From Pipes to a Digital Platform Economy – TM Forum Live Nice 2017

The telecoms industry and its entourage descended on Nice for its annual brushing shoulders with the Cannes film festival in May. Apart from meeting with many senior telecoms and supplier contacts, it is a good barometer for what is happening in the industry. I chaired the Digital Platform Economy & API track on the opening day. Here are my reflections:

  • Platform is used almost as often as the word digital these days. Everyone claims to have a platform and to be building new business on top of one
  • Is the telecoms infrastructure a platform or, just what it says on the tin, infrastructure?
  • The extended telecoms and IT industries talk about their chips, set top boxes, mobile devices, networks and clouds being platforms – so is it a question of the platform of platforms similar to the cloud of clouds?
  • The virtualisation of network, storage and compute mean that the building blocks for these platforms are interchangeable from different players whatever their background as long as the appropriate north and south-bound APIs are available. And, as Microsoft and Ericsson pointed out, the TM Forum is working on building on this and the edge compute services under MEC to adapt the infrastructure to the digital platforms.
  • Given the lack of innovation coming out of the telcos in business terms, does Opensource and the API angle open the industry to the oft-mentioned 80% of innovation coming from outside the telecoms sector? Smart Pipe Solutions and Rocketspace certainly seemed to think so.
  • Industry-side presentations from GE Digital, American Express, Qualcomm, Accenture, FINTECH Circle and IBM all suggest that telecoms is more of a horizontal platform enabler and should make itself available on the terms of the different industries rather than vice versa as has been the case in the past. Furthermore, linking all of the business and financial transaction pieces needs to be seamless, if not invisible to the customer.

Nik Willetts was right in his keynote as the new CEO of the TM Forum when he said we are at a point of inflection. The digitally ambitious telco players need to radically adjust their offerings, culture and attitude to other industries to underpin the broader move to a digital platform economy. Other industries ‘assume’ that the connectivity will be there and there’s no guarantee of additional revenue for the telecoms sector. The somewhat curmudgeonly nature of telcos might just play into the future role of being a trusted, secure provider of additional services built around the Artificial Intelligence, analytics and machine learning that this brings to the digital table. Learning to partner at a range of levels and leveraging open APIs and all available tools to make the whole ecosystem work will be vital. 5G should not divert the telecoms industry from the need to continue to build out connectivity to extend people, homes, buildings and ‘Things’ as they all contribute to the network effect. The most important thing is to expose the connectivity and compute power at the right place, hence adapting the platform around the business as it follows its digital path. As Rocketspace said, a platform is where two variables come together, it is a meeting place where business is done. Facilitating, monitoring and helping this meeting in every way possible is a vital support role for the telecoms industry to undertake.

One final thought: Is the platform defined by the vendor and its technology or by the business or consumer using it? We must not fall into the traditional trap of defining things by technology. It is time to turn the technology into business.

Platforms will doubtless have their debut on November 30th at the Great Telco Debate 2017 in London. Watch this space for the agenda as debates and expert witnesses emerge. We will work with Nik and the Forum’s Digital Maturity Model to help calibrate the industry against these lofty goals.

You can also see the Tweets I posted whilst chairing the session @chr1slew1s #TMFlive.

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