Crack innovation in telecoms with four dimensions of openness
As 5G rolls out, a more open business model could spark a wave of customer-centric innovation in the telecom industry.
As 5G paves the way for new Internet of Things (IoT) and edge applications, a vast landscape of opportunity is opening up for telecom industry players. The winners will be those companies that can innovate fast to bring valuable new services to market before competitors do.
Experience from other industries suggests that going it alone may not be the way forward. Consider disruptors like Amazon, Google or Uber. There are many reasons they dominate their market, but one factor in their success is that they’ve each embraced at least one facet of openness.
Openness drives innovation, revenue and profit
Often perceived as a closed company, Apple found success with its App Store by opening up its iOS APIs to third-parties, creating an open ecosystem of app developers around its mobile operating system. Uber was able to build a market-disrupting application fast by leveraging open APIs to incorporate services like Google Maps, and innovating its own functionality on top.
Google, meanwhile, has built a business model around open source, allowing anyone to use its Android operating system and contribute enhancements to it. And for Amazon, opening up its cloud infrastructure to third parties – including retail competitors – turned Amazon Web Services from a cost center into an unstoppable profit engine.
While all of these companies retain their own intellectual property in many areas, taking an open approach has helped them to create new innovative products, services and business models.
So could greater openness pay dividends for the telecom industry, too? If so, what might a more open approach look like? We spoke to six executives to find out how the industry is leveraging four dimensions of openness for innovation today, and how that approach might evolve in the future.
Our Open experts
General Manager, Networking + Edge/IoT, Linux Foundation
Head of Open Source Initiatives, Nokia
Vice President and CTO, Network Platforms Group, Intel
Partner and Executive Innovation and Technology Director, X-Cite
Former Core APIs Portfolio Manager, Cloud and Network Services, Nokia
Cloud and Network Services, Nokia
Open standards are just the start
In some ways, the telecom industry is no stranger to openness. Networks deliver the most value when they’re interoperable, so even the fiercest of competitors are used to co-operating to define open standards that enable networks and components to talk to each other.
But the process of developing and agreeing on standards can at times seem to slow innovation, and requires a mindset shift. “Telecoms is a 100-plus year old industry with a lot of ingrained ways of doing things,” says Rajesh Gadiyar of Intel’s Network Platforms Group. “Regulation and standards can sometimes form an inertial force that acts as a barrier to agility – especially compared to a relatively new infrastructure like cloud computing.”
While open standards have created a precedent for industry-wide collaboration, the industry needs to take openness much further if it’s to capitalize on the opportunities presented by 5G, IoT and edge computing. Our conversations validated four dimensions of openness that can speed telecom innovation and create new revenue streams and business models for industry players.
#1 Look to open forums and communities to speed innovation
Next-generation networks are highly complex, combining software and hardware components that require vast amounts of time, effort and skill to build.
Many of those components, however, don’t provide CSP players with any particular differentiation or competitive advantage. Collaborating on those components allows networks to be built faster, and operators to spend more time and resources on bringing innovative 5G services to market earlier.
For more than a decade, we’ve seen operators share mobile infrastructure to get networks rolled out faster and at lower cost, freeing time and budget to focus on value-added services. . The same principle applies to standards and platform software. As more network functionality is virtualized, it makes sense for players to work together to build open source components that help the whole industry move faster to deliver new customer value.
The Linux Foundation’s Arpit Joshipura cites the example of the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), a comprehensive orchestration platform for managing and delivering 5G services. It began life as individual projects within AT&T and China Mobile, but it soon made more sense for it to become a global, open effort hosted by Linux Foundation Networking (LFN).
“ONAP is about 10 to 15 million lines of code,” Joshipura says. “Imagine a single vendor, or three or four, trying to complete and create the stack. It would have taken years and years. And it isn’t differentiating for vendors or integrators – it’s the plumbing layer.”
And speed isn’t the only benefit of collaborating on a project like ONAP – it saves money, too. “R&D is shared by over 1,000 developers working globally,” he says, “so individual vendors only have to pay for the few engineers who collaborate on the project.”
