Why do telcos watch the cool kids eat their lunch?

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We often wonder what stops telcos from grabbing opportunities that are laid at their feet, while would-be competitors stand around waiting to be pushed aside. Then, when nothing happens, the cool-kid competitors shrug, head to the drawing board and develop something that bashes another nail into the telco coffin.

Watching some recent TED talk videos, the answer was, at last, encapsulated in one quote. The talk was on – and yes, it is scarily true and the topic of another article – a dark corner of the internet, where “unknown people or groups on YouTube hack the brains of young children in return for advertising revenue”. The scary future of the current data driven world.

The quote itself went like this:

“We need to stop thinking about technology as a solution to all of our problems, but think of it as a guide to what those problems actually are, so we can start thinking about them properly and start to address them.”

The speaker – James Bridle – used it in the context of how we truly define the problem of people harvesting data, even from children, and selling it on. But apply it to telcos and that is exactly what they do: think about technology as a solution, even if they’re not entirely sure what the problem is.

Take messaging for example.

Telcos invented it, albeit so that engineers could send brief messages to each other over mobile networks that they were fixing. Then teenagers hacked it and used it for free. Then 20-somethings looked at it and thought “Whoa, there must be money to be made here.” And the middle-aged, balding telcos said, “But that’s not what it is meant for,” and ignored the problem.

Eventually, they set up an Innovation Committee and spent two weeks finding a date for the pre-kick off meeting. The Action Item from the meeting, given to someone in Network Development, was to explore setting up a cross-industry committee to develop a messaging platform that would send these youngsters back to their university dorms and teach them a lesson on how to build stuff properly (and stop beta testing it on actual customers). And while he was doing that, could he get the GSMA to endorse it.

Thus, 15 years later, RCS is pretty much ready. Sadly we have now passed the point where more people are using messaging apps than actually talking to each other and – unless a miracle happens – their lunch has been eaten, washed up and the table laid for supper.

Take 5G. OK, let’s not.

Take 6G, the one that will be delivered holographically, with déjà vu built in.

Take AI and robotics. (“Hey, that robot cheated at tic tac toe and made its robot opponent crash. Let’s try and do that more efficiently.”)

Take the smart home (sorry, Smart Home). As Ian Scales of Telecom TV, says, “On the face of it telcos should have an advantage when it comes to smartening up the home. They probably own the crucial broadband pipe (or radio path) into the premises; they will most often have a long customer relationship with the householder.” And they will have “boots on the ground”.

Take, frankly, anything that telcos have built, and there is a strong argument that says they built it because they could and customers would figure out how to use it. Sadly, their competitors did too.

We have already argued that 5G had no overwhelming business opportunity to drive it (apart from “we need more bandwidth and VR is really cool”).

If we stopped and asked technology to help define some real problems – and opportunities – we might head for the Next Big Thing with a goal, a purpose and a business plan in mind.

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