Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece the MVNOs Series team explores two of the key terms used to describe the next phase of the digital journey: digitalization and virtualization.
We are living through an age of digital transformation. Since the development of the first digital computers in the middle of last century, the march of the byte – the basic unit of digital information – has been unstoppable, infiltrating virtually every aspect of human activity.
It is tempting to look around and see our lives as fully digitized, what with the prevalence of computers and laptops at work and in the home, smartphones and other mobile devices, the internet and the Cloud, and the perceptible shift of activities that once took place exclusively in the physical world into the virtual.
But all the signs are that we have perhaps only just reached the end of the beginning of the digital journey. The potential transformational impact of emerging technologies – the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data analytics, virtualized networks – could dwarf anything that has gone before. And the mobile industry has a central stake in all of them.
According to joint analysis from the World Economic Forum and Accenture, if the right opportunities are grasped in the right ways, the combined value-add of digital transformation to industry and society over the next 10 years stands at $100 trillion. Such is its critical importance as enabler and carrier of digital progress, providing the “access, interconnectivity and applications” on which it is built, telecoms stands to benefit to the tune of $2 trillion in additional value.
Put simply, connectivity is a vital ingredient in the joined-up digital world we are emerging into. Thanks to its ubiquity and scale, no technology is better placed to deliver than mobile.
Understanding Digitalization: Transforming Operations and Business Models
Defining the meaning of the term digitalization attracts some debate, a reflection of the fact that it is a relatively new concept where consensus and shared understanding is still emerging. Some of this controversy centres on whether the term should describe the use of digital technology to change/upgrade specific business operations or the creation of entirely new business models, and how it therefore relates to the concept of digital transformation.
Behind all the semantic wrangling, it is important to acknowledge that digital technology is having a significant impact on the mobile industry at both an operational and strategic level. Under pressure to keep up with consumer demand, to not be left behind in the digital arms race and to arrest the slide in declining revenues from traditional voice services, operators view digitalization as both a means of protecting margins by cutting costs and of creating new revenue streams with innovative services geared for new markets.
As well as these competitive pressures towards internal transformation, the mobile industry also has a special relationship with digitalization in the wider economy. As connectivity is widely accepted as an essential ingredient in delivering smart, integrated, hyper-networked digital systems, mobile has been described as the glue which can hold digitalized operations and services across all sectors together. The mobile industry therefore controls a resource that is critical to the entire concept of digitalization – a key part of the digitalization experience for mobile operators is therefore how they can cash in on that value.
Digitalization of mobile
Another factor which muddies the waters when it comes to getting to grips with what digitalization means for mobile is the fact that, across many industries, digital transformation is often viewed as synonymous with cloud migration. If that were the case, then large swathes of the mobile industry, particularly MVNOs that operate as online-only, cloud-based businesses, meet the criteria for having already undergone digital transformation.
The Cloud is undoubtedly an important part of digitalization. Online-only MVNOs gain certain benefits from being based in the Cloud, such as lower overheads from having neither network infrastructure nor physical stores to burden them, plus the agility to get close to niche markets and respond rapidly to shifting demands. But should we define an online MVNO which is simply selling voice and data packages from a digital store – in other words, operating the same business model but via a different channel – as fully digitalized? Does that model maximise the full potential digitalization offers to mobile operators in terms of value?
When asking what digitalization can achieve for mobile, industry insiders frequently refer to companies like AirBnB, Uber and Netflix to provide a yardstick. More than just adopting a cloud-based operational model, these are companies which have used digitalization as a defining strategic principle and have been so successful they have transformed entire sectors.
From MVNOs’ perspective, the lesson that these digital start-ups have managed to shake enterprise-sized incumbents out of their positions in the market should also no be lost.
