Azenby is 10 !

Azenby is now 10 years old and how better to celebrate our anniversary than to take a look back at all the events and triumphs of our brief history. This is our very own ‘news at ten.’

In 2012 a few of us got together and explored whether there might be an opportunity for a smallish, specialist, experienced consultancy in the mobile space. Having all worked in mobile telcos for many years, we had our own view on consultants, but we decided to carry on anyway! Some of us had been working on as one-man consultants and others were fresh out of a mobile network operator. A couple of us had had a number of years working in larger global consulting houses and so we thought that we had a good mix of capabilities, knowledge, and real coalface experience to make us stand out. 

We felt good that between us we covered nearly all the bases: engineering, operations, project management, marketing, product management, wholesale, customer services, IT, procurement, and new service integration. We didn’t see any other boutique consulting house of our size and we felt we were a particularly good fit for those clients looking for a mobile consultancy with the breadth, depth, back-up and responsiveness we would be offering; quite apart from the fact that our clients would not have to pay eye-wateringly expensive consulting fees typical of the large firms. To make sure we were always going to provide best value to our clients, we decided early on not to spend money on offices and staff. 

Looking back, we were years ahead of our time! Working from home in a virtual environment and using conferencing to communicate. That said, one of our other beliefs was to carry out assignments sitting in our clients’ offices, being on hand to help them and also to listen intently and learn.

Our first ‘strategy’ session. The line-up has changed a bit over the years. This big question of the day being; what do we call ourselves!

Our first think tank session was held above the Whisky Society in Greville Street, London. At this session we shaped the company and worked on how we would translate our beliefs into an operational company and also how we would brand ourselves. A lot of debate, but honestly no whisky, went into coming up with a strap line that, when all the other fancy options were discarded was simple enough, Mobile is our Thing. No getting away from it, if anyone wanted to know what we do, “mobile is our thing” was the answer. We decided against Mobile is our Thing Consulting Ltd though! Having gone through three complete packets of post-it notes we weren’t getting any closer to producing a company name that we all liked. 

Progress was so slow that at one point we were remarkably close to calling ourselves Greville Associates simply because we were in Greville Street, but we knew we could do better, so we persevered.  We were looking for a name that was clean, elegant, short and memorable. We also favoured names as near to “A” as possible.  Out came the A to Z of London and despite the immediate feeling of trepidation from the sheer number of roads in London, Azenby quickly emerged as the name we had been seeking and the rest is history.  The choice was actually based on some solid thinking from our brand guru, but there were also a couple of nice coincidences that made it clear Azenby was right for us.  It turned out that our chairman knew Azenby Road as he told us: “It’s in Peckham – my son has a flat there.”  “Peckham?” said our newly elected CEO.  “I was born in Peckham”.  We couldn’t ignore these happy coincidences could we? 

This is to simplify things somewhat and doesn’t do justice to the whole process our then brand Guru, Julia put us through. In fact, Julia insisted that the first blog we published should tell the story of our branding (and in a much better way than we just did above). For those interested in branding and marketing of tech companies the blog is here.

2012

10 years is a very, very long time in mobile. Looking back today and thinking  about the landscape in 2012, so much has changed and yet so much looks the same. Mobile World Congress was held at the Fira de Barcelona Montjuïc that year before the move to the Fira de Barcelona Gran Via, (without the much-promised metro link being ready). The move was all about providing more space and the new venue was 50 per cent larger which the GSMA had no problem filling out. Mobile was still booming in 2012 even though the economic backdrop was about downturns, credit crunches and declining mobile revenues. The theme of congress that year was Redefining Mobile. It was left to each of us to decide exactly what mobile was actually being redefined to or as some cynics – and there were many – were heard whispering: “redefining mobile – as a utility!” Although we felt that mobile was continually redefining itself and always will, there was a real feel of a wind-of-change in the air. 

3G had been rolled out but the early, much hyped, optimism of new services and revenues had evaporated. It seemed the one lesson learnt above all else from 3G was the need for better, more thorough and more rigorous business cases behind technology upgrades. The talk in 2012 was then all about LTE, possibly because the mobile world wanted to forget 3G and hope that things would be different with LTE. There were also cold winds blowing into conference from the new exhibition hall called App World. It was the time Apps went mobile and the mobile operators were beginning to realise that if they were not careful, their shiny new LTE networks might turn out to be the ideal platform for those with the aspiration to eat the operators’ lunch. Would the Apps be the catalyst for growing mobile revenues?  Or would they bring new services over-the-top of the carrier and take the lion’s share of the new revenues that LTE promised. Indeed, Eric Schmidt announced at congress that “there will be an Android in every pocket.” The writing was on the wall but not all industry readers could decipher it.

