Posts Tagged HSPA
- Mobile data adaption can be (and usually is) very un-healthy for the mobile voice revenues.
- A Mega Byte of Mobile Voice is 6 times more expensive than a Mega Byte of Mobile Data (i.e., global average)
- If customers would pay the Mobile Data Price for Mobile Voice, 50% of Global Mobile Revenue would Evaporate (based on 2013 data).
- Classical Mobile Voice is not Dead! Global Mobile Voice Usage grew with more than 50% over the last 5 years. Though Global Voice Revenue remained largely constant (over 2009 – 2013).
- Mobile Voice Revenues declined in most Western European & Central Eastern European countries.
- Voice Revenue in Emerging Mobile-Data Markets (i.e., Latin America, Africa and APAC) showed positive growth although decelerating.
- Mobile Applications providing high-quality (often High Definition) mobile Voice over IP should be expected to dent the classical mobile voice revenues (as Apps have impacted SMS usage & revenue).
- Most Western & Central Eastern European markets shows an increasing decline in price elasticity of mobile voice demand. Even some markets (regions) had their voice demand decline as the voice prices were reduced (note: not that causality should be deduced from this trend though).
- The Art of Re-balancing (or re-capture) the mobile voice revenue in data-centric price plans are non-trivial and prone to trial-and-error (but likely also un-avoidable).
An Unbearable Lightness.
There is something almost perverse about how light the mobile industry tends to treat Mobile Voice, an unbearable lightness?
How often don’t we hear Telco Executives wish for All-IP and web-centric services for All? More and more mobile data-centric plans are being offered with voice as an after thought. Even though voice still constitute more than 60% of the Global Mobile turnover and in many emerging mobile markets beyond that. Even though classical mobile voice is more profitable than true mobile broadband access. “Has the train left the station” for Voice and running off the track? In my opinion, it might have for some Telecom Operators, but surely not for all. Taking some time away from thinking about mobile data would already be an incredible improvement if spend on strategizing and safeguarding mobile voice revenues that still are a very substantial part of The Mobile Business Model.
Mobile data penetration is un-healthy for voice revenue. It is almost guarantied that voice revenue will start declining as the mobile data penetration reaches 20% and beyond. There are very few exceptions (i.e., Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia) to this rule as observed in the figure below. Much of this can be explained by the Telecoms focus on mobile data and mobile data centric strategies that takes the mobile voice business for given or an afterthought … focusing on a future of All-IP Services where voice is “just” another data service. Given the importance of voice revenues to the mobile business model, treating voice as an afterthought is maybe not the most value-driven strategy to adopt.
I should maybe point out that this is not per se a result of the underlying Cellular All-IP Technology. The fact is that Cellular Voice over an All-IP network is very well specified within 3GPP. Voice over LTE (i.e., VoLTE), or Voice over HSPA (VoHSPA) for that matter, is enabled with the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS). Both VoLTE and VoHSPA, or simply Cellular Voice over IP (Cellular VoIP as specified by 3GPP), are highly spectral efficient (compared to their circuit switched equivalents). Further the Cellular VoIP can be delivered at a high quality comparable to or better than High Definition (HD) circuit switched voice. Recent Mean Opinion Score (MOS) measurements by Ericsson and more recently (August 2014) Signals Research Group & Spirent have together done very extensive VoLTE network benchmark tests including VoLTE comparison with the voice quality of 2G & 3G Voice as well as Skype (“Behind the VoLTE Curtain, Part 1. Quantifying the Performance of a Commercial VoLTE Deployment”). Further advantage of Cellular VoIP is that it is specified to inter-operate with legacy circuit-switched networks via the circuit-switched fallback functionality. An excellent account for Cellular VoIP and VoLTE in particular can be found in Miikki Poikselka et al’s great book on “Voice over LTE” (Wiley, 2012).
Its not the All-IP Technology that is wrong, its the commercial & strategic thinking of Voice in an All-IP World that leaves a lot to be wished for.
Voice over LTE provides for much better Voice Quality than a non-operator controlled (i.e., OTT) mobile VoIP Application would be able to offer. But is that Quality worth 5 to 6 times the price of data, that is the Billion $ Question.
- Figure Above: illustrates the compound annual growth rates (2009 to 2013) of mobile voice revenue and the mobile data penetration at the beginning of the period (i.e., 2009). As will be addressed later it should be noted that the growth of mobile voice revenues are NOT only depending on Mobile Data Penetration Rates but on a few other important factors, such as addition of new unique subscribers, the minute price and the voice arpu compared to the income level (to name a few). Analysis has been based on Pyramid Research data. Abbreviations: WEU: Western Europe, CEE: Central Eastern Europe, APAC: Asia Pacific, MEA: Middle East & Africa, NA: North America and LA: Latin America.
In the following discussion classical mobile voice should be understood as an operator-controlled voice service charged by the minute or in equivalent economical terms (i.e., re-balanced data pricing). This is opposed to a mobile-application-based voice service (outside the direct control of the Telecom Operator) charged by the tariff structure of a mobile data package without imposed re-balancing.
If the Industry would charge a Mobile Voice Minute the equivalent of what they charge a Mobile Mega Byte … almost 50% of Mobile Turnover would disappear … So be careful AND be prepared for what you wish for!
There are at least a couple of good reasons why Mobile Operators should be very focused on preserving mobile voice as we know it (or approximately so) also in LTE (and any future standards). Even more so, Mobile Operators should try to avoid too many associations with non-operator controlled Voice-over-IP (VoIP) Smartphone applications (easier said than done .. I know). It will be very important to define a future voice service on the All-IP Mobile Network that maintains its economics (i.e., pricing & margin) and don’t get “confused” with the mobile-data-based economics with substantially lower unit prices & questionable profitability.
Back in 2011 at the Mobile Open Summit, I presented “Who pays for Mobile Broadband” (i.e., both in London & San Francisco) with the following picture drawing attention to some of the Legacy Service (e.g., voice & SMS) challenges our Industry would be facing in the years to come from the many mobile applications developed and in development;
One of the questions back in 2011 was (and Wow it still is! …) how to maintain the Mobile ARPU & Revenues at a reasonable level, as opposed to massive loss of revenue and business model sustainability that the mobile data business model appeared to promise (and pretty much still does). Particular the threat (& opportunities) from mobile Smartphone applications. Mobile Apps that provides Mobile Customers with attractive price-arbitrage compared to their legacy prices for SMS and Classical Voice.
“IP killed the SMS Star” … Will IP also do away with the Classical Mobile Voice Economics as well?
Okay … Lets just be clear about what is killing SMS (it’s hardly dead yet). The Mobile Smartphone Messaging-over-IP (MoIP) App does the killing. However, the tariff structure of an SMS vis-a-vis that of a mobile Mega Byte (i..e, ca. 3,000x) is the real instigator of the deed together with the shear convenience of the mobile application itself.
As of August 2014 the top Messaging & Voice over IP Smartphone applications share ca. 2.0+ Billion Active Users (not counting Facebook Messenger and of course with overlap, i.e., active users having several apps on their device). WhatsApp is the Number One Mobile Communications App with about 700 Million active users (i.e., up from 600 Million active users in August 2014). Other Smartphone Apps are further away from the WhatsApp adaption figures. Applications from Viber can boast of 200+M active users, WeChat (predominantly popular in Asia) reportedly have 460+M active users and good old Skype around 300+M active users. The impact of smartphone MoIP applications on classical messaging (e.g., SMS) is well evidenced. So far Mobile Voice-over-IP has not visible dented the Telecom Industry’s mobile voice revenues. However the historical evidence is obviously no guaranty that it will not become an issue in the future (near, medium or far).
WhatsApp is rumoured to launch mobile voice calling as of first Quarter of 2015 … Will this event be the undoing of operator controlled classical mobile voice? WhatsApp already has taken the SMS Scalp with 30 Billion WhatsApp messages send per day according the latest data from WhatsApp (January 2015). For comparison the amount of SMS send out over mobile networks globally was a bit more than 20 Billion per day (source: Pyramid Research data). It will be very interesting (and likely scary as well) to follow how WhatsApp Voice (over IP) service will impact Telecom operator’s mobile voice usage and of course their voice revenues. The Industry appears to take the news lightly and supposedly are unconcerned about the prospects of WhatsApp launching a mobile voice services (see: “WhatsApp voice calling – nightmare for mobile operators?” from 7 January 2015) … My favourite lightness is Vodacom’s (South Africa) “if anything, this vindicates the massive investments that we’ve been making in our network….” … Talking about unbearable lightness of mobile voice … (i.e., 68% of the mobile internet users in South Africa has WhatsApp on their smartphone).
Paying the price of a mega byte mobile voice.
A Mega-Byte is not just a Mega-Byte … it is much more than that!
In 2013, the going Global average rate of a Mobile (Data) Mega Byte was approximately 5 US-Dollar Cent (or a Nickel). A Mega Byte (MB) of circuit switched voice (i.e., ca. 11 Minutes @ 12.2kbps codec) would cost you 30+ US$-cent or about 6 times that of Mobile Data MB. Would you try to send a MB of SMS (i.e., ca. 7,143 of them) that would cost you roughly 150 US$ (NOTE: US$ not US$-Cents).
1 Mobile MB = 5 US$-cent Data MB < 30+ US$-cent Voice MB (6x mobile data) << 150 US$ SMS MB (3000x mobile data).
A Mega Byte of voice conversation is pretty un-ambiguous in the sense of being 11 minutes of a voice conversation (typically a dialogue, but could be monologue as well, e.g., voice mail or an angry better half) at a 12.2 kbps speech codec. How much mega byte a given voice conversation will translate into will depend on the underlying speech coding & decoding (codec) information rate, which typically is 12.2 kbps or 5.9 kbps (i.e., for 3GPP cellular-based voice). In general we would not be directly conscious about speed (e.g., 12.2 kbps) at which our conversation is being coded and decoded although we certainly would be aware of the quality of the codec itself and its ability to correct errors that will occur in-between the two terminals. For a voice conversation itself, the parties that engage in the conversation is pretty much determining the duration of the conversation.
An SMS is pretty straightforward and well defined as well, i.e., being 140 Bytes (or characters). Again the underlying delivery speed is less important as for most purposes it feels that the SMS sending & delivery is almost instantaneously (though the reply might not be).
All good … but what about a Mobile Data Byte? As a concept it could by anything or nothing. A Mega Byte of Data is Extremely Ambiguous. Certainly we get pretty upset if we perceive a mobile data connection to be slow. But the content, represented by the Byte, would obviously impact our perception of time and whether we are getting what we believe we are paying for. We are no longer master of time. The Technology has taken over time.
Some examples: A Mega Byte of Voice is 11 minutes of conversation (@ 12.2 kbps). A Mega Byte of Text might take a second to download (@ 1 Mbps) but 8 hours to process (i.e., read). A Mega Byte of SMS might be delivered (individually & hopefully for you and your sanity spread out over time) almost instantaneously and would take almost 16 hours to read through (assuming English language and an average mature reader). A Mega Byte of graphic content (e.g., a picture) might take a second to download and milliseconds to process. Is a Mega Byte (MB) of streaming music that last for 11 seconds (@ 96 kbps) of similar value to a MB of Voice conversation that last for 11 minutes or a MB millisecond picture (that took a second to download).
In my opinion the answer should be clearly NO … Such (somewhat silly) comparisons serves to show the problem with pricing and valuing a Mega Byte. It also illustrates the danger of ambiguity of mobile data and why an operator should try to avoid bundling everything under the banner of mobile data (or at the very least be smart about it … whatever that means).
I am being a bit naughty in above comparisons, as I am freely mixing up the time scales of delivering a Byte and the time scales of neurological processing that Byte (mea culpa).
- Figure Above: Logarithmic representation of the cost per Mega Byte of a given mobile service. 1 MB of Voice is roughly corresponding to 11 Minutes at a 12.2 voice codec which is ca. 25+ times the monthly global MoU usage. 1 MB of SMS correspond to ca. 7,143 SMSs which is a lot (actually really a lot). In USA 7,143 would roughly correspond to a full years consumption. However, in WEU 7,143 SMS would be ca. 6+ years of SMS consumption (on average) to about almost 12 years of SMS consumption in MEA Region. Still SMS remain proportionate costly and clear is an obvious service to be rapidly replaced by mobile data as it becomes readily available. Source: Pyramid Research.
The “Black” Art of Re-balancing … Making the Lightness more Bearable?
