MWC 2023: Life of API

February 28, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence
CATEGORY: Exclusives

The GSMA’s Chairman, Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete, made a stir yesterday as he announced that the GSMA would fundamentally change to become ‘a standards organisation’ in what he hailed as ‘the rebirth of the GSMA’. A Telefonica press release echoed that phrasing.

This isn’t the first time that a Chairman has taken the GSMA by surprise. In 2017 Bharti Group CEO Sunil Mittal caused a shock by ‘declaring war on roaming fees’ and promptly announcing the abolition of roaming fees between any Airtel company globally.

To be fair to Alvarez-Pallete, his announcement was perhaps a case of mistaken phrasing. “We’re not going to be a standards body,” GSMA’s Head of Marketing and Partnerships Colin Bareham later clarified. “But we do think the operator community needs to coordinate globally on APIs and we can help with that. We’re calling the project Open Gateways.”

Indeed, the APIs are being specified in an open source project called CAMARA, a collaboration between GSMA and the Linux Foundation. There are already 8 APIs agreed between the 21 founding GSMA members involved, addressing subjects such as Quality on Demand, Device Location, Authentication, Carrier Billing and more. The important piece is that the APIs will be universal, so that an application developer can work with a single API and have it work with telecoms networks globally. As Alvarez-Pallete noted, this will be “A common layer to expose network capabilities.”

This is far from the first attempt the GSMA has made to harmonise APIs – a decade ago the defunct OneAPI programme was another attempt to do this. Much has changed in the interim, however; not least the economic pressures on telecoms providers.

It has become clear that the most significant competition comes not from other telecoms providers but from players who can reach global scale with a simple proposition. Consider the way in which companies such as WhatsApp and Zoom have competed in voice and video calling worldwide, for example. To compete, telecoms providers need to offer similar scale and simplicity in their value propositions for enterprise customers.

Moreover, the networks themselves have changed drastically over a decade. As ETSI CTO Adrian Scrase observed, “Behind the diagrams, telecoms networks are remarkably diverse. It takes a big lift to unify their capabilities.” Much more so a decade ago, when the knowhow to build a common layer across such diverse networks was that much less in evidence.

Alvarez-Pallete had the right of it when he noted that “We need to reimagine ourselves” though. This includes having a bit more humility, insofar as the telecoms companies have to think of themselves as one avenue of competition compared to hyperscalers or application providers, as opposed to being a competitor against other telecoms providers. The Open Gateways programme will only succeed if the industry is capable of aligning on a global scale, and not only on the technology framework.

In such an environment, how does billing and revenue sharing for a global customer work? Who do customers call when things don’t work as expected, and how are issues such as liability managed? The announcements don’t say, yet simplicity and openness in these regards will be as important or more so far the uptake of services.

Will MVNOs and private network providers be able to interoperate, and if so under what conditions? The scales may remain tilted against operators compared to tailor-made service providers who are designed from top to bottom to cater for enterprises. Without an equivalent reinvention of sales and onboarding processes, customer support, clarity, simplicity and price, telcos who have mainly grown up by supporting consumer and enterprise needs for ‘a phone and a data plan’ will continue to struggle.

“We need to reimagine ourselves” indeed.

Change is certainly possible within telecoms providers, but it is often slowed by the difficulties of reconciling an important long-term initiative against the short term KPIs and deliverables

It is easy to be a doomsayer in the telecoms industry and then rest untroubled, but there are reasons to be optimistic. It’s clear that operators can’t rest on their laurels and thrive, and this announcement reflects a reaction to that reality – and, beyond that, action in bringing APIs to market and offering examples of services. Operators need to deliver global scale to make a platform play effective in an enterprise context, and this is a good first step. It certainly gives them a fighting chance to evolve into something with more potential than today.

Now that the GSMA’s delivered the APIs, the hard work really needs to begin.

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