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6 October 2020

Microsoft announces Azure for Operators, but could sideline telcos

By Wireless Watch Staff

Microsoft made its ambitions in the 5G market very clear when it acquired its own core network technologies earlier this year, when it bought Metaswitch and Affirmed Networks. It was clear that these platforms could form the basis of a core-as-a-service offering for Microsoft’s enterprise base, potentially sidelining the operators themselves. But now Microsoft has also placed its new jewels at the heart of a pitch for operator partnerships, entitled Azure for Operators.

The aim is to offer Microsoft’s core functions and applications to customers, while working closely with operator partners for the connectivity. However, while this was initially seen as a reassurance to telcos that they would still have a key role in the value chain, Microsoft then announced an alliance with Samsung to create “an end-to-end, cloud-based private 5G network solution”. In this, the Microsoft core products will work with Samsung’s virtualized RAN and edge computing offerings, all implemented on the Azure cloud.

Nevertheless, Microsoft claimed in its announcement: “Today starts a new chapter in our close collaboration with the telecommunications industry to unlock the power of 5G and bring cloud and edge closer than ever. We’re building a carrier-grade cloud and bringing more Microsoft technology to the operator’s edge. This, in combination with our developer ecosystem, will help operators to future-proof their networks, drive down costs, and create new services and business models.”

In developing Azure for Operators, Microsoft worked with two telcos, Australia’s Telstra and Etisalat of the UAE. But it risks trying to be all things to all people – promising a more ‘carrier-grade’ cloud than AWS or Google where operators can deploy their virtualized networks, but also targeting enterprises and private networks, with partnerships like the Samsung deal, that could cut operators out altogether.

Wonil Roh, global head of product strategy for Samsung’s networks business, said in a statement: “We’re excited to be working with Microsoft to help enterprises transform the way they operate through next generation communications. Combining Samsung’s virtualized 5G solutions and Microsoft Azure cloud, we look forward to delivering a best-in-class 5G solution that advances opportunities in the private network sector.”

Like AWS, Microsoft brings many attractions to the party for operators, whether traditional telcos, or the emerging breed of private network and neutral host specialists which are targeting the 5G enterprise, enabled by cloud solutions. In particular, the webscalers have huge developer bases, something that has eluded most telcos, as well as high investments in machine learning to support many emerging 5G applications.

The initial partners for Azure for Operators include four conventional telcos – AT&T, Microsoft’s most strategic telco partner; Etisalat, Telstra and Verizon – as well as Accenture, Ascos, HPE, Intel, Mavenir, Red Hat, Samsung, Tech Mahindra, Tillman Digital Cities and VMware.

Jason Zander, EVP of Microsoft Azure, wrote in a blog post that Microsoft knows that not everything will move into the public cloud, and that’s why it will “meet operators where they are – whether at the enterprise edge, the network edge, or in the cloud”.