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2Q20 store closures curbed postpaid subscriber growth, but higher uptake of prepaid plans partially offset the impact

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became more significant for U.S. operators in 2Q20 as temporary store closures caused consumer activity, including gross subscriber additions and churn rates, to dampen in the quarter. Though operators will not experience significant subscriber losses amid the pandemic as cellular connectivity is essential for most consumers, economic challenges are causing some customers to seek less expensive service options. For instance, the prepaid market is undergoing a resurgence as the segment is spurring subscriber growth from price-sensitive customers. The low price points of cable wireless offerings are also helping to attract economically challenged consumers.

The U.S. & Canada Mobile Operator Benchmark details and compares the initiatives of the largest U.S.- and Canada-based operators, including financial performance, go-to-market initiatives and resource management strategies.

Enterprises thinking above and beyond the bottom line

Not all news related to the pandemic is bad news

Just a couple of months ago, the term “going viral” lightly referred to the match-to-kerosene-like spread of images, videos or other content across borders and populations. Today’s news has literally gone viral, carrying coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak in an unfortunate and devastating new realization of the term.  Every day, there is a deluge of information detailing the impact of the outbreak, including the havoc COVID-19 is wreaking on every person, institution, government and country on the planet. While we may now be associating “going viral” with a darker and more ominous meaning, there are some bright spots that are worth highlighting to complement TBR’s ongoing coverage of the business and technological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual tools and aid help soften a steep learning curve

After healthcare, education is perhaps the sector most immediately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that are evident to individuals and businesses alike. Access to quality education across socioeconomic and geographic groups has been a subject that has inspired a mix of outrage and hope for decades, and there has never been an easy answer. The mandate to institute virtual classrooms has raised the question of how all this can be made possible for the vast majority of global students who have no choice but to continue their education at home.  

A notable example comes in the form of AT&T’s $10 million Distance Learning and Family Connections Fund in support of the education community, including parents, teachers and students. The money will also provide ways to bridge socioeconomic gaps in communities that have become isolated. Specifically, the first $1 million will support the Khan Academy, an educational platform available in more than 40 languages offering practice exercises, videos and dashboards that can be customized to each learner’s unique distance learning needs.

The mandatory pivot to digital learning has also been recognized and addressed by companies such as Logitech and Babbel. Logitech is offering free webcams and headsets to K-12 teachers who may not have the funding to support the transition to virtual learning. Babbel is ensuring that students’ language studies are minimally disrupted by offering three months of free language learning to U.S. students through mid-June. 

Distance working

Until recently, working from home was either an occasional break in one’s schedule or a work lifestyle provided to those who do not have easy access to an office environment. While the work-from-home model is not new and supporting solutions have long been on the market, how to quickly scale remote office environments and capabilities was never considered until very recently. To answer the need for individuals and businesses, especially small ones that may not have the rainy-day funds that larger enterprises usually possess, many collaboration, cloud and CRM providers are stepping in to make “business as usual” possible in the short term.

Google, a leading provider of services to support working environments, is offering Google Meet’s premium features for free until July 1, and Microsoft and Amazon are similarly implementing measures of their own. Zoho is another company with deep collaborative roots and the capability to support workflows of all types. Recently, Zoho announced a program that would offer free support to existing customers that otherwise could not afford it. Launched and deployed in just a matter of days, Zoho Remotely not only enables existing customers to continue their operations but also provides an attractive onboarding mechanism for future paying customers.

Cloud leaders prioritize healthcare as well as mission-critical workloads to ensure public safety

The education and healthcare industries are more frequently converging. For example, Google Cloud earmarked $20 million for medical research and academic institutions. The funds will assist researchers in both the short and long term in the pursuit of a vaccine for COVID-19 as well as the collection of ongoing clinical data to assist in the prevention of future outbreaks. This is one of the many examples in which the cloud leader has dedicated funding and resources to the dual causes of healthcare safety response and education. 

Achieving balance between staving off disaster and facilitating a somewhat palatable day-to-day existence is the ongoing challenge pressuring enterprises, many of which are proving to be the backbone of modern society. As the remote working population has surged exponentially, so have the pressures placed on enterprises that support the new environment. Companies such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services have clearly prioritized several sectors for mission-critical workload solutions, beginning with first responders, health and emergency management services, and critical government infrastructure.

To hear this clip in its entirety, check out COVID-19 Business Impacts: How the Community Is Coming Together on TBR’s YouTube channel.