I recently had a discussion with a very good friend (from an emerging market) about how to recover lost mobile voice revenues in the mobile data plans (i.e., the art of re-balancing or re-capturing). Could we do without Voice Plans? Should we focus on All-in the Data Package? Obviously, if you would charge 30+ US$-cent per Mega Byte Voice, while you charge 5 US$-cent for Mobile Data, that might not go down well with your customers (or consumer interest groups). We all know that “window-dressing” and sleight-of-hand are important principles in presenting attractive pricings. So instead of Mega Byte voice we might charge per Kilo Byte (lower numeric price), i.e., 0.029 US$-cent per kilo byte (note: 1 kilo-byte is ca. 0.65 seconds @ 12.2 kbps codec). But in general the consumer are smarter than that. Probably the best is to maintain a per time-unit charge or to Blend in the voice usage & pricing into the Mega Byte Data Price Plan (and hope you have done your math right).
Example (a very simple one): Say you have 500 MB mobile data price plan at 5 US$-cent per MB (i.e., 25 US$). You also have a 300 Minute Mobile Voice Plan of 2.7 US$-cent a minute (or 30 US$-cent per MB). Now 300 Minutes corresponds roughly to 30 MB of Voice Usage and would be charged ca. 9$. Instead of having a Data & Voice Plan, one might have only the Data Plan charging (500 MB x 5 US$cent/MB + 30 MB x 30 US$/cent/MB) / 530 MB or 6.4 US$-cent per MB (or 1.4 US$-cent more for mobile voice over the data plan or a 30% surcharge for Voice on the Mobile Data Bytes). Obviously such a pricing strategy (while simple) does pose some price strategic challenges and certainly does not per se completely safeguard voice revenue erosion. Keeping Mobile Voice separately from Mobile Data (i.e., Minutes vs Mega Bytes) in my opinion will remain the better strategy. Although such a minutes-based strategy is easily disrupted by innovative VoIP applications and data-only entrepreneurs (as well as Regulator Authorities).
Re-balancing (or re-capture) the voice revenue in data-centric price plans are non-trivial and prone to trial-and-error. Nevertheless it is clearly an important pricing strategy area to focus on in order to defend existing mobile voice revenues from evaporating or devaluing by the mobile data price plan association.
Is Voice-based communication for the Masses (as opposed to SME, SOHO, B2B,Niche demand, …) technologically un-interesting? As a techno-economist I would say far from it. From the GSM to HSPA and towards LTE, we have observed a quantum leap, a factor 10, in voice spectral efficiency (or capacity), substantial boost in link-budget (i.e., approximately 30% more geographical area can be covered with UMTS as opposed to GSM in apples for apples configurations) and of course increased quality (i.e., high-definition or crystal clear mobile voice). The below Figure illustrates the progress in voice capacity as a function of mobile technology. The relative voice spectral efficiency data in the below figure has been derived from one of the best (imo) textbooks on mobile voice “Voice over LTE” by Miikki Poikselka et all (Wiley, 2012);
- Figure Above: Abbreviation guide; EFR: Enhanced Full Rate, AMR: Adaptive Multi-Rate, DFCA: Dynamic Frequency & Channel Allocation, IC: Interference Cancellation. What might not always be appreciate is the possibility of defining voice over HSPA, similar to Voice over LTE. Source: “Voice over LTE” by Miikki Poikselka et all (Wiley, 2012).
If you do a Google Search on Mobile Voice you would get ca. 500 Million results (note Voice over IP only yields 100+ million results). Try that on Mobile Data and “sham bam thank you mam” you get 2+ Billion results (and projected to increase further). For most of us working in the Telecom industry we spend very little time on voice issues and an over-proportionate amount of time on broadband data. When you tell your Marketing Department that a state-of-the-art 3G can carry at least twice as much voice traffic than state-of-the –art GSM (and over 30% more coverage area) they don’t really seem to get terribly exited? Voice is un-sexy!? an afterthought!? … (don’t even go brave and tell Marketing about Voice over LTE, aka VoLTE).
Is Mobile Voice Dead or at the very least Dying?
Is Voice un-interesting, something to be taken for granted?
Is Voice “just” data and should be regarded as an add-on to Mobile Data Services and Propositions?
From a Mobile Revenue perspective mobile voice is certainly not something to be taken for granted or just an afterthought. In 2013, mobile voice still amounted for 60+% of he total global mobile turnover, with mobile data taking up ca. 40% and SMS ca. 10%. There are a lot of evidence that SMS is dying out quickly with the emergence of smartphones and Messaging-over-IP-based mobile application (SMS – Assimilation is inevitable, Resistance is Futile!). Not particular surprising given the pricing of SMS and the many very attractive IP-based alternatives. So are there similar evidences of mobile voice dying?
NO! NIET! NEM! MA HO BU! NEJ! (not any time soon at least)
Lets see what the data have to say about mobile voice?
In the following I only provide a Regional but should there be interest I have very detailed deep dives for most major countries in the various regions. In general there are bigger variations to the regional averages in Middle East & Africa (i.e., MEA) as well as Asia Pacific (i.e., APAC) Regions, as there is a larger mix of mature and emerging markets with fairly large differences in mobile penetration rates and mobile data adaptation in general. Western Europe, Central Eastern Europe, North America (i.e., USA & Canada) and Latin America are more uniform in conclusions that can reasonably be inferred from the averages.
As shown in the Figure below, from 2009 to 2013, the total amount of mobile minutes generated globally increased with 50+%. Most of that increase came from emerging markets as more share of the population (in terms of individual subscribers rather than subscriptions) adapted mobile telephony. In absolute terms, the global mobile voice revenues did show evidence of stagnation and trending towards decline.
- Figure Above: Illustrates the development & composition of historical Global Mobile Revenues over the period 2009 to 2013. In addition also shows the total estimated growth of mobile voice minutes (i.e., Red Solid Curve showing MoUs in units of Trillions) over the period. Sources: Pyramid Research & Statista. It should noted that various data sources actual numbers (over the period) are note completely matching. I have observed a difference between various sources of up-to 15% in actual global values. While interesting this difference does not alter the analysis & conclusions presented here.
If all voice minutes was charged with the current Rate of Mobile Data, approximately Half-a-Billion US$ would evaporate from the Global Mobile Revenues.
So while mobile voice revenues might not be a positive growth story its still “sort-of” important to the mobile industry business.
Most countries in Western & Central Eastern Europe as well as mature markets in Middle East and Asia Pacific shows mobile voice revenue decline (in absolute terms and in their local currencies). For Latin America, Africa and Emerging Mobile Data Markets in Asia-Pacific almost all exhibits positive mobile voice revenue growth (although most have decelerating growth rates).
- Figure Above: Illustrates the annual growth rates (compounded) of total mobile voice revenues and the corresponding growth in mobile voice traffic (i.e., associated with the revenues). Some care should be taken as for each region US$ has been used as a common currency. In general each individual country within a region has been analysed based on its own local currency in order to avoid mixing up currency exchange effects. Source: Pyramid Research.
Of course revenue growth of the voice service will depend on (1) the growth of subscriber base, (2) the growth of the unit itself (i.e., minutes of voice usage) as it is used by the subscribers (i.e., which is likely influenced by the unit price), and (3) the development of the average voice revenue per subscriber (or user) or the unit price of the voice service. Whether positive or negative growth of Revenue results, pretty much depends on the competitive environment, regulatory environment and how smart the business is in developing its pricing strategy & customer acquisition & churn dynamics.
Growth of (unique) mobile customers obviously depends the level of penetration, network coverage & customer affordability. Growth in highly penetrated markets is in general (much) lower than growth in less mature markets.
- Figure Above: Illustrates the annual growth rates (compounded) of unique subscribers added to a given market (or region). Further to illustrate the possible relationship between increased subscribers and increased total generated mobile minutes the previous total minutes annual growth is shown as well. Source: Pyramid Research.
Interestingly, particular for the North America Region (NA), we see an increase in unique subscribers of 11% per anno and hardly any growth over the period of total voice minutes. Firstly, note that the US Market will dominate the averaging of the North America Region (i.e., USA and Canada) having approx. 13 times more subscribers. So one of the reasons for this no-minutes-growth effect is that the US market saw a substantial increase in the prepaid ratio (i.e., from ca.19% in 2009 to 28% in 2013). Not only were new (unique) prepaid customers being added. Also a fairly large postpaid to prepaid migration took place over the period. In the USA the minute usage of a prepaid is ca. 35+% lower than that of a postpaid. In comparison the Global demanded minutes difference is 2.2+ times lower prepaid minute usage compared to that of a postpaid subscriber). In the NA Region (and of course likewise in the USA Market) we observe a reduced voice usage over the period both for the postpaid & prepaid segment (based on unique subscribers). Thus increased prepaid blend in the overall mobile base with a relative lower voice usage combined with a general decline in voice usage leads to a pretty much zero growth in voice usage in the NA Market. Although the NA Region is dominated by USA growth (ca. 0.1 % CAGR total voice growth), Canada’s likewise showed very minor growth in their overall voice usage as well (ca. 3.8% CAGR). Both Canada & USA reduced their minute pricing over the period.
- Note on US Voice Usage & Revenues: note that in both in US and in Canada also the receiving party pays (RPP) for receiving a voice call. Thus revenue generating minutes arises from both outgoing and incoming minutes. This is different from most other markets where the Calling Party Pays (CPP) and only minutes originating are counted in the revenue generation. For example in USA the Minutes of Use per blended customer was ca. 620 MoU in 2013. To make that number comparable with say Europe’s 180 MoU, one would need to half the US figure to 310 MoU still a lot higher than the Western European blended minutes of use. The US bundles are huge (in terms of allowed minutes) and likewise the charges outside bundles (i.e., forcing the consumer into the next one) though the fixed fees tends be high to very high (in comparison with other mobile markets). The traditional US voice plan would offer unlimited on-net usage (i.e., both calling & receiving party are subscribing to the same mobile network operator) as well as unlimited off-peak usage (i.e., evening/night/weekends). It should be noted that many new US-based mobile price plans offers data bundles with unlimited voice (i.e., data-centric price plans). In 2013 approximately 60% of the US mobile industry’s turnover could be attributed to mobile voice usage. This number is likely somewhat higher as some data-tariffs has voice-usage (e.g., typically unlimited) embedded. In particular the US mobile voice business model would be depending customer migration to prepaid or lower-cost bundles as well as how well the voice-usage is being re-balanced (and re-captured) in the Data-centric price plans.
- Figure Above: Illustrating the annual growth (compounded) of the per minute price in US$-cents as well as the corresponding growth in total voice minutes. The most affected by declining growth is Western Europe & Central Eastern Europe although other more-emerging markets are observed to have decelerating voice revenue growth. Source: Pyramid Research.
Clearly from the above it appears that the voice “elastic” have broken down in most mature markets with diminishing (or no return) on further minute price reductions. Another way of looking at the loss (or lack) of voice elasticity is to look at the unit-price development of a voice-minute versus the growth of the total voice revenues;
- Figure Above: Illustrates the growth of Total Voice Revenue and the unit-price development of a mobile voice minute. Apart from the Latin America (LA) and Asia Pacific (APAC) markets there clearly is no much further point in reducing the price of voice. Obviously, there are other sources & causes, than the pure gain of elasticity, effecting the price development of a mobile voice minute (i.e., regulatory, competition, reduced demand/voice substitution, etc..). Note US$ has been used as the unifying currency across the various markets. Despite currency effects the trend is consistent across the markets shown above. Source: Pyramid Research.
While Western & Central-Eastern Europe (WEU & CEE) as well as the mature markets in Middle East and Asia-Pacific shows little economic gain in lowering voice price, in the more emerging markets (LA and Africa) there are still net voice revenue gains to be made by lowering the unit price of a minute (although the gains are diminishing rapidly). Although most of the voice growth in the emerging markets comes from adding new customers rather than from growth in the demand per customer itself.
- Figure Above: Illustrating possible drivers for mobile voice growth (positive as well as negative); such as Mobile Data Penetration 2013 (expected negative growth impact), increased number of (unique) subscribers compared to 2009 (expected positive growth impact) and changes in prepaid-postpaid blend (a negative %tage means postpaid increased their proportion while a positive %tage translates into a higher proportion of prepaid compared to 2009). Voice tariff changes have been observed to have elastic effects on usage as well although the impact changes from market to market pending on maturity. Source: derived from Pyramid Research.
