As financial turmoil rampages across the worlds' markets, Professor Janusz Filipiak, founder and chief executive of OSS/BSS provider Comarch, tells George Malim that he sees great opportunity as carriers seek to streamline their operations and get to grips with new business models, services and the complex new telecoms value chain
Comarch, the Polish IT solutions provider has been developing OSS/BSS systems for telecoms since 1993 and now provides a portfolio of systems and managed services to incumbent, broadband, triple play operators as well as MVNOs/MVNEs and start-ups. With a turnover of €170m, more than 3,000 employees and a customer roster that includes T-Mobile Germany and Austria, Bouygues Telecom France, O2 Germany and Polkomtel and PTC in Poland, the company has enjoyed a 33 per cent increase in turnover during the last five years. As the general economic crisis deepens, founder and chief executive, Professor Janusz Filipiak, thinks vendors will have to chase harder and act more cleverly to win deployments.
"Now all companies have to be mean and lean in the recession" he says. "We are very cost minded and every bit that is not needed is removed. You can't come to carriers with a higher price than your competitors. IT engineers are now a global resource and want the same payment in China or the UK, for example, so we are in the same position as all vendors. We can't compete on price so we can only be more intelligent and more effective than others. In spite of the recession we must now continue to invest in developing new products."
Current financial market woes aside, Comarch is heavily focused on the mobile market and recognises the challenges faced by operators. "In today's world of telecommunications, mobile operators are faced with the challenges resulting from market saturation in the majority of countries" adds Filipiak. "Innovative product offerings and enhanced service levels are indispensable in order to gain new customers and prevent churn. Operators are searching for the Holy Grail of telco that will prevent ARPU from decreasing. As voice is still the ‘killer application', we see data and value added services as a fast growing market. Other trends are still ahead of us such as seeing strong market competition from global corporate customers seeking the best deals from global mobile groups."
Filipiak also sees great potential in currently non-mobile operators. "Keeping in mind that everything eventually goes mobile, we haven't forgotten the great potential of fixed broadband operators, cable TV providers and triple and quad play operators" he says. "We target different segments of the market while not focusing exclusively on a single one."
Pre-paid billing has been one of the major functions carriers have sought during the life of Comarch but, as bundled and flat-rate packages become more popular, Filipiak sees it's emphasis waning. "Today there are not too many content services available but they will come" he says. "Video streaming will put new requirements on bandwidth and devices. It will be very resource consuming and will be charged via pay-per-use. The experience won't be very different to paying for bandwidth or connection time with voice. Pre-paid is a method of payment which is still the most popular for the youngest segments of users, but pre-paid is becoming less related to cheap prices - because those are achievable in post-paid models as well - than to a philosophy of ‘no contract, no obligation'."
Flat-rate offers will be harder to make business sense of. "Flat rate is only viable in a world with unlimited capacity" adds Filipiak. "Flat-rate packages make a difference in the final price of services but the introduction of real flat-rate, where everything is included and mobile access is a commodity like internet or electricity or gas, will lead to a weakening of pre-paid which will favour post-paid."
Filipiak sees the market moving in this direction. "We can see that many players are moving towards a mix of post-paid with a significant amount of free minutes, SMS and MMS in a bundle," he adds. "This offer is really close to an actual flat rate and assures stable revenue for providers as well as strong customer loyalty and a resulting decrease in churn. My mantra in telecoms is that customers now expect everything to be easy."
The emergence of mobile content and the move to data services put obvious pressure on carriers' systems and the telecoms revenue chain has become much more complex. Comarch has long been prepared for this shift, as Filipiak attests: "The revenue chain is more complex and an operator is now not the only one that provides the services delivered. Service ‘sponsoring', third-party service providers, resellers and service dealers introduce the need for multi-party billing and put more pressure on monitoring quality of offerings," he says. "Our solutions also address and deal with the complexity that content and data services bring in wholesale, next generation TV, content distribution, service creation and control. We address these needs through our InterPartner Billing solution. On the OSS side, we provide service level management and service level inventory, our flagship OSS products, which enable service modelling of resources and services provided by different parties along with pro-active quality monitoring and management."
Comarch has grown from its eastern European roots and now has operations in 30 countries and addresses operators of all sizes and types, as Filipiak explains: "The Comarch brand is recognised in the telecoms world," he says. "We've been in the industry for 15 years and time is now working for us. Our biggest customers for specialised OSS solutions are Tier 1 operators. Large operators with 10 million subscribers are customers for our InterPartner Billing and, when it comes to independent operators, we have about 30 per cent of the local market as clients for integrated BSS and OSS/BSS solutions. We also target the largest CATV and broadband operators offering convergent services. Our strategy also addresses global players where we can offer the best value, give good prices, still be flexible and deliver enterprise level services."
