This year developed very differently than expected, including the bombshell in February that GSMA cancelled the Mobile World Congress.
It’s an understatement to stay COVID-19 was a game changer, but the bottom line is that communications networks built and run by operators are even more important than ever. Strand Consult has long described how telecommunications is the foundation for the modern society; 2020 proved this assertion beyond the shadow of a doubt. Here are some of the issues that defined 2020 and will be relevant in 2021: COVID-19, China, cybersecurity, 5G, spectrum, climate, Open RAN, privacy, competition, consolidation, gender equality, and net neutrality.
COVID-19, the all-purpose policy justification
Private network providers by investing for the future ended up prepared for the unexpected. The COVID19 brought unprecedented challenges to telecommunications networks, and these networks performed to meet pandemic requirements. During lockdown and the new normal of working from home (WFH), people have relied on these networks for work, school, shopping, and healthcare. By investing for the future, many network owners ensured that networks would perform under worst case scenarios. This outstanding network performance disproved the conventional regulatory wisdom that network owners left to their own devices would harm their customers, their networks, and third-party service providers. Indeed, the opposite happened, not only did network providers provide consistent service, many reduced prices in solidarity with their customers. This experience has important implications for price control regulation, investment incentives, and sustainability. Strand Consult’s report Network Behaviour Under Crisis: Reflections on Telecommunications, Transportation and Energy Regulation during COVID-19 examines the regulation that govern these networks to see what lessons policymakers can learn to improve regulation going forward. The experience shows that allowing operators to follow market incentives yields socially beneficial results, policymakers will likely use COVID to justify even more regulation. Here are six questions on the future of telecom regulation.
Another love/hate relation in the time of corona is between regulators and platforms like Google and Apple for their track and trace apps. While antitrust efforts against these large players have been ongoing globally, COVID19 suddenly gave them a central position as “the good guys” with surveillance people actually want. Competition authorities put a lot of effort into high antitrust cases against the hyper giants; some of these will likely fail. A better strategy to reduce their dominance would be to stop making policy which unfairly favours and strengthens these platforms with free giveaways on radio frequencies (unlicensed spectrum), copyright (fair use), and data transmission (net neutrality) and so on.
The mobile industry is still an old boys’ club
2020 was not the year in which women achieved management parity in the mobile telecom industry, and the most glaring inequality is on display at the industry’s global trade association. This is not for a lack of accomplished female executives in the industry, but rather a lack of will. GSMA’s website notes: “The GSMA Board has 26 members reflecting the largest operator groups and members from smaller independent operators with global representation.” While GSMA boasts of its board geographic and economic diversity, it fails on the basic front of gender. Just 3 of its board members are women, of which 2 are from the US and 1 from Singapore. GSMA has held many workshops on promoting women in the industry but fails to practice what it preaches. This pattern will likely continue in 2021.
Birds of a Feather: Vodafone, Huawei, and China
COVID-19 intensified the debate about Chinese equipment in networks. Many realized the increasing cost and vulnerability of Chinese elements in mobile networks and the fragility of associated supply chains, not to mention other critical technologies. In 2020 many nations asserted that China and its military-linked Huawei pose security risks and took steps to restrict equipment in mobile networks. However, there were some notable holdouts like Vodafone’s ‘Foreign Minister’ Joakim Reiter who repeatedly defends the use of Huawei equipment.
Vodafone may prioritize its relationship with Huawei above customer safety and security, but smart operators will capitalize on their choice not to expose their customers’ data to the Chinese government. The competition in the mobile industry means that customers can choose whether they want the risk of exposing their data to the Chinese government. Opting out of Huawei equipment and other risky technology vendors will become a unique selling point for operators in 2021, particularly for corporate customers. Vodafone will likely take heat for defending its relationship with malicious vendors.
5G On Track in 2020 and 2021
While some operators stubbornly stuck with Chinese equipment, other operators moved forward on rippling and replacing Huawei equipment without increasing cost or slowing their timeline to 5G. Successful reboots include Denmark’s TDC, Norway’s Telenor, and Telia and Proximus in Belgium. Operators are replacing and upgrading their networks at a pace that exceeds the implementation of 3G and 4G. It is impressive to see how quickly new equipment can be deployed; it took TDC just 11 months to launch a 5G network with non-Chinese equipment covering 90% of the country. In most countries, these upgrades occur without operators having to increase their CAPEX. Strand Consult already described this in 2019. Strand Consult is cautiously optimistic for 5G in 2021. Operators can excel building and running and networks–even during a crisis. The question is whether the applications for 5G will prove compelling for consumer adoption.