With all the talk about Mobile Data, it might come as a surprise that Voice Usage is actually growing across all regions with the exception of North America. The sources of the Mobile Voice Minutes Growth are largely coming from
- Adding new unique subscribers (i.e., increasing mobile penetration rates).
- Transitioning existing subscribers from prepaid to postpaid subscriptions (i.e., postpaid tends to have (a lot) higher voice usage compared to prepaid).
- General increase in usage per individual subscriber (i.e., few markets where this is actually observed irrespective of the general decline in the unit cost of a voice minute).
To the last point (#3) it should be noted that the general trend across almost all markets is that Minutes of Use per Unique customer is stagnating and even in decline despite substantial per unit price reduction of a consumed minute. In some markets that trend is somewhat compensated by increase of postpaid penetration rates (i.e., postpaid subscribers tend to consume more voice minutes). The reduction of MoUs per individual subscriber is more significant than a subscription-based analysis would let on.
Clearly, Mobile Voice Usage is far from Dead
Mobile Voice Revenue is a very important part of the overall mobile revenue composition.
It might make very good sense to spend a bit more time on strategizing voice, than appears to be the case today. If mobile voice remains just an afterthought of mobile data, the Telecom industry will loose massive amounts of Revenues and last but not least Profitability.
Post Script: What drives the voice minute growth?
An interesting exercise is to take all the data and run some statistical analysis on it to see what comes out in terms of main drivers for voice minute growth, positive as well as negative. The data available to me comprises 77 countries from WEU (16), CEE (8), APAC (15), MEA (17), NA (Canada & USA) and LA (19). I am furthermore working with 18 different growth parameters (e.g., mobile penetration, prepaid share of base, data adaptation, data penetration begin of period, minutes of use, voice arpu, voice minute price, total minute volume, customers, total revenue growth, sms, sms price, pricing & arpu relative to nominal gdp etc…) and 7 dummy parameters (populated with noise and unrelated data).
Two specific voice minute growth models emerges our of a comprehensive analysis of the above described data. The first model is as follows
(1) Voice Growth correlates positively with Mobile Penetration (of unique customers) in the sense of higher penetration results in more minutes, it correlates negatively with Mobile Data Penetration at the begin of the period (i.e., 2009 uptake of 3G, LTE and beyond) in the sense that higher mobile data uptake at the begin of the period leads to a reduction of Voice Growth, and finally Voice Growth correlates negatively with the Price of a Voice Minute in the sense of higher prices leads to lower growth and lower prices leads to higher growth. This model is statistically fairly robust (e.g., a p-values < 0.0001) as well as having all parameters with a statistically meaningful confidence intervals (i.e., upper & lower 95% confidence interval having the same sign).
The Global Analysis does pin point to very rational drivers for mobile voice usage growth, i.e., that mobile penetration growth, mobile data uptake and price of a voice minute are important drivers for total voice usage.
It should be noted that changes in the prepaid proportion does not appear statistically to impact voice minute growth.
The second model provides a marginal better overall fit to the Global Data but yields slightly worse p-values for the individual descriptive parameters.
(2) The second model simply adds the Voice ARPU to (nominal) GDP ratio to the first model. This yields a negative correlation in the sense that a low ratio results in higher voice usage growth and a higher ration in lower voice usage growth.
Both models describe the trends or voice growth dynamics reasonably well, although less convincing for Western & Central Eastern Europe and other more mature markets where the model tends to overshoot the actual data. One of the reasons for this is that the initial attempt was to describe the global voice growth behaviour across very diverse markets.
- Figure Above: Illustrates total annual generated voice minutes compound annual growth rate (between 2009 and 2013) for 77 markets across 6 major regions (i.e., WEU, CEE, APAC, MEA, NA and LA). The Model 1 shows an attempt to describe the Global growth trend across all 77 markets within the same model. The Global Model is not great for Western Europe and part of the CEE although it tends to describe the trends between the markets reasonably.
- Figure Western & Central Eastern Region: the above Illustrates the compound annual growth rate (2009 – 2013) of total generated voice minutes and corresponding voice revenues. For Western & Central Eastern Europe while the generated minutes have increased the voice revenue have consistently declined. The average CAGR of new unique customers over the period was 1.2% with the maximum being little less than 4%.
- Figure Asia Pacific Region: the above Illustrates the compound annual growth rate (2009 – 2013) of total generated voice minutes and corresponding voice revenues. For the Emerging market in the region there is still positive growth of both minutes generated as well as voice revenue generated. Most of the mature markets the voice revenue growth is negative as have been observed for mature Western & Central Eastern Europe.
PS.PS. Voice Tariff Structure
Typically the structure of a mobile voice tariff (or how the customer is billed) is structure as follows
Fixed charge / fee
- This fixed charge can be regarded as an access charge and usually is associated with a given usage limit (i.e., $ X for Y units of usage) or bundle structure.
Variable per unit usage charge
- On-net – call originating and terminating within same network.
- Off-net – Domestic Mobile.
- Off-net – Domestic Fixed.
- Off-net – International.
- Local vs Long-distance.
- Peak vs Off-peak rates (e.g., off-peak typically evening/night/weekend).
- Roaming rates (i.e., when customer usage occurs in foreign network).
- Special number tariffs (i.e., calls to paid-service numbers).
How a fixed vis-a-vis variable charges are implemented will depend on the particularity of a given market but in general will depend on service penetration and local vs long-distance charges.
I greatly acknowledge my wife Eva Varadi for her support, patience and understanding during the creative process of creating this Blog. I certainly have not always been very present during the analysis and writing. Also many thanks to Shivendra Nautiyal and others for discussing and challenging the importance of mobile voice versus mobile data and how practically to mitigate VoIP cannibalization of the Classical Mobile Voice.
Short Message Service or SMS for short, one of the corner stones of mobile services, just turned 20 years old in 2012.
Talk about “Live Fast, Die Young” and the chances are that you are talking about SMS!
The demise of SMS has already been heralded … Mobile operators rightfully are shedding tears of the (taken-for-granted?) decline of the most profitable 140 Bytes there ever was and possible ever will be.
Before we completely kill off SMS, let’s have a brief look at
The average SMS user (across the world) consumed 136 SMS (ca. 19kByte) per month and paid 4.6 US$-cent per SMS and 2.6 US$ per month. Of course this is a worldwide average and should not be over interpreted. For example in the Philippines an average SMS user consumes 650+ SMS per month pays 0.258 US$-cent per SMS or 1.17 $ per month.The other extreme end of the SMS usage distribution we find in Cameroon with 4.6 SMS per month paying 8.19 US$-cent per SMS.
We have all seen the headlines throughout 2012 (and better part of 2011) of SMS Dying, SMS Disaster, SMS usage dropping and revenues being annihilated by OTT applications offering messaging for free, etcetcetc… & blablabla … “Mobile Operators almost clueless and definitely blameless of the SMS challenges” … Right? … hmmmm maybe not so fast!
All major market regions (i.e., WEU, CEE, NA, MEA, APAC, LA) have experienced a substantial slow down of SMS revenues in 2011 and 2012. A trend that is expected to continue and accelerate with mobile operators push for mobile broadband. Last but not least SMS volumes have slowed down as well (though less severe than the revenue slow down) as signalling-based short messaging service assimilates to IP-based messaging via mobile applications.
Irrespective of all the drama! SMS phase-out is obvious (and has been for many years) … with the introduction of LTE, SMS will be retired.
Resistance is (as the Borg’s would say) Futile!
It should be clear that the phase out of SMS does Absolutely Not mean that messaging is dead or in decline. Far far from it!
Messaging is Stronger than Ever and just got so many more communication channels beyond the signalling network of our legacy 2G & 3G networks.
Its however important to understand how long the assimilation of SMS will take and what drivers impact the speed of the SMS assimilation. From an operator strategic perspective such considerations will provide insights into how quickly they will need to replace SMS Legacy Revenues with proportional Data Revenues or suffer increasingly on both Top and Bottom line.
SMS2012 AND ITS GROWTH DYNAMICS
So lets just have a look at the numbers (with the cautionary note that some care needs to be taken with exchange rate effects between US Dollar and Local Currencies across the various markets being wrapped up in a regional and a world view. Further, due to the structure of bundling propositions, product-based revenues such as SMS Revenues, can be and often are somewhat uncertain depending on the sophistication of a given market):
2012 is expected worldwide to deliver more than 100 billion US Dollars in SMS revenues on more than 7 trillion revenue generating SMS.
The 100 Billion US Dollars is ca. 10% of total worldwide mobile turnover. This is not much different from the 3 years prior and 1+ percentage-point up compared to 2008. Data revenues excluding SMS is expected in 2012 to be beyond 350 Billion US Dollar or 3.5 times that of SMS Revenues or 30+% of total worldwide mobile turnover (5 years ago this was 20% and ca. 2+ times SMS Revenues).
SMS growth has slowed down over the last 5 years. Last 5 years SMS revenues CAGR was ca. 7% (worldwide). Between 2011 and 2012 SMS revenue growth is expected to be no more than 3%. Western Europe and Central Eastern Europe are both expected to generate less SMS revenues in 2012 than in 2011. SMS Volume grew with more than 20% per annum the last 5 years but generated SMS in 2012 is not expected to more than 10% higher than 2012.
For the ones who like to compare SMS to Data Consumption (and please safe us from ludicrous claims of the benefits of satellites and other ideas out of too many visits to Dutch Coffee shops)
2012 SMS Volume corresponds to 2.7 Terra Byte of daily data (not a lot! Really it is not!)
Don’t be terrible exited about this number! It is like Nano-Dust compared to the total mobile data volume generated worldwide.
The monthly Byte equivalent of SMS consumption is no more than 20 kilo Byte per individual mobile user in Western Europe.
Let us have a look at how this distributes across the world broken down in Western Europe (WEU), Central Eastern Europe (CEE), North America (NA), Asia Pacific (APAC), Latin America (LA) and Middle East & Africa (MEA):
From the above chart we see that
Western Europe takes almost 30% of total worldwide SMS revenues but its share of total SMS generated is less than 10%.
And to some extend also explains why Western Europe might be more exposed to SMS phase out than some other markets. We have already seen the evidence of Western Europe sensitivity to SMS revenues back in 2011, a trend that will spread in many more markets in 2012 and lead to an overall negative SMS revenue story of Western Europe in 2012. We will see that within some of the other regions there are countries that substantially more exposed to SMS phase-out than others in terms of SMS share of total mobile turnover.
In Western Europe a consumer would for an SMS pay more than 7 times the price compared to a consumer in North America (i.e., Canada or USA). It is quiet clear that Western Europe has been very successful in charging for SMS compared to any other market in the World. An consumers have gladly paid the price (well I assume so;-).
SMS Revenues in Western Europe are proportionally much more important in Western Europe than in other regions (maybe with the exception of Latin America).
In 2012 17% of Total Western Europe Mobile Turnover is expected to come from SMS Revenues (was ca. 13% in 2008).
WHAT DRIVES SMS GROWTH?
It is interesting to ask what drives SMS behaviour across various markets and countries.
Prior to reasonable good quality 3G networks and as importantly prior to the emergence of the Smartphone the SMS usage dynamics between different markets could easily be explained by relative few drivers, such as
(1) Price decline year on year (the higher decline the faster does SMS per user grow, though rate and impact will depend on Smartphone penetration & 3G quality of coverage).
(2) Price of an SMS relative to the price of a Minute (the lower the more SMS per User, in many countries there is a clear arbitrage in sending an SMS versus making a call which on average last between 60 – 120 seconds).
(3) Prepaid to Contract ratios (higher prepaid ratios tend to result in fewer SMS, though this relationship is not per se very strong).
(4) SMS ARPU to GDP (or average income if available) (The lower the higher higher the usage tend to be).
(5) 2G penetration/adaptation and
(6) literacy ratios (particular important in emerging markets. the lower the literacy rate is the lower the amount of SMS per user tend to be).
Finer detailed models can be build with many more parameters. However, the 6 given here will provide a very decent worldview of SMS dynamics (i.e., amount and growth) across countries and cultures. So for mature markets we really talk about a time before 2009 – 2010 where Smartphone penetration started to approach or exceed 20% – 30% (beyond which the model becomes a bit more complex).
In markets where the Smartphone penetration is beyond 30% and 3G networks has reached a certain coverage quality level the models describing SMS usage and growth changes to include Smartphone Penetration and to a lesser degree 3G Uptake (not Smartphone penetration and 3G uptake are not independent parameters and as such one or the other often suffice from a modelling perspective).