In spite of the general economic downturn, Filipiak still sees great opportunities emerging. One area is that of next generation mobile networks and self-optimising networks. "Such concepts will invite carriers to look for solutions outside the long established segments of OSS, such as Inventory Management, configuration Management and Network planning," he says. "It will not be sufficient to cover one area in the future; instead co-operation of the planning and operations areas will be needed where we see an opportunity for us. In addition, carriers are now more oriented towards a loose coupling of functional modules and standard interfaces that make it easier for smaller players, like us."
New means of delivering solutions are also critical. "With our future proof architecture of solutions, we can address modern modularity concepts and tendencies that now exist in the market," adds Filipiak. "The openness and standard interfaces in high level OSS products is the key and customers can choose the best modules for their operations. This provides a possibility to reduce opex by utilising new business models for our customers, network virtualisation, distribution and outsourcing of operations and hosting solutions."
Regardless of the current economic gloom, Filipiak believes a new investment wave must come to the telecoms market. "Investment must happen because there will be greater demand" he says. "Physical travel will be a high cost so there will be more load on existing networks."
Carriers face massive challenges in spite of the increased demand for their network capacity and services. "In the international mobile groups, unification and co-operation issues are still of key importance in order to gain competitive advantage on the global market" he says. "Outsourcing of operations has become very popular but unsurprisingly it has turned out not to be a remedy for everything. Carriers still need to adapt their business processes and way of thinking to this new model. On the other hand, the need to reduce capex is forcing carriers to introduce scenarios of sharing physical resources, such as radio masts."
Filipiak also identifies additional challenges such as churn prevention, automatic client profiling and concentrated web-based marketing campaigns, as issues carriers will need to address.
Winning business from the large carrier groups against this backdrop is, without doubt difficult.
"International groups are certainly challenging customers" admits Filipiak. "National companies differ in software environments, processes and levels of maturity as well as corporate and national culture. They therefore require a flexible approach in implementation strategy and software functionality and look for a common architecture for their network as well as their IT systems. Such carriers pay a lot of attention to building up corporate standards at the services level and business process levels in order to achieve a common view."
Good products, knowledge and proven experience are the ways to win this type of business. "No power point slide solutions can be sold anymore," adds Filipiak. "It takes a lot of time and money but these are the only ways to win contracts with groups."
However, winning such business is never achieved on a static battlefield. Carrier consolidation continues and that can be both a threat and an opportunity for solutions vendors. "On one had, it is difficult because some groups will enforce product choices at the global level, and it may be more difficult for Comarch to gain a global recommendation in a large group since we have to fight for our portion of the market with much stronger players" says Filipiak. "On the other hand, consolidation forces carriers to unify their OSS/BSS landscapes and this is a good opportunity to change long-established solutions for something new and fresh. Heterogeneous environments of global groups with plenty of flavours in different countries require a great level of flexibility that Comarch can provide. We already have positive experience with such projects, for example our experience with T-Mobile, that enables us to be optimistic for the future."
"Ultimately, we must live with the situation" adds Filipiak. "We're a service company and it's not our job to comment or expect specific customers to behave in any particular way. The level of consolidation is already very high so we may not see much more, in any case."
It's not only carrier consolidation that presents challenges to vendors, though. Carriers are at different stage of their business and that places a development burden on all vendors as they seek to develop systems applicable to individual carrier needs.
"Comarch builds its solutions for different segments of the telco market," says Filipiak. "We offer both pre-integrated solutions for small business, such as an integrated BSS/OSS solutions for an MVNO, and complex solutions tailored specifically for the needs of large players. We have frameworks and modules of software but we've never sold it without adaptation. In the end, it is always a construction job. You have modules but ultimately you must put them together in different ways."
Comarch has grown organically since its inception in 1993 and has shunned much of the mergers and acquisition activity that has occurred in the OSS/BSS sector in recent years. "Our product portfolio follows unified design principles and is not the result of an acquisition of missing parts," explains Filipiak. "This gives us the possibility to offer seamlessly integrated solutions and products that complete while at the same time not redundant in functionality."
Inevitably, for all rules there are exceptions, and Comarch has recently announced an agreement to acquire 50.15 per cent of Frankfurt listed company SoftM und Beratung AG for a transaction that could exceed €22m. The German software producer and systems integrator employs 420 personnel and supplies more than 4,000 customers.
Filipiak is open to further moves although they will be well considered. "Acquisition, yes but only in a way that we can handle along with continued organic growth. There will be no miracle from us, just steady organic growth."
Filipiak also rejects any notion of selling the company. "The company isn't for sale. My family has a controlling stake and I'm not going to sell now. The company's value is increasing and the scope of the business grows every day."
George Malim is a freelance communications journalist