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How should operators go digital?

2015.05.01 By Mohammad Hussain


Leveraging technology is fundamental to digital transformation but understanding customers and serving them exceptionally is at the heart of digital business. The TM Forum lists the following as the strategic pillars of digital business – business agility and rapid innovation, operational agility and effectiveness, IT and data-centricity, and customer-centricity. Keith Willetts, TM Forum Founder and board member, provides a glimpse of his digital vision for telco.

Beginning would be a good start

Communicate: How should operators transform into digital businesses?

Keith Willetts: First they have to start. A lot of operators are still thinking, “We’ve got time.” And the process of transformation, especially when you talk about cultural transformation, about the kind of people you employ, about how you promote and reward them, about how you treat them – these take time. In terms of getting your business more innovative, really figuring out the business you’re in, changing from long-term strategic planning to more of an experimentation kind of mindset, these things don’t happen overnight. The problem is markets can change overnight.

Getting the transformation timeline and the business defense or offense strategies in line are challenges most operators have. Go too fast and you are there before the market and end up spending lot of money. Get there too late and you don’t have a business. Most of the CEOs that I talk to are really grappling with, “How do I make change fast enough and how do I not get caught unawares by the likes of WhatsApp taking billions of dollars out of my business every year?”

Communicate:What impact does this have on the telco industry ecosystem and how can the digital services value chain be redefined by operators?

Willetts:The ecosystem has seen significant consolidation (over the last decade) on the supply side of telecom. Where there were hundreds of small companies there are now a few large ones. The same is starting to happen to the operators, where we have a thousand or so licensed operators in the world, typically three or four or five per country. Europe has 98 operators for a population maybe twice the size of the U.S., where they only have four. So, something is not right with the country-level of economies of scale.

But it goes more deeply than that. What do you do best? What do you do uniquely? And what does somebody else in the ecosystem do faster, cheaper, better than you can? It might be operations, for example. A lot of operators have partnered with Huawei to help run the network, or maybe billing operations. So, there’s probably more around the exploitation of the network in the creativity of all the applications that we’ve seen in the app stores. This is starting to be mirrored in applications for business. Now, the difficulty for most telecom operators is to really understand where the opportunities are moving, fast enough. Now partnering can be opening up APIs, opening up software-defined toolkits, software development toolkits, to allow people to come in and add that creativity. So, partnering in the ecosystem at the formal business-to-business outsource partnering-level or it can be opening up of the infrastructure for people to come in and look at the creative ways of revenue sharing. But, the Internet of things, the mushrooming of those things, and the need of business, all businesses, to digitize it create fantastic opportunities for operators, but you’ve got to grab it.

Communicate:How will digitization impact operations and what steps can operators take to prepare for this?

Willetts:I will talk a bit about agility. One of the keys to agility is being able to change what my network can do. Traditionally networks have been built and optimized to do a job, but increasingly we are looking at software-defined networking. Increasingly, we are looking at virtualization of the network in the same way we look at virtualization of the data center. I think they bring pretty profound operational implications in that there’s no real difference between the device at the end and the data center running the application and the storage pieces running on the network. They’re kind of morphing into one connected digital platform. So, we’re to say, “We’re telecom. We’re different. We’re going to do things quite differently. We’ve got to think all across the borders, particularly if those borders are the many players across the ecosystem. So, to deliver a great quality of experience to the customer, I can’t just say, “My bit works as well as the other guy’s.” So, I think the operations infrastructure, in a path-oriented, truly digital and truly soft model, changes pretty profoundly.

I think one of the biggest challenges we haven’t faced is how you migrate. Do I build the new world and cut people over to it? Do I slowly evolve my current world? Either way, we end up with some duality for a while, with old and new coexisting. Agility is the key. Simplicity is the key. The simpler you make your business, the simpler will be your operational infrastructure .

Who is ahead in the game?

Communicate:Is Huawei well-positioned in services as well?

Willetts:I do think so. In terms of the underlying network technology, you’re well established there. More and more you are providing the “as services” of one sort or another. Elsewhere in the value chain, a very interesting evolution might be not just a communications platform but an entire business platform, a go-to-market enterprise business platform. I think Huawei has a huge landscape to play in.

