Timotheus Höttges is in a prickly mood about the US tech giants. The Deutsche Telekom CEO is even likening himself to a creature famed for its prickliness. "I am a little hedgehog, brown and small," he mused poetically on one of the German operator's less orthodox calls with analysts.
The point of reference was the German fairy tale of the hedgehog and the rabbit – one of those where the slower animal ultimately wins the race. In Höttges' R-rated version, there is much more going on. "Look, if hedgehogs make love, they do it very carefully," he said when asked about edge partnerships with other telcos.
He is bristling about the so-called hyperscalers as they burrow into his turf. "These big hyperscalers are buying very small companies which we are using to digitize our core infrastructure and the software-ization of our infrastructure service," Deutsche Telekom's CEO told analysts on a call. "The moment they do that, they get bought by the big hyperscalers. But due to the size of them, nobody in Brussels looks into that one."
Nobody in the US either, he might have added. The outstanding example of a whale swallowing a krill is probably Facebook's monstrous $19 billion takeover of WhatsApp, a messaging company that made no money and had fewer employees than a village post office at the time it was bought in 2014. Only recently has the US Federal Trade Commission realized that Facebook was eliminating a business it saw as a future threat, and that it should have been denied its small but expensive meal.
What Höttges undoubtedly had in mind, though, were the Microsoft takeovers of Metaswitch and Affirmed Networks last year. Both develop core network products for telecom operators and were independent before Microsoft came stalking. Both are now a part of the world's biggest company by market capitalization – a situation that appears to have upset Höttges.
So much, apparently, that he has already held discussions with Margrethe Vestager, the European competition commissioner, about blocking these types of deals in the future. "I think the dominance of the so-called gatekeeping platforms is visible to every one of us, and we have to introduce some restrictions on practices, like antitrust laws and the like," he said.
The next form of lock-in
It appears to mark the first time a telco has publicly demanded regulatory intervention to prevent tech giants from buying start-ups and smaller firms. And it shows that operators face a major dilemma. Deutsche Telekom and the other big European operators have a sudden phobia about vendor consolidation and overreliance on a few big suppliers. Calls for diversification are heard more often than in woke circles. As prospective challengers disappear into the maw of industry giants, the telcos are being thwarted.
Worst of all, arguably, would be moves for companies selling open RAN technology. This in-vogue concept is all about mixing products from different suppliers at the same mobile site, where most operators today would usually buy everything from the same vendor. There will be less opportunity to build a multi-vendor network if component suppliers are snapped up by a Microsoft.
There has already been some deal-making that could worry Deutsche Telekom. In August, Altiostar, a US developer of open RAN software, was fully acquired by Rakuten, a Japanese version of Amazon that already owned Altiostar shares. It has subsequently bundled Altiostar into its Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), a suite of network and IT products that Rakuten is pitching to other service providers through Symphony, a new business unit. Comprehensive deals – of the kind Symphony recently landed with Germany's 1&1 – would make Rakuten look just as much a gatekeeper as Ericsson or Nokia.
The acquisition of Altiostar by Rakuten raises the prospect of similar takeovers by other technology giants. If Microsoft saw fit to buy Metaswitch and Affirmed Networks to bolster its portfolio of communications products, then why not add an open RAN software developer such as JMA Wireless, Mavenir or Parallel Wireless?
Indeed, as it becomes possible to host network and IT functions in a public cloud, the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft could use takeovers to lure and retain business. "Either each cloud has its own captive stack or there will be a cloud with a captive stack and others with a more open stack," said Steve Papa, the CEO of Parallel Wireless, in conversation with Light Reading last year. A captive stack is probably not what Höttges and his peers had in mind when they began preaching about open RAN.
Fear of consolidation is not new within Deutsche Telekom. "We are concerned about the smaller innovators being acquired by the big vendors," Alex Choi, the German operator's senior vice president of research and technology innovation, previously told Light Reading. "It could happen."
But there is little precedent for blocking takeovers of companies that do not have significant market power. And if regulators obstruct deals, some firms might simply collapse in a highly competitive market that is not growing. While earlier rounds of consolidation have reduced choice, they have also brought economies of scale. Nor were there many telco complaints about the deals that turned the mobile equipment market into an oligopoly. The European Commission said not a single operator raised objections when Nokia made its €15.6 billion ($17.7 billion, at today's exchange rate) bid for Alcatel-Lucent in 2015.
Moaning about hyperscalers is a favorite pastime for the operators signing deals with Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Deutsche Telekom did its own deal with Microsoft in December last year, revealing plans to shift most of its IT workloads to the public cloud by 2025. More recently, it teamed up with Google to provide what it calls "sovereign cloud" services in Germany: Google provides the expertise, Deutsche Telekom retains control – or something like that.
It sounds like an arrangement that has come with reservations. Hence all the talk of mating hedgehogs and a reference to Gaia-X, a European effort to establish federated data infrastructure based on European data principles. "We are considering doing this more in our ecosystem with our own competence to keep the control of the infrastructure, especially the edge of our networks," said Höttges.
"If we find partners here in Europe who are driving this Gaia-X or the open-source standard for cloud infrastructure, this might help us as well in the edge environment," he added. In the meantime, expect the telco relationship with hyperscalers to be as uncomfortable as an amorous encounter between a rabbit and a hedgehog.
- DT plans German sovereign cloud – with Google
- After Google outage, telcos should think twice about public cloud
- Dish fealty to AWS risks 'vendor lock-in' and open RAN fallout
- Deutsche Telekom becomes Microsoft tenant in bid for IT savings
- Letting Facebook buy WhatsApp and Instagram was dumb, FTC shows
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading