The business case for standards

Aileen Smith, TM ForumWhether it's due to mergers and acquisitions or the process of swapping out legacy products for new ones, a typical service provider today will inevitably have a mixture of technologies and equipment running in their networks. There's no escaping this fate, but it's exactly this scenario that is one of the key drivers for standards within our industry.

A big challenge for operators who have ended up with vast amounts of different types of equipment is getting everything to work together and ensure that services are totally seamless from the customer's vantage point. The business case for standardsThe customer doesn't need to know what kind of equipment is running the show, whether it's 3G or 4G mobile or if landline and satellites are used to make a connection. The customer just wants to know that when they turn on their phone or launch a mobile app, it's going to work.

This speaks directly to the value of standards and the business requirement to have interoperability of a multiplicity of network technology. TM Forum has been really focused on exactly this business problem for a while now. If you look at our Managing New Technologies Initiative, the whole premise behind it is to ensure that as new technology starts replacing older equipment that management standards are fully compatible across the entire network.

TM Forum's Frameworx integrated business architecture is another key way we are helping service providers with feet in both the new and old worlds of technology. One component of Frameworx, the Information Framework (SID), includes a physical resource domain, which essentially allows a provider to model different network equipment regardless of technology or who it's from. This really fits into the general idea of taking out the complexity of managing disparate technologies. 

Another argument for standards is the lower cost involved in training staff on network equipment. For example, if you have certain processes in place with your network equipment, and your people are trained to work in a certain way, if new equipment enters the picture it would be a whole lot easier if they could transfer those processes to the new gear and continue working the way they've always worked.

The Business Process Framework (eTOM) components defines the business processes necessary to manage all of that equipment, and the result is not having to retrain IT staff within an operator and keeping management systems as simple as possible.

Playing in the value chain
In addition to proving their worth in situations where new and old mix in an operator's network environment, standards are also extremely valuable in today's environment where service providers no longer control the entire value chain. Instead, providers may play the role of delivering services on someone else's behalf. While this is still somewhat on the drawing board, our cloud and value chain initiatives are currently working on something called "billing on behalf of," a concept that leverages providers' tremendous expertise in micropayments.

Few entities in the world are as good at collecting small amounts of money and accurately billing for it each month, and so to remain relevant in today's value chain environment, providers can tell application developers and other owners of content and services that they will do the billing for them. What small developer wouldn't jump at the chance to outsource something as complex as billing?

But in order for that to work, they need to have a standard way of defining how much a service is worth and how to divide up the profits, a standard way of adding apps to a product catalog, a standard way of addressing pricing in the product catalog and more.

Apple has found tremendous success charging and taking payments for music, books and apps that have been created by other parties, but that's all part of the proprietary walled garden of iTunes. To extend that model out and do it ubiquitously requires the use of standards.

Standardization with differentiation
To all the providers out there who are hesitant about standards for fear it will diminish their uniqueness and competitiveness in the industry, I'd say it doesn't have to be that way. Frameworx is a compilation of widely accepted and generally used standards, but it is only the beginning. Two different providers can standardize on Frameworx with very different results. This is due to the flexibility and extensibility of Frameworx, which lends itself to customization of processes even while maintaining conformance. 

One way to look at it is to think about two people. Each person has similar skeletons, but they are two totally unique individuals who don't look or act the same. That analogy is perfect for operators who use Frameworx. The business case for standardsThey may be using the same underlying foundation for standards, but their product and service offerings and ways of doing business could be totally different. 

Due to this sort of chameleon-like ability of Frameworx to be almost anything you want, we've implemented conformance certification for service providers and suppliers to get an independent assessment and ensure they've used the correct methodology when implementing Frameworx or creating products based on it. 

For the most part, I'd say a lot of the traditional telcos have been a bit slow to wake up to the idea of the new value chain and their role within it, while others are quicker to embrace the new world order of delivering products and services to end customers. Standards are just one piece--albeit a critical one--of the overall puzzle to keep providers on the road to profitability and beat the revenue crunch. 

Training, demonstrations and other opportunities to see Frameworx in action first-hand will be a key part of Management World Americas 2010 in Orlando this November. We encourage anyone interested in standards and how they can benefit the industry to attend the conference, have your questions answered and come away with the knowledge and tools you need to get your organization moving into the 21st century.

Aileen Smith is Senior Vice President, Collaboration and Research & Development at the TM Forum and a FierceTelecom columnist.