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TM Forum Live – rejuvenated and with an increasing vertical business focus

Leaving TM Forum in 2014, I had a sense that the event, which has been a mainstay of the OSS / BSS industry for many years and which had been one of the most enjoyable industry events in the calendar, was facing an existential crisis. It seemed that the different themes that dominated the event, such as cloud, SDN and virtualisation might be better addressed in dedicated conferences, rather than at a single, all-encompassing event. It was just getting too diffuse and lacked the detail that each topic really required.

As a result, in 2015, I went to CommunicAsia in order to explore a regional, rather than a global event. However, the opportunity presented itself to return this year – and I’m extremely glad that I did.

What a change two years has brought! The diversity of themes has, instead of dissolving into a fog, coalesced into a clear set of topics that will help shape business themes for the coming years. What has driven this change?

Well, the emerging topic of digital services has solidified into a set of clearly related themes. First, the digital transformation of operators towards new operational requirements and practices, including virtualisation, not only from a technical perspective but from the perspective of the impact on business organisation and structure. Second, the nebulous topic of digital services has crystalized into a clearly defined set of opportunities across different vertical industries and needs, such as healthcare, motor and education, as well as the provision of rich information to citizens. It is this that primarily caught my attention.

This is because the focus was not restricted to operators per se but rather was driven by an inclusive assembly of relevant stakeholders. While many operators were present and doubtless had the usual discussions, I spent most of my time listening to stakeholders from other sectors – healthcare, public sector, city departments, and more. It is these who will shape the requirements for new service capabilities which, in turn, will drive demands on the role of operators in delivering them.

Back in 2014, we presented on IoT applications at the Service Innovation Summit. In our presentation, we made the point that the stakeholder mix required by advanced IoT services would fundamentally change the roles of operators. For example, we asserted that it will be city authorities that define the requirements of e-Services to need the needs of their citizens and the businesses that inhabit their boundaries. Operators, we said, must play a key role in this but not the leading role – most such service will have requirements on the network infrastructure needed to support and enable them, but it will be specialists with the requisite knowledge in healthcare, energy, transport and the like who will define the services. Operators must work with such actors to ensure that their connectivity infrastructure supplies the required capabilities.

This was borne out at TM Forum Live. Unlike in previous years, I didn’t have a single conversation with an operator, but I did speak to representatives from cities, municipalities, healthcare industries, regulators and more. All of whom had clear view on their priorities and what they expect from network providers. This is a dramatic and profound change. For a long time, analysts have reported on the opportunities presented by IoT services but have tended to characterise near-term opportunities in terms of relatively low-value telemetry services.

It’s clear that things are changing. The effective delivery of e-Services, largely based on IoT devices and smart applications, is something that will be driven by the requirements of different public and private sector stakeholders. Operators are confronted with the challenge of deploying their assets in order to deliver them, rather than their usual role of defining services in the first place. Some of these opportunities are huge, as the focus on healthcare in workshops indicated; others provide less tangible, but still important opportunities through contributions to citizen welfare (for example, a pollen alert system enabled by distributed atmospheric sensors across the metropolitan area of Nice).

Some years ago, we had the pleasure of meeting Michel Burger, then a CTO at Vodafone Group. We debated the assets that operators could bring to application developers, which we agreed included policy, charging, voice, location and QoS, but we also noted that this list would diminish. Indeed, we have seen other providers emerge that can offer voice capabilities and also location. However, strong assets remain and it is these assets that operators need to leverage in order to meet the emerging demands of advanced e-Services, whether for private sector provider or for public needs.

I met Michel again in a fascinating workshop on Smart Health. However, this time he was a representative of NantMobile Health, a provider of solutions to help patients participate in the management of their conditions. He noted that operator assets are fundamental to this, but that their role is dependent on the emerging needs of the healthcare applications themselves.

TM Forum Live illustrated quite clearly why this is the case. Each of the services envisaged requires a range of capabilities, which must be supported by network connectivity. As such, operators have a role in providing the right kind of network with the right kind of performance requirements and the right kind of charging regime. Many services will require variable QoS capabilities which will have complex charging requirements. Operators must adapt to realise that they will not play the leading role in this world. They have to work with the needs of a diverse – and growing – range of stakeholders who bring different perspectives, different needs and different expertise to each opportunity.

In an interview with Craig Bachman, Senior Director of Open Digital / IoE programs at the TM Forum, I explored this change. TM Forum is taking its expertise in telecoms business processes and adapting them to the new requirements of the business models that will emerge. This is important work. Any operator that is struggling to understand the role it will play in the emerging world of e-Services must pay attention to this. The TM Forum isn’t providing the only answers but it is helping to shape how operators can position themselves as expert network providers and how they can turn their attention profitably towards emerging opportunities.

One thing is clear. Operators have to accept a new role. They have leadership and expertise in delivering complex networks and in enabling both billing of micro transactions and also of transactions at scale. This expertise will be required by providers of healthcare, education and automotive services, to name but a few, but the definition of these services will come from these players.

TM Forum Live provided a refreshing perspective on this new digital reality. We’ve had numerous conversations with city representatives about the network capabilities required to support new digital services. None of them then had any awareness of the TMF and its role in ensuring consistent and flexible approaches. The fact that so many representatives from cities around the world came to Nice shows how successfully the need to address these requirements has become known. We’ll look forward to returning next year to see how far this broad engagement goes in realising the potential of such services.

The telecoms industry has changed irrevocably in the last few years. Faced with new competitors, traditional operators have struggled to make sense of the challenges ahead, while quietly doing their utmost to protect their classic voice and data services. If they want to understand the digital environment and the complex array of stakeholders that will shape new requirements and which will drive future opportunities, TM Forum Live seems a good place to start.