#2 Build an open ecosystem to capitalize on 5G and IoT opportunities
5G is set to change the CSP landscape dramatically, creating opportunities to deliver a huge variety of new, value-added services to industry and society – from providing smart city infrastructure to enabling predictive maintenance of energy grids. Research by Nokia Bell Labs indicates that 5G could add as much as $8tr to global GDP by 2030.
Capitalizing on the vast range of use cases will require specialist knowledge, capabilities and solutions. That gives network operators a choice: either try to develop those capabilities and solutions internally or in limited collaborations, or create an open ecosystem of partners and co-develop new software stacks and applications with them.
For former Nokian Ron Haberman, the answer is simple: “The value of 5G will come from enterprising use cases that will be invented in an ecosystem environment,” he says. “As we get closer and closer to delivering 5G with all the bells and whistles – meaning full slicing, orchestration and closed loop operations – that will become the focus [of the industry].”
“The value of 5G will come from enterprising use cases that will be invented in an ecosystem environment”
Former CTO, Nokia Cloud and Networking Services
Ulf Theobald, of edge AI platform developer X-Cite, believes that 5G and IoT create an opportunity for CSPs to build an ecosystem of third-party developers on top of their network. But for that ecosystem to produce new innovations quickly, the traditional rules of engagement with partners will need to change.
“If you want to build a partner ecosystem around the modern network, you don’t start asset flow investments and discussions,” he says. “You need to find out quickly if a partner brings added value, by doing early and fast prototyping with them. That way you’ll know after two weeks if the partnership is viable, rather than after two years.”
Former Nokian Pawan Bhardwaj agrees that traditional ways of collaborating are too laborious. “To be on the forefront of innovation, you have to be able to work fast, prove things fast, and take them to market fast,” he says. “If you let ideas come in from all angles, within the company and beyond, you can know quickly if an idea will be successful, and move on if the concept isn’t panning out.”
Intel’s Rajesh Gadiyar can vouch for the success of an ecosystem built around the principles of open collaboration. He cites the example of Intel Network Builders, an Intel-led ecosystem that’s focused on fostering innovation around network function virtualization (NFV).
“It started with just a handful of companies, but today it has more than 400 OEMs, software vendors and CSPs,” he says. “It’s led to many commercial grade solutions that are deployed now across many verticals, including wireless core and wireless LAN – so it’s definitely driven a faster innovation cycle in the industry.”
#3 Open up APIs and other interfaces to build ecosystems faster
Business processes around engaging with partners aren’t the only thing that need to change. For a flourishing innovation ecosystem to develop, partners must also have easy access to underlying networks and services – which means providing open APIs to network functions, service layers, and data.
X-Cite, for example, pulls network availability data into its edge AI platform X-BRAIN, which in turn powers third-party applications like real-time tracking of sensitive shipments. “For use cases like ours, the network [service] is the distinguishing factor between the application working or not working,” says Ulf Theobald. “Without open APIs into that data, the promise of 5G can’t become reality.”
Opening up APIs is the fastest way to attract developers into an ecosystem, whether they’re APIs into the network itself – as Nokia is enabling for X-Cite and the wider industry with its 5G core APIs program – or to value-added services on top.
Networks that remain closed, by contrast, risk missing out on the IoT opportunity. “An asset without open interfaces only attracts a fraction of the stakeholders you can attract with open interfaces,” Theobald says. “Our customers look for ready-made solutions in places like Gitlab and GitHub. They don’t start with an RFP.”
“An asset without open interfaces only attracts a fraction of the stakeholders you can attract with open interfaces”
Partner and Executive Innovation and Technology Director, X-Cite
Former Nokian Ron Haberman agrees that open APIs are essential for rapid innovation in an ecosystem environment: “If we are not API-led, if are we are not available for consumption in all different platforms, if we are not pervasive enough in how we can interface with third parties, innovations will not happen,” he warns.
#4 Foster an open culture on the inside, too
For many in the telecom industry, working collaboratively and opening up interfaces and APIs to other players – including competitors – represents a big culture shift. It’s one that won’t be successful unless there’s a genuinely open and collaborative mindset inside the organization, too.
