Why 5G and IoT need open network APIs
A conversation with Ulf Theobald, Technology Innovation Director, X-CITE
As part of our interview series exploring the four dimensions of openness driving telecom innovation, Nokia’s Solutions Lead for Cross Portfolio Marketing, Stefan Kindt, spoke to Ulf Theobald, Technology Innovation Director at X-CITE, and Pawan Bhardwaj, Core APIs Portfolio Manager, Cloud and Network Services at Nokia. They discussed why open APIs, an open ecosystem and an open culture will be critical to getting advanced 5G and IoT use cases to market – and how open APIs can help to bridge the gap between mobile operators and IoT developers.
Partner and Executive Innovation and Technology Director, X-Cite
Core APIs Portfolio Manager, Cloud and Network Services, Nokia
Solutions Lead, Cross Portfolio Marketing, Nokia
STEFAN KINDT: Ulf, can you explain what X-CITE does, and the role it plays in the wider telecom industry?
ULF THEOBALD: X-CITE is a startup that we launched in 2018. The core team is from the telecom industry, and we saw a gap in the market for an application development platform with deep integration into wireless networks.
We believe that for IoT applications to reach the kind of scale that’s expected with 5G, you need to make network data accessible and consumable for application developers who aren’t 5G experts. So we’ve designed our platform to collect data from the network – using Nokia’s mobile core APIs – and we provide an SDK to developers to reduce the complexity for them around building 5G use cases.
SK: Why are open network APIs important for application developers?
UT: They are essential because so many applications nowadays rely on the network. If you look at Teams or Zoom, for example, they’re key for collaboration, especially during COVID. They run on top of the service provided by the CSPs. But there’s no integration into the network to understand service events, because right now the telecom industry is still very much closed in the way the interworking is organized.
Let me give you another example: If you have 100,000 IoT sensors in the field and just 2% of them are reporting network errors, it’s a tremendous amount of work to diagnose those errors. But with APIs into the underlying network, the application can automatically get QoS data, analyze it, and take appropriate action.
SK: Could you talk a bit about how those APIs are helping to stimulate a 5G ecosystem?
UT: Firstly, an asset without open interfaces will only attract a fraction of the potential stakeholders that you can attract with open interfaces. And if you're completely closed in the way you document and expose your interfaces, it will slow you down because you first have to sign NDAs and so on. For this, nowadays, you start searching in platforms like Gitlab or on GitHub. You don’t start with an RFP.
PB: There are a lot of companies who want to explore 5G use cases, but who aren’t experts in the telecom or networking space. An API-based platform will help to enable an ecosystem of non-telecom partners to build 5G-dependent applications. That’s important for driving future innovation in areas like smart buildings, smart campus, smart mining, and so on.
SK: What would you say are some of the key success factors that will make open APIs more relevant to the industry, and easier for you to consume in order to drive innovation on top?
UT: From a requirements engineering standpoint, APIs should take into account not just the needs of mobile operators, but also the needs of developers who are using them to build new services. In the past, standards bodies like 3GPP were very much aligned to the demands of MNOs and CSPs. Now they’re also opening up to the demands of application developers who want to integrate the network into their applications. That's critical for us to make this a success.
Secondly, the way these APIs are made accessible needs to be completely open, so we know what’s coming, and we can plan our own roadmap without worrying that something will suddenly be discontinued. And finally, we also need to be able to forecast business cases for the APIs that will make money for all of us in the ecosystem – because we’re not just doing it for technology’s sake.
SK: From your work with other industries, have you seen any best practices in terms of openness that the telecom industry could leverage?
UT: The first that come to mind are the mobile platforms. If Apple hadn’t made the decision to grant app developers access to the iPhone, I'm pretty sure someone else would have invented it straight after: let's just call it Android. The social networks also allowed third-parties to integrate their services, and that’s partly why they’ve become such a focal point in people’s daily lives.
Those players learned that you need to expose APIs to make the platform easily accessible. They also learned that you need the right governance so that not just everyone starts using it. You still need some controls.
That’s especially important for communications service providers, because with 5G you might have a third-party AR game running alongside critical emergency services. You need the right governance to ensure that all of those services are reliable, so that new 5G revenue vectors will be achievable.
There’s no question that communication service providers have to open up, like the mobile platforms and social networks did. But they also need to ensure their service is always available, because otherwise they won’t attract the development partners that will make 5G a success.
SK: Do any of the four dimensions of openness – open forums, open interfaces, open ecosystems and open culture – stand out for either of you as being particularly important for driving innovation?
UT: I think they’re all important. If you have an open ecosystem as the top layer, you need open APIs and open forums because otherwise the ecosystem won’t work. And the other layers follow from that.
An open culture is essential because if you want to build a partner ecosystem fast, you don’t start with asset flow investments and discussions. You need to understand very quickly what value the partner might bring by doing early and fast prototyping with them. In an open culture any colleague, even an intern, is empowered to bring in a new partner who can help you succeed.
PB: I’d agree with Ulf’s comment on open culture. To be on the forefront of innovation, you have to be able to work fast, prove things fast, and take them to market fast. 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.
SK: Lastly, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the relevance of openness for driving innovation from your perspective as an application developer – especially around 5G, IoT, and industry 4.0?
UT: For me it's at least 8. Because for real-time applications, the network is the distinguishing factor between the application working or not working. If the networks stay as closed as they are now, the applications running on top of them won’t meet customer expectations, and the promise of 5G won’t become reality.
PB: I’d say 10. From my point of view, open APIs are essential to allow applications to use the network in an intelligent manner, rather than simply as a pipe. So the value of 5G networks in particular is going to be realized through APIs.
SK: Ulf and Pawan, thanks very much for your time and your insights.