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The Telco Generation Gap


At a high level, the younger group is looking at these challenges, seeing how they have been handled by the enterprise or web service businesses, and saying that the cellco industry should do the same thing.

The damage was so severe that even when new management was brought in and pieces of the company were sold off, it was not possible to save the business. Effectively, Motorola dried up and blew away. Here again, a lack of willingness to listen spelled the end.

A widespread problem

Why is what’s taking place today so very different from these examples? For Western Union and Motorola, the result of failures to listen was confined to single companies. What is happening today appears to be cutting across the cellco industry as a whole. And it’s facing a series of significant challenges, examples of which include:

  • Softwarization
  • Open source
  • New ecosystems
  • New ways of handling procurement
  • New ways of managing operations
  • Cybersecurity threats
  • New competition from new technology-based entrants
  • Large capital outlays for 5G
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • IoT

Each of these challenges or topics deserves an article to itself, of course. We share the list as a way of establishing context for the generation gap.

At a high level, the younger group is looking at these challenges, seeing how they have been handled by the enterprise or web service businesses, and saying that the cellco industry should do the same thing. The older group notes that what works in the enterprise and web services industries does not work in the cellco market. Neither is listening to the other. Both think that the other is wrong. 

In actuality, they are both right. Yes, there is a need for dramatic change, but what works in the enterprise and web services industries does not work in exactly the same way in cellco.

Confronted by scale challenges every day, cellco businesses do not have the scale that those in the enterprise and web service industries do. These businesses are not operating under the same constraints that cellco companies do. While we could spin an entire article on this subject alone, suffice it to say that although it is tempting to point to Google and say that a cellco should operate the same way, it just doesn’t work that way.

There is much that can be learned from observing the web services industry, but it is fundamentally different from the cellco industry. And those differences—and the implication for deployment of new things in the cellco industry—are understood by some thought leaders in the older generation.

At the same time, the younger generation has the advantage of an educational foundation and perspective that was not available to the older leaders. They have a feel for the change drivers and a sense of what is needed that the older group simply doesn’t have.

Given all this, and what’s at stake, these two groups must communicate more effectively and work together more productively. If they don’t, traditional cellco companies will follow the same path as Western Union and Motorola.

It’s much easier to destroy something than to rebuild it. Other forms of widespread communications may develop, beyond what the cellco industry has birthed. But society would be best-served if the investment in cellcos could be preserved as these other forms develop.



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