The twin tracks of innovation in telecoms IT

TMForum Live is the biggest annual conference and exhibition for suppliers of what we used to call telecoms OSS/BSS (operations support systems / business support systems) – in other words, the network management and IT systems that enable telecom network operators and service providers to run their businesses.

But here’s a strange thing. The TM Forum is increasingly moving away from its telecoms roots and into other areas where it sees an opportunity to do the things it is good at: bringing people together, defining business and industry models and technical architectures, creating or contributing to industry standards, and providing a proven approach to setting up and running collaborative projects to develop proofs of concept (it calls these PoC projects Catalysts).

It’s not that the TM Forum has decided that telecoms OSS/BSS is dying (though some would argue that this is exactly what is happening, as the virtualization of telecoms networks means a radically different way of managing those networks) but rather that it is looking for a way to extend its relevance – just as some of its members are. It believes that many more industries, as they become “digitalized”, will have a need for the types of software that has worked well in telecoms – in particular, to deal with the collection, aggregation, processing, analysis and use of large volumes of real-time data, and with the real-time management and control of large numbers of connected things.

So are OSS/BSS vendors developing new products and new markets? Are they selling to new customers? Are they innovating? Well, yes and no. Some are doing this more than others. In fact, the telecoms IT innovation I saw at TM Forum Live in May was, in my opinion, of two types:

  • Evolving, or in some cases, creating new products to deal with the big changes happening within telecoms network operation and service delivery
  • Creating new offers for other industries based on what works in telecoms.

Twin tracks of telecoms IT innovation

An example of the first type of innovation is the way that the level of a telecoms service is assured, through monitoring the performance of the network elements from which that service is delivered. When these network elements were all physical hardware, and changing the service meant a change to that hardware, monitoring performance was not particularly time-critical. Some services took a long time to provision, with manual intervention required through multiple systems. Data could easily be collected from those elements and analysed (including by combining the data with other contextual data, for instance on the customers using the service) to produce dashboards showing the state of the service performance in many different ways, enabling remedial action to be taken, or to show pattern or location of problems.

But with network functions virtualization (NFV), the resources on which services are delivered are virtual, and can be turned up or down, on servers in multiple locations, very quickly to respond to changing network conditions or service user demands. The monitoring and analysis of service performance is suddenly much harder, involving collecting data from different types of resource in different places, and with much more of an emphasis on doing things in real-time.

Two companies that have responded to this challenge are Centina Systems and Ontology. Both have developed solutions that can deal with the collection of relevant performance data from both physical and virtual environments (and hybrid environments – which are likely to exist for a long time) and model and analyse it in real time so that action can be taken immediately; or that allow predictive analytics to identify where problems may occur before the service user knows about them.

Organisational and cultural innovation

The second type of innovation is as much an organisational and cultural one for vendors as a technical one – though there are technical challenges too. With a few exceptions, the telecoms IT sector has a long history of failure in selling its products to anyone other than telecom operators and service providers. For instance, vendors of telecom billing systems have generally failed to sell their products even to organisations (such as power and water utilities, transportation and financial service companies) with very similar requirements for reliable systems capable of dealing with very large volumes of transaction data, and turning that data into the basis for a charge to a customer. But a combination of factors – the most significant of which is that organisations in other sectors are now looking for support as they change – means there is more of an opportunity.

Partnerships, trials and examples are absolutely critical here: the big transitions being made by many industries to a more connected, digitalized way of doing business are profound, and the investment risks are large (sometimes so large they are underwritten or supported by governments or regulators, as in the case of the smart energy grids).

The wealthiest companies will probably look to strategic technology advisers and IT giants like PwC, Deloitte or IBM, but smaller players may not know where to start. Here, the role of example and proof of concept really comes into its own – and it is where the TM Forum and other similar organisations – can make an impact.

One example of a telecoms OSS/BSS company that is using a partnership and PoC approach to open up a new market is Infonova, a subsidiary of the technology advisory company BearingPoint. It is working with BT, Huawei, Cloudsoft, the UK city of Milton Keynes and others to develop a way to add service-level management on top of systems already put in place. This will enable the creation of smart city applications (and to explore how money might be made from services with different tiers of service associated with those applications).

In the example demonstrated at TM Forum Live, a smart parking application that made available data on the number of parking spaces available was translated into a service that offered various levels of up-to-dateness of the data. So for instance, an individual or company might be offered free-space information once a day, or once an hour or once a minute, depending on the use it may have for that data, and how the city authority might want to provide or sell that data. Of course, parking space data is simply used here as an example of the application that could be created through the data collected and aggregated in a smart city: the new idea that the proof of concept was testing was the creation of multi-level tiers of data service. The same underpinning IT systems can, of course, measure how well those different service levels are being met, and compensate buyers if they are breached. Sensors in smart city or Internet of Things applications are not 100% reliable; this service level management concept will be important for any commercialisation of smart city or IoT data.

Infonova’s part in the demonstration is as the provider of a multi-tenant data monetization platform to BT, which has then developed the specific services on top of the platform. Infonova’s R6 platform encompasses many of the functions needed to build and monetize services – from holding a catalogue of the assets and managing the orders for specific services, through to billing for the service. Mostly it is used for telecoms services, but it has also been used in water service management, road tolling, banking and in the automotive sector. Infonova’s status as a BearingPoint company has enabled it to be one of the telecoms OSS/BSS companies that has successfully diversified.

The company is confident that by building an ecosystem of partners around it with expertise in integration into different commercial contexts, further opportunities for the platform outside telecoms are significant.

It is this type of partner-based approach that will be fundamental to the digital services market innovation that is a great prize for telecoms IT vendors.

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