“The biggest barrier in my mind is people,” says Arpit Joshipura, who often sees conflict between departments when it comes to leveraging open source. “If the CTO group, the network operations group and the R&D group aren’t co-ordinated, they fail to take advantage of open source for rapid innovation, and they fall behind in terms of market share.”
Joshipura cites AT&T, Orange and Deutsche Telekom as examples of operators who have successfully brought internal technology groups together to work on open source projects, and have seen business growth as a result. “We’ve seen that operators who participate in Linux Foundation Networking and open source gain subscribers six times more than their competitors locally within the region,” he says.
“Operators who participate in Linux Foundation Networking and open source gain subscribers six times more than their competitors locally within the region”
General Manager, Networking + Edge/IoT, Linux Foundation
Nokia’s Jonne Soininen agrees that management mindset can be a barrier when it comes to collaborating on open source projects. “We can all agree there’s a problem in the industry, but we also have to be willing to invest in solving it,” he says. “It means lending out good developers to work on a community project. That’s a big investment and it needs the right culture to be in place.”
Open source principles can also be leveraged to advantage internally, by collaborating over software development and making components available for the whole company to use. This ‘inner source’ approach can speed up innovation and product development, but for it to take hold within the organization, the right incentives need to be in place, says Haberman.
He advocates a multi-faceted incentive structure that blends extrinsic and intrinsic reward: “There are KPI-oriented rewards where you’re specifically rewarded for contributing,” he says. There’s also personal reward in seeing something you’ve contributed get a lot of use. Then there’s project-oriented reward, where your contribution not only progresses your own project, but also helps other units.”
Leverage all four dimensions for maximum success
It’s clear that there are four dimensions to openness, each with a role to play in driving faster time to market, lower costs and increased customer value. But of the four – open forums, open ecosystems, open interfaces, and an open culture – is any one more important than the others?
For Linux Foundation Networking’s Arpit Joshipura, it depends on the project phase. “All four should be driven equally, but there might be a phase where one is more important,” he says. “In the early stages, internal collaboration is important. In the middle stages, it could be defining open interfaces. In the later stages, it may be about interoperability, standardization, and communities.”
Whichever angle it’s approached from, Intel’s Rajesh Gadiyar believes openness has already proved its worth in the way open source and open collaboration have sped the delivery of 5G. “I can’t imagine 5G being deployed without the progress we’ve made with NFV and the disaggregation of hardware and software,” he says.
Looking to the longer term, openness will be key to CSP success in an age of industry disruption, says Haberman: “If we aren’t open, we will be too slow to combat the broader industry. Especially as we progress further into the IT space, where the pace is much more rapid, and where innovation as a whole has a greater dependence on openness.”
There’s no better time for the industry to embrace openness than now, as 5G starts to lay the groundwork for new applications, services and business models. For X-Cite’s Ulf Theobald, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. “If the networks stay as closed as they are now, the applications running on top of the network will not meet customer demand,” he says. “A lot of workarounds will be implemented, and the promise of 5G won’t be realized.”
Driving innovation with 4 dimensions of openness
Our model for cross-industry collaboration and shared resources
Nokia believes in the potential of openness to drive innovation across the telecom industry. Openness is the key to faster progress, lower costs, greater simplicity, more choice for customers, and a connected world that can harness the full potential of next-generation networks. The four interlinked dimensions of our openness model inform everything we do: from the way we work with the industry to the way we develop our products and services.
Open forums and communities
We are a leader in many industry openness initiatives, including the O-RAN Alliance and Open Networking Forum, driving global standards to maximize global adoption of new technology. Our use of open source enables us to share and re-use innovation and focus our efforts on things that matter most.
Open interfaces enable multi-vendor interoperability, simplified network operations, analytics and agile service introduction. We have wide experience in multi-vendor interoperability testing, and our open APIs and integration capabilities support new open ecosystems and meet operator business requirements.
Ecosystems of partners, customers, government and academia are crucial to co-create new and valuable services. Nokia founded the Open Ecosystem Network, which brings together industry players to drive innovation around next-generation network use cases.