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Telcos had a massive boost from the COVID pandemic.  I work with many of the world's largest telcos. They all benefitted hugely from instant shift towards virtual work, virtual social life, virtual entertainment and virtual leisure. 

- Huge increase in spending on personal bandwidth, increased use of personal devices

- Huge increase in corporate spending on enterprise wide virtual working tools, upgrades of video conferencing equipment, upgrades in bandwidth with increased dependence on video

If we ever realised our total dependence on high bandwidth, it was at the moment that the world plunged into lockdown. Internet access or speed was no longer the issue, rather continuous, uninterrupted high bandwidth to allow high quality video links.

However, the telco industry faced fundamental issues before COVID, and these issues remain.

* "Life with AI - How to survive and succeed in a super-smart world" - Patrick Dixon's latest book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world.

Old telco business models are completely broken

Over 90% of all web traffic is now video in many developed nations - COVID just accelerated a long trend.

It is already the case in the UK that BBC iPlayer, NetFlix and YouTube alone account for more than 60% of the nation’s web traffic. A single 2-hour video is equivalent to a hundred million emails, or days of voice calls. So forget charging for voice or anything else – costs are dwarfed by streaming video. 

Data on mobiles will increase 1000 fold in the next 5 years, on 50 billion mobile devices connected to 5G, running at 10gps or higher. That means an entire high-definition movie will download in less than 3 seconds.  So telcos will be forced to focus on new kinds of business, for example cloud services for larger companies.

Mobile payments will hit telcos and banks

Before COVID we were already seeing a huge explosion in mobile payments in emerging markets. One in four adults across Africa were already using mobile money accounts, and Asia payments were also booming.

Then COVID hit, and overnight the use of cash more or less ceased in many nations such as France, the UK and the US.  In theory this should also have been good for telcos.

The trouble is that a telco may handle 100 million payments a month on its network yet make virtually no money.  

In the UK, over 50 million people are making mobile payments. However, innovations can still be held back by customer confusion, caution and habit.

Look, for example at the very slow take-up of contactless card payments in America until recently, and the fact that online sales in Germany in early 2020 were still only 35% of that in the UK, per person each year – mainly because of worries about online secuity. 

A billion wearable devices

1 billion million people by 2025 are likely to be wearing smart devices such as wristbands recording motion, or smart watches that integrate with mobiles.

At least 50 million potentially significant medical events will be detected globally each year by 2025 using smart wrist devices, mainly related to heart irregularities.

So every telecommunications company is moving rapidly towards medical monitoring - whether they have a strategy for it or not.  Because all that data is being carried on telco networks.

Convergence is the enemy of innovation

Convergence means that every smartphone looks and feels almost the same.

Every operating system works in a similar way.  

Every smartphone network / telco contract looks the same.

Convergence is the opposite of innovation. All true innovation is by definition about doing things differently to serve customers better. 

Convergence means that the only way to make your product stand out is on price, since everything else is so similar, and that means a desperate spiral to the bottom on profitability.

Expect huge numbers of new telco companies

So expect hundreds of new entrants into the world of telcos over the next few years, all copying things that work well already, and few survivors.

Expect huge pressures on profits of today’s telco giants as a result, in areas where smaller new telcos are eating up their margins.

As a result, as I say, expect a major drive upwards by telecommunications companies, into smaller numbers of high value corporate contracts, providing a huge range of services - eg cloud storage, productivity tools, cybersecurity etc.

Why innovation in smartphones is slowing right down

The pace of true innovation in smartphones is already slowing down as I predicted, as they become more perfectly optimised, within absolute biological limits imposed by the size of fingers, pockets, and the resolution of the eye.

Simplicity and reliability will be survival issues

As I predicted years ago, cCustomers are becoming increasingly intolerant of complex products, and simplicity will be a core requirement for every successful digital company and telco.

All mobile devices are over-delivering on complex features that are rarely used.

It is a scandal that many devices and IT systems are still sold full of bugs, incompatibilities and failures that would put manufacturers in prison if they were making cars or planes.

I am often asked by IT companies or telcos to gaze into the future – but often my message is very different. Go away urgently and sort out the mess in your existing products, make them work properly, and support customers better, before you launch more innovations.

And the pace of real innovation in consumer tech remains very slow.

For some years I have subscribed to a large-circulation European magazine called T3. Every issue is supposed to be packed with the latest gadgets and techno-breakthroughs. But there is hardly enough real news to fill an issue every 3 months, let alone every 4 weeks. 

New ways for telcos to feed your brain

The connection between brain and mobile device remains clumsy and slow. For example, reading speeds are no faster than they were – actually in many cases they have fallen, since it is faster to speed-read a printed page than one on-screen. And typing speeds are slower on mobile devices.

Expect intense efforts to find ways to get instant data without looking at a screen in your pocket or on your wrist. Many people (including me) have been very sceptical about clunky prototypes like Google Glass, but we do need to completely rethink interfaces.

Expect many more types of head-based displays, gesture controls – all of which will ultimately be threatened by direct digital-brain interfaces. The first such devices are helmets for gamers, which use brain waves to control the action.

Many people already have biodigital brains

As I predicted 18 years ago, we have seen rapid advances in the creation of biodigital brains, where brain cells grow into the surface of chip. First experiments were in 1993, implanting small chips into brains of mice and rats, which were able to transmit thoughts to each other at the speed of light – such as requests for food or drink.

