In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile, Spectrum

How many big new business models can be developed in the mobile and untethered access industries as 5G launches? Up to this point, there has not been much business model innovation since the advent of mobile virtual network operators, beyond mobile internet access.

Some have experimented with “content-centric” approaches, with a little success. A few have launched Wi-Fi-first services, while one operator tried (unsuccessfully) to launch a Wi-Fi-only service.  But nothing really “big” has happened since the advent of mobile internet access. Might 5G change this? Many hope so.

We probably will not know the answer until the 5G-enabled internet of things business gets much bigger, or until some new entrants can eventually prove that a “content-centric” mobile service, or some form of “use while stationary” business model has appeal. It does appear that content consumption offers a potential opportunity, both for 4G and 5G. The big new opportunity for 5G will come as virtual reality and augmented reality content and games start to appear.

Already, mobile video traffic accounts for 60 percent of total mobile data traffic, according to Cisco. By 2021, 78 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2021, and virtually everyone expects 5G to drive that trend faster.

So the question is whether a significant new business can be built around video content. Some might hope a new niche of some size is created by an untethered approach that emphasizes content consumption at home, instead of while mobile and out and about, perhaps built on small cells and bonded access 5G networks are expected to feature.

The issue is how that creates a new “mobile” opportunity, as distinct from the Wi-Fi access that already is used to support at-home video content consumption.

In an era where all of its legacy revenue streams are mature and declining, with profit margins compressing, the core issue is the viability of the business model. Clearly, the key strategic challenge for virtually every operator is to discover or create brand-new lines of business, at scale, to replace revenue sources that are dwindling.

Looking only at the revenue top line can be misleading, in that respect, as aggregate financial results from some 68 service providers show a slight upward trend in recorded revenue since 2009 (roughly the trough of the Great Recession of 2008).

Total recorded revenue has grown largely because hundreds of millions of new mobile customers are being added in some regions and because mobile data still drives incremental revenue growth in many markets. But rates of growth are far lower. That will matter as mobile market subscription growth slows.

Still, the revenue growth rate has been far less robust than expected in the recovery from the Great Recession. In part, some would argue, that is because the global economic growth recovery has been tepid, as well, and telecom revenue has tended to correlate with economic growth.

Still, In three major regions (North America, Europe, Middle East), compound annual growth rates have even been behind growth of gross domestic product, according to analysts at Telco 2.0 Research

The other angle the top-line results do not specifically address are productivity gains in all things related to the use of communications. Since the advent of IP-based communications, many legacy services are replaced by newer substitutes that cost less.

That includes a range of business private line products, business and consumer fixed network voice and business trunk lines.

In many markets, growth has come from mobility, consumer internet access and video in some cases. In many cases, that growth no longer compensates for declining fixed network services.

On the other hand, IP messaging also now is cannibalized carrier messaging. The broad point is that communications buyers (business and consumer) might not have to spend as much as in the past on legacy products, with the potential changes coming from higher spending on fixed network internet access products and mobile data.

The point is that underlying demand for some important communications products now is lower, for reasons related to availability of substitutes.

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