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Have we passed the Telecom Event Horizon?

Last week’s discussions at the Light reading event on OSS and NFV/SDN were interesting and lively. However, for all the discussion at the event about the new software/digital economy I couldn’t help feeling the event was familiar.  Allowing for changes in the names of vendors and on architectural block diagrams, this could have been any OSS/BSS conference from the last 15 years. Maybe a customer’s WAN would now be delivered a bit quicker but fundamentally a telecom operator’s customer was still being expected to directly order services which would be instantiated on a now virtualised set of network resources. A centralised operations centre would meanwhile assure the virtual network and monitor the customer experience, now augmented with big data analytics. NFV/SDN appeared to be yet one more opportunity for the re-boot of TMF eTOM architectures.

Telecom operators naturally place the network and themselves as central to a customer problem; whether it’s delivering the critical mobile phone call or creating an enterprise WAN. Yet in the last 15 years  a telco operator’s core products have moved from being central to a direct customer relationship to becoming peripheral add ons or hidden infrastructure to another’s ‘shiney’ products. For my teenage son a phone call has become a peripheral free add on to Snapchat. For an internet start up an ethernet data centre connection is the difficult slow part of participating in the public cloud.

The idea that network and its management can be created as software on demand seems to be changing very little about the fundamental business and operational model of a telecom operator and the architectures that support them. Yet it is possibly the critical capability that would enable an operator to become valued in the internet economy; countering commoditisation and marginalisation. If we continue to simply build virtual network as a replacement of physical networks and bolt this to the existing business and operational model we will miss the opportunity to really insert telecom operator value into the next wave of internet innovation. 5G and IoT’s 50B devices, are great opportunities to enable innovation. However, bolted onto the same telco operational and business model they are simply technology rather than something a customer will buy and value!

Are we already too late? Have we already passed the black hole event horizon, where the external world cannot see or care about our value added capabilities, our inevitable destination the singularity of being utility dumb pipe providers. Alternatively do we have one last chance to change trajectory and properly insert network software value into the internet economy, an economy where there is no network, BSS or OSS only software services and applications?