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US Telecom Industry Analysis February 7, 2008

Posted by Laxmi Goutham Vulpala in case studies, MBA.
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1. Industry and Market Analyses 

1.1 Industry Description:Telecom industry comprises the firms in business transmission of voice and data between devices. Voice and data are encoded and decoded into electrical signals after transmission and before reaching the destination. The signals are then transmitted over a network of copper/fiber-optic cable.  The significance of this industry can be judged from the enormous amount of the revenues it generates. In 2005 the total revenues across the world in this industry to amounted 1.2 trillion 6   [VoIP Magazine, 2005 ] which is almost 3% of the world GDP. In the US, Voice business amounts to 64.9% of the business while Data and other services take the rest of the market 5 [Exhibit 2]. However due to recent advances in technology the share of data has been increasing rapidly High speed internet is rapidly making a way into households and is poised to become the leading revenue earner for the firms in the industry. Most of the firms in the business have one or more four distinct lines of business, 1) Voice services 2) Wireless voice/data services and 3) Internet/ Broadband/Data services and more recently 4) Video services. Until the early 90’s the industry was compromised of monopoly regional operators strictly regulated by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the state public utility commissions. The firms who wanted to enter the business in this industry needed the licenses from FCC. The monopolistic nature of these corporations meant price controls were imposed any price rises were decided by the regulatory  bodies upon requests by businesses citing increased expenses.

1.2 Forces Driving Change Several changes occurred in the industry in the mid nineties, which altered the structure of the industry and continue to have an effect on the industry structure today.

1.2.1 Government Deregulation: In 1996, Congress approved and President Clinton signed into law The Telecommunications act of 1996. One of the primary goals of this act was to restructure the telecommunications industry in order to foster competition by attempting “to reduce regulatory barriers for entry and competition. It outlawed artificial barriers to entry in local exchange markets, in its attempt to accomplish the maximum possible competition” 1  [Nicholas Economides The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its Impact]. “Act required that incumbent local exchange carriers (‘ILEC’s : Firms that own the last mile connectivity/network) (i) lease parts of their network (unbundled network elements) to competitors at cost; (ii) provide at a wholesale discount to competitors any service the ILEC provides; and (iii) charge reciprocal rates in termination of calls to their network and to networks of local competitors.” 1 [Nicholas Economides The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its Impact]. This opening up of network eventually paved the way for Cable and VoIP providers to introduce wireline telephony products. The effect of this law on the industry can be noticed from increase in market share of  the  CLEC (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier) providers from 4.6% in 1999 to 17.1% in 2006 [Exhibit 1]

1.2.2 Technological Breakthroughs: The new technological breakthroughs and availability of technologies for mass deployment in the late 90’s like fiber optic cables, Internet Telephony (VoIP) and Wireless brought significant changes in the industry. The new technologies altered consumer behaviors and provided significant impetus to innovation and in turn caused several new firms to enter the industry. The cost structure of the new entrants was significantly less than the existing firms. This led to increased competition and fall in margins in across the industry.

1.2.3 Decline of Voice Services / Growth in Data Services: The availability of choices and better alternatives for consumers has diminished the importance of voice services especially for the younger demographic. Competition drove the price voice prices down, At the same time consumer spending on broadband  grew rapidly driven mostly by the rapid growth of content rich data ,applications like music, video and gaming.

 1.3 Porter’s Five Forces Analysis:  The different factors having an impact on the telecom industry can be analyzed using Porters   five forces framework.  The result of this analysis, showing the strength of each force is tabulated in Exhibit 3.

 1.3.1 Threat of Entry: Prior to Mid-nineties, entry into fixed line telecom business was very difficult owing to several factors, Firstly it was a very capital intensive industry, entry into this industry meant that the firms needed access to huge amount of capital mainly to cover the fixed costs to lay and maintain a physical network (exchanges, fiber optic cables etc) to the premises of customers. In addition to that firms needed to get regulatory approval/licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was both costly, and a tedious affair. Hence the companies in this industry mostly tended to monopolies strictly regulated by the government subject to price controls and moderate to heavy taxation. Deregulation and the telecom act of 1996 provided a significant reduction in barriers as the new entrants did not need to own their networks.The technological changes also provided impetus to the significant reduction of barriers; Internet Telephony provided a way for several firms to enter the market and compete with the incumbents without the significant upfront fixed costs. One of the notable entrants into the business is Vonage, this firm began offering its version of IP telephony product since 2003. The entry of new progressively become very easy, in fact it has become so easy that there are company’s like RTC Factory  claim to provide services that can let firms start their own branded fixed line IP telephony voice business within 6-8 weeks in 10 easy steps. 

1.3.2 Supplier Power: The Suppliers in this industry are the manufacturers of telephone switching /switch board equipment, fiber optic cables, network equipment, and billing software makers. The prominent names in this industry include Cisco, Alcatel-lucent, Nokia, Nortel, Motorola and Tellabs etcAfter the deregulation of downstream service providers and the technological breakthrough in IP networks, Telecom equipment makers began to ramp up manufacturing in order to meet the huge anticipated demand, however aftermath the dot com bubble, demand did not pan out as expected and led to overcapacity and eventually demise of several firms. The evidence of decline can be gauged from the fact that the telecommunications industry Association (TIA) reported that in 2001, a cumulative decline of $30.5 billion in revenues4  [Encyclopedia of American Industries].  With excess capacity and falling demand, the suppliers have do not have the power and clout to negotiate with the telecom behemoths. However with the demand in recent years has started to pick up with fixed line providers deciding to install fiber  based networks to provide faster data and video services. 

