There is a paradox at the heart of the mobile telecom industry. Despite skyrocketing data use and proliferation of connected devices, the industry is facing a structural crisis that raises serious questions about its sustainability and growth. With mobile penetration rates in almost all markets well above 100 percent, competition among MNOs has grown fiercer and more focused on price reductions. Traditional sources of revenue have been undercut by OTT services such as WhatsApp and Skype. The increase in consumer data usage has been a mixed blessing in that it has placed pressure on operators to make expensive improvements to the capacity and coverage of their networks. Finally, national regulators have become increasingly activist with regard to pricing, M&A activity and service requirements, further increasing costs for providers.
In the face of this paradox—increasingly large amounts of money flowing through the mobile industry while operator revenues grow ever flatter—we expect to see new business models, revenue drivers, pricing strategies and even leading players. Ultimately, the results of these changes could be the redefinition of the term “mobile service provider.” We have already begun to witness the first steps of this process. MNOs have worked to reevaluate their core offerings in order to find new sources of revenue or to reduce churn. The defining trait of 2014 was MNOs’ drive to acquire the infrastructure needed to offer converged packages. Operators around the world—but particularly in the hypercompetitive European markets—pushed to lock in customers and raise monthly spending by offering quad (mobile, fixed voice, broadband and cable television) packages. Further, non-core value-added elements like Spotify, Netflix and other content-driven services became increasingly important in plan construction, forcing operators to branch out into new partnerships and ventures.
A dramatic recent example of this occurred in the U.S. with Verizon’s US $4 billion acquisition of AOL—a play to secure AOL’s mobile ad software, more proprietary content and new revenue streams in an increasingly competitive market. This type of news is an illustration of how the distinction between content creators, information aggregators, device manufacturers and service providers continues to grow blurrier. Just as we expect mobile operators to be packaging more non-traditional features in with their mobile packages, we believe that there is an opportunity for other types of companies to enter the mobile services space and use these services as a way to augment their traditional packages.
With Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Google’s ever-expanding reach across all realms of digital life—including its recently launched U.S. MVNO running on the Sprint and T-Mobile networks and its discussions with Hutchison Whampoa for international expansion—we would not be surprised to see either of these entities begin to pivot increasingly into mobile service as an add-on to their traditional offers. While projects like Google Loon/Fiber and Facebook Zero made headlines before retreating from the industry consciousness, the economic conditions that initially drove these initiatives remain—giant internet content providers that have significantly higher margins are growing impatient with mobile and broadband providers’ ability to connect their potential customers. Further, MVNOs like FreedomPop are experimenting with new business models like ad-based data sales. Finally, whether through mesh networks, ever-expanding Wi-Fi hotspots or new technology solutions, MNOs’ hegemony over mobile data is likely to be challenged in the coming years. The high and growing demand for large volumes of fast data makes the industry a prime target for disruption if an adequate alternative presents itself.
There are so many variables in play that it is impossible to make a firm prediction as to the precise long-term evolution of the industry. However, this much is certain—for MNOs to be successful in the future they will have to be adaptive and flexible in terms of developing new revenue streams and fending off non-traditional rivals. Maintaining outmoded plan structures and customer acquisition strategies will almost inevitably lead to painful disruptions. The current structural and competitive environment have the potential to change the core MNO business model in a way not seen since the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the beginning of the mobile-data revolution. As such, strategic choices made by operators in the coming years will have an outsized impact on the future of the industry as a whole.