2040: It's telecoms, Jim, but not as we know it

07 Jul 2015

Telecom Asia turns 25 this month. And rather than spend time ruminating about the state of telecoms 25 years ago, we thought it would be more fun to speculate on the state of telecoms 25 years from now.

Part of the inspiration for this was a recent column written by SF/comics writer Warren Ellis for Esquire titled: “The New Tech Disruption: Murdering Businesses and Haunting Their Corpses”.

Ellis ruminates on the Facebooks, Googles, Apples, Amazons, and Elon Musks of the world, who are not just in the business of disruption - they are in the business of killing other people’s businesses and repurposing it for their own use. Think about Uber, which uses GoogleMaps to disrupt the taxi business; then think about Google, who would very much like to apply an Uber model to its driverless car ambitions. As Ellis writes: “If you build your business on top of someone else’s system, eventually they’re going to notice...Digital businesses can murder and haunt their own parasites.”

This is where the ICT entrepreneurs of the future are coming from. They are not beholden by old business models or even industrial boundaries. Neither are their customers. Networks exist as mere platforms to them, and they’re happy to use it to go after your business - possibly as partners, but also as competitors. And if net neutrality plays out the way it has in the US, there’s very little you can do about that.

All this disruption is taking the telecoms sector into uncharted territory. And while we have an idea of the kinds of things that will be developed and installed over the next ten years - 5G, the IoT, Big Data, cloud, SDN/NFV, etc - we really have no idea what those things will enable beyond that.

In fact, it’s fair to say that at this stage, we can’t even be 100% sure that telcos will even exist - not as we know them, anyway.

That’s not to say telcos will disappear by 2040, their network corpses haunted by the likes of Google, if only because the telecoms industry has both the financial leverage and political clout to put up a fight. They haven’t invested billions into all this infrastructure to see it taken away by OTT companies.

And in any case, most OTT companies don’t really want to be bogged down operating and maintaining that infrastructure. Google and Facebook are exceptions to that rule (albeit exceptions with grand plans, vast resources and deep pockets), but they’re only really doing that because their business plans are outstripping the ability of telcos to connect enough people at fast enough data speeds. Given the choice, Google would rather force telcos to up their game and change the game rather than take over the game itself.

So we will still have telcos in 2040 - but many of them will be almost unrecognizable as telcos, because they will have evolved sufficiently to thrive in a post-telecoms world.

The telecoms service provider of 2040 will be structured like a software start-up and just as clever, flexible and efficient. Its business model will bear little or no resemblance to the telecoms business models of 2015. Some telcos won’t bother with consumer services at all - they’ll be straight B2B pipe/platform providers, leaving retail services to the OTT players.

Of course, all of this is dependent on the overall environment in which telecoms exists: consumers as empowered digital natives, the condition of the workforce, the shape of local and global economies, and of course the practical realities of government regulation, legislation and taxation (for better or worse). And that’s before we get into the fanciful speculation of the role of robots in society, artificial intelligence producing superintelligent sentient machines taking matters into their own hands, and the ability to upload your brain to the cloud (which futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests will be possible by around 2040 or so).

Suffice to say, when the residents of 2040 look back at the 25th Anniversary issue of Telecom Asia, they may be somewhat amused by how badly we got it wrong.

This article first appeared in Telecom Asia May/June 2015 edition

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