Incumbents: Do or Die

The communications industry is being turned on its head and not everyone will survive.

Steve Saunders, Founder, Light Reading

October 22, 2015

5 Min Read
Incumbents: Do or Die

2015 turns out to be a significant year in the history of communications.

This is the year when it became clear that the communications industry isn't simply going through one of its occasional metamorphoses (think circuit to packet, or fixed to mobile).

Virtualization, New IP, open source, white box, IoT, 5G, telco cloud: These next-gen technologies are combining into a wave of innovation that, by the end of this decade, will pivot the entire communications industry on its axis, producing an unprecedented shift in the fortunes of companies old and new, for good and ill.

The only thing more complicated than these technologies is the competitive dynamic between the companies developing and deploying them. In both the solutions provider and service provider/carrier worlds, incumbent players are now facing potentially deadly competition from disruptive newcomers.

In the solution provider space, existing players like Cisco, Juniper, and Alcatel-Lucent are competing with a wave of new entrants: enterprise companies such as HP, Oracle, Brocade and VMware, that are making a major play for telecom business.

The winners of this particular conflict will be determined partly by which companies can best master the disciplines of technology development, innovation, creativity and business acumen. But there are other factors at play here -- specifically, trust and culture.

Light Reading recently asked 150 service providers which of the largest telco suppliers they would trust to build their next generation network and help them deliver new services. Five of the top six "most trusted" vendors were today's telecom incumbents (the other was Intel, interestingly). Below them, in terms of trust rating, came all of the enterprise disruptors.

Telecom has always been a relationship-based industry and the half-life of the trust-based dependencies between companies like Cisco, Ciena, Fujitsu, NEC and their customers is extraordinarily long. This means it will take longer (years longer) than enterprise companies expect or want until they win a significant chunk of the telecom market.

On the service provider side of the house, full scale war is inevitable between the existing Tier 1 providers and MSOs, and the new wave of web-scale and OTT players (Netflix, Google, Facebook, Amazon etc.). All of these protagonists now recognize that the end point in this conflict lies in an NFV-enabled distributed cloud running profitable applications and services over an underlying New IP network.

Who will control the cloud? Web-scale companies have the "profitable apps and services" piece of that future in their DNA -- a major advantage. For their part, the incumbents boast the installed networks and extensive customer relationships on their side.

Victory will partly be determined by how well Tier 1 operators time their move to next-gen virtualized networks. Move too quickly and they risk spending too much for technology that fails to deliver on its promise of reducing capex/opex and goosing revenues/profit. Too slowly, and the web-scale players could end up co-opting the cloud altogether, relegating the Tier 1s to play in the access portion of the network only (this would be a bad thing; personally, I'd rather set my hair on fire than live in a world where Google has a monopoly on both my Internet applications and long-distance telephone service).

What's clear is that this is unprecedented, life-or-death stuff for both incumbent service providers and today's equipment manufacturers. At the turn of the century it was inconceivable that these companies would face a set of technology choices that could put them out of business in the next five years if they get them wrong, but that's exactly the position that every one of these incumbent providers finds themselves in today.

A market as topsy-turvy, high stakes and gosh-darned confusing as this one requires a media vehicle that does it justice. And that's what we're endeavoring to provide through a series of developments and improvements to the Light Reading network this year, and into 2016.

Not for profits
If you've met me you probably know "not for profit" isn't really in my nature, but Light Reading has reached a point in its 15-year history where it needs to do more than just deliver news and analysis. That's why in 2016 we will be helping to launch not one but two 501c not for profit organizations.

  • Women in Comms (WiC) will be run by Sarah Thomas, with the remit of achieving gender parity in the next-gen communications industry. You can email Sarah for more information about WiC's work, here.

  • And then there's the New IP Agency (NIA), an organization that we pre-announced in June with the goal of accelerating the successful deployment of virtualization technologies through education and testing. (Note: NIA is also an antidote to the rampant politicking now going on in the industry over whose Open Source specs should form the foundation of virtualization). Check out the live online radio show about the aims of the NIA on Tuesday Oct. 27 and contact the Director of the NIA, Jeff Hannah, for more info.

    Enterprise coverage
    Part of my deal to reacquire Light Reading from UBM included a no-compete on enterprise coverage. That expires next year and the timing is good for Light Reading to explore this space using the same content-driven model we apply to telecom, especially since the incumbent enterprise publications appear to be on their last legs. I'm excited that we will finally be able to cover areas such as enterprise analytics, security and fax machines (kidding).

    BIG Communications Event (BCE)
    In 2016 we're changing the name of our biggest live show from BIG Telecom Event (BTE), to BIG Communications Event (BCE) to better reflect the market we serve. The convergence of enterprise and telecom is no longer an abstract concept; for the first time, companies like Cisco and AlcaLu are developing products that work equally well across both environments; inevitably, the old market definitions, and boundaries, are falling away. BCE, which takes place in Austin in May, is the one event where every member of the next-gen communications ecosystem can find the information they need to come out on the winning side of this singular period in the history of the comms industry.

    The work that the comms industry is now doing will form the basis of much more than just profitable services; it will create the next great, global, digital economy. At Light Reading, we couldn't be happier to be playing a part in that momentous mission.

    We're all in. Are you?

    — Stephen Saunders, Founder and CEO, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Steve Saunders

Founder, Light Reading

Steve Saunders is the Founder of Light Reading.

He was previously the Managing Director of UBM DeusM, an integrated marketing services division of UBM, which has successfully launched 45 online communities in less than three years.

DeusM communities are based on Saunders' vision for a structured system of community publishing, one which creates unprecedented engagement among highly qualified business users. Based on the success of the first dozen UBM DeusM communities, the UBM Tech division in 2013 made the decision to move its online business to the UBM DeusM community platform – including 20 year old flagship brands such as Information Week and EE Times.

Saunders' next mission for UBM is the development of UBM's Integrated Community Business Model (ICBM), a publishing system designed to take advantage of, and build upon, UBM's competitive strengths as a leading provider of live events around the globe. The model is designed to extend the ability of UBM's events to generate revenue 365 days of the year by contextually integrating content from community and event sites, and directories, to drive bigger audiences to all three platforms, and thereby create additional value for customers. In turn, these amplified audiences will allow business leaders to grow both revenues and profits through higher directory fees and online sponsorship. The ICBM concept is currently being discussed with a broad group of business leaders across UBM, and is earmarked to be piloted in the second half of 2013 and early 2014.

UBM DeusM is Saunders' fifth successful start-up. In 2008, he founded Internet Evolution (, a ground-breaking, award-winning, global online community dedicated to investigating the future of the Internet, now in its fifth year.

Prior to Internet Evolution, Saunders was the founder and CEO of Light Reading (, Heavy Reading (

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