australian telcos have been found guilty of the same offence. Both Telstra and Optus have been fined AUS$10 million for their own misleading carrier billing services.

Although it is hardly rare for a telco to be found on the wrong side of right, especially in Australia where the ACCC seems to be incredibly proactive, such instances will create a negative perception at the worst time for the telcos.

In an era when the telcos are searching for additional revenues, carrier billing initiatives are an excellent option. Assuming of course the telcos don’t mess it up.

The digital economy is becoming increasingly embedded in today’s society though there are still many consumers who will begrudgingly hand over credit card details to companies with whom they are not familiar. This mistrust with digital transactions could potentially harm SMEs while providing more profit for the larger players who have established reputations on the web.

In this void of trust and credibility, the telcos have an opportunity to step in and play the intermediately as a trusted organization; how many people have an issue with handing credit card information over to a telco?

There are plenty of examples of this theory in practice; Amazon or eBay are the most obvious and most successful. These are online market places which allow the flow of goods and cash between two parties who may not have had a prior relationship. The consumer might have an issue paying Joe Bloggs Ltd. as there is little credibility, though many trust the likes of Amazon and eBay, allowing the third party to manage the transaction and take a small slice of the pie.

Carrier billing can be an excellent opportunity to add value to a growing digital ecosystem, using the consumer trust in the telcos to drive opportunities for those businesses which want to grow online. However, should there be a perception that the telcos do not act responsibly with a customers’ bill, this opportunity will dry out very quickly.

Aside from costing Vodafone a couple of million dollars, this also dents the credibility of the telco (and overall industry by association). This example suggests it is just as risky purchasing goods through the telco as it is an unknown supplier online.

Ofcom introduces text-to-switch

Thanks to Ofcom the days of being passed around a call-centre should theoretically be over, as new text-to-switch rules come into play.

Starting today (July 1) customers will be able to end mobile contracts simply by texting their provider. It’ll end an incredibly frustrating process used by all mobile operators to keep valuable post-paid customers from leaving their grasp.

It has been one of the biggest complaints against the telcos over the years; ending contracts is an incredibly painful process. While it might leave customers frustrated and infuriated, it does also help the telcos improve their churn. This is a system which is effectively loyalty through stubbornness, as the telcos enter a game of hide-and-seek with customers. It’s a competition of will and a perfect example of the telcos not understanding customer service.

“Breaking up with your mobile provider has never been easier thanks to Ofcom’s new rules,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “You won’t need to have that awkward chat with your current provider to take advantage of the great deals available.”

Of course, while the majority of the telcos will be disappointed with the new rules, realising they will have to figure out new strategies to keep customers instead of forcing them into loyalty through the torture of hold-music, there will be some who are happy.

“I’m delighted that text-to-switch makes it easier and faster for everyone to get the best deal, helping people change to a new mobile provider with a few taps on their phone,” said Dave Dyson, CEO of Three.

“At Three, we’re making huge improvements to our 4G experience and preparing to launch the UK’s fastest 5G network, in more cities and towns than anyone else this year. This makes it the perfect time for people to consider the outstanding experience Three can offer, both now and in the future.”

Three might well be happy with the development considering the opportunity it has as we approach the era of 5G tariffs. Although the telco has not unveiled any pricing plans for 5G yet, the scene as been set for a disruptor to enter the fray and cause chaos.

EE has launched its 5G network and Vodafone is entering the small numbers in the countdown. Both have detailed tariffs on their websites, and both are charging a considerable premium for the pleasure of 5G. There is a massive opportunity for Three to undercut these two competitors on price, and with the new text-to-switch rules, it will be easier to lure potential subscriptions away.

In a perfect world, this text-to-switch initiative will force the telcos into a more customer-centric mind frame. Most businesses will tell you it is more profitable to cultivate customers first and chase new business second, but that have never really been the case for the telcos. Almost every business is geared towards acquisition first, leading the industry to its current position where it has one of the worst reputations for customer service and experience.

Perhaps these new rules will encourage the telcos to think about customers in a different way. The technology and data are certainly there to create a more valuable and informed customer experience, but only time will tell whether the telcos embrace it in the same way the OTTs do.