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22 June 2021

Telcos must reduce internal friction to take on newcomers in 5G

Internal friction can inhibit innovation and blunt competitiveness in any sector and telecoms is no exception. On the other side of the coin, telcos also have the opportunity to prototype their own developments inhouse and fine-tune them before releasing them into the field, providing this is done selectively only in relevant areas without causing too much teething pain from unproven technologies.

Some of these points emerged from the latest CEO survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the world’s second largest services and accountancy group. The headline finding of its 24th such annual survey was that 83% of telco CEOs expect to be disrupted by direct or indirect competitors in the next five years.

These new competitors will be coming into what is almost a new area – critical enterprise mobile communications and especially private networks. Even in the traditional consumer sector, competition could emerge from the technology giants such as Apple, Google and Amazon, while exerting pressure at a time when revenue growth will be slow at best. MNOs therefore are looking to enterprises for growth and there they will face competition in particular from their own big customers themselves, in league with traditional mobile infrastructure companies and also major ICT companies such as IBM and HPE.

To meet these challenges, MNOs need both to anticipate longer term industry trends and become more reactive in the field, which as PwC has found will mean upgrading internal processes. This is not so much those operations that are totally inward facing such as payroll and human resources, although these may offer scope for cost-cutting, but the operational support systems and business support systems (OSS/BSS) that intersect with the customer-facing mobile services. Loosely, BSS embraces CRM (customer relationship management), billing and order processing, while OSS deals with network management and troubleshooting. They are therefore directly impinging on service changes and support for new use cases in the 5G era.

As PwC noted, these have become over-bloated and often excessively complex over time, accumulating baggage and redundant elements that can impede innovation and discourage major improvement around these ancient systems. There is the risk now that these systems will impede deployment of more flexible billing on systems-based usage or QoS driven by network slicing, rather than legacy subscription models.

There have, of course, been efforts to modernize these systems over the years and introduce more contemporary software design features that improve interoperability and reduce friction against enhancement. Some of these come under the broad heading of service-oriented architecture (SOA), which evolved in software engineering to enable more flexible interaction and communication between components or modules that can then be reused without having to be modified and retested individually.

SOA is, then, a distant successor of the original software design paradigm where applications comprised multiple sub-programs developed purely to serve the given task. The next stage of evolution brought libraries of routines that could be reused but were still static and did not enable cooperation between evolving software components in the field at a higher level. SOA brought in the concept of services as units of functionality that can be executed remotely and updated independently, such as retrieving a monthly mobile bill online. SOA elevated the process to be independent of vendor, product and technology, or was supposed to.

The key concept of the enterprise service bus (ESB) emerged under SOA, as the communication process between software components or functions. ESB in turn was really an evolution of the long-standing client-server model of computing that became predominant in the 1990s and on which the web grew. Under that model, tasks, workloads or processes were split between providers of the core service, the servers, and those components requesting the service as well as presenting it to users via the user interface, the clients.

ESB dissolves this distinction between clients and servers, allowing communication at the high application level between all components on a more flexible basis and not just one-to-one. It was designed to facilitate more complex enterprise application integration.

However, the PwC survey found that among many telco BSS/OSS systems, the modernization around SOA with creation of ESBs had not been performed in a coherent and consistent way, leading to many redundancies and unnecessary complexity.

The report urges operators to redesign their OSS/BSS systems to prepare for more flexible service provision and billing, although is rather vague about how this should be done.

The report is correct on two related counts, however. Firstly, it points out that further evolution of enterprise software development towards software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) presents a natural break point for such system redesign, which would reap rewards in efficiency and agility.

SDN separates higher level network control from the underlying functions such as routing data between nodes and imposing security constraints through firewalls. NFV then executes those lower-level functions and in turn separates them from the underlying hardware so that they can be virtualized and allow use of commodity off the shelf components where applicable. In the BSS/OSS context, SDN operates on a plane above SOA, managing information flows, while NFV executes the processes deriving and making use of this data.

As PwC argues, this will help enable a move away from usage-based billing to simpler charging models, and will then position 5G networks to act as the foundation for an effectively infinite array of third party services, many yet undreamed-of. “We argue that the way to achieve all this is by combining SDN and NFV to bring technology and business functions together in an integrated manner. In a 5G world, we think that’s the future of BSS/OSS—and therefore the future of the telecom operator,” said PwC in the report.

The second point is that this realignment will help operators exploit new demands for mobile communication, some ushered in or accelerated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has boosted remote working generally but PwC gives the example of telemedicine and the rise of online consultations with doctors via mobile phone as an important use case to emerge.

This has created demand for robust communications with easy exchange of images, and support for ultra-HD video. This instance, “opening up the prospect of real time connectivity between doctors and patients being included in the BSS provisioning process for 5G networks”, is one example cited in a recent joint publication from PwC and the World Economic Forum, ‘The Impact of Mobile Technology on the Response to Covid-19’.

The main point of the report was that common requirements for such services will be high bandwidth, flexibility and simplicity in the underlying network, enabled by a redesigned BSS/OSS platform.