Does the mobile industry have a future?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger (L) visiting the Mobile World Congress. [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Mobile World Congress 2016.

As the Mobile World Congress gets underway in Barcelona, Luigi Gambardella considers what kind of future the European mobile industry can expect and what can be done to improve services and consumer satisfaction.

Luigi Gambardella is the founder of Broadband4Europe and is the former Executive Chairman of ETNO.

Currently, the mobile sector’s optimism seems dented. The reason is simple: convergent fixed mobile offers will become the market standard, because fixed and mobile access providing services for end-users, as well as mobile and fixed operators, increasingly share the same backhaul networks. Mobile operators who cannot provide convergent offers, pure Mobile Operators, risk being marginalised.

If the mobile industry wants to remain innovative and generate growth as it has over the last two decades, the industry should urgently start reflecting on a number of questions: first, understanding the interplay between technology evolution, regulation and mobile data. Secondly, shift the view of the mobile industry from static margin and price focus measures to more dynamic measures that reflect the long term economics of the industry such as investments and innovation. And, thirdly, address critical market structure issues the mobile industry faces to enable it to monetise the booming demand for data.

Mobile data is expected to grow between 20% and 100% per annum for the next decade or so. In the highest growth forecasts, the impact on CapEx will be substantial.  Much of this growth is likely to be driven by video.  Some types of video traffic will be easier to monetise than others, e.g. movies and sport vs social media.

Regulators are increasingly attempting to prevent any type of traffic discrimination on networks.  While their focus has generally been on fixed networks, the policies do not differentiate between access networks.  This demand explosion will significantly alter the economics of mobile networks over the next decade and will either put significant pressure on CapEx or on service quality.

In that context, 5G and subsequent technology evolutions will be important beyond the technical standards of technology. If traditional voice and data networks are overwhelmed with traffic but are unable to invest CapEx to maintain service levels, 5G may enable the emergence of “thinner” networks focused on niches such as M2M which, unburdened by coverage and regulatory obligations, may be better able to deliver services.

Metrics to evaluate industry performance have created a view of the sector that focused on price and margins. This seems to be a static, often outdated, view. While these dimensions are important and must be observed, there are areas for improvement on these dimensions in some countries. Too much focus on these variables misses much of the underlying economics of the industry.

The industry is facing multiple demands from governments and policy makers to continue to increase broadband capacity, increase geographical coverage and improve quality of service standards. These demands require significant investments and imply a long-term, evolutionary view of the sector. But to shift the focus, the industry must develop an alternative set of metrics to catch a more dynamic view of the sector performance and reflects the industry’s long-term economics.

This may be both an external set of KPIs (aimed at the general public, policy makers and regulators) and an internal one (aimed at standardising some views of industry performance for operators).

Some examples of metrics that could be used include measures of performance in saturated markets that go beyond ARPU, which has less relevance in hyper saturated markets.

Also, regulators shouldn’t measure industry concentration just in the telecoms market, but concentrate on the broader eco-system, including suppliers and complementary markets such equipment makers, device manufacturers and OTT and media players.

Finally, the new metrics must not only be sensible but also intuitive and easy to understand. For example, it is easy to compare pricing across markets and the immediate consumer benefit of lower prices. It is less clear to compare investment levels and medium-term benefits to consumers.

However, in the longer term, the growth in living standards will depend on a nation’s or firm’s ability to improve productivity. Productivity growth is determined by improvements in the quality and quantity of inputs and technological progress. In the absence of investment and dynamic efficiency, consumers will over time be confronted with obsolete services, less innovation and reduced choice.

Although growth has substantially slowed down, the sector’s financial performance remains healthy. The industry’s keys markets still benefit from the boom in digital communications. The underlying demand for mobile and wireless services is still strong. However, monetising that consumer demand for wireless services is critical to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector. In addition, there will be two critical drivers: a sustainable industry structure definition and a clarification of the role of spectrum in driving industry structure and performance.

The priority should be on guaranteeing a sustainable long-term industry structure.  Defining the elements of a sustainable structure, articulating the benefits of such a structure, and communicating the costs of deviating from those structures is critical to ensuring the sector can support the growth in demand that is projected for the industry

As regards the role of spectrum in driving industry structure and performance, it is crucial to understand that spectrum’s influence on the industry appears to go beyond just providing additional radio capacity and limiting the number of players. Large amounts of underused spectrum, accompanied by coverage obligations that ensure some operators will have excess capacity and “empty” networks may be playing a significant role in the downward evolution of prices in specific markets.

Last but not least, the reputational image of the mobile industry in the broad public will be crucial. Mobile operators provide services to all segments of the population, making them “easy” political targets of price regulation. The mobile industry should be more vocal and air a much clearer message on the key contribution of the mobile industry to growth, technological progress and investment.

This needs to include a clear and easy to remember explanation on how the mobile industry interacts with other sectors to deliver the services we could no more miss today. The message also needs to rebut the current irrational fears against market concentration. The goal should be to obtain a shift in the perception of the sector by governments and regulators, from an industry that needs to be supervised and controlled, towards a partner in economic development.  Such shift in perception by government will be supported by the efforts to better inform public opinion.

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