Looking SMS usage and growth dynamics after 2008, I have found high quality statistical and descriptive models for SMS growth using the following parameters;
(a) SMS Price Decline.
(b) SMS price to MoU Price.
(c) Prepaid percentage.
(d) Smartphone penetration (Smartphone penetration has a negative impact on SMS growth and usage – unsurprisingly!)
(e) SMS ARPU to GDP
(f) 3G penetration/uptake (Higher the 3G penetration combined with very good coverage has a negative impact on SMS growth and usage. Less important though than Smartphone penetration).
It should be noted that each of these parameters are varying with time and there for in extracting those from a comprehensive dataset time variation should be considered in order to produce a high quality descriptive model for SMS usage and growth.
If a Market and its Mobile Operators would like to protect their SMS revenues or at least slow down the assimilation of SMS, the mobile operators clearly need to understand whether pushing Smartphones and Mobile Data can make up for the decline in SMS revenues that is bound to happen with the hard push of mobile broadband devices and services.
EXPOSURE TO LOSS OF SMS REVENUE – A MARKET BY MARKET VIEW!
As we have already seen and discussed it is not surprising that SMS is declining or stagnating. At least within its present form and business model. Mobile Broadband, the Smartphone and its many applications have created a multi-verse of alternatives to the SMS. Where in the past SMS was a clear convenience and often a much cheaper alternative to an equivalent voice call, today SMS has become in-convenient and not per se a cost-efficient alternative to Voice and certainly not when compared with IP-based messaging via a given data plan.
As Mobile operators push hard for mobile broadband and inevitably increases rapidly the Smartphone penetration, SMS will decline. In the “end-game” of LTE, SMS has been altogether phased out.
Based on 2012 expectations lets look at the risk exposure that SMS phase-out brings in a market by market out-look;
We see from the above analysis that 9 markets (out of a total 74 analyzed), with Philippines taking the pole position, are having what could be characterized as a very high exposure to SMS Decline. The UK market, with more than 30% of revenues tied up in SMS, have aggressively pushed for mobile broadband and LTE. It will be very interesting to follow how UK operators will mitigate the exposure to SMS decline as LTE is penetrating the market. We will see whether LTE (and other mobile broadband propositions) can make up for the SMS decline.
More than 40 markets have an SMS revenue dependency of more than 10% of total mobile turnover and thus do have a substantial exposure to SMS decline that needs to be mitigated by changes to the messaging business model.
Mobile operators around the world still need to crack this SMS assimilation challenge … a good starting point would be to stop blaming OTT for all the evils and instead either manage their mobile broadband push and/or start changing their SMS business model to an IP-messaging business model.
IS THERE A MARGIN EXPOSURE BEYOND LOSS OF SMS REVENUES?
There is no doubt that SMS is a high-margin service, if not the highest, for The Mobile Industry.
A small de-tour into the price for SMS and the comparison with the price of mobile data!
The Basic: an SMS is 140 Bytes and max 160 characters.
On average (worldwide) an SMS user pays (i.e., in 2012) ca. 4.615 US$-cent per short message.
A Mega-Byte of data is equivalent to 7,490 SMSs which would have a “value” of ca. 345 US Dollars.
Yes! It would be if that was the price a user would pay for mobile broadband data (particular for average consumptions of 100 Mega Bytes per month of Smartphone consumption) …
However, remember that an average user (worldwide) consumes no more than 20 kilo Byte per Month.
One Mega-Byte of SMS would supposedly last for more than 50 month or more than 4 years.
This is just to illustrate the silliness of getting into SMS value comparison with mobile data.
A Byte is not just a Byte but depends what that Byte caries!
Its quiet clear that an SMS equivalent IP-based messaging does not pose much of a challenge to a mobile broadband network being it either HSPA-based or LTE-based. To some extend IP-based messaging (as long as its equivalent to 140 Bytes) should be able to be delivered at better or similar margin as in a legacy based 2G mobile network.
Thus, in my opinion a 140 Byte message should not cost more to deliver in an LTE or HSPA based network. In fact due to better spectral efficiency and at equivalent service levels, the cost of delivering 140 Bytes in LTE or HSPA should be a lot less than in GSM (or CS-3G).
However, if the mobile operators are not able to adapt their messaging business models to recover the SMS revenues (which with the margin argument above might not be $ to $ recovery but could be less) at risk of being lost to the assimilation process of pushing mobile data … well then substantial margin decline will be experienced.
Operators in the danger zone of SMS revenue exposure, and thus with the SMS revenue share exceeding 10% of the total mobile turnover, should urgently start strategizing on how they can control the SMS assimilation process without substantial financial loss to their operations.
I have made extensive use of historical and actual data from Pyramid Research country data bases. Wherever possible this data has been cross checked with other sources. Pyramid Research have some of the best and most detailed mobile technology projections that would satisfy most data savvy analysts. The very extensive data analysis on Pyramid Research data sets are my own and any short falls in the analysis clearly should only be attributed to myself.
By now the biggest challenge of the “1,000x challenge” is to read yet another story about the “1,000x challenge”.
This said, Qualcomm has made many beautiful presentations on The Challenge. It leaves the reader with an impression that it is much less of a real challenge, as there is a solution for everything and then some.
So bear with me while we take a look at the Economics and in particular the Economical Boundaries around the Thousand Times “Challenge” of providing (1) More spectrum, (2) Better efficiency and last but not least (3) Many more Small Cells.
THE MISSING LINK
While (almost) every technical challenge is solvable by clever engineering (i.e., something Qualcomm obviously have in abundance), it is not following naturally that such solutions are also feasible within the economical framework imposed by real world economics. At the very least, any technical solution should also be reasonable within the world of economics (and of course within a practical time-frame) or it becomes a clever solution but irrelevant to a real world business.
A Business will (maybe should is more in line with reality) care about customer happiness. However a business needs to do that within healthy financial boundaries of margin, cash and shareholder value. Not only should the customer be happy, but the happiness should extend to investors and shareholders that have trusted the Business with their livelihood.
While technically, and almost mathematically, it follows that massive network densification would be required in the next 10 years IF WE KEEP FEEDING CUSTOMER DEMAND it might not be very economical to do so or at the very least such densification only make sense within a reasonable financial envelope.
Its obvious that massive network densification, by means of macro-cellular expansion, is unrealistic, impractically as well as uneconomically. Thus Small Cell concepts including WiFi has been brought to the Telecoms Scene as an alternative and credible solution. While Small Cells are much more practical, the question whether they addresses sufficiently the economical boundaries, the Telecommunications Industry is facing, remains pretty much unanswered.
The Thousand Times Challenge, as it has been PR’ed by Qualcomm, states that the cellular capacity required in 2020 will be at least 1,000 times that of “today”. Actually, the 1,000 times challenge is referenced to the cellular demand & supply in 2010, so doing the math
the 1,000x might “only” be a 100 times challenge between now and 2020 in the world of Qualcomm’s and alike. Not that it matters! … We still talk about the same demand, just referenced to a later (and maybe less “sexy” year).
In my previous Blogs, I have accounted for the dubious affair (and non-nonsensical discussion) of over-emphasizing cellular data growth rates (see “The Thousand Times Challenge: The answer to everything about mobile data”) as well as the much more intelligent discussion about how the Mobile Industry provides for more cellular data capacity starting with the existing mobile networks (see “The Thousand Time Challenge: How to provide cellular data capacity?”).
As it turns out Cellular Network Capacity C can be described by 3 major components; (1) available bandwidth B, (2) (effective) spectral efficiency E and (3) number of cells deployed N.
The SUPPLIED NETWORK CAPACITY in Mbps (i.e., C) is equal to the AMOUNT OF SPECTRUM, i.e., available bandwidth, in MHz (i..e, B) multiplied with the SPECTRAL EFFICIENCY PER CELL in Mbps/MHz (i.e., E) multiplied by the NUMBER OF CELLS (i.e., N). For more details on how and when to apply the Cellular Network Capacity Equation read my previous Blog on “How to provide Cellular Data Capacity?”).
SK Telekom (SK Telekom’s presentation at the 3GPP workshop on “Future Radio in 3GPP” is worth a careful study) , Mallinson (@WiseHarbor) and Qualcomm (@Qualcomm_tech, and many others as of late) have used the above capacity equation to impose a Target amount of cellular network capacity a mobile network should be able to supply by 2020: Realistic or Not, this target comes to a 1,000 times the supplied capacity level in 2010 (i.e., I assume that 2010 – 2020 sounds nicer than 2012 – 2022 … although the later would have been a lot more logical to aim for if one really would like to look at 10 years … of course that might not give 1,000 times which might ruin the marketing message?).
So we have the following 2020 Cellular Network Capacity Challenge:
Thus a cellular network in 2020 should have 3 times more spectral bandwidth B available (that’s fairly easy!), 6 times higher spectral efficiency E (so so … but not impossible, particular compared with 2010) and 56 times higher cell site density N (this one might be a “real killer challenge” in more than one way), compared to 2010!.
Personally I would not get too hanged up about whether its 3 x 6 x 56 or 6 x 3 x 56 or some other “multiplicators” resulting in a 1,000 times gain (though some combinations might be a lot more feasible than others!)
Obviously we do NOT need a lot of insights to see that the 1,000x challenge is a
Rally call for Small & then Smaller Cell Deployment!
Also we do not need to be particular visionary (or have visited a Dutch Coffee Shop) to predict that by 2020 (aka The Future) compared to today (i.e., October 2012)?
Data demand from mobile devices will be a lot higher in 2020!
Cellular Networks have to (and will!) supply a lot more data capacity in 2020!
Footnote: the observant reader will have seen that I am not making the claim that there will be hugely more data traffic on the cellular network in comparison to today. The WiFi path might (and most likely will) take a lot of the traffic growth away from the cellular network.
how economical will this journey be for the Mobile Network Operator?
THE ECONOMICS OF THE THOUSAND TIMES CHALLENGE
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) will not have the luxury of getting the Cellular Data Supply and Demand Equation Wrong.
The MNO will need to balance network investments with pricing strategies, churn & customer experience management as well as overall profitability and corporate financial well being:
Growth, if not manage, will lead to capacity & cash crunch and destruction of share holder value!
So for the Thousand Times Challenge, we need to look at the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) or Total Investment required to get to a cellular network with 1,000 times more network capacity than today. We need to look at:
Investment I(B) in additional bandwidth B, which would include (a) the price of spectral re-farming (i.e., re-purposing legacy spectrum to a new and more efficient technology), (b) technology migration (e.g., moving customers off 2G and onto 3G or LTE or both) and (c) possible acquisition of new spectrum (i..e, via auction, beauty contests, or M&As).
Improving a cellular networks spectral efficiency I(E) is also likely to result in additional investments. In order to get an improved effective spectral efficiency, an operator would be required to (a) modernize its infrastructure, (b) invest into better antenna technologies, and (c) ensure that customer migration from older spectral in-efficient technologies into more spectral efficient technologies occurs at an appropriate pace.
Last but NOT Least the investment in cell density I(N):
Needing 56 times additional cell density is most likely NOT going to be FREE,
even with clever small cell deployment strategies.
Though I am pretty sure that some will make a very positive business case, out there in the Operator space, (note: the difference between Pest & Cholera might come out in favor of Cholera … though we would rather avoid both of them) comparing a macro-cellular expansion to Small Cell deployment, avoiding massive churn in case of outrageous cell congestion, rather than focusing on managing growth before such an event would occur.
The Real “1,000x” Challenge will be Economical in nature and will relate to the following considerations:
In other words:
Mobile Networks required to supply a 1,000 times present day cellular capacity are also required to provide that capacity gain at substantially less ABSOLUTE Total Cost of Ownership.
I emphasize the ABSOLUTE aspects of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), as I have too many times seen our Mobile Industry providing financial benefits in relative terms (i.e., relative to a given quality improvement) and then fail to mention that in absolute cost the industry will incur increased Opex (compared to pre-improvement situation). Thus a margin decline (i.e., unless proportional revenue is gained … and how likely is that?) as well as negative cash impact due to increased investments to gain the improvements (i.e., again assuming that proportional revenue gain remains wishful thinking).
Never Trust relative financial improvements! Absolutes don’t Lie!
THE ECONOMICS OF SPECTRUM.
