MWC Blew a Chance at Greatness

I have to admit that I never was wild about trade shows.  Not only are they a madhouse, if you’re an independent like me you end up paying to be somewhere that people can find you to tell you lies.  I got to the point where I was happy to see somebody who was just clueless and not actively manipulative and my natural cynicism didn’t need more fuel!  The truth doesn’t sell so if you’re interested in truth you have to get away from selling, which I think MWC proved.

The mobile operators have the same problem that all operators have, in fact that all businesses have—profit.  So here we have MWC, but how much guidance or insight did operators get on solving their profit problem?  A couple of operators told me that the only thing of any significance was the Firefox OS phone.  Sure, it’s been panned by journalists who have reviewed it because it’s not as fast or rich or cool as a nice iPhone or Galaxy, but all of those nice cool phones cost the operators a bagfull of loot to subsidize.  They’d sure like to be able to keep some of the money since, after all, it is their wireless network that makes the darn things work in the first place.

The question that MWC should have answered and didn’t is simple:  “Why are OTTs able to launch new and profitable services over the network when we can’t launch them in the network?”  Telefonica, who was a big promoter of Firefox OS at the show, has actually answered that question better than the vendors who exhibited.  What you need is a service-layer architecture on which to build applications.  Ideally this architecture should be like the Advanced Intelligent Network (AIN) of old in that it defines in-network application behavior, because operators can differentiate themselves best from OTTs by being in, not over, the network.  Telefonica has been working to do just this thing.

One of the reasons I’m excited about Network Functions Virtualization (and not trade shows!) is that NFV is an architecture for hosting and connecting virtual functions that make up a service.  Yes, the initial target of NFV is cost reduction by replacing purpose-built (and vendor-proprietary, overpriced) appliances with generic servers.  The thing is, if you get an architecture for that, you can apply it to new stuff that’s never been sunk into appliances at all.  Mobile/behavioral symbiosis, what I’ve called “point-of-activity empowerment” of consumers and workers has been identified by operators as number one or two on the monetization hit parade, so it’s sad that issues like expanding NFV into a full service layer didn’t get more play.  Yes we had some NFV stories, and some SDN stories, but they were pap for the masses and not insight for the profit engineers.

But don’t get me wrong about cost management.  Operators are not likely to be able to profit in the long run by selling competing higher-layer services against OTT giants while at the same time running their networks at a loss.  The network has to be profitable, at least, or it drags the operator down even if they succeed at the higher-layer services game.

But cost reduction still has to be seen in a profit context, and so do technology changes.  SDN and NFV are slaves to the service layer for network operators, because we don’t call them “service providers” for nothing.  So is everything else.  There is no “backhaul market”, no “CDN market”, no “EPC market”, there is one infrastructure, one bottom line.  We have in network services the largest cohesive, cooperative, technical ecosystem in the world, literally.  We don’t keep it going by breaking off pieces and pretending we can address or sell them as one-offs.

“The Cloud” is the conceptual technical model of the service layer.  Whatever doesn’t live in devices lives in the cloud.  Whatever is too agile, too versatile, too market-reactive to be stuffed into silicon lives in the cloud.  Whatever profit sources will drive operators in the direction they want to go live in the cloud.  So we, and MWC, need to live in the cloud too, and we need to live there and not just open the old trench coat and flash those who do.  Every vendor who spouts a vacuous story about operations and TCO, or about SDN, or about cloud or mobile or metro, is working against the ecosystem we should be cooperatively building, and you can build something right in only one way—start with the plans.  This is the time to build the conceptual cloud of the future, the new model of network and IT combined, not separate.  Who will do that?  When we can answer that question we’ll know who wins and who loses.

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