Top 10 Telecom Stories of 2021

Our pick of headlines in another frantic year

As another action-packed year in the telecom world draws to a close, it’s time for me to reveal my selection of the top stories of the past 12 months. You can read my review of 2020 here.

In 2021, the pandemic continued to highlight the crucial role of connectivity, and this coincided with some operators refocussing their strategies on network quality and digital inclusion. We also saw momentum for Open RAN, partnerships with investors from outside the telecom sector, more mergers and acquisitions, and growing emphasis on the environment. So, take a look and tell me if you agree or disagree with my choices.

AT&T combines WarnerMedia business with pay-TV provider Discovery. This is my biggest story of 2021 because it represented a massive change of tack for AT&T. Just three years earlier, the carrier splurged more than $80 billion to buy Time Warner. The Discovery deal also came just a few months after AT&T spun off its linear TV business, DirecTV, which cost it a mere $50 billion. As for other telecom players, Verizon finally offloaded its AOL and Yahoo brands and BT considered options for BT Sport as operators began to retrench from their adventurous forays of the past back to their connectivity roots.

Dish Network goes all in with Amazon Web Services. It’s appropriate that Dish Network is launching its first 5G service in the US capital of gambling, Las Vegas. In April, the aspiring greenfield network operator said that it was entrusting AWS to handle most of its Open RAN-based 5G network in the cloud. A huge endorsement for AWS, this is a big bet from Dish Network, one that it hopes will help set its network apart by achieving a high degree of flexibility, automation and cost-saving.

Sky starts selling its own TVs in the UK. Sky Glass streams content over a home broadband connection, meaning customers no longer need a set-top box or satellite dish. The move is a response to two leading threats to Sky’s established satellite TV business: the changing ways in which people access and interact with content, and the proliferation of streaming providers. For our detailed analysis see Insight Report: Sky Glass Seeks to Fend Off Threat from Streaming Rivals.

Satellite broadband providers team up with operators. In 2021, we saw several high-profile partnerships, including Verizon with Amazon, AT&T and BT with OneWeb, and KDDI with Starlink. Keep a watch for further deals; during our Predictions event, we predicted there’ll be at least 20 by the end of 2023. The agreements offer satellite providers scale and access to customers; operators gain a potentially crucial solution in their quest to expand coverage into the hardest-to-reach locations. Find out what this trend means in Insight Report: Satellite Broadband’s Long Journey to Bridge the Digital Divide.

US carriers spend big on C-band spectrum. In the eagerly anticipated sale, total outlay for frequencies in the 3.7 GHz to 3.98 GHz range came to more than $95 billion, including clearing costs (see Insight Report: US Carriers Update on Strategy Following Crucial C-Band Auction). Verizon was by far the biggest spender at $53 billion as it scooped more than half the available airwaves. The size of the investment inevitably raised eyebrows, but this was a vital win to address the carrier’s alarming lack of mid-band spectrum that had seen it lose ground to rivals in 5G.

Rakuten sets up new business unit, Symphony. Unveiled in August, Symphony comprises Rakuten’s telecom products, services and solutions. The trailblazing operator expects it to support other operators in their transition to Open RAN and is understood to have already signed headline-stealing deals with German new entrant 1&1 and Dish Network. A move to make Symphony a standalone company, culminating in an eventual IPO, also appears on the cards.

Operators band together on new eco-rating scheme for phones. The initiative from a quintet of leading European providers aims to offer information at point of sale to help people find and compare the most sustainable devices. Factors including durability, recyclability and repairability are taken into consideration. This year has seen operators step up efforts to bolster their environmental credentials, with many announcing targets to become carbon neutral and to increase their use of renewable energy.

Telecom operators get help from external investors on network roll-out. In 2021 we’ve seen operators embrace new investment models to share the financial burden of fibre and 5G network deployment. KPN, Vodacom and O2 Germany are among a growing group to join hands with players from outside the telecom sector.

European operators throw their weight behind Open RAN. Open RAN was never far from the headlines in 2021. In January, leading operators committed to accelerate momentum for the technology and called for state support to harness its development. Open RAN has also been thrown into the political spotlight amid efforts by governments seeking technology leadership and to remedy bans on Huawei. But not all operators are fully convinced; some point to the potential for higher costs and greater complexity. For our detailed assessment of the Open RAN strategies of leading European operators, see our report Open RAN: The Long Journey from Supporting Act to Lead Role.

Mergers and acquisitions remain hot. Deal-making and consolidation provided a constant stream of news in 2021. In the UK, French billionaire Patrick Drahi took an 18% stake in BT, a move that could be the prelude to a full takeover. Among a flurry of other deals, Orange completed its acquisition of a 54% stake in fixed-line operator Telekom Romania Communications, Iliad bought UPC Poland from Liberty Global, Ooredoo and CK Hutchison finally agreed to merge in Indonesia and private equity investors took over T-Mobile Netherlands.

I’d love to get your thoughts on this round-up. Reach out on Twitter and tell me your favourite telecom headlines of 2021.

Stay tuned for another busy year in 2022. But for now, happy holidays!