“2019 will be the most interesting year in this industry that we’ve seen in a long time.”

If you were at the FierceWireless NextGen Wireless Networks Summit in Dallas, Texas last week, you know that big changes are coming.

After a packed day of insights on the state of telecommunications infrastructure today, the evening’s dinner featured a panel of industry analysts offering their predictions on the future of the industry. The panelists included:

Although everyone wondered about the future of particular firms — will Sprint and T-Mobile end up merging? Will Dish bring their spectrum assets online and compete with traditional mobile network operators (MNOs)? — there are some major themes that emerge which apply to everyone in the industry:

  1. Competition for telecom providers is getting fiercer
  2. Organizational cultures are becoming disconnected from practical needs

Both of these are signs of increasing complexity: more moving parts and variables to turn even the best plans on their heads. With the stakes getting ever higher,  the difference between winners and losers in the next few years will be how well they embrace and adapt to change.

Competition for telecom providers is getting fiercer

Although there was much discussion about the Sprint and T-Mobile merger* and the slimming down of “major” MNOs from four to three, the reality is that the lines between industries are blurring. As a result, telecommunications providers are increasingly competing with not merely a handful of firms, but dozens of different companies, often with market-leading positions in other sectors.

Dish makes a foray in 5G

Dish is the perfect example. Long an operator of satellite TV services, Dish has amassed a massive portfolio of spectrum assets valued at over $30 billion and has stated plans to build a wireless network and compete against the incumbents in 5G. Whether or not their plans materialize (analyst opinions were mixed) by the looming 2020 regulatory deadline, they demonstrate how many major firms are diversifying into content delivery and the infrastructure supporting it.

AT&T acquires Time Warner

AT&T’s recent acquisition of Time Warner similarly illustrates the point: are they a phone company? A cable company? A media company? The answer is a mix of those and more. That unique combination of services further complicates the needs and strategies of industry executives, who must consider increasingly numerous and interrelated factors when making decisions.

A related and daunting implication of this increasing complexity is increasing uncertainty. Despite the best efforts of thousands of people working on the plan to integrate the two firms, arrange the financing, and evaluate trademark and intellectual property considerations, plus the many regulators charged with evaluating it all, as several panelists agreed, “one tweet could throw this all out the window.”

Competition in telecom abroad

“In China and Korea, we’ll see amazing things that we won’t see here,” and that will ripple through the supply chain. “The tilt is towards Asia.”

Competition from abroad is likewise ever present and growing. Recognizing potential supplier risk from using western parts, China is seeking to mitigate geopolitical risk by further developing its own telecommunications infrastructure supply chain. Combined with political directives and the ability to service a market of nearly 1.4 billion people, China’s 5G rollout is only accelerating. Over the longer terms, everyone in the supply chain, from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), tower acquisition specialists, turnkey service providers, and mobile network operators (MNOs) will face greater competition for business abroad as China’s nascent industry matures and expands.

Organizational cultures are becoming disconnected from practical needs

Trouble lurks within, as well. Even without increasing competition, network densification means that the old ways of operating simply will not cut it anymore. In an earlier session, Igal Elbaz, Senior Vice President of Wireless Network Architecture and Design at AT&T Services, Inc., noted that machine learning, artificial intelligence, and overall greater automation will be essential components of functioning telecommunications infrastructure in the near future. There is simply no other way to manage the massive increase in antennae and connection points, including edge servers, that must be brought online, monitored, and maintained.

Yet, organizational cultures are still structured around manual tasks as evident by their reliance on tools like spreadsheets, manually created reports, and all too many games of “phone tag” just to get a project update. Companies and their workers will have to become more accepting of automation and changing roles, or they will cede market share to those that do.

Reskilling telecom workers

Reskilling workers will be a major initiative. The increasing pace of change and a wider variety of assets to be brought online and maintained means that field technicians must learn new skills and become more adaptive, as must their project manager counterparts that might find themselves managing a dozen macro tower builds and hundreds of small cell installations all in the same day.

Firms are not only competing for talent with each other but across industries and geographies, including Silicon Valley.

As one analyst put it, firms are not only competing for talent with each other but across industries and geographies, including Silicon Valley. This logical consequence of the blurring of industry lines, as mentioned above, will force new areas of telecom organizations, such as recruiting, to dramatically shift how they approach their roles and attract the best talent. Often, this means a greater emphasis on productivity-enhancing technology, as the talented workers that telecom needs demand that they are empowered with the right tools to do their jobs.

“It’ll take a whole regime change in the industry for the focus to shift enough to wireless to start changing the wireless industry as it is today.”

A cautionary tale from the cable industry

A cautionary tale and some solace for the wireless industry can be found in the cable industry. As one panelist noted, “it’ll take a whole regime change in the industry for the focus to shift enough to wireless to start changing the wireless industry as it is today.” Cable subscriptions continue to decline as “cord cutters” rely either exclusively on wireless services for media, internet, and entertainment or ditch their cable TV services in favor of broadband wired internet.

Some of the more forward-thinking cable providers have started offering wireless phone services, contracted from existing carriers, but the overall picture is clear: in a time of tremendous and rapid change, the cable industry is moving at a comparatively slow pace. This represents both a major opportunity for telecom companies and a major warning that failing to embrace change means giving away market share.

How to survive and thrive in the new era in telecom

The answer to all of these challenges is operational excellence: the alignment of tools and processes. Embracing change, identifying new opportunities, responding to competition and getting ahead of trends all require the ability to operationalize strategy in a rapid, scalable way. That requires the alignment of an organization’s tools and processes. Otherwise, the best plans fall short, precious time is wasted trying to make antiquated tools like spreadsheets and on-premise software fit use cases they were never designed to service, workers become disillusioned, the best talent leaves, and the company enters a downward spiral.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true: aligning tools and processes and empowering workers will lead to higher retention, more industry expertise, and a healthier culture which will foster collaboration, hard work, and success. The winners in the 5G era, in 2019 and beyond, will be those that embrace change, invest in their people, and adapt to changing market conditions. The losers will continue with business as usual until they find themselves merely a shadow of their former glory if they’re around at all. Neither market-leading success nor chaos and failure are inevitable. It’s a choice.

 

Operational excellence requires both the right processes and tools. Request a live consultation with our industry experts and learn how the Sitetracker Platform empowers industry leaders to seize opportunities and thrive in the 5G era.

 

* The consensus is that the merger will probably happen, but regulators may require some additional asset sales to increase competition. Whether they do or don’t, the panel agreed that “T-Mobile” as a name for the combined entity would belie the wide breadth of products and services that the new company would offer. 

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