Feb 27, 2019

Rumelt on 3G: Lessons for 5G and IoT

The consultancy McKinsey recently republished a 2007 interview with Richard Rumelt [1], professor of strategy at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Rumelt opened his commentary on strategy by noting that most corporate strategic plans have little to do with strategy. Instead, they typically end up being “three-year or five-year rolling resource budgets and some sort of market share projection”.

What senior managers want out of the strategy process, according to Rumelt, is a pathway to substantially higher performance. That can happen in one of two ways. A firm can either invent its way to success or, it can quickly and skillfully exploit some change in the environment. Examples of such change include technology, consumer taste, resource price or competitive behavior factors.

The telecoms industry finds itself at the intersection of many such changes. On the supply side, the arrival of 5G networks and the standardization of low-power IoT devices provide two industry transition opportunities. These developments will usher in new service concepts and business opportunities.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the data they generate in ways that are changing their expectations and ‘tastes’ for different services and service providers. They are learning about how businesses are prepared to exploit that data, and not always on equitable terms of trade.

The legal framework for data management is also changing. There are developments such as GDPR for personal data and efforts in the USA to emulate GDPR-like and Open Data frameworks [2]. 5G will alter the way that network resources are packaged, as in the example of this highly local, factory-wide deployment [3].

Finally, examples of the way in which competitive behavior is changing include the way that telecoms operators are entering new markets. Consider how telecoms operators have acquired rights to sports events. Or, Safaricom and Orange offering mobile money and higher-value financial services. Meanwhile, Vodafone is active in the automotive sector, Verizon has built a fleet-telematics business while Orange and Telus have built business units in the healthcare sectors.

These are arguably isolated examples in the context of the global mobile network operator community. There is no great move to capitalize on industry-wide opportunities that will see standardization and massive economies of scale benefitting the end customer globally. Much of today’s 5G marketing focuses on low-latency and high bandwidth features. At the risk of history repeating itself, it’s instructive to go back to Professor Rumelt’s 2007 comments from the era of 3G networks. He viewed high-bandwidth opportunities as being overhyped. He expressed less interest in the higher-bandwidth applications, like streaming video, than in lower-bandwidth opportunities, like streaming audio and mobile search. Instead, he considered that a cell phone that “combines voice recognition with location-filtered search results would be a product that a wireless company can differentiate”.

This week, as the industry enjoys Barcelona for MWC19, Prof. Rumelt’s insights offer a lesson about the hype around 5G bandwidth capacity. Might there be greater rewards from information services that depend on lower data payloads? Or, from more intensive and transactional exchanges of data. How about dependable (intelligent) communications in dense population areas (buildings, cities, factories, transportation hubs etc.)?

It’s one thing to recognize environmental change points that create strategic business opportunities. That alone is not enough. Prof. Rumelt’s observation about quick and skillful exploitation is a critical ingredient to the success story. That’s where the mobile industry needs to pursue common innovation approaches, especially if it is to help Tier 2 and 3 operators that have limited investment capacity [4], but which tilt the industry’s economies of scale balance. Some of this can happen through standardization. In addition to the valuable standardization work at 3GPP and oneM2M, attention needs to focus higher up the value chain [5] compared to where the telecommunication industry has historically operated. Another part is to build go-to-market alliances with service delivery partners that are more agile and closer to customer demand, which is where individual operators can compete with one another.

5G and IoT are not ‘new news’. They are known industry change points and ripe for targeting. The advice for mobile operators, in the words of Prof. Rumelt, is about “taking a position”, which means “investing in resources that will be made more valuable by the changes that are happening”. Investing in networks will capture part of the opportunity. Business-model innovation coupled to investment in other areas are ways of capitalizing on over-the-top opportunities. And, all this needs to happen quickly and skillfully either on the part of large, market moving players or through cross-industry alliances such as the GSMA.

[1] An interview with Richard Rumelt, McKinsey & Co. (2007) https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/Strategys-strategist-An-interview-with-Richard-Rumelt 

[2] H.R.4174 - Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 (2019) https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/4174 

[3] Bosch in Worcester has become the first-ever British factory with 5G wireless access, thanks to an innovative trial programme (2019) https://www.ledburyreporter.co.uk/news/regional/17442274.worcestershire-is-testbed-for-5g-technology/? 

[4] 10T Tech Announces Formation of Global eSIM Alliance (2019) https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/10t-tech-announces-formation-of-global-esim-alliance-300798763.html 

[5] BearingPoint Exec: 'CSPs, Don't Miss Out on Digital Transformation', (2019) http://www.broadbandworldnews.com/author.asp?doc_id=748492&section_id=548


  1. 28 February 2019 update

    Here is a story about two large players in the connected auto sector collaborating to enable the connected car industry.


  2. 5 March 2019 update

    Operators not ready to exploit 5G opportunities


  3. 5 March 2019 update

    Telefonica warns on multivendor data disparity

    “The data in our networks is very different,” he said. “Some vendors provide the logs from the router or switches. Depending on the vendor they are different so making it [data] homogeneous so that the algorithms can work on something to make a prediction is a huge challenge.”


  4. 12 March 2019

    Industrial companies are building private networks because they have to, says Nokia

    Industrial companies will invest in their own private LTE and 5G networks because the business case for digital change is irresistible, and because they want control of their own infrastructure. This leaves operators, betting on new revenue from enabling industrial transformation, in the cold, potentially. Vendors like Nokia, meanwhile, are positioned to serve these enterprises direct.
    This is the gist of a conversation with Nokia at MWC 2019 in Barcelona, at the end of last month.


  5. 24 November 2023 update

    Telco group Orange has introduced a ‘super app’ to countries in the Middle East and Africa region, which promises to coalesce telecommunications, financial, and e-commerce services.

    Max it will be available to anyone regardless of their operator, and will debut in Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Botswana before being extended to 12 other countries in the region in the coming months.

    It is designed to allow users to manage mobile and fixed line accounts, is tied with Orange Money’s financial services, and has an e-commerce platform which offers digital content and a digital ticketing service allowing customers to buy tickets for gigs and the like. As well as Orange services, digital services from local and international partnerships will also be included.

    Orange expects to have around 45 million active Max it users by 2025, and claims it has particular potential ‘in a part of the world where the smartphone is the gateway to everyday digital life.’

    “Max it perfectly reflects the Orange’s spirit of innovation in Africa and the Middle East,” said Christel Heydemann, CEO of Orange. “By bringing together all our services and those of numerous partners, this application strengthens our position as a multi-service operator and our desire to offer the best of digital services to all our customers.”

    Jérôme Hénique, CEO of Orange Middle East and Africa added: “With Max it, the Orange Middle East and Africa teams have done a remarkable job of co-creating with all stakeholders (employees, customers, partners, distributors, etc.), to provide them with a one-stop-shop that is simple, effective, customizable and inclusive. Now, with Max it, everyone can meet their different needs, such as managing their phone plan, finances or shopping. It’s an open, scalable platform that opens up many development opportunities for the continent and strengthens our approach to inclusion.”

    It sounds like a similar push to BT’s recent consumer app launch EE ID, positioned as something like a hub around which customers organise their online lives. It also is not constrained to serving an existing customer base, and seems to be looking to attract customers from other network to sign up as well.

    In an era where operators are vocal about struggling to make big returns on selling pure connectivity, we can probably expect to see more examples of this diversification in the future.