The Africa Conundrum: OTTs can’t be allowed to screw telcos again

The last decade has seen the rise of the OTTs at the expense of the telcos; if the Africa connectivity issue is going to be addressed, this is a trend which cannot be replicated.

If you head back to the 90s and early 00s, the telcos ruled the world. The mobile revolution was in full swing, with the telcos hoovering up cash through tariffs built on text messages and voice minutes. It was a glorious time, but then came the OTTs, and some would say the telcos felt a bit used and abused.

Nothing has changed over the last couple of years; the OTTs still enjoy a much more lenient regulatory environment allowing them to monetize data and services on a different scale to the telcos. This is unfair, after all the telcos have mountains of data waiting to transform into fortunes, but this isn’t the point we are getting at. The point here is much more basic; OTTs reap the rewards of the digital age without having to build the networks which facilitate it.

All over the world this is a relationship which ultimately screws the telcos. They spent billions on building the infrastructure, but the OTTs are the ones getting rich. It is the status quo which many operators have come to accept, however grudgingly. But it cannot happen in Africa, and there is one simple reason; incentive.

During the 90s and 00s, the telcos built the infrastructure and had an opportunity to monetize it. Years passed where we paid a fortune to the telcos for SMS messages and voice minutes, and then the OTTs came along. This might have destroyed the traditional telco business model, but at least they were given the opportunity to generate some ROI in the early days.

In many places on the African continent, the basic infrastructure is not there. This means there are greenfield projects without the promise of monetization; forking out the cash with the fear there might be a few OTTs out there just waiting to take advantage of your hard work and significant investment. If this trend continues in Africa, there is no incentive for the telcos to build the infrastructure in the first place.

“To tackle the infrastructure challenge, you have to go back to the root cause; it isn’t commercially viable,” said Charles Murito, the head Googler in Kenya.

Google seems to be one of the tech giants who are helping address the basic issue of connectivity. Across the continent, there are numerous projects where Google is contributing hard cash to roll out infrastructure. But there aren’t many other supporting voices from the OTT community.

During one of the panel sessions at AfricaCom this week, the topic of discussion was network sharing. It sounds like a good idea, one which has been floated in other regions as well, but there has been little evidence of it been taking beyond glorious promises so far.

One of the jobs of the government should be to encourage investment. In Africa, this is especially true considering the connectivity issues which the continent is facing. One of these responsibilities should be to create a regulatory environment which demonstrates to the telcos that there will be a ROI.

This is certainly easier said than done, but Airtel’s Purumedh Gupta highlighted this should come with cross-border infrastructure projects, the harmonization of SIM registrations, rural connectivity and the removal of fragmentation across the continent. In short, a consolidated effort.

Sometimes this will start with government funding into infrastructure projects. In this sense, it reduces the financial burden, but also provides the telcos with a  bit more security; there is confidence from the government behind these projects. It also creates an independent focal point for network sharing. Don’t forget, most of the time these telcos are fierce competitors; getting them to play nice is a tricky task.

Ultimately, the telcos need to see there is an opportunity to make money, which brings us back to our original point. The OTTs, who so readily benefit from connectivity, need to create a model where they assist the telcos. This could be from upfront investment in the infrastructure, like Google has done, or assurances there will be some sort of revenue sharing scheme moving forward. The connected economy could easily be known as the sharing economy; if the wealth is not dispersed throughout the ecosystem, it fails.

The OTTs have made billions off investments made by the telcos; that is the operating model of this fast growing segment. It might be a successful business in Europe, but it won’t work in Africa; the basic infrastructure is not in place, and it never will be if there is no incentive for the telcos. In short, the OTTs cannot be allowed to screw the telcos again.

The telcos fight back – transforming business in the face of distributed user revenues periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Avi Kulshrestha, Industry Head – Communications Media, Entertainment & Global OEM Business at Infosys, looks at some of the ways telcos are fighting back against ever-growing commercial pressures.

