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Have We Reached Peak Ericsson?

Ericsson looks in better shape than it has been for years, but the good times might not last.

Iain Morris

October 24, 2018

10 Min Read
Have We Reached Peak Ericsson?

Börje Ekholm's job is not far from done. When the unflashy Swede took charge of Ericsson at the start of 2017, it was heading for an operating loss that year of 38.1 billion Swedish kronor ($4.2 billion) on declining sales. His mission, he had told investors, was to restore profitability. Ericsson's operating margin fell off a cliff during his first year in the CEO job, hitting -19%. But Ekholm kept his sights fixed on a target of 10% in 2020 and 12% in the long run. With the figure up to 6% for the recent third quarter, from 0.3% for the second, the Swedish equipment vendor's recovery at last seems assured. (See Ericsson Corruption Scandal Sullies Strong Q3.)

The trends are all moving in the right direction. Operators in North America are starting to invest in next-generation 5G mobile gear, after the spending hiatus post 4G rollout. Customers in other countries are expected to follow in 2019. Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) is nearly halfway through an overhaul of digital services contracts that should help it realize profitability targets. Thanks to a similar shake-up, its managed services business has turned a corner, reporting a small third-quarter operating profit after racking up losses in 2017. (See Ericsson Back in Profit After Fierce Cuts & 5G Action.)

But the turnaround has come at a heavy cost and will leave Ericsson smaller than it has been since 2010. Nearly one in five employees has been laid off in the last couple of years, giving Ericsson an overall headcount of about 95,000 at the end of September. The company has jettisoned its cloud hardware business and some of its media assets after they became a painful drag on performance. It is a more focused player, but one whose fortunes are bound more tightly than ever to the market for radio access network (RAN) products and services. (See Ericsson Stuck in Loss-Making Rut, Offloads Majority Stake in Media Unit.)

Figure 1: Ericsson Headline Figures (SEK Billions) Source: Ericsson. Source: Ericsson.

Despite interest in 5G, Ericsson does not seem to anticipate much growth in that market over the next four years. Dell'Oro, a research company Ericsson cites in its latest earnings report, expects overall RAN sales to rise at a compound annual growth rate of 2% between 2017 and 2022. Ericsson could always beat this forecast: For the third quarter, it reported a 5% organic increase in network sales, against Dell'Oro's projection of a 2% market decline for the full year. Yet Ericsson also warned investors last year that its overhaul will reduce total sales by SEK10 billion ($1.1 billion) in 2019, an amount equal to 4.5% of the sales figure for 2016.

This all points to a future as a smaller but more profitable company. In fact, Ekholm's plan could make Ericsson look rather like it did in 2010, when sales were SEK203.3 billion ($22.5 billion) and a margin of 12% delivered an operating profit of SEK24.4 billion ($2.7 billion, excluding any joint venture activities). The danger for Ericsson is that a technology shift, combined with a series of regulatory and competitive challenges, portends the start of a long decline. Ericsson, in other words, may be about to peak.

Open up
That industry shift is one driven by customer demand for lower-cost and more interoperable gear. Telcos, like any other business, always want a better deal from their suppliers. But this time the request seems to carry more urgency. Fueled by consumer addiction to services like Netflix and YouTube, the data traffic load on telecom networks is growing exponentially. Yet telco revenues barely change from one year to the next. Axel Clauberg, a senior technology executive with Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), reckons the trend will erode profitability if telcos keep building networks in the same way. (See DT's Terastream: A Bigger Splash?)

The answer, telcos believe, is a more open, software-based and "virtualized" network. On the mobile side, there is growing unhappiness about "closed" interfaces that force any telco to buy radios from its supplier of signal processing equipment (or from that supplier's ecosystem). The world's biggest operators have set up a group called the Open RAN Alliance (ORAN Alliance) that is pushing for change. If all works out, an operator will eventually be able to purchase radios off the shelf from all sorts of different manufacturers. Thanks to RAN virtualization, it could also process signals using commodity servers housed in data centers, rather than dedicated equipment at a radio site. Deutsche Telekom has previously talked about taking advantage of these new developments to cut its RAN bill in half. (See Why Resistance to the Open RAN May Crumble.)

Figure 2: Back in the Black Ericsson's Borje Ekholm has restored profitability at the Swedish vendor. Ericsson's Börje Ekholm has restored profitability at the Swedish vendor.

This sounds like bad news for Ericsson and other traditional equipment vendors. But there are major caveats. The technology is largely unproven, for one thing, and might not deliver the cost savings promised or the performance levels required. Indeed, telcos are worried about the operational burden that would come with managing lots of vendors in a virtualized network. Moreover, a thriving marketplace for so-called "white box" radios is unlikely to be a reality for many years given the strong ecosystem that has built up around Ericsson, Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and, to a lesser extent, ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763). (See Orange: Still No Clear Business Case for vRAN and vRAN Tech Hits Resistance at SK Telecom.)

