The Shifting Role of Telcos in Silicon Valley

Author: Derek Kerton, Chairman at the Telecom Council


The world’s leading phone companies started showing up in Silicon Valley around the turn of the century. At that time, circuit-switched telecom networks were evolving quickly towards an IP-based upgrade, and Silicon Valley networking companies were becoming increasingly relevant. As the hotbed of Internet innovation, the Valley was seen as important to the content that would start to appear on phones via the nascent mobile web.


  • At that time the role of the local telecom operator offices was threefold:
  • Scout and report on important relevant tech, trends, and startups
  • Find partnerships or tech that should be adopted
  • Engage locally with these companies, meeting them, evaluate suitability, screening them, and validating their claims
  • Occasionally, invest in these startups


But over time, these roles have changed. The very think that motivated telcos to come to Silicon Valley, the Internet, has changed the nature of their jobs. Today, the roles of “learning” or “scouting” have become “location-less”, and being in SV is less important. Any SV company worth its salt has websites, white papers, and cloud demos for world-wide discovery. Databases of startups make it easier to search from afar, and incubators like 500 startups promote their portfolio companies around the world. Conferences, once essential to keeping up to date on technology or trends, are in slow decline due to substitution by webinars, online courses, Analyst Reports, the WWW, or just straight-up Wikipedia.


What all of this means is that, for the field office still in Silicon Valley, the role has shifted more “downstream”, away from just finding these partnership opportunities which could then be tossed to head office, and more into handling the early interactions, championing them internally, and having an ongoing role in technical development and long-term relationships.


Also, as the tech business environment has become less of a “supply chain” and more of a webbed ecosystem, the local representatives are relying more on multi-directional relationship building, not just with startups that they funnel to head office, but with peers, business alliances, and tech partnership players. They play roles not just in the initial stages of partnership, but throughout the long partnership lifetime.


There are many levels of human interaction in business and tech. There’s remote, nearby and in-person, then there’s leveraging deep relationships throughout the ecosystem. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the latter relationships make partnership and collaboration significantly smoother, even more so if language, culture, and time-zone barriers exist on the remote side. (A remote cooperation between Vancouver, Canada and Silicon Valley will be far simpler than Guangzhou and SV.) For those longer reaches, the local presence adds tremendous leverage.


So, this is where we are. At the Telecom Council, we’ve spent two decades at the juncture between large global telcos, and Silicon Valley tech companies. We’ve made an effort to shift with the times. But ultimately we were lucky enough to have started in the right place. The Telecom Council was never actually built around learning, lectures, or conferences. We have always presented our get-togethers as “Meetings”, where connections are made, but also peer relationships built. The content has always been interesting, but its role has been to filter the right audience into the room. And we’ve always tried to provide specific value to both the startups and the giants that attend. We are shifting with our Members, though, and increasing our focus on the human-relationships and the peering aspects of what they do for their parent companies. We have grown our 1-v-1 matchmaking tool to ensure meaningful, screened, engagements, and we’re returning to our roots in the SPIF, with specific time dedicated to peers discussing (not lecturing) the tech and business issues of the day.


If you’ve never experienced a Telecom Council meeting, check out the calendar and join us.  What you’ll discover is a different kind of business gathering, focused on the connections that can move our industry forward.


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