The global telco marketplace faces competitive and revenue pressures from almost every conceivable direction. The rise of over the top (OTT) services has undoubtedly caused issues – placing more pressure on telco costs in order to deliver on customer expectations without necessarily increasing inbound revenue. However, the OTT phenomenon is not the only issue, or indeed the only opportunity for the sector to fight back, restructure and realign its revenue base.

On the face of things, the revenue prospects look promising, with analyst expectations that global sector revenues will reach $2.4 trillion by 2020[1], up from $2.2 trillion in 2015. Demand for mobile devices and greater anytime, anywhere bandwidth remain key drivers of telco sector growth. While the shift to cloud-based services and on-demand content delivery over linear broadcast is putting pressure on both core network capacity and WAN capability. The cost of bandwidth is rising amid greater consumption, while greater competition and deregulation is also driving increased marketing spend along with mergers and acquisition (M&A) costs.

The M&A drive in the sector is seen as an effective way of tackling the competition posed by OTT providers, as well as injecting telco operators directly into the content market. Doing so allows them to compete directly for OTT revenues head-to-head. In the last year, we have seen Verizon move on Yahoo in order to bolster its AOL investment. Meanwhile, AT&T is making progress in its acquisition of Time Warner. These are the latest moves in a market that has already seen Comcast expand its footprint with its purchase of NBC Universal. Meanwhile, BT has launched sports and entertainment content services via linear and online streaming, securing first-run broadcast rights rather than just using a back catalogue of content.

Using OTT to expand telco reach and boost revenues is just one area that operators are exploring to boost revenues and broaden the service offering. Telcos are also looking to simplify their networks and move to a single IP-based platform. Trials in the US have seen legacy operators abandon traditional PSTN infrastructure in favour of a fully IP-based telephony service running over the same fibre or DSL line as the customer’s broadband service.

This approach offers a number of potential value-added opportunities. A single network cuts on-going investment and maintenance costs, increasing profit margins and offering more scope for price-led competition. It also enables value-add and innovative services such as service portability – allowing users to receive calls and messages across a range of devices via an app, rather than only via a fixed analogue line. Services like this are important in the face of growing OTT competition from the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger. Along with others, these are posing a threat to both fixed-line as well as mobile voice and text revenues. Data from UK regulator Ofcom showed that average fixed voice call volumes per line fell 8.3% in 2015, a trend being mirrored in most developed economies.

Telcos are also exploring the integration of services to form triple and quad-play service offerings. Particularly in the consumer space, but also for B2B customers, this is a way of building loyalty and lock-in, as well as simplifying billing and utilising a single network for maximum effect. Offering bundled services such as fixed line telephony, mobile telephony, fixed line broadband and content services in a single package offers convenience, while also diversifying revenues across physical network services, content and OTT.

The future prospects for the telco sector remain complicated. For example, European market curbs on both voice and data roaming charges that came into effect in June 2017 will impact on revenue streams and turnover expectations. In the UK, regulator Ofcom has announced plans to force BT to divest its Openreach infrastructure arm. This is a major shake-up that aims to make last mile service delivery more accessible to competing providers, levelling the playing field for all. Emerging markets such as Africa, India and China have some of the most heavily regulated communications markets. In these regions, we expect to see more partnerships with local incumbents as an easier way into heavily regulated markets. The use of specialist services firms to support these telcos through their metamorphosis is essential to ensure smooth and cost-effective consolidation of networks, infrastructure and services.


Avi KulshresthaAvi heads Infosys business for Communications, Media, Entertainment and OEMs for Infosys Europe. He is responsible for creating strategy and driving business growth through 4 sub-verticals for Europe. He is responsible for helping CSPs, media business and OEMs ‘renew’ their existing business while adding ‘new’ capabilities and revenue streams. Avi is part of Europe Leadership Council at Infosys, responsible for driving thought leadership, Innovation, and corporate initiatives across portfolios.  Avi sits on the Communications Industry Council of Tele Management Forum (TM Forum). The Advisory Council is appointed by the board of TM Forum to shape and drive the Forum’s strategic work programmes for global communications industry.