TM Forum gets touched by spirit of humility

Do you feel the spirit of humility? Fed up of chat? Come join the church of transformation.

“The time for discussions is over,” said TM Forum CEO Nik Willetts, introducing three days’ worth of discussions. But you knew what he meant – the telco industry is very aware it needs to get on with… stuff.

It has definitely had about enough of the “race to 5G” chat. How to transform your processes and networks to further transform business models to be webscale like GAFA/FANG and Alibaba and so on. More chat. Telco needs to sort itself out; IT design and operation is a key part of that and, frankly, nobody much has the appetite for months and years of more of its infernal, unceasing, self-absorbed chat.

And to be fair, despite designing six conference tracks and a bunch of showcases which all, let’s face it, are mainly chat-based, TM Forum is committed to action too.

Everywhere in the haphazard 3D concrete-and-carpet jigsaw of Nice’s Acropolis conference centre there’s activity designed to get people acting after the talking has finished. The Forum’s own Catalysts – kind of organised proofs of concepts – get prime billing, both on the exhibition floor and in a small presentation area of their own. There are two “campfire” areas where people can sing and get high talk more shop. There are showcases and a special demo stage. There’s a start-up alley – at least some stools and popups pushed against a wall. It all – at least most of it – says, “Let’s get stuff done”.

The Forum has parcelled up its Open Digital Architecture, and its Open API specifications, and its documentation library, and its work on partnering and on AI, its business execution assets into something accessible as standardised components that it is calling the Open Digital Framework.

Andy Tiller, EVP, Collaboration & Innovation, says the aim is to increase engagement, to give the industry a working environment where it can test interoperability and see where it needs to put its efforts. The Forum, Tiller says, has gained an understanding of the need for cultural change in the industry – key to that is humility. But it also needs the positivity that change – transformation – is achievable.

Camp fire chat.
“Start-up alley”

That urgency is why Rakuten’s message, delivered here by CTO Tareq Amin via the auspices of omni-present event sponsor Netcracker, is so appealing to this audience. That message – building a cloud native* network to enable new forms of service delivery can be done – has an emotional appeal to an audience that needs to hear that everything it is chatting about can a) be achieved b) has been achieved. Nothing feels so comforting as validation of a big, scary decision. Keep believing, you are on the right path.

VERTICALS CHAT: The spirit descends

Panellists from industry verticals (left) and telcos (right) about to be touched by the spirit

30 months ago, it was already clear that the discussions to be had between telco operators and industry verticals were not going to be easy ones. In fact, they were pretty much non existent at that stage. But it was clear that the relationship between telcos and verticals was going to be critical. If you are going to base your future viability on the ability to deliver “slices” to industrial and enterprise customers, or to offer up your network as a platform, you better get engaged with those enterprises. In fact, you better get them up the aisle to the altar (another platform business, in fact).

It was commendable for the TMF to give up its opening keynote session (once its obligatory duties to the sponsor were dispensed with) to a panel of four “vertical” representatives on one side of the stage and telco operators on the other. It was also commendable to see the spirit with which the telcos themselves entered into the discussion.

There’s no doubt that everyone gets it, even if there’s still an element of “you show us yours before I show you mine” between the two sides.

Mark Newman, co-moderator and head honcho at the Forum’s in-house analyst unit, experienced that momentary urge for clarity that anyone who has ever chaired a panel session has. “What is it,” he asked of a panellist at one point, “you actually want?”

Here is what the verticals wanted: reliability and availability, low latency, discoverability, consistency of billing systems, consistency of technical requirements, free beer on a Friday afternoon.

Vesa Jutila of cloud mobile gaming company Hatch, owned by Rovio, said: “I believe operators could take a more active role on optimising network traffic and giving companies like Hatch access to network health indicators, to optimise to changes in the environment like congestion, packet loss or jitter. For latency sensitive services like Hatch, mobile edge computing can be a massive improvement on what operators can offer, but it really requires a new mindset, more fast decision making to capture this cloud gaming opportunity.”

But there was a warning, too. Hatch again, “What kills us is fragmentation – all the different edge compute access offers, all the different billing models, we need movement to adjust and do things differently or we will go somewhere else.”

Paul Spence, McLaren Applied Technology’s Chief Technologist, was circumspect. Talking of connected and autonomous vehicles he said, “5G has to prove itself. V2x will have to be quite reliable. If we are relying on v2x to know whether we can drive safely round a corner… its really difficult to get that right in the real world.”

Deutsche Telekom’s CIO Peter Leukert said that telcos needed to be humble and engage with others, take down some boundaries and collaborate, rather than seek to dominate. He walked across the stage from the telco “side” to shake hands with the business guys. It was weirdly effective as a visual metaphor, almost transgressive in its simple acknowledgement of the status quo. The audience loved it. Growing to his theme he said we needed to stop all the international bickering and conflict while we’re at it. That actually got loud applause and whistles of acclaim. At a telco IT conference. After Leukert’s intervention, the rest of the speakers got the fever too and started walking all over the place, laying hands on the vertical representatives who may well have wondered what was going on. What was going on was a confession and a reckoning, as the telcos started to unburden themselves.

“They are stuck with what they are getting and we are stuck with what we are giving,” bemoaned Telstra’s Head of Networks and IT, Nikos Katinakis. Ruza Sabanovic, CTIO of Telenor, said, “We are still monolithic and integrating with us is complex”.

Lord, I am a sinner and it has been 365 days since my last confession.

It was left to TIM’s CTIO Elisabetta Romano to sing some of the old hymns. Turn to page 335: “Cursed be the OTTs”. She said that operators will need to see some revenues from all their investment and  proposed co-creation. “A lot of companies innovate on our connectivity,” she said. Then there was Psalm 101: “The song of the vendor”. She said that if operators are to build the open platforms that will support the new business model shift – the vendors need to actually support true cloud native and open operations. They say they are cloud native but they are not, truly, she added, and that has to change. She said this was a call to action. And TIM is taking its own medicine too, getting out and seeing other operators and discussing shared requirements.

Change, transformation, even digital transformation, starts with a confession, sure, but then comes the need for action. There’s every sign that the TM Forum, dear old TM Forum with its past of NGOSS and E-TOM and training programmes in Frameworx and all the rest of the arcania, is aligned and ready to do its bit. Sing it.