2014 CNBC Disruptor 50

Busting Telecom's Monopoly, App by App

Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com
Sam Edwards | Sam Edwards | Getty Images

There's nothing that makes life more difficult for a would-be disruptor than a capital intensive industry where the barriers to entry have astronomical dollar signs attached to them, keeping the market in the hands of the richest companies.

It's one thing to sell a widget online for cheaper than the store in the mall, make a news story go viral in a virtual world or take a consumer-facing industry into the mobile era. It's another to compete with companies that can afford to build multibillion-dollar fiber optic networks under cities and oceans.

Start-ups who want to play in the telecom game face the issue of carving out a niche without having the astronomical dollars of telecom giants to invest, or Wall Street banks from which to borrow huge sums.

As of late, the telecom sector has been booming along with the rest of the market. Bellwethers AT&T and Verizon Communications have seen rising stock prices, while Sprint Nextel has become a hotly contested acquisition target for Japan's SoftBank and Dish Network. The sector is projected to grow by 35 times in just five years. Current estimates for revenue generated by the global telecom industry range from $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion.

That's a lot of money up for grabs, but telecom has always been a "scale wins" industry limited to companies able to cost effectively scale their already huge businesses, even if they run up big debt loads, Sprint being a prime example.

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Google may be able to make a run at the broadband providers with its new Internet service now being test selected around the U.S., and Facebook has launched its own mobile phone and free instant messaging service, but how about an app creator who doesn't even have an office or listed phone number?

Start-ups are dialing up the pressure in the telecom market, causing disruption in a giant's world, and causing not just the telecom companies, but players like Google and Facebook to be reactive.

The telecom disruptors on CNBC's inaugural Disruptor 50 list are: Boku, Kymeta, LiveU, Twilio and WhatsApp. From a secretive app developer to a Bill Gates-funded start-up and a messaging service that claims to have more users than Twitter, the telecom industry disruptors are taking unique roads to breaking down the barriers and breaking into those big revenue streams of the legacy telecom players.

Bill Gates-funded Kymeta is working on a cost-effective, scalable satellite solution for continuous, high-quality broadband access anywhere in the world, including in transit situations, air, land and sea—it's already signed a deal with Inmarsat, a provider of mobile satellite technology to airlines.

LiveU has already disrupted traditional satellite broadcast, providing broadcast-quality video over cellular technology for live transmission in standard definition and high definition globally.

"Six years ago I went to a football game, and all I noticed were heavy satellite trucks outside. I started wondering why anyone would need this type of transmission when cellular data was coming of age. This is how LiveU started," said Avi Cohen, LiveU COO and co-founder.

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Mobile billing service Boku is an interesting case: a financial services disruptor operating in the telecom space. It's a bit of a departure, with its mobile billing service allowing customers to bypass the use of credit and debit cards to make online purchases and be billed as part of their mobile plan.

The company generated nearly $200 million in revenue last year from clients including Facebook, Walt Disney and Electronic Arts, and is signing up new mobile providers at a rapid pace.

Both LiveU and Boku have in common leveraging of the growth in cellular to upend the status quo in the communications sector.

The biggest disruption in telecom, though, may be coming through an individual mobile phone user's ease of communication. The app world is fast moving in on the telecom giants' turf.

For every Bill Gates-backed science project or new way for a major broadcaster to bypass the satellite dishes of yesterday when the Olympics, Oscars or Superbowl is on the calendar, there are at least two app developers whose user bases have exploded and are changing the way hundreds of millions of individuals across the globe communicate.

Twilio is a cloud-based platform that allows developers and businesses lacking any physical telecom infrastructure to create scalable communications systems. Twilio is up front about its goal, recruiting employees on its career page with this pitch: Come help it "disrupt a $1.3 trillion industry." Some of the market's biggest companies have adopted Twilio, including Home Depot, Sony, Wal-Mart's @WalmartLabs, Salesforce and eBay.

WhatsApp, a messaging app created by two former Yahoo executives, has become the No. 1 app in almost every country in the world. It allows users to avoid using their mobile plan by providing unlimited messaging all for the app's 99-cent price. WhatsApp claims to now have more users than Twitter and an executive at one of its venture capital backers, Sequoia Capital, was recently quoted as saying it could become a more relevant social media form than Facebook.

The app revolution has brought down the barriers to entry in the telecom space in a way never previously imaginable, though it's fitting that given the high cost of capital in telecom, WhatsApp and Twilio exist alongside a disruptor like Boku, piggybacking on the existing telecom infrastructure.

If you can't beat 'em in a hundred-billion-dollar-plus market cap world, join up with them, like Boku has done. In a $2 trillion annual revenue market, the disruption has just begun.

_By CNBC's Eric Rosenbaum.