MOBILE DATA GROWTH: HOW OPERATORS CAN HANDLE THE TRAFFIC EXPLOSION

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1 . Solon Telecoms White Paper MOBILE DATA GROWTH: HOW OPERATORS CAN HANDLE THE TRAFFIC EXPLOSION MARC SIER, STEPHAN KALLEDER & ANDREAS PAULY, MAY 2012 Mobile data traffic will continue its tremendous growth path. In the case of Germany, Solon expects a 15-fold increase over the next five years. Without adequate countermeasures, mobile operators face significantly higher cost: The additional network capacity required would almost double network Opex from 12 per cent of revenues in 2011 to 23 per cent of revenues in Solon recommends a set of measures that will enable operators to provide bandwidth in a more cost-efficient way and to limit the expected rise in network cost. They range from better ways of handling data to more transformational options such as network sharing. For those operators that actively embrace more transformational activities and develop new revenue models, the data crunch not only provides an opportunity to maintain but to considerably grow today s EBITDA margins. FIGURE 1 Source: Annual reports, Solon LTE model Page 1

2 Mobile operators can take two major approaches to significantly reduce the risk of cost outstripping data revenues: Network Optimization Network Sharing Solon expects that network optimization enabled through additional spectrum allocations and higher efficiency, traffic management, and optimized video delivery will lead to a material reduction of the cost basis. More active network sharing which is already happening in many countries has proven to be a successful strategy especially for smaller operators. Finally, mobile operators will need to develop and introduce new revenue models to not only off-set growing cost but to monetize the opportunities of mobile data traffic in a better way. Network optimization: Higher spectral efficiency and pro-active data traffic and network management will reduce operating cost To cope with rapidly growing capacity requirements whilst controlling operating expenditure (Opex) and capital expenditure (Capex), mobile operators need to look for intelligent ways to expand their network capacity. Migrating to LTE, offloading traffic and optimizing video are amongst the strategies and tactics operators are currently investigating and starting to apply. Accelerate LTE deployment to benefit from additional spectrum allocation and higher spectral efficiency: Across Europe, national regulators are auctioning off additional spectrum bands in the sub 1GHz (Digital Dividend) and > 2GHZ bands. By giving operators access to that scarce resource, regulators allow operators to provide additional bandwidth at reasonable cost. LTE can be deployed in a cost efficient way since part of the equipment can be collocated at existing 2G/3G sites. In addition, LTE typically uses smaller base stations with less power consumption and enables selforganizing networks (SON), all of which help to minimize cost. At the same time, spectral efficiency on LTE is seven to twelve times higher than existing technology. It allows operators to limit cost while at the same time to provide better value to customers. While the first release of UMTS allowed for theoretical peak data rates of only 384 kbps, mobile operators have gradually expanded their cell site capacity by implementing new releases of the 3G standard. They have also recently upgraded large parts of their networks to HSPA+, allowing a theoretical speed of 42 Mbps. Having invested extensively in additional spectrum, operators are now breaking into even higher speeds (>100 Mbps) by launching the first wave of 4G/LTE sites. This increase in speed will enable operators to differentiate their services further and for example, include a tiered pricing component in their offer. However, it will be some time before there is widespread adoption of LTE devices. We assume that by 2016 not more than 25 to 35 per cent of the total Western European data traffic will be handled via 4G networks. Page 2

3 Optimize video delivery: An explosion of mobile video consumption is likely to drive around 70 per cent of anticipated mobile traffic growth over the next five years. The size of multimedia content depends on its length, the quality and the codec used for compressing the material. According to various industry sources, more than half of all video sessions are abandoned before the viewer reaches midpoint. Thus, operators can reduce wasted bandwidth if they closely match the download to the playback speed (pacing) rather than downloading the full video even if the user stops viewing mid-stream. The network load can be further reduced by changing the video resolution and compression ratios (transcoding) or lowering the bit-rate of a video (transrating). However, operators have to be careful not to diminish the viewing experience by downsizing the original video source too aggressively. Intensify use of traffic shaping: Traffic shaping is an effective tool to alter user behaviour, optimize monetization of data usage and prevent network congestion. By implementing tariffs with usage caps, time-based tariffs, or rate-limiting after a certain download volume is reached, most mobile operators already use the basic tools for steering user behavior and limiting peak usage (we will look at more sophisticated tariff models in our next white paper). In addition, operators could use more sophisticated traffic management techniques to alleviate congestion. For example, during peak hours operators could provide fast access to light web pages, while throttling back on heavyweight file downloads. Offload mobile traffic to fixed lines: Solon estimates that only about 30 per cent of today s mobile usage actually takes place at locations without access to fixed-line services. Shifting mobile traffic to local access points (for example via Wi-Fi or femtocells) can free up mobile network capacity. And at the same time, it will improve customer experience, especially in urban and indoor areas. Offloading to Wi-Fi is already happening today. Going forward, it will be essential that indoor coverage solutions become cheaper and easier to install, states Elmar Grasser, Chief Technology Officer at Orange Austria. Ideally, operators could provide seamless (password-free) authentication procedures, ensure a sufficient degree of security (for example IP Sec) and offer a fairly dense home/hotspot network. To control quality of service, own or partner networks should be preferred over the use of unmanaged networks. As an example, Orange France plans to leverage its seven million DSL boxes and 40,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, while France SFR has recently announced that it will provide its 3G customers with free femtocells. Latest innovations in femtocell technology will even allow offloads in populated areas such as stadiums, city centers or transportation nodes. Page 3

