Now that I’ve recovered from the AT&T and Microsoft 5G cloud announcement, I’m chewing on the notion that telcos are outsourcing innovation to Big Tech. I don’t for a minute intend to imply that Big Tech on the whole doesn’t move more quickly than most telcos. Rather, I contend that innovation is a multi-factored entity. Considering innovation in this way may give us a more nuanced take on what on the surface seems to be an abdication of power from the telcos to Big Tech.
Innovating to reduce cost structure is one thing. Leveraging new software architectures, modern infrastructures and radical automation contributes to lower cost structures; the benefits of those innovations become more powerful and visible as you scale networks, processes and systems.
Innovating to get people to spend more money with you is a different thing altogether, and one that I submit is of greater immediate concern to the telcos. Yes, it is possible to innovate on how services are developed, but can it change how people think? Any CIO or CTO will tell you that people are always the most challenging aspect of any transformation. And while it’s safe to say there are more scrum masters and big AI brains in Big Tech than in telecom, I doubt whether that gives it an innovation advantage for creating new telco revenue streams.
Given my experience and conversations with telcos over the years, I have a hard time saying they have fewer innovative ideas than Big Tech. What is different are priorities. Incumbent telcos need to keep the lights on, keep existing customers, expand share of wallet, lower costs, and position their businesses and networks for the future. Because of this, I suspect telcos have fewer people devoted to blue-sky thinking. And those that are have to also contend with the cloud of regulation that hangs overhead.
(Quick aside: This gets me thinking about the regulatory implications of telcos’ moves to the public cloud. Will AWS and Azure be re-classified as critical infrastructure once it starts carrying live network traffic? I’d love to see someone more well-versed in this subject tackle this… The metaphor comparing telco transformation to changing plane engines in flight may be overused, but it remains apt.)