The focus on the device market had now fully moved to smartphones. Apple had only got as far as the iPhone 5, and there was no LTE in that, but this did mean that Nokia’s dominance of the phone market was already waning. In terms of overall global device market share, including feature phones and budget phones, Nokia were still the leaders. To bolster high-end device sales, Nokia launched the 808 PureView, a new phone with an impressive 41-megapixel camera. This was early in the era of a camera with a mobile phone included and at the time the iPhone 4 had a relatively paltry 5-megapixel camara. Where did it all go wrong for Nokia? Well, the Nokia device ran on Symbian if you need a clue.

Meanwhile, although SMS was still the king of messaging, the mobile operators knew a refresh was required and a little late and with limited enthusiasm backed the Rich Communications Suite (version 5!) as the answer. Oh dear! Door left open; WhatsApp jumped in.

To compound matters, the EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda at the time, Neely Kroes, was certainly the bête noire of the MNOs and told operators in no uncertain terms that reducing roaming charges and termination rates are still the big issue for the industry. Vodafone CEO, Vittorio Colao, made a call for the EU to: “Get on board and help create jobs by supporting mobile in Europe.” 

Kroes was unmoved and issued a robust statement in reply. Specifically called “A message to Vittorio and Vodafone,” she said that she was: “Calling Vodafone’s bluff,” “Takes the side of the Vodafone customer” and “Doesn’t respond well to threats.” We all know who won this battle – roaming rates continued to be driven down to the delight of consumers but leaving the operators scratching their heads and wondering how to make their sums add up.

To summarise the mood of the times, MNOs were concerned about falling revenues and the cost base of networks being too high, putting pressure on margins and EBITDA. Some could see that the business cases for LTE were being threatened by regulation, OTT services and painful spectrum charges. Many operators knew that the time had come for radical measures to reduce operating costs and future capex. Active RAN sharing was gaining momentum and that was exceptionally good news indeed for Azenby because our Chairman, Emin Gürdenli, had been the driving force for the world’s first large-scale active RAN share (between T-Mobile and Three) in the UK. Other operators looked at this experiment and saw not only a massive saving in network costs but also a big uplift in network coverage by picking the best sites from two networks. The world was ready for network sharing and Azenby was ready to help. We cut our early consulting teeth on RAN-share assignments, and this took us all over the world. We were up and running!

Our work over the last ten years

We’ve done a lot of varied work over the last ten years and our assignments have taken us around the world, from Australia to the Middle East, Africa, the USA, India, and Kazakhstan to name just a few countries. We have worked with mobile Service Providers, MVNOs, equipment manufacturers, regulators, transport authorities, law firms, trade associations and even government agencies. We have surprised ourselves sometimes how varied our client base became.

To increase our depth and breadth of capabilities, we have also been proud to assemble a group of Associates who we have been able to call upon when needed to provide additional specialist expertise and capacity when needed. This has allowed us to cover even more bases and to give better language and geographical reach. We are honoured to list our Associates as part of our valued team

We have given our passports a good pounding having worked now in thirty different countries, and we have hit the half-century of clients as well. What is it that has kept us so busy? It’s been a mixture of things. We certainly have a rich vein of expertise and experience across the mobile network space, but we wouldn’t ever contemplate telling a client we know more about their business than they do. If we were to put our finger on why our customers came to us and returned to us, we would sum it up along these lines. 

Over the last 20 years the industry has been through some severe right sizing of staffing needs and part of this process has included the outsourcing of many disciplines, particularly in engineering and operations. 

Consolidations have occurred from initiatives such as infrastructure sharing right through to complete mergers. Mobile operators in particular have optimised their in-house resources around their strategic imperatives including dealing with new technology upgrades. What we have found over the years is that some have underestimated  resource requirements needed to deal with the more routine operational and engineering processes and projects. Often these are one-off pieces of work, like a RAN share project, an outsourcing process, a renewal of an outsourcing contract for example. 

