5 telecommunications predictions for 2021 (Reader Forum)

It is not often that a singular event has a profound impact on nearly every industry, but this year’s global pandemic did just that- and the telecommunications industry is no exception. In fact, in 2020, consumers and businesses relied on the connectivity provided by communication service providers (CSPs) more than ever before to work, study, and maintain professional and personal relationships. Looking ahead to 2021, we can expect to see the long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic start to play out, promising new technologies emerge and industry disruption continue. Here are five trends CSPs should prepare for in the year ahead.   

CSPs will accelerate their digital and unassisted capabilities to engage a post-Covid customer base accustomed to modernized tools.

The world turned upside down in 2020 as we found ourselves working, learning and relaxing much more from home. Service providers were forced to close the retail stores where many customers traditionally bought phones, paid bills and got help with their accounts. At the same time, CSPs had to increasingly transform massive calls centers to agents working remotely. But in the process a funny thing happened: people who would never have turned to an app, website or chatbot in the past realized they actually preferred those digital tools to waiting in a physical or virtual line. In fact, an Accenture survey found that 60% of respondents won’t miss retail stores and 85% prefer to continue digital channels for buying.

To meet this increasingly digital appetite, service providers will invest heavily in 2021 to ramp up their systems so that customers can have a satisfying interaction. This means well-designed and intuitive process flows, unifying data from multiple sources so interactions are personalized and relevant, and ensuring systems can scale to handle much higher demands. Service providers stand to reap huge benefits in terms of higher customer satisfaction, lower churn, and reduced cost of service and sales.

CSPs will ‘consumerize’ B2B, making it as easy for enterprise customers to access context-aware digital commerce and care.

For many years now people have taken advance of quick and easy e-commerce experiences for their personal lives while tolerating manual, slow, complex experiences for procurement in their business lives. That is changing, and in 2021 the tide will have turned to ‘consumerized’ B2B. This means business buyers will shop in digital marketplaces and catalogs that are attuned to their needs, simplify and automate the procurement process, and access care through intelligent digital channels that use advanced analytics to predict and even prevent issues.

CSPs will increase partnerships with industry verticals to co-create specialized offers. 

Throughout most of the history of the mobile industry, service providers have earned the bulk of their revenue by selling to consumers. Enterprises have been secondary. As we move into 5G, there is a limit to how much more consumers will pay for higher speeds, so service providers will need to uncover new revenue sources to generate a return on their massive investment in 5G networks and spectrum. In fact, most analysts believe that there is no real business case for 5G based on traditional consumer services. In 2021, that will start to come from new use cases that are specific to enterprises, and even more specifically designed by industry.

Service providers will partner with industry verticals to co-create new offers that take advantage of the unique capabilities of 5G. For example, a service provider could partner with a streaming content provider and an airline to replace seatback entertainment systems with ultra-fast downloads of huge content libraries onto passenger devices, and then share the resulting revenue. Similarly, they could partner with virtual reality companies and sports leagues to offer in-stadium experiences to fans at home who want to see the action as thought they were on-site – and again, share the revenue. 2021 will be the year that service providers stretch beyond their traditional communications industry scope and forge a path into innovative partnerships that will generate 5G ROI.

Non-traditional CSPs, such as Dish and Rakuten, will continue to push the envelope of operational models, challenging traditional modes of network deployment, operation and monetization. 

Rakuten in Japan has built a different type of CSP, challenging many of the long-held norms around strategy, operations, networks and procurement. As this operational model continues to evolve, operational and network technology will also evolve along the spectrum of cloudification and open systems. Cloud-native operations support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS) solutions, open RAN, and SaaS delivery models will lower barriers to entry as well as help to create flexible, lower total cost of ownership operations. Bringing IT and network vendors into partnership models rather than purely as suppliers will further enable non-traditional service providers to enter the communications market. These non-traditional service providers will monetize their operations and customer base across a wide array of digital services. In 2021, we will likely see new companies begin to deploy or even launch such operations. 

CSPs increase their AI investments as a means of achieving rapid, agile and automated network and customer operations.

After years of reading about the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) in CSP operations, 2021 will finally herald in an age of material investments by CSPs in this area. As 5G evolves into its more advanced stages with network slicing and other complex use cases, the need for AI will become increasingly important for the successful management of these services and use cases. Being able to instantiate, operate, and retire network slices and advanced services automatically, quickly and without error will be critical to the success of money-making 5G services for CSPs. AI bolsters CSP operations to minimize risk of fault or error.

Additionally, as cloud-native deployments, use of cloud infrastructure and an intelligent edge proliferate, orchestration of applications and operational functions will be more complicated and require more automation. AI will be critical to successfully managing all of this complexity efficiently and optimally. According to a recent Omdia survey, four out of five CSPs view using AI to automate network operations as an important project for 2021. So, while it might not garner the spotlight, CPS investment in AI will become a real imperative beginning this year.

2020 underscored the significance of improving the digital experience for consumers, business customers and the back office. As CSPs continue their digital transformation efforts in 2021, prioritizing technology investments and strategic partnerships will be critical to not just servicing customers, but maintaining market share and opening up new revenue streams.  

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