4 Network sharing: Jointly expanding capacity while reducing cost Network sharing and outsourcing are already common practices in many countries. Initially, operators mainly shared passive network components (such as sites) or outsourced network maintenance to hardware vendors. With the imminent rollout of LTE/multi-mode 3G equipment, active network sharing is becoming more popular, from radio access network (RAN) to backhaul sharing. In 2010 and 2011, Orange and T-Mobile (in Austria, Poland and the UK), Telenor and Telia (in Denmark) and TelefonicaO2 and Eircom (in Ireland) announced partnerships to improve network quality and coverage at reduced cost. Solon estimates that by reducing the combined number of sites and sharing mobile backhaul links, mobile operators can save between 25 and 35 per cent of the cost of the shared sites (see Figure 2). In addition, Capex can be significantly decreased. Instead of independently deploying base stations to optimize population coverage or rolling out new technologies (such as LTE), two operators pool all or geographically limited parts of their RAN assets and jointly extend capacity. Saving potential through active RAN network sharing Site Opex indexed at 100 FIGURE 2 Source: Solon LTE model Even further cost saving potential can be realized from extending access sharing to the core network. Setting up a joint network company, would allow operators to take full advantage of integration. However, while sharing is a great way to cut costs, Solon recommends a careful analysis to overcome potential obstacles. Operators network grids do not always fit well together and integration may demand significant investment to physically move network sites. Different network equipment can also be a risk to integration. Most importantly, the two operators have to agree on contractual terms and how to set up the combined network unit. Particularly for operators of different sizes and network usage, the development of a Page 4

5 mutually beneficial cost model is a delicate task and has already prevented some deals. Outsourcing operations and maintenance (O&M) of the joint network to a neutral third party helps to mitigate some of the implications of sharing network assets with a competitor. In addition, outsourcing and lease-back deals with equipment vendors can lead to substantial cash flow upsides in the short term. Closing the cost gap and maintaining operator profitability By adopting these infrastructure improvements, we expect that mobile network operators will be able to increase transmission efficiency significantly and partly contain network Opex growth. Without optimization, EBITDA margins could decrease by 11 percentage points. The proposed network optimization measures will help to limit margin risk to 5 per cent. If the operator also enters into a network sharing agreement for its UMTS and LTE sites, network cost could almost be maintained at today s levels. FIGURE 3 Margin impact of Mobile Data growth after optimization % of 2011 revenues Source: Merrill Lynch, Solon LTE model On the revenue side, the rise in data traffic will help to further stabilize profitability as data allows for gross margins of more than 95 per cent compared to voice margins of roughly 85 per cent. Mobile operators will, however, have to develop various revenue measures to lock in current revenues, protect their business model against OTT substitution and open up new revenue sources such as M2M, business-to-business content partnerships or traffic prioritization. We will propose various ways to stimulate new revenue creation in the last white paper of our mini-series on mobile data traffic growth. Page 5

6 Marc Sier is a Managing Director, based at Solon s Munich Office. He focuses on the design and implementation of complex strategies for improving growth and profitability at telecoms operators (fixed-line, mobile, broadband). Stephan Kalleder is a Principal, based at Solon s Munich Office. He heads the Solon Cable Practice. Andreas Pauly is a Senior Consultant, based in Solon s Munich Office, and co-heads the Technology & Innovation Practice. For further information or questions, please contact us: Phone (Munich) (London) (Budapest) Solon Management Consulting focuses its strategy consulting activities on the media and telecommunications sectors. Its clients are leading European media and telecommunications companies as well as banks and private equity investors. Solon supports its clients in developing and implementing company strategies, capturing new business, optimizing core processes and accompanying M&A activities from market probing to the closure of the transaction. With offices in Munich, London, and Budapest, Solon s projects span the European continent. Page 6

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