Organisations like the TeleManagement Forum have a dilemma when it comes to anniversaries. TM Forum’s 20th birthday in 2009 will naturally be a cause for celebration: you don’t get such a long run in this business unless you’re doing something right. But there’s a nagging worry too. Can a successful first 20 years as a thought leader; framework and standards setter – mostly for telecoms operational and business support systems - serve as a basis for another 20 years setting frameworks for an industry that is turning rapidly into something else, as new players muster at its borders? Does the heritage help or hinder when it comes to refining a role in the rapidly converging telecom, media and Internet industries, where the new tends to be seen as ‘good’ and anything else is consigned as ‘legacy’?
For Keith Willetts, the TM Forum's original co-founder and current Chairman, it's a question that soon answers itself, once you apply a little deep thought to the matter.
“What's become really clear, over the past year or so especially, is that convergence is here – it's for real and we're really at the start of the process,” he says. “What you've got is three trillion dollar industries - media, Internet and telecom - all coming together. You just have to pick up a newspaper, listen to the news or, of course, surf the web to see that it's happening. Who's Virgin bought? What services is Skype offering now? All that sort of thing. And over the coming years we're going to see far more of this mixing and matching – where a company strong in one field takes over or forms an alliance with a company that's strong in another.”
For Willetts it's a process that brings opportunities as well as threats. One apparent threat for many in the telecom industry is that telecom becomes sidelined in many markets as a new breed of player moves in and takes over. This extreme scenario might involve powerful, highly capitalised Internet companies, such as eBay with IP telephony company Skype (which it bought in 2005) completely disrupting the traditional telephony market.
“I use Skype and I'm amazed at just how good the service is. I wonder to myself, 'why would you need anything else?. But,” admits Willetts, “the more likely scenario is that we'll end up with a real mix of companies which take elements from all three sectors.”
There lies the opportunity. Willetts thinks the TMF can provide the frameworks that integrate the players, just as it has hitherto provided frameworks to integrate telcos' disparate back-office systems. The challenge is to apply its expertise in a new way.
“What we've been good at is helping our members develop a lean end-to-end process environment – a set of frameworks and standards encapsulated in our NGOSS (New Generation Operations Software and Systems) initiative that enables them to build flow-through business processes that cross the old internal demarcation lines that were, and often still are, such a feature in traditional telcos. Using NGOSS they can begin to join the dots between things like inventory, provisioning, service assurance and so on.”
What's clearly required in the new converged telecom-media-Internet world, he points out, is a similar set of guidelines at the inter-company level. “We are going to need standards and frameworks that reach beyond the company and the sector to automate things like content delivery, digital rights management and things we haven't even thought of yet.
“Of course, it's a huge area and there are a number of unresolved questions,” he says. “For example one specific conversation we've recently had within TMF has been around the possibility of defining a value chain. And we came to the conclusion that such a question presupposes we know who is going to be where in the chain. In fact, all we can actually say is that there will be value chains and there will be different people at different positions within them. What we're looking at is the development of something more two- or even three-dimensional than a simple chain – it's probably better to think of these relationships forming something like a 'value web', where companies might sit in any one of several positions. They might be undertaking one set of commercial roles in one territory and a different set in another.”
In fact, says Willetts, TMF as an organisation is keen to develop a role as an independent business and technical facilitator rather than being seen as the advocate of a particular, sector-specific, approach. The reason is simple – the telecom industry itself won't exist as we know it five to ten years from now. It's transforming, and as web and media companies are moving onto some of its traditional turf, telecoms itself is branching out into many new areas.
“It's important we aren't seen to be in the business of promoting any particular outcome,” claims Willetts. “We want to be part of an environment where there can be a range of outcomes, shapes and services. The important thing is that user companies and providers can actually put the pieces together and have them work. It's a case of 'may the best man win'.”
So where exactly is the TM Forum running to?
First, TMF is inviting thought leaders from media and cable companies to join its Board in order to get a 360-degree view of emerging needs. Second, it's rapidly broadening its business and software vision to encompass the needs of information and content-based services and the myriad of virtual providers and value chain players. Third, collaboration with other bodies will be important and ongoing. For example, recently TMF struck a landmark deal with the Broadband Services Forum (BSF) with a formal partnership where relevant work is shared. In fact the members of each organisation will have influence over related technical work in the area of telecom-web convergence issues and the first fruits of the collaboration will show up in a new TMF document entitled “Telecom Media Convergence Industry Challenges and Impact on the Value Chain”. The relationship will also contribute to more multimedia focused panels at TM Forum events, and future development of process standards for content management and convergent media-telecom operations.