Spectrum economics can be captured by three major themes: (A) ACQUISITION, (B) RETENTION and (C) PERFECTION. These 3 major themes should be well considered in any credible business plan: Short, Medium and Long-term.
It is fairly clear that there will not be a lot new lower frequency (defined here as <2.5GHz) spectrum available in the next 10+ years (unless we get a real breakthrough in white-space). The biggest relative increase in cellular bandwidth dedicated to mobile data services will come from re-purposing (i.e., perfecting) existing legacy spectrum (i.e., by re-farming). Acquisition of some new bandwidth in the low frequency range (<800MHz), which per definition will not be a lot of bandwidth and will take time to become available. There are opportunities in the very high frequency range (>3GHz) which contains a lot of bandwidth. However this is only interesting for Small Cell and Femto Cell like deployments (feeding frenzy for small cells!).
As many European Countries re-auction existing legacy spectrum after the set expiration period (typical 10 -15 years), it is paramount for a mobile operator to retain as much as possible of its existing legacy spectrum. Not only is current traffic tied up in the legacy bands, but future growth of mobile data will critical depend on its availability. Retention of existing spectrum position should be a very important element of an Operators business plan and strategy.
Most real-world mobile network operators that I have looked at can expect by acquisition & perfection to gain between 3 to 8 times spectral bandwidth for cellular data compared to today’s situation.
For example, a typical Western European MNO have
- Max. 2x10MHz @ 900MHz primarily used for GSM. Though some operators are having UMTS 900 in operation or plans to re-farm to UMTS pending regulatory approval.
- 2×20 MHz @ 1800MHz, though here the variation tend to be fairly large in the MNO spectrum landscape, i.e., between 2x30MHz down-to 2x5MHz. Today this is exclusively in use for GSM. This is going to be a key LTE band in Europe and already supported in iPhone 5 for LTE.
- 2×10 – 15 MHz @ 2100MHz is the main 3G-band (UMTS/HSPA+) in Europe and is expected to remain so for at least the next 10 years.
- 2×10 @ 800 MHz per operator and typically distributed across 3 operator and dedicated to LTE. In countries with more than 3 operators typically some MNOs will have no position in this band.
- 40 MHz @ 2.6 GHz per operator and dedicated to LTE (FDD and/or TDD). From a coverage perspective this spectrum would in general be earmarked for capacity enhancements rather than coverage.
Note that most European mobile operators did not have 800MHz and/or 2.6GHz in their spectrum portfolios prior to 2011. The above list has been visualized in the Figure below (though only for FDD and showing the single side of the frequency duplex).
The 700MHz will eventually become available in Europe (already in use for LTE in USA via AT&T and VRZ) for LTE advanced. Though the time frame for 700MHz cellular deployment in Europe is still expected take maybe up to 8 years (or more) to get it fully cleared and perfected.
Today (as of 2012) a typical European MNO would have approximately (a) 60 MHz (i.e., DL+UL) for GSM, (b) 20 – 30 MHz for UMTS and (c) between 40MHz – 60MHz for LTE (note that in 2010 this would have been 0MHz for most operators!). By 2020 it would be fair to assume that same MNO could have (d) 40 – 50 MHz for UMTS/HSPA+ and (e) 80MHz – 100MHz for LTE. Of course it is likely that mobile operators still would have a thin GSM layer to support roaming traffic and extreme laggards (this is however likely to be a shared resource among several operators). If by 2020 10MHz to 20MHz would be required to support voice capacity, then the MNO would have at least 100MHz and up-to 130MHz for data.
Note if we Fast-Backward to 2010, assume that no 2.6GHz or 800MHz auction had happened and that only 2×10 – 15 MHz @ 2.1GHz provided for cellular data capacity, then we easily get a factor 3 to 5 boost in spectral capacity for data over the period. This just to illustrate the meaningless of relativizing the challenge of providing network capacity.
So what’s the economical aspects of spectrum? Well show me the money!
- needs to be Acquired (including re-acquired = Retention) via (a) Auction, (b) Beauty contest or (c) Private transaction if allowed by the regulatory authorities (i.e., spectrum trading); Usually spectrum (in Europe at least) will be time-limited right-to-use! (e.g., 10 – 15 years) => Capital investments to (re)purchase spectrum.
- might need to be Perfected & Re-farmed to another more spectral efficient technology => new infrastructure investments & customer migration cost (incl. acquisition, retention & churn).
- new deployment with coverage & service obligations => new capital investments and associated operational cost.
- demand could result in joint ventures or mergers to acquire sufficient spectrum for growth.
- often has a re-occurring usage fee associate with its deployment => Operational expense burden.
First 3 bullet points can be attributed mainly to Capital expenditures and point 5. would typically be an Operational expense. As we have seen in US with the failed AT&T – T-Mobile US merger, bullet point 4. can result in very high cost of spectrum acquisition. Though usually a merger brings with it many beneficial synergies, other than spectrum, that justifies such a merger.
Above Figure provides a historical view on spectrum pricing in US$ per MHz-pop. As we can see, not all spectrum have been borne equal and depending on timing of acquisition, premium might have been paid for some spectrum (e.g., Western European UMTS hyper pricing of 2000 – 2001).
Some general spectrum acquisition heuristics can be derived by above historical overview (see my presentation “Techno-Economical Aspects of Mobile Broadband from 800MHz to 2.6GHz” on @slideshare for more in depth analysis).
Most of the operator cost associated with Spectrum Acquisition, Spectrum Retention and Spectrum Perfection should be more or less included in a Mobile Network Operators Business Plans. Though the demand for more spectrum can be accelerated (1) in highly competitive markets, (2) spectrum starved operations, and/or (3) if customer demand is being poorly managed within the spectral resources available to the MNO.
WiFi, or in general any open radio-access technology operating in ISM bands (i.e., freely available frequency bands such as 2.4GHz, 5.8GHz), can be a source of mitigating costly controlled-spectrum resources by stimulating higher usage of such open-technologies and open-bands.
The cash prevention or cash optimization from open-access technologies and frequency bands should not be under-estimated or forgotten. Even if such open-access deployment models does not make standalone economical sense, is likely to make good sense to use as an integral part for the Next Generation Mobile Data Network perfecting & optimizing open- & controlled radio-access technologies.
The Economics of Spectrum Acquisition, Spectrum Retention & Spectrum Perfection is of such tremendous benefits that it should be on any Operators business plans: short, medium and long-term.
THE ECONOMICS OF SPECTRAL EFFICIENCY
The relative gain in spectral efficiency (as well as other radio performance metrics) with new 3GPP releases has been amazing between R99 and recent HSDPA releases. Lots of progress have been booked on the account of increased receiver and antenna sophistication.
If we compare HSDPA 3.6Mbps (see above Figure) with the first Release of LTE, the spectral efficiency has been improved with a factor 4. Combined with more available bandwidth for LTE, provides an even larger relative boost of supplied bandwidth for increased capacity and customer quality. Do note above relative representation of spectral efficiency gain largely takes away the usual (almost religious) discussions of what is the right spectral efficiency and at what load. The effective (what that may be in your network) spectral efficiency gain moving from one radio-access release or generation to the next would be represented by the above Figure.
Theoretically this is all great! However,
Having the radio-access infrastructure supporting the most spectral efficient technology is the easy part (i.e., thousands of radio nodes), getting your customer base migrated to the most spectral efficient technology is where the challenge starts (i.e., millions of devices).
In other words, to get maximum benefits of a given 3GPP Release gains, an operator needs to migrate his customer-base terminal equipment to that more Efficient Release. This will take time and might be costly, particular if accelerated. Irrespective, migrating a customer base from radio-access A (e.g., GSM) to radio-access B (e.g., LTE), will take time and adhere to normal market dynamics of churn, retention, replacement factors, and gross-adds. The migration to a better radio-access technology can be stimulated by above-market-average acquisition & retention investments and higher-than-market-average terminal equipment subsidies. In the end competitors market reactions to your market actions, will influence the migration time scale very substantially (this is typically under-estimate as competitive driving forces are ignored in most analysis of this problem).
The typical radio-access network modernization cycle has so-far been around 5 years. Modernization is mainly driven by hardware obsolescence and need for more capacity per unit area than older (first & second) generation equipment could provide. The most recent and ongoing modernization cycle combines the need for LTE introduction with 2G and possibly 3G modernization. In some instances retiring relative modern 3G equipment on the expense of getting the latest multi-mode, so-called Single-RAN equipment, deployed, has been assessed to be worth the financial cost of write-off. This new cycle of infrastructure improvements will in relative terms far exceed past upgrades. Software Definable Radios (SDR) with multi-mode (i.e., 2G, 3G, LTE) capabilities are being deployed in one integrated hardware platform, instead of the older generations that were separated with the associated floor space penalty and operational complexity. In theory only Software Maintenance & simple HW upgrades (i.e., CPU, memory, etc..) would be required to migrate from one radio-access technology to another. Have we seen the last HW modernization cycle? … I doubt it very much! (i.e., we still have Cloud and Virtualization concepts going out to the radio node blurring out the need for own core network).
Multi-mode SDRs should in principle provide a more graceful software-dominated radio-evolution to increasingly more efficient radio access; as cellular networks and customers migrate from HSPA to HSPA+ to LTE and to LTE-advanced. However, in order to enable those spectral-efficient superior radio-access technologies, a Mobile Network Operator will have to follow through with high investments (or incur high incremental operational cost) into vastly improved backhaul-solutions and new antenna capabilities than the past access technologies required.
Whilst the radio access network infrastructure has gotten a lot more efficient from a cash perspective, the peripheral supporting parts (i.e., antenna, backhaul, etc..) has gotten a lot more costly in absolute terms (irrespective of relative cost per Byte might be perfectly OKAY).
Thus most of the economics of spectral efficiency can and will be captured within the modernization cycles and new software releases without much ado. However, backhaul and antenna technology investments and increased operational cost is likely to burden cash in the peak of new equipment (including modernization) deployment. Margin pressure is therefor likely if the Opex of supporting the increased performance is not well managed.
To recapture the most important issues of Spectrum Efficiency Economics:
- network infrastructure upgrades, from a hardware as well as software perspective, are required => capital investments, though typically result in better Operational cost.
- optimal customer migration to better and more efficient radio-access technologies => market invest and terminal subsidies.
Boosting spectrum much beyond 6 times today’s mobile data dedicated spectrum position is unlikely to happen within a foreseeable time frame. It is also unlikely to happen in bands that would be very interesting for both providing both excellent depth of coverage and at the same time depth of capacity (i.e., lower frequency bands with lots of bandwidth available). Spectral efficiency will improve with both next generation HSPA+ as well as with LTE and its evolutionary path. However, depending on how we count the relative improvement, it is not going to be sufficient to substantially boost capacity and performance to the level a “1,000 times challenge” would require.
This brings us to the topic of vastly increased cell site density and of course Small Cell Economics.
THE ECONOMICS OF INCREASED CELL SITE DENSITY
It is fairly clear that there will not be a lot new spectrum available in the next 10+ years. The relative increase in cellular bandwidth will come from re-purposing & perfecting existing legacy spectrum (i.e., by re-farming) and acquiring some new bandwidth in the low frequency range (<800MHz) which per definition is not going to provide a lot of bandwidth. The very high-frequency range (>3GHz) will contain a lot of bandwidth, but is only interesting for Small Cell and Femto-cell like deployments (feeding frenzy for Small Cells).
Financially Mobile Operators in mature markets, such as Western Europe, will be lucky to keep their earning and margins stable over the next 8 – 10 years. Mobile revenues are likely to stagnate and possible even decline. Opex pressure will continue to increase (e.g., just simply from inflationary pressures alone). MNOs are unlikely to increase cell site density, if it leads to incremental cost & cash pressure that cannot be recovered by proportional Topline increases. Therefor it should be clear that adding many more cell sites (being it Macro, Pico, Nano or Femto) to meet increasing (often un-managed & unprofitable) cellular demand is economically unwise and unlikely to happen unless followed by Topline benefits.
Increasing cell density dramatically (i.e., 56 times is dramatic!) to meet cellular data demand will only happen if it can be done with little incremental cost & cash pressure.
I have no doubt that distributing mobile data traffic over more and smaller nodes (i.e., decrease traffic per node) and utilize open-access technologies to manage data traffic loads are likely to mitigate some of the cash and margin pressure from supporting the higher performance radio-access technologies.