1.3.3 Power of Buyers:  With increased choice of several technologies and means of communication available and entrance of several new firms buyer power is been increasing. The consumer now has access to several means of communication like email, instant messaging which are diminishing the importance voice services.  Residential consumer also benefits with local number portability (A regulation from FCC which mandates the carriers to move the phone number when the customer switches to a different carrier). This feature makes switching costs negligible. The business segment however is prone to significant switching costs as they rely on more customized products which are tailored to their businesses and most times are locked into long-term contracts.

1.3.4 Threat of Substitutes: Several substitute products and services have emerged to fixed line telephones as a result of technological breakthroughs. Some of these are more convenient and offer far greater value to the consumer and have diminished the importance of fixed line phones. Substitutes include IP Telephony, Mobile phones, Satellite, Email, and Instant Messaging etc. Among the several substitutes that have emerged, IP telephony has emerged as the biggest threat. Applications like Skype have been extremely popular among younger generation users and are fast emerging as preferred means of communication.Wireless phones are also getting cheaper each year over the last decade; this has provided consumers with more convenience and mobility, to the extent that the younger demographic now considers a fixed line phone redundant.

1.3.5 Industry Rivalry: Industry rivalry has become extremely intense with the emergence of new competing firms leading to price cuts across the industry. Voice offerings are turning into commodities with the business going to lowest cost provider.

1.4 Key Success Factors in Telecommunications Industry

1.4.1 Bundling:  Consumers value convenience more than anything else. A company’s ability to provide multiple services like wireline / wireless/ high speed internet / video at an attractive price not only provides value to the consumer but also helps the company’s bottom-line due to reduced customer acquisition costs. It also is widely believed in the telecom industry and supported by the data, that churn reduces drastically for customers subscribed to a bundle as a result of increased switching costs.

1.4.2 Network Quality: One of the key difference between the old generation PSTN (public switched telephone network) used by telecom companies versus the new generation IP networks used by both the cable providers and VoIP providers is the ability to receive phone calls on the PSTN networks when the power is out. There is difference in quality of the voice transmitted, however the gap is closing fast .1.4.3 Economies of scale: Telecom is a huge fixed cost business; most of the costs go into installing and maintaining the network. The marginal cost of adding a new customer is very small. As a result, Providers with large subscriber bases enjoy a significant advantage over the smaller ones.

 1.4.4 Customer Service:  In this industry, although the customer contact with the firm is minimal, it is very critical and can define customer experience. Customer mostly comes into contact with the employees of the firm only during installation and service outages, the expectation of the customer is that the service be always available and the problems be immediately fixed.

1.4.5 Brand Name: Brand Name plays an important role for the customer choosing the service. In this Industry Bell and Cable companies have been able to build  brand recognition over time, VoIP entrant  however have to spend significant amount of money in advertising to be able to counter these strong brand names.

1.4.6 Retail Presence: Wireless phone industry has required retail presence from traditional telecoms mainly to display and sell wireless devices, this presence has helped them with customer as they were more accessible to the customers and provided a new medium of distribution for  all services, Cable and VoIP firms however have to depend on electronic retailers.

1.4.7 Financial Strength/Resources:  With high fixed costs in this industry and frequent network up gradation and licensing costs, it is essential for the firms in this industry to have a strong balance sheet. The ability to raise money at cheaper rates compared to the competition provides a significant competitive advantage

1.4.8 Convergence: Convergence is the ability for customers to access any data seamlessly without restrictions and the networks and the devices to get to that data. In future the success of the telecom companies is dependent on how effectively they can provide converged services.

1.4.9 Partnerships: Diversity of services this industry makes it difficult for a service provider to be good at everything, so the crucial thing for a firm in this industry is to be able to forge partnerships to be able to provide what customers need.

1.4.10 Data Speeds/Bandwidth:  Explosive growth of internet has created content rich applications which require enormous amount off bandwidth. The Service provider who has the biggest amount of bandwidth with the last mile connectivity will have competitive advantage over the rest of the competition

References:

1)       Nicholas Economides The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its Impact http://www.stern.nyu.edu/networks/telco96.html

2)       FCC Local Telephone Competition and Broadband Deployment http://www.fcc.gov/wcb/iatd/comp.html

3)       “Telephony.” Encyclopedia of Emerging Industries. Online Edition. Thomson Gale, 2007. Reproduced in Business and Company Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.:Gale Group. 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/servlet/BCRC

4)       Telephone and Telegraph Apparatus.” Encyclopedia of American Industries. Online Edition. Thomson Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Business and Company Resource Center.Farmington Hills, Mich.:Gale Group. 2008http://galenet.galegroup.com.proxy.libraries.uc.edu/servlet/BCRC

5)       Fixed line Telecom in the United States – Data Monitor

6)       VoIP Magazine, 2005. Telecom Industry Revenue to Reach $1.2 Trillion in 2006

       7)The Industry Handbook – The Telecommunications Industry – Investopedia