“One of the most exciting and fundamental things we're going to do is to develop what we're calling a ' super-catalyst', and we'll be kicking that project off at Nice this year.”
The TMF Catalysts are joint projects undertaken by members and sponsored by service providers, usually to demonstrate leading edge thinking on how to solve problems in integrating the back office, using approaches based on TM Forum standards and guidelines. The results of these projects are demonstrated at TMF's TeleManagement World conferences in Nice and Dallas each year.
“The super-catalyst, which we're likely to call the Converged Services Showcases, will be really major events, involving media companies, device companies, cable TV, IPTV and mobile TV,” says Willetts. “The idea is to show a whole set of advanced service scenarios, but unlike what you'd see at a trade show - where you typically just see the thing working - with the super-catalyst you'll be able to walk around the back of this and be shown how it's actually being operated and controlled using standards and the various OSS and BSS systems involved.
“It's at an early stage of development, but the general idea is that you go to the show floor and you see the equivalent of a town with houses and retail establishments and so on. And you see all these services that you're getting and then you walk around the back to the network operations centre and you can see how it's all being managed. It's a big leap.”
We're working on, not just a demonstration, but a real catalyst designed to flush out problems and what standards you need, and what bits you need to invent that you haven't thought of. The fact is that we don't know what the standards requirements are in some cases in the converged world yet, and that's why this super-catalyst is going to be a great vehicle for developing the whole area. It's going to be a major undertaking.”
The plan is for the first super-catalysts to debut later this year at the TMF's Dallas TMW.
Nice TMW will be the start of the major change. “What we want to show is that convergent services are here. So we have a very strong convergence message and a very strong illustration that TMF is responding. There will be discussion about managing content-based and entertainment-based services and more involvement from media companies. For instance, for a meeting at Nice we've invited executives from Disney, Time-Warner and Virgin Mobile to join the table. The fact is that it's just as relevant for a senior executive at BT, say, to sit down with a Disney executive, as it is for the Disney guy to get to understand how the company can exploit the telecom space.”
“For some of these players convergence will result in a partners' love-fest and for others it will be 'daggers drawn', as they realise they're going to be contesting the same space, but in the long run nobody knows who will be in which role at any one given point in time. TMF's role isn't to try and predict that.”
What about the core frameworks and standards generated by the TMF? Will these have to change markedly to accommodate the broader remit and the entry of new types of player into the value web?
“Yes, no doubt there will be changes as we go forward. One area that we're probably going to have to address in all our output is outsourcing. While our current guidelines intrinsically assist players to define and manage all their processes, so that outsourcing, where required, will be simpler to accomplish, it's also true to say that outsourcing isn't often specifically allowed for. I've just been to India to speak at a TMF event there, and what I heard there was really eye opening in terms of the way outsourcing is being used to reduce costs.
“At Bharti Airtel, one of the big mobile operators with 80 to 90 million subscribers, all the IT is outsourced and they operate at a cost level that a European mobile operator, for instance, can't even come close to.”
Willetts says he thinks that outsourcing and partnering arrangements are bound to become more complex and must be catered for in the back office in a fundamental way.
“For example BT might run an IPTV service in the UK using its infrastructure, and in Germany it might run a service on someone else's because it doesn't own any infrastructure there. But it will probably want to run the same brand and service. The back office systems need to support that sort of thing.”
But the big question has to be asked. Isn't there a danger in all this for TMF? This is a member-driven organisation and it is energised by a core of highly motivated, mostly telecoms-oriented individuals who give, not just their companies' time, but often their own time and effort as well. Doesn't TMF run the big risk in realigning itself so radically?
Willetts is adamant: “What people sometimes don't understand is that it's not a question of: 'If you go and chase all these converging media and web companies, will you desert your core telecom membership in the process?' That question forgets the fact that telecom companies are, themselves, becoming multi-media companies. So, the reality is, to be of maximum use to our core constituency, we need to run with them, not away from them.”
Ian Scales is a freelance communications journalist.