In its latest groundbreaking benchmarking study to identify the movers and losers in telco innovation, ABI Research has concluded that Asian telcos are leaders in innovation, followed by U.S. Tier Ones: AT&T and Verizon. European telcos are perceived as laggards in the innovation game, with DT, Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone distant followers of China Mobile, NTT Docomo, Softbank and KDDI which are even ramping up their efforts to foster innovation. ABI Research has assessed patent portfolios, standards contributions, open source involvement, acquisitions, investments and R&D spend to accurately benchmark innovation efforts for a list of top-20 operators worldwide.

“Although many telcos complain that they find it difficult to foster innovation internally, our Telco Innovation Benchmark Study indicates that they are actually spending a minimum effort compared to vendors and web-scale companies,” said Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI Research. “At the same time, Asian telcos–namely NTT Docomo and China Mobile–have the highest scores across the board, indicating they are investing for the long-term and understand that 5G will require expertise outside their traditional connectivity domain.”

An even more important aspect of the two leading Asian telcos is that they are ramping up their efforts to develop, acquire and invest in UnTelco areas. ABI Research refers to UnTelco as business opportunities beyond connectivity, where telcos aim to address enterprise verticals and become much more than simple connectivity providers.  For example, 20 percent of NTT Docomo’s recent patent holdings are in the non-connectivity domain, and China Mobile is ramping up its efforts to acquire UnTelco patents: more than 35 percent of its recent patent acquisitions are in the non-connectivity domain. European telcos meander around the 10 percent mark.

“UnTelco expertise will become vital as 5G is deployed, and failure to become an innovation leader is equal to becoming, at best, a spectator of Asian and U.S. leaders and, at worst, prey to disruptors among web-scale companies and technology suppliers,”  Mavrakis explains. “European telcos should invest more efforts to build up expertise internally and become innovation hubs, rather than living under the shadow of their technology partners’ wings. UnTelco business models must be bulletproofed today, long before 5G is ubiquitous, and this will give a massive competitive boost to telcos who choose to act fast.”