Analytics within digital transformation engagements depend on high-quality people and data

This week, TBR publishes the first Digital Transformation Insights report for 2020, building on the 2019 series, which included analysis around blockchain, digital marketing, IoT and quantum. The first report centers on IT services vendors’ strategies and performances within their analytics practices. Senior Analyst Boz Hristov notes that, “The maturing A&I services market continues to hold strong digital transformation opportunities for vendors, as long as they can address buyers’ business model complexities through collaborative and coopetitive delivery frameworks. Additionally, vendors that can address skills gaps and ensure data quality and security standards are met are positioned to win.” Next month’s DTI report will look at edge computing within digital transformation. In March TBR will examine the SAP practices of a few leading services vendors.

Additional assessments publishing this week from our analyst teams

Sprint’s rising churn rates, weakening financial performance and high debt load highlight the necessity of the proposed T-Mobile merger. Subpar network quality remains at the root of Sprint’s issues as postpaid phone subscriber losses continue to escalate, despite the operator’s aggressive pricing and elevated network capex spending since 2018. A more significant capex budget is required for Sprint to successfully compete long-term in the U.S. market; however, Sprint’s inability to generate significant free cash flow hinders the company from doing so.” — Steve Vachon, Analyst

“As Infosys ramps up cyber offerings to better address the complexities associated with the next wave of emerging technologies, an aggressive pricing strategy paired with revamped account management enables the company to expand its client roster as it turns into a solutions broker.” — Hristov

Verizon remains able to capitalize on its reputation as a premium wireless service provider to attract customers willing to pay a higher price for the operator’s network coverage and premium unlimited data plans. However, Verizon’s wireless network is becoming a less significant differentiator as AT&T and T-Mobile are now on par with Verizon in LTE coverage and as the rival companies are improving signal quality and data speeds by deploying services on additional spectrum.” — Vachon

“Though AT&T is facing short-term challenges, the company’s ambition to transition from a traditional telco to a global digital service provider is a long-term endeavor requiring a broad array of assets that may not all pay dividends in the short term. AT&T also has abundant opportunity to reduce expenses without divesting core business units via initiatives such as WarnerMedia synergies, nonvital headcount and real estate reduction, and deeper integration of network virtualization.” — Vachon

“TBR anticipates Fujitsu Services will report revenue growth acceleration in 4Q19, as Fujitsu enhances its software, digital, hybrid IT and cloud offerings, which help offset declines in traditional areas. Reorganization and investments within its sales organization, such as the consolidation of its European sales force and the implementation of Account Planning and Opportunity Planning software to improve management in North America, will also contribute to revenue expansion in 2019. The business model adjustments allow the company to better execute and deliver on initiatives to drive adoption of hybrid IT and software offerings, providing recurring revenue opportunities.” — Kelly Lesiczka, Analyst

Senior Analyst John Caucis notes that the U.S. federal earnings season kicks off this week with three defense majors and one services-led defense contractor releasing the results from the final calendar quarter of 2019. First up is General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT), releasing earnings on Jan. 29. Sales are expected to continue sliding for GDIT, owing to recent asset disposals, portfolio reshaping and operations realignment. TBR projects GDIT’s top-line revenue will decline between 11% and 12% year-to-year to roughly $2.1 billion. A strong rebound for GDIT will hinge on the full leverage of CSRA’s capabilities to win big-ticket, next-generation federal IT engagements in 2020. 

Two additional defense majors, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, will release their earnings on Jan. 30. Northrop Grumman’s Technology Services (TS) unit completed what was likely its final quarter and last fiscal year as a dedicated, stand-alone business line offering technology, sustainment and modernization solutions in 4Q19. TS, which includes the bulk of Northrop’s technology-related services, was integrated into Northrop’s emerging Defense Systems (DS) business group, effective Jan. 1, 2020. TBR projects TS’ 4Q19 sales will continue the rebound begun in 3Q19, with year-to-year growth between 2% and 3%, bringing TS’ 4Q19 revenue to roughly $1.1 billion. Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services (IIS), the services division of Raytheon Technologies, is expected to continue expanding its sales at a robust pace, putting the wraps on a red-letter year accentuated by consistent revenue and bookings growth, record backlog levels, improved margin performance, and of course, the pending merger with United Technologies (UT). TBR projects IIS will post revenue of about $1.9 billion in 4Q19, up between 10% and 11% year-to-year.

Finally, Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) will release earnings on Jan. 31. We project BAH will expand its top line between 8% and 9% in 4Q19 to over $1.8 billion, building on the momentum established during the first half of its FY2020. BAH’s strong performance stems from traction with its technically focused solutions, increasingly infused with advanced technologies that enable the mission aims of its federal agency clientele. Operationalizing AI has clearly become a strategic growth platform for BAH; AI featured prominently in the company’s alliance activity, new contract awards and introduction of new offerings in 4Q19.

