Global Telecom Revenue Will Hit $4.58 Trillion by 2017

Looking at global telecom revenue over the past several decades, and considering the latest revenue forecast from the Telecommunications Industry Association, it is hard to conclude anything but that the industry grows, year over year, every year.

Where in 2008 global revenue was about $2.9 trillion, in 2013 revenue had grown to $3.87 trillion. By 2017, TIA forecasts global revenue of about $4.58 trillion.

Over nearly every time period, global telecom revenue grows. The only possible exceptions were the years 1929 and 2001, but even there the dips were relatively slight.

For that reason, many consider telecommunications “recession proof,” a theory that was tested in 2000 and 2008. For the most part, aggregate revenue remained fairly stable, though there were some changes in composition of revenues.

And that generally remains the present revenue trend, where annual revenue, on a global basis, grows about 2.7 percent.

Recessions might have impact in some regions, from time to time, slowing growth rates. But even the 2008 global recession did not halt revenue growth.

The impact of the Great Recession beginning in 2008 is easy enough to describe. According to TeleGeography Research, revenue growth slipped from about seven percent annually to one percent in 2009, returning to about three percent globally in 2011.

To be sure, growth prospects vary between regions. In fact, growth in Western Europe has gone negative, perhaps the first time in history that communications revenue, at least in a region, actually has seen a declining trend.

So it might seem odd that service provider executives worry so much about revenue cannibalization. It isn’t a misplaced concern.

As now is clear, telecom products or services have life cycles, like all other products. For more than 150 years, voice services drove industry revenues. That did not change in the 1980s, when a global wave of deregulation and privatization began.

By the 1990s, however, profit margins clearly began to erode, as competition in the formerly high-margin long distance market eroded pricing.

By the mid-2000s, growth had shifted to mobile services, even if voice was the biggest contributor even for mobile services.

Most recently, Internet access and video entertainment have been the revenue growth drivers for fixed networks.
These days, “marginal costs” often mean “marginal revenue” for service providers. To be sure, one can argue that the marginal cost of one additional minute of use of a telecom network is almost nil.

That has implications for pricing, as a provider arguably could price slightly above marginal cost and still make a profit, provided fixed costs are covered and the pricing does not disrupt pricing of existing services and products.

That is a big “if.” The traditional problem with a massive shift to VoIP, on the part of service providers, is not so much the incremental profit or loss from VoIP, but the impact on the entire installed base of customers.

In other words, it is one thing for a service provider to match market prices for over the top voice. It is quite another matter to lower prices for all carrier voice to those levels. That is why “harvesting” has been the strategy for virtually all carrier voice providers.

Service providers rationally have chosen not to formally drop prices on carrier voice, but rather have chosen to lose share and call volume, to protect what remains of the revenue stream.

The argument can be made that prices have been lowered, but only because they are effectively hidden within triple-play bundles, allowing stand-alone voices to remain largely as they were.

The other change is that some service providers have shifted to “consume as much as you want” retail pricing, instead of a metered approach. In some cases, that represents a lower effective price for usage.

In other cases, because people only use so much of a resource, effective pricing on a “per unit of consumption” basis has not actually changed so much. A customer who typically uses 250 calling minutes a month, or 2 Gbytes of data a month, or 200 text messages a month, will not generally consume much more, even if pricing shifts from usage to “unlimited” rating.

But that is one sort of issue faced by mobile service providers, namely margin pressure.

Fixed network service providers face a different problem, namely abandonment of voice services altogether, since mobile provides a substitute.

So even if both mobile and fixed network providers face issues related to the stability and growth of their voice services, mobile faces quantitative changes. Fixed network providers face qualitative changes.

Mobile customers are not abandoning voice; fixed network customers are doing so. The obvious corollary is that future fixed network service provider performance will be dictated by how well service providers can find replacement services.

Growth, in other words, is not a given. Only in Western Europe has growth actually gone into reverse. But other markets face similar challenges.

Demand for fixed network voice is dwindling. Sooner or later, that matters, unless new revenue sources--of at least equivalent magnitude--can be created.
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