Spectrum Auctions – The sky is the limit
As of this writing, the auction for the C-Band (3.7–3.98 GHz) in USA is on track to set a world record for a spectrum auction, breaking $70 billion. The excitement rivals the 3G spectrum auctions in 2000 and reflects that American operators can purchase rights without expiration. Europe’s short term spectrum licenses have led to dire situations in which licenses expire and cannot be renewed.
In 2020 The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2020 Economics Nobel Prize to Stanford University’s Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson “for improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats.” In a mere generation, spectrum auctions have demonstrated telecom operators’ ability to use scarce resources efficiently and to contribute significantly to the public treasury. As the Royal Academy rightly observes, market-based allocation methods like auctions are preferable to administrative allocation.
However, not all spectrum auctions have been beneficial. Indeed, high prices in some countries have reduced infrastructure investment. In some cases, governments and bidders have gamed the auctions. The findings of the 2020 Nobel winners, if applied, could solve these problems, but it requires political discipline. Strand Consult sees the Nobel award as a message to governments around the world to improve the practice of spectrum allocation, particularly as applied to auction rules, spectrum repurposing, unlicensed spectrum, and federal spectrum holdings.
China – Not a good look
Getting the real story on China proved difficult in 2020. The Chinese propaganda machine misleads many journalists, and many stories on Huawei originate with the company giving an exclusive interview with a friendly journalist in a preferred media. These stories portray Huawei as a helpless victim in the trade war between the US and China. Few media dare to publish an analysis comparing the operating conditions foreign companies get in China compared to the favourable treatment Chinese companies enjoy abroad. Moreover, there are few articles investigating Huawei’s role to suppress human rights in China.
However, Huawei’s corporate practices are becoming untenable for Huawei itself. The company’s Danish communications director Tommy Zwick resigned on Twitter because he could not accept Huawei’s role in Uyghur Muslim oppression. And celebrities from sports stars to artists are cancelling their Huawei contracts. Strand Consult hopes that more people choose the path of integrity in 2021, as the focus on China’s appalling human rights record is long overdue.
China has a dream that President Joe Biden will make life easier. Strand Consult does not subscribe to this view; if anything, rules may be tightened. Some countries will take restrictions on China a step further, outlawing its presence in communications networks altogether. See related notes here: Would a new President change the US view of the security of Huawei and ZTE in 5G networks?
Strand Consult’s reports on 4G RAN are used by policymakers to understand the market share of Chinese equipment in networks and to assess associated risk. Strand Consult has also published reports to help policymakers and journalists use critical thinking to address the many claims by Huawei’s corporate communication.
Telecommunications and the Climate Agenda
Operators have many initiatives to improve energy efficiency. These are important as total energy consumption will likely go up, even with efficiency improvements in the data production layer. Read the excellent report from Barclays Equity Research Analysts Environmental Social and Governance – Doing good, doing enough?by the team led by Maurice Patrick.
This holistic approach to energy consumption is more meaningful than 5G climate hype which attempts to measure energy consumption as a function of the minutes or data an operator produces. Strand Consult describes some of these challenges and solutions here: New partnerships help telecom and tech companies become green. Google leads the way in Denmark.
The reality check on Open Ran
In 2020 Open Ran was portrayed as a miracle “technology”. Many believe Open Ran will increase innovation, reduce operators’ costs, and help rid Chinese equipment in telecommunications networks. Other Open Ran boosters want more nations to become manufactures of telecommunications infrastructure.
2021 will bring a needed reality check. It will take years before Open Ran can replace regular RAN on a 1:1 basis. Promised savings for operators will not be so great, and the purported openness of the solution will not necessarily deliver security, at least in the expectation of Open Ran reducing reliance on Chinese vendors. China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are among some 44 Chinese government technology companies in the O-RAN Alliance. Other members are ZTE and Inspur, which the US bans because of links to the Chinese military. While purporting to offer the way out from Huawei, O-RAN appears to substitute one Chinese government owned firm for another, like Lenovo. Open Ran specifications may already violate cybersecurity rules in UK, Germany and France. Patent challenges are also likely as Open Ran is 100% dependent on 3GPP and the patents of non-members of the O-RAN Alliance.
Strand Consult believes that industrial cooperation is important for technological development, investment, and innovation. Some of this cooperation is done in 3GPP, the O-RAN Alliance, and other organizations. Mobile operators should be free to choose the technological solutions that make sense for their business, provided the adherence to national security laws. Open Ran should not be the justification for protectionism.
