Software-Defined Networking and the Telco Identity Crisis

Ericsson CTO Ulf Ewaldsson proposed a forward-looking strategy for Telco networks in an open, over-the-top world during his opening keynote at this week’s Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam. The upshot is to imbue Telco networks with OSS/BSS-based and IMS-based services that are accessible to third party development. This concept aligns with Ericsson’s recent OSS/BSS acquisition strategy, but it isn’t wholly new. The idea of creating network-as-a-service API platforms has been touted for some time by companies like Aepona and Apigee. And the entire OSS/BSS space has clamored for more time in the spotlight, spinning what were once back office capabilities as value-added money-makers. But what this all comes back to is complexity versus simplicity, and that’s a game the Telco industry as been losing for years.

It’s curious that Ewaldsson evoked IMS in his vision, presenting it as exposing sets of capabilities to which developers want access. IMS is incredibly complex and it enables what are essentially infrastructure services. IMS deals with things like complex inter-networking; facilitating communication between SIP and POTS; exchange of subscriber data as it relates to network services; and online and offline charging. This is an engineering spec designed for engineers. It doesn’t speak the language that software developers creating mash-ups – even enterprise-grade mash-ups – tend to understand or want to tackle.

Making Telco network and OSS/BSS capabilities relevant to OTT developers is likely to require a change in approach and language. The industry will need to present simpler APIs that are documented in accessible ways. There will also need to be better collaboration and support between Telcos and developers to make this work. In an ideal world, that will all happen. But it seems like if it was going to happen, it would have already. Part of the reason companies ranging from Google to Twilio have been successful is because they’ve done things in open, simple ways that Telcos have always had the opportunity to do but have largely failed to do – or have failed to do in ways that are accessible to code jockeys who drive a lot of basic service innovation in the OTT and App worlds.

As a counterpoint to this perspective, however, the big money is in enterprise. This past week a major partnership and collaboration was announced between AT&T and IBM in cloud services. In this instance, we see the kind of collaboration Ewaldsson was talking about coming to life. AT&T wants to give IBM and its hosting and storage customers the keys to access a lot of the intelligent things its networks can do. In IBM’s case, it can speak Telco. IBM has engineers who can handle the complexity and turn it into tangible services.

So this brings us back to another question – Is it worth doing the work to dumb down Telco networks in order to please the consumer-facing code jockeys? Or does it make more sense to stay focused on enterprise customers and partnerships and, in a sense, stay at home in Telco-speak and chase larger deals? This is a question of Telco identity; whether to be an entertainer, an industrialist, or somehow both.

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About Edward Finegold 122 Articles
Ed is now Director, Strategy for NetCracker. Previously, for 15 years he was a reporter, analyst and consultant focused on the OSS/BSS industry and a regular contributor to BillingViews.

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