More recently, rats have sent messages to each other between North Carolina and Brazil. Several rats were connected in a ‘brain net’ so they could collaborate on problem solving, mind reading each other.

Doctors have already implanted similar chips inside the heads of more than 600,000 human beings, and are implanting chips into 50,000 more people every year. Most of these are cochlear implants which connect with the auditory nerve inside the inner ear, to restore severe hearing loss.

Send an email (or possibly an image) by thinking alone

Other experiments have given blind people primitive sight – with chips implanted into the visual cortex of the brain, or connected to the optic nerve inside their eyes. I have met a paralysed man who controls his arm, hand and fingers by thinking alone, not by chips in his brain, but by chips in his upper arm that sense nerve activation.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have enabled people to send simple messages to each other by thought alone, using a helmet to detect brain waves, and another head-mounted device to create sensations in brain tissue.

On current trends, biodigital brains will be a relatively normal part of life for over 25 million people by 2050, mainly to restore hearing or sight, as well as to overcome brain or spinal cord injuries, or, more rarely (for those who are wealthy and curious enough), to try to extend mental horizons, memory, intelligence, thinking speed and powers of concentration. One challenge to overcome is that chips planted directly into brain tissue can increase the risk of epilepsy, by irritating the brain.

Mobile digital insight will become common but strange

How will such digital insights feel? Imagine walking down the street and just sensing, by instinct in a way hard to describe, that the shop you need is on the right, or having a ‘gut feeling’ that your heart rate has increased to around 80 beats a minute, or ‘just knowing’ that the person walking by is a relative of someone you know very well.

Most people feel very uncomfortable about chips being implanted into their brains, or the brains of their children.

What about health risks or being hacked? Here is yet another example of how the future is not just about innovation, but also about emotion. You can have the smartest invention in the world, but if it fails to connect with passion, sales will be low.

Worries about electromagnetic radiation

Expect growing concerns about lifetime effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation from overhead power lines, smartphones and other devices.

Some studies have suggested that tumours are slightly more common on the side of the head that a person usually uses for mobile phone calls. Expect further evidence that mobile phone radiation affects the brain, as well as other cells.

Expect legal action too, even though risks to an individual from normal use seem to be extremely low, and will become lower still, as phone calls become less popular, replaced by texts, Apps, browsing and so on.

Future of mobile e-payments will be dominated by China and India

In comparison to BitCoin, traditional e-payments are almost free, take place at the speed of light, are easy to set up, easy to track, easy to audit and relatively easy to tax.  

Global e-commerce transactions are set to growth by 13-20% a year, and will be worth more than $6 trillion by 2023, mostly on mobile devices.

China’s e-commerce market is already worth more than $1 trillion, more than twice the next largest region which is North America, driven by Alibaba and JD.com, as well as Alipay and Wechat Pay.

A third of all e-commerce payments today are on smartphones, but this proportion will rise to at least 70% by 2025. As we have seen, most e-commerce transactions in the UK and many other nations like Vietnam are already on mobile devices.

Until recently, most small retail payments on mobile devices were taking place not in Europe or America but in Africa.

And for several years, most m-payments in Africa were in Kenya, where over a third of GDP is already traded each year using the M-Pesa alone.

Around 25% of the entire population of Africa already has a mobile money account of some kind – compared to only 2% in Latin America. Africa has redefined retail payments, and Asia will be next.

Take Singtel, for example, which has around 430 million registered SIM cards in its customer base, including partners. Of that, maybe 150 million are unbanked, with no access to financial services. I expect that up to half of these will carry out their first m-banking transactions over the next 5 years.

Free smartphones from your bank etc will create pressure on telcos

The cost of providing free smartphones, tablets, web data, video calls and so on is falling rapidly towards zero. The cost of biometric ID is also falling, and it will soon be impossible to buy a smartphone without finger print recognition.

At the same time, revenues that can easily be captured by mobile payments are increasing fast.

As a result, many payment companies will offer free smartphones, video calls, voice calls, mobile computers, broadband, perhaps even free movies – on condition that customers only use their smartphone for payments. 

But that spells the end of traditional phone contracts, and the end of traditional retail banking. The most important and urgent question for every large bank or telco is this: who will “own” the customer relationship?

As we have seen, the most important thing to know about any mobile customer is their location, which is the greatest single predictor of their next action.

But banks are blind to location. Credit card and current account data only tells them the past. But phone companies can predict the future: they handle every web page, every search term, every text, know which Apps are downloaded, who the person calls and when.  That is why banks will be forced to collaborate with telcos to offer next-generation financial services.

Fight to own the new global telco standards

As we have seen, scale is everything in a global world, so there will be very few winners in global payments.

Qualcomm has dominated mobile phone technologies for 2G, 3G and 4G for years, and up to 70% of its costs are legal, defending their patents. In a similar way, there will only be room for two or three truly global mobile payment systems.

Expect a huge fight among consortia of banks, telcos and IT companies – whether based in China, India, Europe or America. The prize will be tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments, from every financial institution, retailer and telco, for at least two decades.

A key complication, however, is that if a telco seeks to become a bank, it immediately becomes subject to all kinds of limitations on the amount of capital it uses, its reserves policy, and so on, in places like Europe and America. This means that the most radical innovations in mobile payments are likely to be in emerging nations, as today.

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