Getting these done efficiently, reliably, and affordably, has been a central plank of the value we have brought to the industry. Filling a gap to enable  an urgent piece of work is part of our value proposition.

That’s not to say that all our work has been in this category. Far from it. We are very proud of the work we did with one European based broadband and ISP who wanted to enter the mobile market from scratch. This client had a lot of business expertise and entrepreneurial drive but, not surprisingly, they had no mobile networking expertise. We were trusted to help this client produce a rigorous and robust business plan that had to be approved by a very active and inquisitive board. Having decided to proceed we were central in the engineering design, selection of host MNO and contracting of services. Knowledge transfer was an important part of our remit and as the client started to bring on their own resources we worked very closely with them for a successful hand over. This MVNO is now one of the largest is Europe and growing at an impressive rate. We are very proud to have been an important part of its early development.

As we mentioned earlier, Network sharing agreements around the world have been one of our main specialities over the last 10 years. Two, three and even four-way sharing with a range of technologies and commercial models have produced numerous challenges, but it is always good to see projects mature that we helped direct and set off on the right path. We have also been asked to get involved with sharing arrangements that have already gone wrong, helping to tackle the tricky issues and get things back on track. 

Procurement of technical equipment and services is always fraught with danger for operators. You would have thought that as mobile networks mature around the world, a consistent model for the purchasing of equipment and services would have emerged. That it hasn’t, is testimony to the fact that whilst the ingredients necessary to set up and run a mobile network are well known, the procurement process used by each mobile operator tends to be different for a whole range of reasons that need to be understood on a case-by-case basis. The Azenby approach of working closely with operator teams to enhance and support the decision making and execution has proved highly successful across multiple markets. 

Without a doubt, one aspect of Mobile Operators’ business that has been a constant over the last 10 years has been to outsource various aspects of engineering and operations. These outsourcing arrangements have been another area in which we have been particularly active.  Sometimes it has been an all-new outsourcing initiative where our client has previously performed the function itself using in-house personnel. On other occasions, it has been a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation outsourcing arrangement where an existing contract is coming to an end.  In this latter case, the decision to renew or replace is important, but even more important is the need to use that moment to strengthen and improve the fundamental approach taken to the outsourcing.  In our experience, we have found more operators dissatisfied with the outcome of their earlier outsourcings, whether it be performance or costs or both, than satisfied. 

 We all know, mobile networks are complicated beasts, and the various vendors offering services have sales teams that can sometimes seem particularly skilled at telling a good story when they are pitching for work, but a totally different picture emerges  when the legal documentation appears, or the actual outsourced activity starts.  Often our role has been to hold vendors to account so that the pitch and the contract are consistent.  Beauty parades, rigorous site visits, detailed statements of requirements, and careful evaluation of written responses, have all been grist to our mill as we have helped various clients cut a clean path through the outsourcing jungle.  In recent years we have supported large European operators outsource and/or offshore various aspects of their operations activities from drafting tender documents, through vendor selection to transition of services.

We have also recently had some success in supporting government projects to improve rural coverage and helping to negotiate agreements between MNOs on how to deploy and operate shared networks to these areas.

Keeping an eye on the industry

We have posted frequent blogs on our web site over the years. Some of our blogs have been quite radical, others even foresaw the future, although most didn’t. In a very polite way, we disagreed with the way that moving the emergency services from TETRA to a public mobile system was being done. It’s been interesting to see from our original blog on the topic just how things have moved on in various countries in the last five years. I guess it is fair to say the UK is still using TETRA and looks like it will continue to do so until 2026!

We also couldn’t help blowing our own trumpet when one of founders received an OBE or for that matter when he also became a Fellow at ETSI. Then there is the small part we played in the mobile exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

The next 10 years

We have enjoyed our trip down memory lane but looking forward is what we do best. There is a good reason that car windscreens are large and rear-view mirrors are small. The important stuff is in front of us. Expecting the unexpected is something the mobile industry has always had to deal with but in today’s ultra-competitive fight for customers, new revenues and growth, there are often crucial tasks to be handled yet limited in-house resource available to get the jobs done. 

A trusted, independent, high expertise outfit like Azenby can be just what the doctor ordered – or CTO, COO, CFO or CEO come to that. Getting “must do” jobs done reliably and affordably is our trademark so if you have a problem, and you need it fixed quickly, you need the Azenby team. 

We’d love to hear from you so why not get in touch.

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