Regulation is acquired by industry and designed for its benefit
US and EU policymakers talk a big game about antitrust, platform regulation, and data protection. They tweet, like, friend, and stream their criticism against Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix while using these platforms themselves. The platforms have never had it so good; they enjoyed yet another year with increased earnings and market shares. They should send a Christmas card thanking Margrethe Vestager.
Like smokers who rage against the tobacco industry, politicians can’t live without the platforms. Some politician’s tweets even more than US President Donald Trump. Take the Danish Member of the EU Parliament Karen Melchior who has tweeted 193,000 times since October 2008. That’s 43 tweets a day for 12 years. She is three times more active than Donald Trump, who has tweeted 59,000 tweets since March 2009, about 13 tweets a day. Melchior has 21,000 followers: Trump, 88 million. Melchior follows 16,000; Trump; only 51.
The more that big tech is regulated, the larger it grows. Policies which force Netflix to buy more local content only increases Netflix’ popularity in the local policy. These policies look good/feel good on the surface, but they have the opposite of their intended effect. The losers, of course, are traditional radio, TV, and print.
Competition and Consolidation: A time for honesty for operators and policymakers
Competition authorities should look more realistically at decisions purported to improve competition and consumer protection, notably restrictions against 4 to 3 mergers. Courts rebuked the regulatory experts, showing the European Commission to be wrong in blocking the merger between Hutchison and O2. Europe has lagged in telecom investment, prices continue to fall, and the region is an ever-decreasing share of the world market (where it once was the world leader). Operators can bridge the gap by reducing the hype in the merger declarations. The alternative to consolidation is “consolidation light” in which operators share infrastructure. One of the ways to do this is through national roaming agreements, as described this in the report Understanding the impact of national roaming on investments and competition.
Strand Consult has published extensively on mergers and acquisitions in the mobile industry. Look at what creates competition in the telecommunications industry? Can the number of mobile operators be compared with the number infrastructure equipment providers like Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and ZTE?
Broadband via wireless solutions – fibre in the air
2021 will see increasing substitution of 4G and 5G/FWA solutions for fixed broadband connections. While consumers are increasingly cutting the cord and going all wireless for broadband, many policymakers and advocates have resisted accepting this trend. They want to perpetuate outdated regulatory silos. Meanwhile mobile operators will join forces with fibre to the home providers and offer broadband through Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). Larger operators with a fixed and a mobile busines will rely on these solutions to supplement fixed broadband.
The coming focus on hardware security
The most common cyberattacks come from organized crime and state-sponsored actors for financial and espionage reasons. This year was no different than others for the large-scale cyberattacks. This policy failing reflects the lack of a holistic approach to network security and frequently an overfocus on software. 2021 should see a greater focus on all network elements and their provenance, including the servers which process data and the laptops and devices connected to them. While efforts to remove Huawei should be applauded, security is not improved if Huawei’s replacement is just another Chinese government-owned vendor like GE, Motorola, and Lenovo, once American companies, now owned by Chinese government affiliated interests.
Net neutrality back from the dead
“Open internet”, “internet regulation”, and “net neutrality” are predicated on the theory that network owners will harm network users. Europe has long had these rules in place, rules based on flawed theories which have not been shown to increase innovation, investment, or user rights. When practice disproves the theory, it’s time to update the rules.
In the US, the Federal Communication Commission repealed such rules in 2017. It restored jurisdiction of anticompetitive practices in the broadband market to the Federal Trade Commission. This move is associated with an increase in broadband investment, speed, and quality. It would be unfortunate to return to a policy which deters network investment and innovation precisely when people increasingly depend on networks for work, school, and health care. As Strand Consult’s many reports on net neutrality assiduously document, internet regulation is promoted by Silicon Valley hyper giants and their policy advocates. Open internet means that Silicon Valley pays zero for data transmission while consumers pay 100 percent, whether or not they use the services from the giants. This policy contradicts the practice and experience of other communications networks in which content providers played a role to reduce the cost to end users. Hard net neutrality is not empirically correlated with increased innovation. Moreover, many countries with such rules have a persistent gap in investment, particularly in rural areas.
In 2020 Strand Consult published many research notes and reports to help mobile telecom companies navigate a complex world and to create transparency in policy and regulatory debates. For the last 19 years, Strand Consult has reviewed the year and offered predictions for the coming year. We invite you to see for yourself whether we were right over the years.