AT&T Trumpets SDN Milestone, Reiterates Virtualization Goal

“In the realm of NFV and SDN, AT&T is among the leaders in transitioning its network to this new architecture, said Chris Antlitz, telecom principal analyst at Technology Business Research.

Significant Achievement in SDN

“‘The 75% is a significant number. They’ve built an underlay I believe for their SD-WAN … versus a lot of other operators that are doing an [over-the-top] type play,’ Antlitz said. ‘AT&T is doing it more from the ground up and from that viewpoint this makes it a little bit more significant.'” — SDxCentral

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Timely clearance of mid-band spectrum is essential for U.S. to remain at forefront of global 5G race

TBR perspective

Significant progress has been made on 5G ecosystem development since the 2018 5G Americas Analyst Forum held last October, as commercial mobile 5G services have been launched by the four U.S. Tier 1 operators, as well as in Uruguay by state-run operator ANTEL, over the past year. However, the infancy of the 5G era in the Americas has been somewhat underwhelming due to tepid smartphone adoption, the limited range of service on millimeter wave spectrum, and lack of coverage outside major metro areas.

The U.S. is at risk of falling behind other countries, especially South Korea and China, in the global 5G race. 5G adoption is growing at a more accelerated rate in South Korea, as the country gained 2 million 5G subscribers within the first four months of commercial services being offered and reached 3 million 5G subscribers as of September. South Korea’s rapid growth is being driven by its widespread 5G coverage, which is expected to reach 80% of the population by the end of 2019, as well as operators heavily subsidizing 5G devices to offset high smartphone prices. Conversely, China will make a strong entrance into the 5G market by launching commercial services in 50 major cities in the beginning of October, with plans to deploy 100,000 5G sites by the end of 2019.

The greatest barrier to the U.S. competing at the forefront of the global 5G race is its current lack of mid-band spectrum as global operators across all major regions have already been allocated a significant amount of mid-band licenses to support initial deployments. Offering 5G services across a mix of low-band, mid-band and high-band spectrum is critical to provide optimal coverage. Though deploying services on millimeter wave spectrum is necessary for U.S. operators to realize the fastest 5G speeds, the licenses are limited by the short range of coverage they provide.

Conversely, low-band spectrum will provide the coverage range necessary for operators including AT&T (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile (Nasdaq: TMUS) to deploy nationwide 5G services in 2020, but the spectrum will not yield significantly faster speeds compared to LTE. Mid-band spectrum provides the best of both worlds, speed and range of coverage, and the acquisition of mid-band licenses will play a pivotal role in the Americas’ position in the global 5G market as well as how individual operators compete for 5G market share in their respective countries.

Nearly 200 industry analysts and representatives from well-known telecom operators and vendors convened at the 2019 5G Americas Analyst Forum to discuss the state of the developing 5G market in North America and Latin America. The event featured an opening presentation from T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray regarding 5G leadership in the Americas, a fireside chat with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, and a choice of 26 roundtable discussions focused on key 5G topics including IoT, edge computing, 5G network infrastructure and technologies, regulatory considerations, and private cellular networks. 

TBR estimates 30% of total global CSP spend (capex and external opex) will be on or related to NFV/SDN in 2023

5G will push CSPs to accelerate and broaden their NFV/SDN initiatives

According to Technology Business Research, Inc.’s (TBR) latest NFV/SDN Telecom Market Forecast, covering 2018 to 2023, 5G will push CSPs to adopt a new network architecture and both NFV and SDN will be critical aspects of that architecture going forward. As such, TBR expects NFV/SDN-related spend growth will correlate with 5G deployments. Since CSPs will need to upgrade their networks from an end-to-end perspective to realize the full potential of 5G, this will naturally drive CSPs toward the virtualization and cloudification of their networks. This trend will impact most, if not all, of the major network domains from an NFV/SDN perspective over the next five years. TBR notes that 5G core is inherently virtualized and that this will also naturally push CSPs deeper into the NFV/SDN space over the next five years as they transition to a stand-alone 5G network.

Rakuten’s legitimization of vRAN will also drive NFV/SDN market growth

Though significant skepticism remains in the industry that Rakuten will be able to make the vRAN model work, should this scenario occur, TBR believes it would embolden CSPs to double down on their own NFV/SDN initiatives, especially as it relates to vRAN. RAN is one of the costliest domains in the construction of a network, and it is a key area CSPs will be keen to virtualize to reap cost savings.