For mobile operators, then, the Cloud represents an important first step on their digital journey, providing a platform for further change in terms of cost reduction, flexibility, technology adoption and service innovation. But if we were to write a recipe for ‘full’ digitalization for a mobile operator, a process strategically geared towards maximising the benefits, there would be plenty of other ingredients to add to the mix. Here are the staples:
Strategies built around consumer demand
The reason why Cloud migration alone – old models in a new channel – does not amount to ‘full’ digital transformation is that the Cloud offers the freedom and the technology to do so much more. Mobile operators are now able to reshape services and customer experiences to deliver exactly what the customer wants, which logically should therefore be the centrepiece of strategy. In an industry where both customer acquisition costs and churn are high, giving a reason for loyalty through improved customer experiences carries a high value.
Gary Bunney, CEO of BSS and analytics service specialist MDS Global, says that the modern digital consumer, given so much choice and power in all other areas of retail and commerce, is no longer so inclined to accept fixed, off-the-shelf mobile packages. “We believe customers are demanding more control to create the plans they need,” he said. “And they want this control across a range of different networks, services and applications. With this control comes the ability to action. To change, amend, add or terminate without contractual restriction.”
Applications and platforms
The key to delivering on customer demand is software. Bunney talks about enabling customer control via a “self-service application”. Amol Phadke, Accenture’s MD of Global Network Strategy and Consulting, likewise describes the most innovative, disruptive digital MVNOs adopting a ‘software-driven operating model’ that is “dependent on automation, analytics and AI.”
Software plays a key role in driving flexibility and value in mobile services by decoupling services from physical infrastructure. Moreover, as the sophistication of software increases, the cost of both development and delivery through the Cloud decreases, offering businesses and consumers alike more for less.
Of the three specific technologies Phadke names, automation and AI speak of the customer empowerment and ‘self-service’ control Bunney recommends, but also of efficient, fast convenient services. Analytics, meanwhile, gives digitalized MVNOs the opportunity to fully personalize service based on all the data that becomes available via applications and platforms. Jaco Fourie, Head of Product Management at BSS specialist Qvantel, says: “Digital solutions allow for more rapid shifting of data gathering tools. This enables more data to be collected and analysed … and used to personalize the customer journeys in digital touchpoints automatically for superior customer experiences.”
Fourie goes on to argue that analytics “paves the way for rapid and real-time offers and deals that can be tailored and modulated to match the trends and data that is being gathered on them.” The marriage of software and data in a Cloud environment allows mobile operators to create dynamic customer experiences that adapt to changing demands. It also allows them to throw off the shackles of voice and pure data packages and innovate with new potential revenue streams from new services.
Federico Homberg, Head of Mobile Wholesale Business Development at Deutsche Telekom Germany, told us that he sees an increasing trend in virtual operators moving away from “branded reselling” to a “full MVNO” model. “With a full MVNO you have no constraints when it comes to building your own products,” he said. This alludes to another significant trend in digital transformation for mobile players, the move towards DevOps operations, where programming and development skills are highly sought after to enable operators to build their own bespoke software and platforms.
As well as looking at the impact on the mobile industry, the report Maximizing Value from Digitalisation and Virtualization opens the discussion up to look at the broader role of mobile as digitalization continues apace across industries and in consumer lifestyles. It assesses what kind of services mobile players, and MVNOs in particular, are able to offer to support the increasingly digitised demands of both B2B and B2C markets, looking at areas such as IoT provision and Over-the-Top (OTT) value-added services as routes into brand new revenue streams.
Its analysis also focuses on the potential for mobile companies to transform service levels as well as service types, redefining customer and end-user experiences in innovative, dynamic ways which tie in with the expectations of increasingly digitised audiences. Finally, the research evaluates the risks and rewards of all of this, the challenges MVNOs face in embracing what amounts to significant technological, operational and cultural change, and what they can do to maximise the benefit.
This in-depth report also offers analysis on mobile as digital enabler, the new horizons in customer experience and service personalization & differentiation. Download the full report and discover how you can make the most of this opportunity.