If you look back ten years, operators knew how to run their business. They just wanted technology to do things faster and cheaper. Today, they are much less certain of the business they are in or how to get there. So, the days of vendors saying, “Here is my box. Here is the feature/functionality. Here is the configuration. Mine is cheaper,” are on the way out. Wrapping your capabilities with consulting, with help and expertise and all those things are hugely valuable and vital. I see a number of software companies coming in, telecom companies coming in, all wrapping their product with business experience, excellence and support for, “What do I do next?”

Communicate:Can you share some examples from TM Forum members that you think are leading in this transformation to stay competitive in the digital economy?

Willetts:It’s difficult naming names of companies who are better than other people. As I said before, it’s about timing. Lots of operators are actually quite reticent in talking about what they are doing until they have done it. I tried to get people to republish a case-study handbook and usually they only let you publish it two or three years after it’s already working. But, a lot of the most interesting stuff that is going on is experimental; trying things and seeing what works, and not seeing things as a failure if it doesn’t work.

For example, I point to Telefónica as the company I think is getting its head around a lot of these issues. They created Telefonica Digital and then a year or so later they folded it in-house and everybody said that was a failure. No, it wasn’t. They were just experimenting in trying different things. So, at the new service-level, companies like Telefonica, AT&T, Verizon, China Mobile, South Korea Telecom, are all quite active, for example, depending on which area you are focusing.

In network, Deutsche Telekom is quite advanced in their thinking on software-defined networking and NFV. AT&T is as well. At the business operations level we are seeing creative things from Vodafone and Orange, as well as Telefónica. There have been some successes and some have not done quite so well. In the new enterprise-class operations, Telenor is quite advanced and Etisalat is very advanced. My heart goes out to those people who are prepared to try things and not be afraid of failure. Those guys that think that they can sit there and wait for all to happen and some magic will drop from sky are going to be very sadly let down.

Communicate:How do you see Huawei adding value to digitization?

Willetts:Well, Huawei has emerged as a critically-important player in enabling capability. I call it capability now, but five years ago I would have called it “enabling technology.” Of course the technology is important. Increasingly we have seen Huawei deliver of capability as a service.

Essentially every business in the world is going towards digital business. There are opportunities for telecom operators to help them do that in more than just providing electronics. And there are opportunities for Huawei to provide skills and capabilities sets as a partner to those operators to grab that prize. And they say in the conference today that it’s “The worst of times, it’s the best of times,” but to me the glass is half full.

There has never been a bigger opportunity for anybody who is in the business of providing enabling connected technologies to a digitizing world. And the people who get the formula right for that are going to be pretty wealthy. And, I am sure Huawei is going to be among them.

Where are the opportunities?

Communicate:Where do you see the opportunities for operator growth as companies everywhere digitize their business?

Willetts:There are lots of opportunities, but they are not going to be there forever. If you look at small and medium enterprises, as an example, there are a huge number of these in the world. They don’t have chief information officers. They don’t have technically-sophisticated people. Take a plumbing firm, for example. They just want to get out there and compete. They are competing generally with companies that have sophisticated sales order processing, telemarketing, etc.

If you can provide a small enterprise, say, for example, by using systems such as, it allows you take a bite-size chunk of very sophisticated systems, for one person or ten people. Whatever you want. If you put that together along with, “How do I handle my payroll? How do I handle my stock? How do I handle customer billing?” You name it. This plumbing firm needs all of that. They don’t want to buy this from 50 different people and glue it all together. They don’t have the skill for that.

I think telecom operators generally are a trusted brand. What the telcos have are the technical skills within local reach. I will be very interested to see what BT has done from transforming itself, when it didn’t have mobile operations, into a content player, and seemingly becoming very successful at that. I think a lot of people are looking at that to see how that plays out.

I see things like home automation platforms and it’s interesting to see that AT&T is licensing that to other operators and various people experimenting there. I know that I have a holiday home and I want to be able to turn the central heating on and off remotely. It all comes as different plug-ins. If the operators provided me with a seamless platform with these things and I can download the app into it, that will be pretty neat. Who is better placed than the operator, because they have physical kit in every home, and if they don’t, they have a tower up the street.

I think there are lots of opportunities there. Being in the spot, getting the partners, experimenting, trying, and moving fast, they are the keys.