White-box adoption will proliferate, portending significant OEM disruption

TBR expects the use of white-box hardware in NFV/SDN environments will proliferate through the forecast period, accounting for 60% of NFV/SDN hardware spend in 2023, up from 15% in 2018. This industry shift toward white-box hardware will significantly disrupt incumbent OEMs’ business models, prompting them to evolve into software-centric companies. Industry organizations such as the Open Compute Project (OCP) and initiatives spearheaded by leading CSPs such as AT&T will fuel the rapid uptake of white boxes during the forecast period.

CSP spend on edge compute infrastructure will grow at a 76.5% CAGR to over $67B in 2023

TBR estimates over 100,000 mini data center (edge) locations will be built out globally by CSPs through 2023. The primary driver of edge build-outs during the forecast period is CSPs’ network transformations, which entail migrating to a cloudified and virtualized network. In this new architecture, network functions will be virtualized and housed in NFVI, which is essentially data centers. Central office overhauls will be the primary edge compute location in the early years of the forecast period, with the build-out of the capillary system required to support revenue-generating low latency use cases expected to begin in the middle years of the forecast period.

CSP spend on edge compute infrastructure will grow at a 76.5% CAGR to over $67B in 2023

According to TBR’s 2Q19 Telecom Edge Compute Market Landscape, cost optimization of the network is the primary initial justification for CSPs to build out edge compute infrastructure, with new revenue from low latency use cases expected to materialize in a few years. This initial edge build-out will lay a foundation for CSPs to support new business models as they emerge, particularly as it pertains to low latency services.

Cost savings from the use of edge sites stem from infrastructure virtualization and real estate footprint consolidation as well as bandwidth optimization. One of the key areas of cost savings for CSPs is the use of white-box hardware in their virtualized networks. According to TBR’s research, white-box hardware can cost up to 50% less than black-box hardware. This represents significant cost savings to CSPs that adopt white boxes at scale. Webscales already widely use white boxes in their central data centers, and leading CSPs such as Rakuten, AT&T, Verizon and Telefonica are beginning to build their edge sites using almost exclusively white boxes. The use of white boxes will make it economically feasible for the capillary network to be built out, as cost feasibility is one of the primary inhibitors to edge build-outs.

CSPs are in the experimentation phase of testing new business models that leverage edge compute, with low latency services being the focus area. Though there are myriad potential use cases that would require low latency connectivity, such as connected transportation and AR/VR gaming, the business case remains unclear and the theoretical investment to enable and support said use cases is high. TBR believes it will take a few more years before new revenue-generating use cases for the network that require edge compute become commercialized and begin to contribute to CSPs’ revenue.

Webscale capex growth will decelerate, though dollar volume will continue to climb, as data center builds slow

According to Technology Business Research, Inc.’s (TBR) 1Q19 Webscale ICT Market Landscape, webscale ICT capex for the Super 7 will grow at an 8.1% CAGR to nearly $58 billion in 2023. Most U.S.- and China-based webscales began pulling forward significant investment in data center and network capacity in 2018, which will lead to moderating — or even declining — capex levels for some U.S.-based players beginning in 2020. China-based webscales will continue to ramp ICT capex through the forecast period, however, to catch up to Western rivals in key areas, particularly public cloud.

Webscale "Super 7" capex forecast

The entrance of Rakuten, a Japan-based e-commerce company, to the mobile industry could be a game changer and provides a glimpse into what a digital service provider will look like. Rakuten’s mobile network will blanket Japan with LTE coverage by year-end. Not only will Rakuten’s network be agile, flexible and dynamic to provide digital services, it will also enable a dramatic reduction in the cost of connectivity. Rakuten’s ultimate intention is to be more than just another mobile network operator in the highly competitive Japan market; it aims to provide a foundational connectivity platform from which to sell a host of digital services. Rakuten’s acknowledgment that it needs its own network could lead to other webscales trying to take a more active ownership and control stance toward having a connectivity platform from which they can leverage their digital businesses. Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon, among other webscales, have all experimented with how to address last-mile connectivity, not only to bridge the digital divide but also to serve as a conduit to give them more control over their destinies without relying on communication service providers (CSPs) to provide the connectivity layer.

The OEM landscape continues to see disruption due in part to the power webscales hold over their suppliers. The vast number of suppliers taking part in Rakuten’s network build demonstrates that webscales hold the power when soliciting vendors for connectivity initiatives. When engaging with webscales, which have few legacy encumbrances, incumbent OEMs are being relegated to commoditized hardware and services. Should the 5G era bring about this trend in the CSP customer segment, incumbents will see more widespread disruption. Vendors must be wary of the webscale procurement model taking hold with their traditional customers.