Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Can KT Become a Platform? Can Any Telco Do So?

Korea Telecom wants to become a digital platform company, not a telco. That ambition arguably is shared somewhat widely among tier-one connectivity service providers globally and has been a strategy recommended in some form by most bigger consulting companies. 

Simply, becoming a platform company changes the business model from direct supplier of products to a role as an ecosystem organizer or marketplace. That arguably is an aspirational goal more than anything else. 

What that aspiration means in practice is that KT as a digico “will shift our focus from the telecommunications sector, where growth is stalled due to government regulations, to artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and cloud computing businesses to become the nation's number-one platform operator in the B2B market," said KT CEO Koo Hyun-mo.

So there are qualifications. KT, if successful, would become a platform in the business market, not the consumer market. It would explicitly aim to become the center and organizer of an ecosystem for artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud computing. 

Purists and researchers will likely argue about whether all of that actually adds up to KT becoming a platform, in the sense that Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, ridesharing or lodging apps  might be considered platforms. 

A platform, definitionally, makes its money putting buyers and sellers and ecosystem participants together. In computing, a platform is any combination of hardware and software used as a foundation upon which applications, services, processes, or other technologies are built, hosted or run.

Operating systems are platforms, allowing software and applications to be run. Devices are platforms. Cloud computing might be said to be a platform, as systems are said to be platforms. 

Standards likely are thought of as platforms by some. 

In other cases components such as central processing units, physical or software interfaces (Ethernet, Wi-Fi, 5G, application programming interfaces) are referred to as platforms. Browsers might be termed platforms by some. Social media apps are seen as platforms as well. 

The platform business model requires creation of a marketplace or exchange that connects different participants: users with suppliers; sellers with buyers. A platform functions as a matchmaker, bringing buyers and sellers together, but classically not owning the products sold on the exchange. 

A platform orchestrates interactions and value. In fact, a platform’s value may derive in large part from the actions and features provided by a host of ecosystem participants. Facebook’s content is created by user members. Amazon’s customer reviews are a source of value for e-tailing buyers. 

Consumers and producers can swap roles on a platform. Users can ride with Uber today and drive for it tomorrow; travelers can stay with AirBNB one night and serve as hosts for other customers the next. Customers of pipe businesses--an airline, router or phone suppliers, grocery stores-- cannot do so. 

So KT can increase the percentage of revenue it earns from supplying digital, computing, application or non-connectivity services without becoming a platform. As a practical matter, that is what most telco executives have in mind when talking about becoming platforms. 

For KT, even limiting its ambitions to generating more digital and non-connectivity revenue does not make it a platform. That would still be an important, valuable and value-sustaining move. But KT has a very long ways to go, even in its stated objectives of becoming a B2B platform.

Total KT revenue is about 24 trillion won. All B2B revenues at the end of 2020 were about 2.78 trillion won (about 11.5 percent). Information technology services were about 1 trillion won, or about four percent of total revenues. AI and other digital services were about 0.5 trillion won, or about two percent of total revenues. 

It might be a long time between non-connectivity revenues in the B2B part of its business are as much as half of total revenues. And those revenues might not represent a platform transformation of the business model.

KT could win significantly without ever becoming a platform. And some might argue few telcos can ever actually hope to become platforms in the classic sense. Perhaps the more important goal is simply to reduce reliance on traditional connectivity revenues.

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