But the twin threats of openness and virtualization cannot easily be dismissed. Ericsson has attended ORAN Alliance meetings and is now considering its future relationship with the group, it recently confirmed to Light Reading. Understandably wary, it has probably figured that a stubborn refusal to heed new customer demands would prove far costlier than adaptation, especially if its chief rivals are less resistant to change. Nokia is one that already appears to have joined the ORAN Alliance. All told, there seems little doubt that a shift to more open and virtualized networks will have some impact on Ericsson and other traditional equipment makers. The uncertainty is just how severe it will be. (See Ericsson Weighs ORAN Alliance Membership.)

Next page: Rivals old and new

Rivals old and new
As far as some analysts are concerned, the current demand for an open RAN is the response to years of industry consolidation that has whittled the market down to just three or four global suppliers, making it far less competitive than it once was. But a new challenger has surfaced in the form of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC). Racing to fill a gap in the US market caused by the de facto ban on Huawei and ZTE, the South Korean electronics giant has already landed 5G equipment deals with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), the two largest US service providers. Its ambitions are not confined to the US, though. In India, it has seen off bigger rivals to become the main 4G RAN supplier to Reliance Jio, the country's newest and most aggressive operator. In Europe, it is carrying out 5G trials with France's Orange. (See Nokia, Samsung Are Beating Ericsson in 5G Sales to AT&T, Says Analyst, How RJio Built India's Most Automated Network and Orange Ups 5G Broadband Stakes in Romania.)

While Samsung has long had a marginal presence in the global 4G networks market, it seems deadly serious about making an impact on the 5G RAN sector. Proof of that intent came just a few days ago with its acquisition of Zhilabs, a Barcelona-based specialist in 5G network analytics and automation. Such technologies could be critical purely because there may be too many parameters in future 5G networks for operators to configure manually. Even before that move, Samsung had been highly regarded for its expertise in the field of millimeter wave (very high frequency) spectrum. With several 5G deals now in the bag, it threatens to negate an advantage Ericsson might see from a 5G crackdown on Huawei and ZTE.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on
Light Reading.

In the meantime, Ericsson's RAN focus could be a weakness its rivals are keen to expose. Operators investing in 5G will need higher-speed transport and optical networks, and not just a new RAN. Both Huawei and Nokia have the portfolio breadth to meet these various needs. Whenever it trumpets its "end-to-end" capabilities, Nokia always seems to be having a sly dig at Ericsson.

Whether this turns out to be a serious disadvantage for Ericsson remains unclear. As the ORAN Alliance shows, operators do not necessarily want to buy everything from one company. And Ericsson has recently announced tie-ups with ECI Telecom Ltd. and Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), vendors of optical and packet transport technologies, to address any shortcoming. That said, with specialization comes pressure to be outstanding in that one area. If something goes wrong, Ericsson cannot find refuge in other product lines as easily as Huawei and Nokia. (See Ericsson vs. Nokia: Who's Ahead in 5G Right Now? and Ericsson Links 5G Hands With Juniper & ECI, Snubs Cisco & Ciena.)

Corruption
A more clear and present danger, though, is the investigation by the US Department of Justice and its Securities and Exchange Commission into corrupt business practices. The affair predates Ekholm by some years, and he would not comment on its specific nature during last week's third-quarter earnings call with analysts. But he did acknowledge it covered a "fairly wide scope" and that Ericsson's internal investigation had found evidence of corruption. The update follows reports last year alleging that Ericsson executives were involved in a bribery scandal across markets in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

While investors have not panicked, the signs are ominous. Ericsson has already sacked 50 people involved in the scandal, a number that suggests it covered practices across numerous markets. Moreover, Ekholm has indicated the US investigation could ultimately have a "material" impact on Ericsson. A similar investigation into bribery at the Uzbek operation of Telia Company led to a fine of nearly $1 billion for the Swedish operator. That figure represents about 11% of Telia's revenues last year. (See Eurobites: Telia Coughs Up $965M to Exit Uzbek Nightmare.)

When Ekholm took charge of Ericsson in early 2017, its share price was languishing at SEK53.85 ($5.97) in Stockholm. This week, at the time of publication, it had reached SEK84.94 ($9.42), its highest level since November 2015, when it touched SEK86.75 ($9.62). In that year, Ericsson's sales hit SEK246.9 billion ($27.4 billion) and its operating margin was 9%. It was a more versatile company, and its investors could not imagine the turmoil that would engulf it the following year, when Hans Vestberg, Ekholm's predecessor, was forced to quit after a slump in its performance. Ekholm is doing a remarkable job to get Ericsson back on its feet for the start of the 5G spending cycle. But it may not have much higher to go.

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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