So let me emphasize that there will always be situations and geographical localized areas where cell site density will be increased disregarding the economics, in order to increase urgent capacity needs or to provide specialized-coverage needs. If an operator has substantially less spectral overhead (e.g., AT&T) than a competitor (e.g., T-Mobile US), the spectrum-starved operator might decide to densify with Small Cells and/or Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) to be able to continue providing a competitive level of service (e.g., AT&T’s situation in many of its top markets). Such a spectrum starved operator might even have to rely on massive WiFi deployments to continue to provide a decent level of customer service in extreme hot traffic zones (e.g., Times Square in NYC) and remain competitive as well as having a credible future growth story to tell shareholders.
Spectrum-starved mobile operators will move faster and more aggressively to Small Cell Network solutions including advanced (and not-so-advanced) WiFi solutions. This fast learning-curve might in the longer term make up for a poorer spectrum position.
In the following I will consider Small Cells in the widest sense, including solutions based both on controlled frequency spectrum (e.g., HSPA+, LTE bands) as well in the ISM frequency bands (i.e., 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz). The differences between the various Small Cell options will in general translate into more or less cells due to radio-access link-budget differences.
As I have been involved in many projects over the last couple of years looking at WiFi & Small Cell substitution for macro-cellular coverage, I would like to make clear that in my opinion:
A Small Cells Network is not a good technical (or economical viable) solution for substituting macro-cellular coverage for a mobile network operator.
However, Small Cells however are Great for
- Specialized coverage solutions difficult to reach & capture with standard macro-cellular means.
- Localized capacity addition in hot traffic zones.
- Coverage & capacity underlay when macro-cellular cell split options have been exhausted.
The last point in particular becomes important when mobile traffic exceeds the means for macro-cellular expansion possibilities, i.e., typically urban & dense-urban macro-cellular ranges below 200 meters and in some instances maybe below 500 meters pending on the radio-access choice of the Small Cell solution.
Interference concerns will limit the transmit power and coverage range. However our focus are small localized and tailor-made coverage-capacity solutions, not a substituting macro-cellular coverage, range limitation is of lesser concern.
For great accounts of Small Cell network designs please check out Iris Barcia (@IBTwi) & Simon Chapman (@simonchapman) both from Keima Wireless. I recommend the very insightful presentation from Iris “Radio Challenges and Opportunities for Large Scale Small Cell Deployments” which you can find at “3G & 4G Wireless Blog” by Zahid Ghadialy (@zahidtg, a solid telecom knowledge source for our Industry).
When considering small cell deployment it makes good sense to understand the traffic behavior of your customer base. The Figure below illustrates a typical daily data and voice traffic profile across a (mature) cellular network:
- up-to 80% of cellular data traffic happens either at home or at work.+
Currently there is an important trend, indicating that the evening cellular-data peak is disappearing coinciding with the WiFi-peak usage taking over the previous cellular peak hour.
A great source of WiFi behavioral data, as it relates to Smartphone usage, you will find in Thomas Wehmeier’s (Principal Analyst, Informa: @Twehmeier) two pivotal white papers on “Understanding Today’s Smatphone User” Part I and Part II.
The above daily cellular-traffic profile combined with the below Figure on cellular-data usage per customer distributed across network cells
shows us something important when it comes to small cells:
- Most cellular data traffic (per user) is limited to very few cells.
- 80% (50%) of the cellular data traffic (per user) is limited to 3 (1) main cells.
- The higher the cellular data usage (per user) the fewer cells are being used.
It is not only important to understand how data traffic (on a per user) behaves across the cellular network. It is likewise very important to understand how the cellular-data traffic multiplex or aggregate across the cells in the mobile network.
We find in most Western European Mature 3G networks the following trend:
- 20% of the 3G Cells carries 60+% of the 3G data traffic.
- 50% of the 3G Cells carriers 95% or more of the 3G data traffic.
Thus relative few cells carries the bulk of the cellular data traffic. Not surprising really as this trend was even more skewed for GSM voice.
The above trends are all good news for Small Cell deployment. It provides confidence that small cells can be effective means to taking traffic away from macro-cellular areas, where there is no longer an option for conventional capacity expansions (i.e., sectorization, additional carrier or conventional cell splits).
For the Mobile Network Operator, Small Cell Economics is a Total Cost of Ownership exercise comparing Small Cell Network Deployment to other means of adding capacity to the existing mobile network.
The Small Cell Network needs (at least) to be compared to the following alternatives;
- Greenfield Macro-cellular solutions (assuming this is feasible).
- Overlay (co-locate) on existing network grid.
- Sectorization of an existing site solution (i.e., moving from 3 sectors to 3 + n on same site).
Obviously, in the “extreme” cellular-demand limit where non of the above conventional means of providing additional cellular capacity are feasible, Small Cell deployment is the only alternative (besides doing nothing and letting the customer suffer). Irrespective we still need to understand how the economics will work out, as there might be instances where the most reasonable strategy is to let your customer “suffer” best-effort services. This would in particular be the case if there is no real competitive and incremental Topline incentive by adding more capacity.
Competitive circumstances could force some spectrum-starved operators to deploy small cells irrespective of it being financially unfavorable to do so.
Lets begin with the cost structure of a macro-cellular 3G Greenfield Rooftop Site Solution. We take the relevant cost structure of a configuration that we would be most likely to encounter in a Hot Traffic Zone / Metropolitan high-population density area which also is likely to be a candidate area for Small Cell deployment. The Figure below shows the Total Cost of Ownership, broken down in Annualized Capex and Annual Opex, for a Metropolitan 3G macro-cellular rooftop solution:
Note 1: The annualized Capex has been estimated assuming 5 years for RAN Infra, Backaul & Core, and 10 years for Build. It is further assumed that the site is supported by leased-fiber backhaul. Opex is the annual operational expense for maintaining the site solution.
Note 2: Operations Opex category covers Maintenance, Field-Services, Staff cost for Ops, Planning & optimization. The RAN infra Capex category covers: electronics, aggregation, antenna, cabling, installation & commissioning, etc..
Note 3: The above illustrated cost structure reflects what one should expect from a typical European operation. North American or APAC operators will have different cost distributions. Though it is not expected to change conclusions substantially (just redo the math).
When we discuss Small Cell deployment, particular as it relates to WiFi-based small cell deployment, with Infrastructure Suppliers as well as Chip Manufacturers you will get the impression that Small Cell deployment is Almost Free of Capex and Opex; i.e., hardly any build cost, free backhaul and extremely cheap infrastructure supported by no site rental, little maintenance and ultra-low energy consumption.
Obviously if Small Cells cost almost nothing, increasing cell site density with 56 times or more becomes very interesting economics … Unfortunately such ideas are wishful thinking.
For Small Cells not to substantially pressure margins and cash, Small Cell Cost Scaling needs to be very aggressive. If we talk about a 56x increase in cell site density the incremental total cost of ownership should at least be 56 times better than to deploy a macro-cellular expansion. Though let’s not fool ourselves!
No mobile operator would densify their macro cellular network 56 times if absolute cost would proportionally increase!
No Mobile operator would upsize their cellular network in any way unless it is at least margin, cost & cash neutral.
(I have no doubt that out there some are making relative business cases for small cells comparing an equivalent macro-cellular expansion versus deploying Small Cells and coming up with great cases … This would be silly of course, not that this have ever prevented such cases to be made and presented to Boards and CxOs).
The most problematic cost areas from a scaling perspective (relative to a macro-cellular Greenfield Site) are (a) Site Rental (lamp posts, shopping malls,), (b) Backhaul Cost (if relying on Cable, xDSL or Fiber connectivity), (c) Operational Cost (complexity in numbers, safety & security) and (d) Site Build Cost (legal requirements, safety & security,..).
In most realistic cases (I have seen) we will find a 1:12 to 1:20 Total Cost of Ownership difference between a Small Cell unit cost and that of a Macro-Cellular Rooftop’s unit cost. While unit Capex can be reduced very substantially, the Operational Expense scaling is a lot harder to get down to the level required for very extensive Small Cell deployments.
For a typical metropolitan rooftop (in Western Europe) we have the annualized capital expense (Capex) of ca. 15,000 Euro and operational expenses (Opex) in the order of 30,000 Euro per annum. The site-related Opex distribution would look something like this;
- Macro-cellular Rooftop 3G Site Unit Annual Opex:
- Site lease would be ca. 10,500EUR.
- Backhaul would be ca. 9,000EUR.
- Energy would be ca. 3,000EUR.
- Operations would be ca. 7,500EUR.
- i.e., total unit Opex of 30,000EUR (for average major metropolitan area)
Assuming that all cost categories could be scaled back with a factor 56 (note: very big assumption that all cost elements can be scaled back with same factor!)
- Target Unit Annual Opex cost for a Small Cell:
- Site lease should be less than 200EUR (lamp post leases substantially higher)
- Backhaul should be less than 150EUR (doable though not for carrier grade QoS).
- Energy should be less than 50EUR (very challenging for todays electronics)
- Operations should be less than 150EUR (ca. 1 hour FTE per year … challenging).
- Annual unit Opex should be less than 550EUR (not very likely to be realizable).
Similar for the Small Cell unit Capital expense (Capex) would need to be done for less than 270EUR to be fully scalable with a macro-cellular rooftop (i.e., based on 56 times scaling).
- Target Unit Annualized Capex cost for a Small Cell:
- RAN Infra should be less than 100EUR (Simple WiFi maybe doable, Cellular challenging)
- Backhaul would be less than 50EUR (simple router/switch/microwave maybe doable).
- Build would be less than 100EUR (very challenging even to cover labor).
- Core would be less than 20EUR (doable at scale).
- Annualized Capex should be less than 270EUR (very challenging to meet this target)
- Note: annualization factor: 5 years for all including Build.
So we have a Total Cost of Ownership TARGET for a Small Cell of ca. 800EUR
Inspecting the various capital as well as operational expense categories illustrates the huge challenge to be TCO comparable to a macro-cellular urban/dense-urban 3G-site configuration.
Massive Small Cell Deployment needs to be almost without incremental cost to the Mobile Network Operator to be a reasonable scenario for the 1,000 times challenge.
Most the analysis I have seen, as well as carried out myself, on real cost structure and aggressive pricing & solution designs shows that the if the Small Cell Network can be kept between 12 to 20 Cells (or Nodes) the TCO compares favorably to (i.e., beating) an equivalent macro-cellular solution. If the Mobile Operator is also a Fixed Broadband Operator (or have favorable partnership with one) there are in general better cost scaling possible than above would assume (e.g., another AT&T advantage in their DAS / Small Cell strategy).
In realistic costing scenarios so far, Small Cell economical boundaries are given by the Figure below:
Let me emphasize that above obviously assumes that an operator have a choice between deploying a Small Cell Network and conventional Cell Split, Nodal Overlay (or co-location on existing cellular site) or Sectorization (if spectral capacity allows). In the Future and in Hot Traffic Zones this might not be the case. Leaving Small Cell Network deployment or letting the customers “suffer” poorer QoS be the only options left to the mobile network operator.
So how can we (i.e., the Mobile Operator) improve the Economics of Small Cell deployment?
Having access fixed broadband such as fiber or high-quality cable infrastructure would make the backhaul scaling a lot better. Being a mobile and fixed broadband provider does become very advantageous for Small Cell Network Economics. However, the site lease (and maintenance) scaling remains a problem as lampposts or other interesting Small Cell locations might not scale very aggressively (e.g., there are examples of lamppost leases being as expensive as regular rooftop locations). From a capital investment point of view, I have my doubts whether the price will scale downwards as favorable as they would need to be. Much of the capacity gain comes from very sophisticated antenna configurations that is difficult to see being extremely cheap:
Small Cell Equipment Suppliers would need to provide a Carrier-grade solution priced at maximum 1,000EUR all included! to have a fighting chance of making massive small cell network deployment really economical.
We could assume that most of the “Small Cells” are in fact customers existing private access points (or our customers employers access points) and simply push (almost) all cellular data traffic onto those whenever a customer is in vicinity of such. All those existing and future private access points are (at least in Western Europe) connected to at least fairly good quality fixed backhaul in the form of VDSL, Cable (DOCSIS3), and eventually Fiber. This would obviously improve the TCO of “Small Cells” tremendously … Right?
Well it would reduce the MNOs TCO (as it shift the cost burden to the operator’s customer or employers of those customers) …Well … This picture also would not really be Small Cells in the sense of proper designed and integrated cells in the Cellular sense of the word, providing the operator end-2-end control of his customers service experience. In fact taking the above scenario to the extreme we might not need Small Cells at all, in the Cellular sense, or at least dramatically less than using the standard cellular capacity formula above.
