Top 10 Telecom Stories of 2023

It’s been yet another busy year in the telecom world. As 2023 draws to a close, the time has again come for me to share my top stories of the past 12 months. You can also check out my previous reviews of 2022, 2021 and 2020.

2023 was another challenging year as shareholders fretted over return on investment and operators announced deep job cuts. The tone was set at MWC, which raised concerns about the health of the sector.

Despite a challenging macroeconomic backdrop, operators’ financial results have been robust. And encouragingly, I’ve finally noted a gradual shift in mind-set from some, becoming more open, agile and willing to partner. This augers well as we move into 2024.

Here are my top 10 stories, in no particular order. Let me know if you think I missed any!

AT&T Announces $14 Billion Plan to Deploy Open RAN

The news — confirmed earlier this month — represents a massive win for Ericsson, which was installed as the lead supplier. However, it’s a devastating blow for rival Nokia, which will be left with a limited radio access network presence in North America having also lost a major 5G contract at Verizon about three years ago to Samsung. Other technology suppliers confirmed by AT&T include Corning, Dell Technologies, Fujitsu and Intel. By late 2026, AT&T expects that 70% of its mobile traffic will flow across open-capable platforms.

Vodafone Confirms the Sale of Its Spanish Operation

Vodafone’s retreat had been on the cards since it placed the market under a “strategic review” earlier in the year. Spain has long dragged Vodafone’s financial performance because of its intense market competition and low returns. Its exit can be traced back to its failure to secure a deal with rival operator, MasMovil. It lost out to Orange which formed a joint venture now being scrutinized by the European Commission.

GSMA Launches Open Gateway

The initiative was announced to much fanfare at MWC as the telecom industry renewed its efforts to better engage with the developer community (see Insight Report: MWC 2023: Telecom Operators). The move was long overdue: Apple and Google created the app economy over a decade ago by unlocking the capability of mobile devices through APIs. Since then, operator collaborations aimed at courting developers have mostly been unsuccessful.

In an update in November, the GSMA said that nearly 40 mobile operator groups representing 228 mobile networks and 64% of global connections were part of Open Gateway. For CCS Insight’s detailed analysis of operators’ efforts to court developers see Insight Report: Operators Open Networks in Renewed Bid to Lure Developers.

SK Telecom Seeks Transition to an AI Company

The forward-thinking South Korean operator has put artificial intelligence (AI) at the heart of its strategy. This year, it made several important investments, notably into Google-backed Anthropic, which is developing its own generative AI platform called Claude. In August, SK Telekom — along with Deutsche Telekom, e& and Singtel — formed the Global Telco AI Alliance, which aims to jointly develop new AI-powered business models.

e& Moves into Eastern Europe

The ambitious Middle Eastern operator bought a controlling stake from PPF Group in its telecom units in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia for an initial €2.2 billion. The move represents the latest stage of its geographic expansion plans. To read our detailed analysis of e&’s strategy, see Insight Report: Etisalat’s New Brand Identity Set to Spearhead Expansion.

EE Launches “New EE”

The move is part of a strategy to push into new areas beyond connectivity and become more relevant to customers. The centrepiece of New EE is a digital platform, featuring EE ID. This enables customers to manage the services they take from EE in a single place. A leading goal for the operator is to become a top-three retailer in the UK consumer electronics market, a bold ambition that would place it in direct competition with the likes of Amazon and Currys.

The launch of New EE is being supported by EE’s biggest marketing campaign since it debuted the brand in 2012 and will take a more targeted approach. See here to read our detailed assessment of New EE.

Telecom Italia Agrees to Sell Its Fixed-Line Network Assets

In November, Telecom Italia accepted a bid of over €18 billion from private equity firm KKR for its fixed-line network assets. The move could help resolve a long-running ownership saga, but the threat of legal action from major shareholder Vivendi may yet derail the deal.

Telecom Italia’s motivation is to reduce debt, part of the strategy outlined by CEO Pietro Labriola in 2022 to effectively split the operator into two separate entities, a “netco” and a “servco”.

Vodafone and Three Confirm Their UK Merger

The long-awaited deal was finally announced in June, promising an £11 billion network investment plan over 10 years. The operators will hope this is enough to convince the Competition and Markets Authority to allow the deal to go ahead. But it faces a tough battle; a lengthy review process will scrutinize how it could affect customer choice, innovation, pricing and service quality. A decision is unlikely either way until at least autumn 2024 (see Vodafone and Three Merger: Six Months On, Where Does It Stand?).

Verizon Launches myPlan

The US carrier made the move in May after a spate of consumer customer defections to rival T-Mobile US. Hailing a breakthrough in mobile pricing, the new tariff enables customers to select the features they want, instead of signing up for one-size-fits-all offerings. Optional perks include content from Apple TV and Disney+, priced at an additional $10 per month, alongside Verizon cloud storage and a loyalty programme from retailer Walmart. In September, Verizon added another option to the plan called Unlimited Ultimate, priced at $90 per month. It includes mobile hot spot data, more international data and extras such as discounts on smartwatches.

Investors Move on European Operators

Depressed share prices have presented an opportunity for some investors to buy stakes in European operators. In May, French billionaire Patrick Drahi upped his stake in BT to 24.5%, although he insists that he doesn’t intend to make an offer for the entire company. In Spain, Saudi company STC took a 9.9% stake in Telefonica, but the deal is in doubt because of government concerns over protecting Spanish business interests and national security. Meanwhile, e& nudged up its stake in Vodafone to 14.6% and Xavier Niel acquired a 6% stake in Belgium’s Proximus.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with my top stories. How many would make it into your top 10?

I’m sure 2024 will be every bit as action-packed, and I look forward to sharing further insights. In the meantime, happy holidays! We’ll be back in the new year.