The Great Telco Debate is all about putting the industry trends into context. Mark Gregory of EY can’t join us this time around but he sent the following in reply to my questions about the telecoms industry, its dynamics, broader economics and future industry structures. It is great food for thought ahead of November 29th when we next assemble for the debate.
Mark Gregory, Chief Economist UK & Ireland EY
With telcos under pressure in a complex world…
As the first sector to be liberalised and privatised at scale across countries, telecoms has been in the vanguard of change for 4 decades but now needs to consider where it goes next.
With the freedom to develop, the telecoms industry has changed out of all recognition in its search for profitable growth. Telcos today tend to be a mix of businesses with very different economic characteristics ranging from utility like local network operations to fast-moving, constantly changing content provision. These complex business combinations have grown out of a desire to capture more of the value that the telco enables but they risk destroying value by making the company both hard to manage and difficult for investors to value accurately.
The slowing economic global outlook as identified by the IMF recently will create extra pressure on telco business models and at the same time increase the political risk that companies in the sector face. Confronted with slower economic growth and increasingly squeezed consumers, politicians will look at industries that account for significant shares of consumer spending and corporate costs for opportunities for short-term political gain. The recent introduction of a retail price cap in UK energy and the proposal to nationalise certain UK utilities are good examples of possible ad-hoc intervention.
There is also a growing disparity between the largely national operations of telcos and the multinational scale and scope of their suppliers. With the seemingly never ending process of innovation, telcos risk losing control over their technology roadmaps to companies with much greater resources and economies of scale.
…time for a new stakeholder led model…
The low growth economy without any real productivity improvement is not going to provide much if any support to telco growth ambitions. It is time to change the model and for telcos to consider how they can best contribute to economic growth and increased prosperity. In particular, how to drive improvements in labour markets as these are where so many of the issues underpinning today’s economic and political challenges originate from.
In many countries, concern over the “left behind” have become increasingly prominent in the political debate – the people in traditional industrial towns who find themselves on the margins of the modern economy. Typically these groups live outside of cities and larger towns and struggle to participate in the workforce. One option might be to take investment to these people with the telcos leading the way. Rather than starting the roll out of technologies in the major population centres, telcos could look to reach further out and bring people into the labour market providing the infrastructure for remote working. People would be given the chance to participate electronically in the labour market, reducing the level of transport infrastructure investment required and in so doing enhancing productivity and growth in the economy.
Telcos could also use their national presence and knowledge in the digital arena to support wider digital skills development at a local level. Again remote learning could be part of this approach with the aim being to increase significantly the level and number of digitally skilled people in the economy. This would serve to improve the skills pool available to telcos but also provide a platform for faster digital growth with the benefits accruing to all.
Greater local reach and capability would also open the door to cross-sector collaboration with other utility like providers such as power and water and with other major sectors such as health. As Bell Labs showed, cross-sectoral digital innovation could provide a major leg up for economic growth in local markets. Working closely across sectors at a local level would provide telcos with the opportunity to identify new applications and to participate in developing and deploying these.
…in a brave new world.
Telcos have been at the forefront of economic change in the last 4 decades, innovating with a range of business strategies. It is increasingly clear that the global telco dream is over and that the core business is of providing connectivity that enables economic activity. In this context, telcos should focus on how best they can help increase the rate of economic activity across the full geography of their markets building stakeholder centric telcos.