In Qualcomm (as well as many infrastructure suppliers) ultimate vision the 1,000x challenge is solved by moving towards a super-heterogeneous network that consist of everything from Cellular Small Cells, Public & Private WiFi access points as well as Femto cells thrown into the equation as well.
Such an ultimate picture might indeed make the Small Cell challenge economically feasible. However, it does very fundamentally change the current operational MNO business model and it is not clear that transition comes without cost and only benefits.
Last but not least it is pretty clear than instead of 3 – 5 MNOs all going out plastering walls and lampposts with Small Cell Nodes & Antennas sharing might be an incredible clever idea. In fact I would not be altogether surprised if we will see new independent business models providing Shared Small Cell solutions for incumbent Mobile Network Operators.
Before closing the Blog, I do find it instructive to pause and reflect on lessons from Japan’s massive WiFi deployment. It might serves as a lesson to massive Small Cell Network deployment as well and an indication that collaboration might be a lot smarter than competition when it comes to such deployment:
The Perfect Mobile Data Storm … Smartphone Challenge and by that the Signalling Storm …
Mobile Operators hit by the Mobile Data Tsunami … tumbling over mobile networks … leading to
Financial disaster (as cost of providing mobile data exceeds the revenues earned from mobile data).
as Mobile Operators tries to cope with hyper-inflationary growth of data usage.
Will LTE be ready in time?
Will LTE be sufficient remedying the mobile data growth observed the last couple of years?
The Mobile Industry would have been better off if Data Consumption had stayed “Fixed”? Right! …Right?
At this time my Twitter Colleague Dean Bubley (@Disruptivedean) will be near critical meltdown 😉 …
Dean Bubley (Disruptive Wireless) is deeply skeptical about the rhetoric around the mobile data explosion and tsunamis, as he has accounted for in a recent Blog “Mobile data traffic growth – a thought experiment and forecast”. Dean hints at possible ulterior motives behind the dark dark picture of the mobile data future painted by the Mobile Industry.
I do not share Dean’s opinion (re:ulterior motives in particular, most of his other thoughts on cellular data growth are pretty OK!). It almost suggest a Grand Mobile Industry Conspiracy in play … Giving the Telco Industry a little too much credit … Rather than the simple fact that we as an industry (in particular the Marketing side of things) tends to be govern by the short term. Being “slaves of anchoring bias” to the most recent information available to us (i.e, rarely more than the last 12 or so month).
Of course Technology Departments in the Mobile Industry uses the hyper-growth of Cellular Data to get as much Capex as possible. Ensure sufficient capacity overhead can be bought and build into the Mobile Networks, mitigating the uncertainty and complexity of Cellular data growth.
Cellular Data is by its very nature a lot more difficult to forecast and plan for than the plain old voice service.
The Mobile Industry appears to suffer from Mobile Data Auctusphopia … The Fear of Growth (which is sort of “funny” as the first ca. 4 – 5 years of UMTS, we all were looking for growth of data, and of course the associated data revenues, that would make our extremely expensive 3G spectrum a somewhat more reasonable investment … ).
The Mobile Industry got what it wished for with the emergence of the Smartphone (Thanks Steve!).
Why Data Auctusphopia? … ?
Let’s assume that an operator experienced a Smartphone growth rate of 100+% over the last 12 month. In addition, the operator also observes the total mobile data volume demand growing with 250+% (i.e., not uncommon annual growth rates between 2010 and 2011). Its very tempting (i.e., it is also likely to be very wrong!) to use the historical growth rate going forward without much consideration for the underlying growth dynamics of technology uptake, migration and usage-per-user dynamics. Clearly one would be rather naive NOT to be scared about the consequences of a sustainable annual growth rate of 250%! (irrespective of such thinking being flawed).
Problem with this (naive) “forecasting” approach is that anchoring on the past is NOT likely to be a very good predictor for longer/long term expectations.
THE GROWTH ESSENTIALS – THE TECHNOLOGY ADAPTATION.
To understand mobile data growth, we need to look at minimum two aspects of Growth:
- Growth of users (per segment) using mobile data (i.e., data uptake).
- Growth of data usage per user segment (i.e., segmentation is important as averages across a whole customer base can be misleading).
i.e., Growth can be decomposed into uptake rate of users and growth of these users data consumption, i.e., CAGR_Volume = (1 + CAGR_Users) x (1+CAGR_Usage) – 1.
The segmentation should be chosen with some care, although a split in Postpaid and Prepaid should be a minimum requirement. Further refinements would be to include terminal type & capabilities, terminal OS, usage categories, pricing impacts, etc.. and we see that the growth prediction process very rapidly gets fairly complex, involving a high amount of uncertain assumptions. Needless to say that Growth should be considered per Access Technology, i.e., split in GPRS/EDGE, 3G/HSPA, LTE/LTE-a and WiFi.
Let’s have a look at (simple) technology growth of a new technology or in other words the adaptation rate.
The above chart illustrates the most common uptake trend that we observe in mobile networks (and in many other situations of consumer product adaptation). The highest growth rates are typically observed in the beginning. Over time the growth rate slows down as saturation is reached. In other words the source of growth has been exhausted.
At Day ZERO there where ZERO 3G terminals and their owners.
At Day ONE some users had bought 3G terminals (e..g, Nokia 6630).
Between Zero and Some, 3G terminals amounts to an Infinite growth rate … So Wow! … Helpful … Not really!
In most countries it has taken on average 5 years to reach a 20% 3G penetration.
The KA moment of 3G uptake really came with the introduction of the iPhone 3 (June 9 2008) and HTC/Google G1 (October 2008) smartphones.
Simplified example: in 4 years a Mobile Operator’s 3G uptake went from 2% to 20%. An compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of at least 78%. Over the same period the average mobile (cellular!) data consumption per user increased by a factor 15 (e.g., from 20MB to 300MB), which gives us a growth rate of 97% per anno. Thus the total volume today is at least 150 times that of 4 years ago or equivalent to an annual growth rate 250%!
Geoffrey A. Moore’s book “Crossing the Chasm” (on Marketing and Selling High-Tech products to mainstream customers) different segmentation of growth have been mapped out in (1) Innovators (i.e., first adopters), (2) Early Adoptors, (3) Early Majority, (4) Late Majority and (5) The Laggards.
It is fairly common to ignore the Laggards in most analysis, as these do not cause direct problems for new technology adaptation. However, in mobile networks Laggards can become a problem if they prevent the operator to re-farm legacy spectrum by refusing to migrate, e.g., preventing GSM 900MHz spectrum to be re-purposed to UMTS or GSM 1800 to be re-purposed to LTE.
Each of the stages defined by Geoffrey Moore correspond to a different time period in the life cycle of a given product and mapped to above chart on technology uptake looks like this:
In the above “Crossing the Chasm” chart I have imposed Moore’s categories on a logistic-like (or S-curve shaped) cumulative distribution function rather than the Bell Shaped (i.e., normal distribution) chosen in his book.
3G adaptation has typically taken ca. 5+/-1 years from launch to reach the stage of Early Majority.
In the mobile industry its fairly common for a user to have more than 1 device (i.e., handset typically combined with data stick, tablet, as well as private & work related device split, etc..). In other words, there are more mobile accounts than mobile users.
In 2011, Western Europe had ca. 550 Million registered mobile accounts (i.e., as measured by active SIM Cards) and a population of little over 400 Million. Thus a mobile penetration of ca. 135% or if we consider population with a disposable income 160+%.
The growth of 3G users (i.e., defined as somebody with a 3G capable terminal equipment) have been quiet incredible with initial annual growth rates exceeding 100%. Did this growth rate continue? NO it did NOT!
As discussed previously, it is absolutely to be expected to see very high growth rates in the early stages or technology adaptation. The starting is Zero or Very Low and incremental additions weight more in the beginning than later on in the adaptation process.
The above chart (“CAGR of 3G Customer Uptake vs 3G Penetration”) illustrates the annual 3G uptake growth rate data points, referenced to the year of 10% penetration, for Germany, Netherlands and USA (i.e., which includes CDMA2000). It should be noted that 3G Penetration levels above 50+% are based on Pyramid Research projections.
The initial growth rates are large and then slows down as the 3G penetration increases.
As saturation is reached the growth rate comes almost to a stop.
3G saturation level is expected to be between 70% and 80+% … When LTE takes over!
For most Western European markets the saturation is expected to be reached between 2015 – 2018 and sooner in the USA … LTE takes over!
The (diffusion) process of Technology uptake can be described by S-shaped curves (e.g., as shown in “Crossing the Chasm”). The simplest mathematical description is a symmetric logistic function (i..e, Sigmoid) that only depends on time. The top solid (black) curve shows the compounded annual growth rate, referenced to the Year of 10% 3G penetration, vs 3G penetration. Between 10% and 15% 3G penetration the annual growth rate is 140%, between 10% and 50% its “only” 108% and drops to 65% at 90% 3G penetration (which might never be reached as users starts migrating to LTE).
The lower dashed (black) curve is a generalized logistic function that provides a higher degree of modelling flexibility accounting for non-symmetric adaptation rate pending on the 3G penetration. No attempt of curve fitting to the data has been applied in the chart above. I find the generalized logistic function in general can be made to agree well with actual uptake data. Growth here is more modest with 72% (vs 140% for the Simple Logistic representation), 57% (vs 108%) and 35% (vs 65%). Undershooting in the beginning of the growth process (from 10% ->;20%: Innovators & Early Adopters phase) but representing actual data after 20% 3G penetration (Early and Late Majority).
Finally, I have also included the Gomperz function (also sigmoid) represented by light (grey) dashed line in between the Simple and Generalized Logistic Functions. The Gomperz function has found many practical applications describing growth. The parameters of the Gormperz function can be chosen so growth near lower and upper boundaries are different (i.e., asymmetric growth dynamics near the upper and lower asymptotes).
As most mature 3G markets have passed 50% 3G penetration (i.e., eating into the Late Majority) and approaching saturation, one should expect to see annual growth rates of 3G uptake to rapidly reduce. The introduction of LTE will also have a substantial impact of the 3G uptake and growth.
Of course the above is a simplification of the many factors that should be considered. It is important that you;
- Differentiate between Prepaid & Postpaid.
- Consider segmentation (e.g., Innovator, First Adopter, Early Majority & Late Majority).
- Projections should Self-consistent with market dynamics: i.e., Gross Adds, Churn, hand-down and upgrade dynamics within Base, etc…
THE GROWTH ESSENTIALS – THE CELLULAR USAGE.
In the following I will focus on Cellular (or Mobile) data consumption. Thus any WiFi consumption on public, corporate or residential access points are deliberately not considered in the following. Obviously, in cellular data demand forecasting WiFi usage can be important as it might be a potential source for cellular consumption via on-loading. In particular with new and better performing cellular technologies are being introduced (i.e., LTE / LTE advanced). Also price plan policy changes might result in higher on-load of the cellular network (at least if that network is relative unloaded and with lots of spare capacity).
It should come as no surprise that today the majority of mobile data consumers are Postpaid.
Thus, most of the average data usage being reported are based on the Postpaid segment. This also could imply that projecting future usage based on past and current usage could easily overshoot. Particular if Prepaid consumption would be substantially lower than Postpaid data consumption. The interesting and maybe somewhat surprising is that Active Prepaid mobile data consumers can have a fairly high data consumption (obviously pending price plan policy). In the example shown below, for an Western European Operator with ca. 50%:50% Postpaid – Prepaid mix, the Postpaid active mobile data consumers are 85% of total Postpaid Base. The Mobile Data Active Prepaid base only 15% (though growing fast).
The illustrated data set, which is fairly representative for an aggressive smartphone operation, have an average data consumption of ca. 100MB (based on whole customer base) and an Active Average consumption of ca. 350MB. Though fairly big consumptive variations are observed within various segments of the customer base.
The first 4 Postpaid price plans are Smartphone based (i.e., iOS and Android) and comprises 80% of all active devices on the Network. “Other Postpaid” comprises Basic Phones, Symbian and RIM devices. The Active Prepaid device consumption are primarily Android based.
We observe that the following:
- Unlimited price plan results in the highest average volumetric usage (“Unlimited Postpaid” & “Postpaid 1″ price plans are comparable in device composition. The difference is in one being unlimited the other not).
- Unlimited average consumption dominated by long tail towards extreme usage (see chart below).
