Is An SME Service Revolution In The Offing?

May 17, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

Mobile telecoms providers have been great at delivering services to consumers; they have typically been able to devote resources to support major enterprises too. However, there has been a long tail of underserved SMEs who have more complex needs than consumers but lack the resources, either in-house or in the telco – to satisfy them. SMEs make up more than 80% of the market in most countries and need a combination of usability, simplicity and low cost to manage.

“In fact, this is part of HPE’s entire strategy and the rationale of the Athonet acquisition,” commented Richard Band, HPE’s Head of Mobile Core and 5G.

“When you want to cross the chasm and go to the mass market it needs to be much more compact, much simpler to deploy and operate.”

The Athonet acquisition that Band was talking about bought HPE a company that claims to have the most widely-deployed mobile core for private LTE and 5G networks in the world. For a company that has long worked with telecoms providers as a partner this is quite a step-change. However, it’s being driven by the complexity of working with telecoms providers.

“Most enterprise IT departments we talked to have been saying, “Okay, scratch that, let’s go down the private route and figure out how to do that, because at least there we are in control and we can get capabilities that we need,”which is why we are doubling down on the private side,” Band explained.

This is not an uncommon pain point. Avitosh Sawhney, Co-Founder of start-up Ynertia, had a similar story, seeing it from the operator side when he worked supporting B2B customers at France Telecom.

“Smaller companies would say “If we come to the operators for solutions, then you guys don’t talk to us.” Of course we didn’t, because they are very small and the telecoms companies don’t have the necessary bandwidth for their employees to take care of them.”

The eureka moment for Sawhney came when procurement specialists who grew up with the Internet at their disposal railed at the long and involved processes – the RFIs and RFPs, the negotiations – that dogged sales of enterprise broadband and mobile services. His conversion was rapid.

“I honestly don’t understand why, in this age when you can buy anything online, you cannot buy enterprise internet services online. It’s ironic,” he observed.

Enterprise services beyond basic connectivity have also been a challenge. While Ericsson and SK Telecom planned to develop network slicing for 5G back in 2015, it is yet to take off in any significant way – according to a recent blog post from Enea, it usually takes a few days to set up a slice, which is going to feel like a long time for an IT department.

In this case, Telenor has worked with Enea, Palo Alto, Oracle and eight other vendors to create a solution that can be set up in minutes. By automating and delivering a service that’s much more end-user friendly there’s a much greater likelihood for slicing services to be used. In an age when instant service delivery is expected, this is much closer to a usable proposition.

However, this example also underlines the complexity that needs to be masked in order to deliver a simple and usable service to end users. Collaborating with eleven other stakeholders is not something a company does when three or seven will do.  

Automation and simplification.

Making a complex process simple is a huge issue for SMEs. In Sawhney’s case, he set up a company to simplify and automate the telecoms procurement process for SMEs. This isn’t a small task, given the stakeholders involved.

“In Germany there are 250 B2B internet providers; in the UK more than 100. Most of these are small and regional.”

Hardly any wonder that most companies didn’t recognise more than a handful, and stood to miss out on the best options. Instead,

“You fill in a form with your requirements and our online platform sends the request for quotes to those companies which are relevant to your needs, and they can put quotes online. The customer sees them in real time on this platform, can arrange a contract online and sign it.”

In some ways it’s easy to see how this takes inspiration from websites to help consumers find their internet or energy suppliers. The leap has been in making this a way to simplify and manage an enterprise process which tends to be much more complex. Unsurprisingly it’s still a much more prolonged process than a half-hour web surf and a few clicks, but it is greatly accelerated and collates all the relevant information in one place.

“The whole process has been reduced to less than a week from two months on average,” Sawhney commented.

Ease of deployment is certainly a big deal to encourage uptake among SMEs, but it’s not the only element.

“The other piece is all about how to make life easy for the IT administrator,” Band commented. In the case of HPE, this is about integrating services such as private networking or data analytics into a simple user interface.

“The amount of data generated at the edge is starting to exceed that generated everywhere else, and that data needs to be collected, analysed and acted upon. So what is the data, what purpose does it have and how can we help there with the connectivity but also with storage and compute? Here the expertise we have with user interfaces, and the ability to integrate [services] into that interface, is going to be another very important element to go from early adopters to mass market.”

While one swallow doesn’t make a summer, it is striking to see that startups like Ynertia and major companies like Telenor and HPE are all converging on the SME market with similar approaches; conceal complexity to enable non-specialist clients to make the right choices, and automate as much as possible to support the necessary mass customisation. The increasing capabilities of AIs to support this kind of mass customisation in a more flexible manner will only reduce barriers to entry. The coming decade may finally see telecoms breaking into the SME market.

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