- Smartphone centric postpaid price plans tend to have a very high utilization percentage (90+%).
- Active Prepaid Data Consumption (200MB) almost as high as less aggressive smartphone (210MB) price plans (this is however greatly depending on prepaid price policy).
The above chart “Cellular Data Consumption Distribution” illustrates the complexity of technology and cellular data consumption even within different price plan policies. Most of the distributions consist of up-to 4 sub-segments of usage profiles.Most notably is the higher consumption segment and the non-/very-low consumptive segment.
There are several observations worth mentioning:
- Still a largely untapped Prepaid potential (for new revenue as well as additional usage).
- 15% of Postpaid consumers are data inactive (i.e., Data Laggards).
- 40% of active Postpaid base consumes less than 100MB or less than 1/4 of the average high-end Smartphone usage.
Clearly, the best approach to come to a meaningful projection of cellular data usage (per consumer) would be to consider all the above factors in the estimate.
However, there is a problem!
The Past Trends may not be a good basis for predicting Future Trends!
Using The Past we might risk largely ignoring:
- Technology Improvements that would increase cellular data consumption.
- New Services that would boost cellular data usage per consumer.
- New Terminal types that would lead to another leapfrog in cellular data consumption.
- Cellular Network Congestion leading to reduced growth of data consumption (i.e., reduced available speed per consumer, QoS degradation, etc..).
- Policy changes such as Cap or allowing Unlimited usage.
Improvements in terminal equipment performance (i.e., higher air interface speed capabilities, more memory, better CPU performance, larger / better displays, …) should be factored into the cellular data consumption as the following chart illustrates (for more details see also Dr. Kim’s Slideshare presentation on “Right Pricing Mobile Broadband: Examing The Business Case for Mobile Broadband”).
I like to think about every segment category has its own particular average data usage consumption. A very simple consideration (supported by real data measurements) would to expect to find the extreme (or very high) data usage in the Innovator and Early Adopter segments and as more of the Majority (Early as well as Late) are considered the data usage reduces. Eventually at Laggards segment hardy any data usage is observed.
It should be clear that the above average usage-distribution profile is dynamic. As time goes by the distribution would spread out towards higher usage (i.e., the per user per segment inflationary consumption). At the same time as increasingly more of the customer base reflects the majority of the a given operators customer base (i.e., early and late majority)
Thus over time it would be reasonable to expect that?
The average volumetric consumption could develop to an average that is lower than when Innovators & Early Adopters dominated.
Well maybe!? Maybe not?!
The usage dynamics within a given price plan is non-trivial (to say the least) and we see in general a tendency towards higher usage sub-segment (i.e., within a given capped price plan). The following chart (below) is a good example of the data consumption within the same Capped Smartphone price plan over an 12 month period. The total amount of consumers in this particular example have increased 2.5 times over the period.
It is clear from above chart that over the 12 month period the higher usage sub-segment has become increasingly popular. Irrespective the overall average (including non-active users of this Smartphone price plan) has not increased over the period.
Though by no means does this need to be true for all price plans. The following chart illustrates the dynamics over a 12 month period of an older Unlimited Smartphone price plan:
Here we actually observe a 38% increase in the average volumetric consumption per customer. Over the period the ca. 50% of customers in this price plan have dropped out leaving primarily heavy users enjoy the benefits on unlimited consumption.
There is little doubt that most mature developed markets with a long history of 3G/HSPA will have reached a 3G uptake level that includes most of the Late Majority segment.
However, for the prepaid segment it is also fair to say that most mobile operators are likely only to have started approach and appeal to Innovators and Early Adopters. The chart below illustrates the last 12 month prepaid cellular consumptive behavior.
In this particular example ca. 90% of the Prepaid customer base are not active cellular data consumers (this is not an unusual figure). Even over the period this number has not changed substantially. The Active Prepaid consumes on average 40% more cellular data than 12 month ago. There is a strong indication that the prepaid consumptive dynamics resembles that Postpaid.
Data Consumption is a lot more complex than Technology Adaptation of the Cellular Customer.
The data consumptive dynamics is pretty much on a high level as follows;
- Late (and in some case Early) Majority segments commence consuming cellular data (this will drag down the overall average).
- Less non-active cellular data consumers (beside Laggards) ->; having an upward pull on the average consumption.
- (in particular) Innovator & Early Adopters consumption increases within limits of given price plan (this will tend to pull up the average).
- General migration upwards to higher sub-segmented usage (pulling the overall average upwards).
- If Capped pricing is implemented (wo any Unlimited price plans in effect) growth will slow down as consumers approach the cap.
We have also seen that it is sort of foolish to discuss a single data usage figure and try to create all kind of speculative stories about such a number.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER.
So what’s all this worth unless one can predict some (uncertain) growth rates!
WESTERN EUROPE (AT, BE, DK, FIN, F, DE,GR,IRL,IT,NL,N,P, ESP, SE, CH, UK,)
3G uptake in WEU was ca. 60% in 2011 (i.e., ca. 334 Million 3G devices). This correspond to ca. 90% of all Postpaid customers and 32% of all Prepaid users have a 3G device. Of course it does not mean that all of these are active cellular data users. Actually today (June 2012) ca. 35% of the postpaid 3G users can be regarded as non-active cellular user and for prepaid this number may be as high as 90%.
For Western Europe, I do not see much more 3G additions in the Postpaid segment. It will be more about replacement and natural upgrade to higher capable devices (i.e., higher air interface speed, better CPU, memory, display, etc..). We will see an increasing migration from 3G Postpaid towards LTE Postpaid. This migration will really pick-up between 2015 and 2020 (Western Europe lacking behind LTE adaptation in comparison with for example USA and some of the Asian Pacific countries). In principle this could also mean that growth of 3G postpaid cellular data consumption could rapidly decline (towards 2020) and we would start seeing overall cellular data usage decline rather than increase of 3G Postpaid data traffic.
Additional Cellular data growth may come from the Prepaid segment. However, still a very large proportion of this segment is largely data in-active in Western Europe. There are signs that, depending on the operator prepaid price plan policy, prepaid consumption appears to be fairly similar to Postpaid on a per user basis.
3G Growth Projections for Western Europe (reference year 2011):
Above assumes that usage caps will remain. I have assumed this to be 2GB (on average for WEU). Further in above it is assumed that the Prepaid segment will remain largely dominated by Laggards (i.e., in-active cellular data users) and that the active Prepaid cellular data users have consumption similar to Postpaid.
Overall 3G Cellular data growth for Western Europe to between 3x to no more than 4x (for very aggressive prepaid cellular data uptake & growth) over the period 2011 to 2016.
Postpaid 3G Cellular data growth will flatten and possible decline towards the end of 2020.
More agresive LTE Smartphone uptake (though on average across Western European appears unlikely) could further release 3G growth pains between 2015 – 2020.
Innovators & Early Adopters, who demand the most of the 3G Cellular Networks, should be expected to move quickly to LTE (as coverage is provided) off-loading the 3G networks over-proportionally.
The 3G cellular growth projections are an Average consideration for Western Europe where most of the postpaid 3G growth has already happen with an average of 60% overall 3G penetration. As a rule of thumb: the lower the 3G penetration the higher the CAGR growth rates (as measured from a given earlier reference point).
In order to be really meaningful and directly usable to a Mobile Operator, the above approach should be carried out for a given country and a given operator conditions.
The above growth rates are lower but within range of my Twitter Colleague Dean Bubley (@Disruptivedean) states as his expectations for Developed Markets in his Blog “Mobile data traffic growth – a thought experiment and forecast”. Not that it makes it more correct or more wrong! Though for any one who spend a little time on the growth fundamentals of existing Western European mobile data markets would not find this kind of growth rate surprising.
So what about LTE growth? … well given that we today (in Western Europe) have very very little installed base LTE devices on our networks … the growth or uptake (seen as on its own) is obviously going to be very HIGH the first 5 to 7 years (depending on go to market strategies).
What will be particular interesting with the launch of LTE is whether we will see an on-loading effect of the cellular LTE network from todays WiFi usage. Thomas Wehmeier (Principal Analyst, Telco Strategy, Informa @Twehmeier) has published to very interesting and study worthy reports on Cellular and WiFi Smartphone Usage (see “Understanding today’s smartphone user: Demystifying data usage trends on cellular & Wi-Fi networks” from Q1 2012 as well as Thomas’s sequential report from a couple of weeks ago “Understanding today’s smartphone user: Part 2: An expanded view by data plan size, OS, device type and LTE”).
Given the dramatic beginning of my Blog concerning the future of the Mobile Industry and Cellular data … and to be fair to many of the valid objections that Dean Bubley‘s has raised in his own Blog and in his Tweets … I do owe the reader who got through this story some answer …
I have no doubt (actually I know) that there mobile operators (around the world) that already today are in dire straits with their spectral resources due to very aggressive data growth triggered by the Smartphone. Even if growth has slowed down as their 3G customers (i.e., Postpaid segment) have reached the Late Majority (and possible fighting Laggards) that lower growth rate still causes substantial challenges to provide sufficient capacity & not to forget quality.
Yes … 3G/HSPA+ Small Cells (and DAS-like solutions) will help mitigate the growing pains of mobile operators, Yes … WiFi off-load too, Yes … LTE & LTE-advanced too will help. Though the last solution will not be much of a help before critical mass of LTE terminals have been reached (i.e., ca. 20% = Innovators + Early Adopters).
Often forgotten is traffic management and policy remedies (not per see Fair Use Policy though!) are of critical importance too in the toolset of managing cellular data traffic.
Operators in emerging markets and in markets with a relative low 3G penetration, better learn the Growth Lessons from the AT&T’s and other similar Front Runners in the Cellular Data and Smartphone Game.
- Unless you manage cellular data growth from the very early days, you are asking for (in-excusable) growth problems.
- Being Big in terms of customers are not per see a blessing if you don’t have proportionally the spectrum to support that Base.
- Don’t expect to keep the same quality level throughout your 3G Cellular Data life-cycle,!
- Accept that spectral overhead per customer obviously will dwindle as increasingly more customers migrate to 3G/HSPA+.
- Technology Laggards should be considered as the pose an enormous risk to spectral re-farming and migration to more data efficient technologies.
- Short Term (3 – 5 years) … LTE will not mitigate 3G growing pains (you have a problem today, its going to get tougher and then some tomorrow).
Is Doom knocking on Telecom’s Door? … Not very Likely (or at least we don’t need to open the door if we are smart about it) … Though if an Operator don’t learn fast and be furiously passionate about economical operation and pricing policies … things might look a lot more gloomy than what needs to be.
STAY TUNED FOR A PART 2 … taking up the last part in more detail.
To great friends and colleagues that have challenged, suggested, discussed, screamed and shouted (in general shared the passion on this particular topic of Cellular Data Growth) about this incredible important topic for our Mobile Industry (and increasingly Fixed Broadband). I am in particular indebted to Dejan Radosavljevik for bearing with my sometimes crazy data requests (at odd h0urs and moments) and last but not least thinking along with me on what mobile data (cellular & WiFi) really means (though we both have come to the conclusion that being mobile is not what it means. But that is a different interesting story for another time).
In 2007 the European average mobile revenue per user (ARPU per month) was €28+/-€6; a drop of ca. 4% compared to 2006 (the EU inflation level in 2007 was ca. 2.3%).
of the €28 ARPU, ca. 16% could be attributed to non-voice usage (i.e,. €4.5).
of the €4.5 Non-Voice ARPU, ca. 65% could be attributed to SMS usage (i.e, €3.0).
Thus, leaving €1.5 for non-voice (mobile) data service (i.e., 5.4% of total ARPU).
The increase that most European countries have seen in their mobile Non-Voice Revenue has by far not been able to compensate for the drop in ARPU across most countries over the last 5 to 6 years.
Adding advanced data (e.g., UMTS and HSPA) capabilities to the mobile networks around Europe has not resulted in getting more money out of the mobile customer (but absolute revenue has grown due to customer intake).
Although most European UMTS/HSPA operators report a huge uptake (in relative terms) of Bytes generated by the customers, this is not reflected in the ARPU development.
Maybe it really does not matter as long as the mobile operators overall financial performance remains excelent (i.e., Revenues, Customers, EBITDA, Cash, ….)?
Is it possible to keep healthy financial indicators with decreasing ARPU, huge data usage growth and investments into brand-new radio access technologies targeting the €1.5 per month per user?