API days: GSMA plans may challenge Ericsson's $6B Vonage deal

The industry association is unveiling its Open Gateway initiative at this year's MWC, hoping it will spur the development of new applications for telco networks.

Iain Morris, International Editor

February 27, 2023

5 Min Read
API days: GSMA plans may challenge Ericsson's $6B Vonage deal

MWC23 – Write applications for Google and a developer can reach a global audience of billions. Code for a telco, especially in a relatively small European market, and the numbers aren't nearly a fraction as impressive. This vaguely explains some of the telecom industry's current fascination (some might say obsession) with uniform application programming interfaces (APIs), the software middlemen that could extend the developer reach and make coding efforts seem a lot more worthwhile.

Twilio has already done this very successfully in the world of text messages generated for two-factor authentication. "Twilio allows you to connect your application to all the mobile operators in the world so you don't have to do 1,000 separate applications," said James Crawshaw, a principal analyst with Omdia (a Light Reading sister company), during a previous discussion. But operators are still using different APIs from one another for important things like location, carrier billing and device status, complains Henry Calvert, the head of networks for the GSM Association (GSMA).

Figure 1: MWC wouldn't be MWC without the launch of a new initiative between telcos. (Source: Anna Berkut/Alamy Stock Photo) MWC wouldn't be MWC without the launch of a new initiative between telcos.
(Source: Anna Berkut/Alamy Stock Photo)

"In Spain or the UK, you would have to connect to three or four and use different APIs," he told Light Reading. "AWS and Azure have to build an instance for every single operator if it's not standardized." This is naturally seen as a barrier to innovation. Unless removed, the average telco will find it even harder to grow sales.

Hence a new industry initiative on APIs, pushed at this week's Mobile World Congress (MWC) by the GSMA but involving the Linux Foundation, arguably the world's most important "open source" group. MWC wouldn't be MWC without the emergence of a new cross-party initiative, and numerous past efforts have faded into obscurity, but this one does appear to have secured critical support from outside the telecom sector. APIs are a red-hot topic, too. Ericsson has talked them up in justifying its recent $6 billion takeover of Vonage.

Heading north

The GSMA appears to have identified eight APIs for inclusion in Camara, a Linux Foundation project – unveiled at last year's MWC – that looks after standardized telco APIs. Some are in aforementioned areas (carrier billing etc.). Some are new and intended to support things like edge site selection and routing. Under Camara, they are all what the industry calls "northbound" APIs, meaning they provide the interface between the network and the applications layer above it (as opposed to east-west APIs between telcos).

Named Open Gateway, the latest GSMA push already involves 20 operator groups responsible for 45% of the world's mobile connections, said Calvert. On the Big Tech side, AWS and Microsoft have also endorsed it. Demonstrations are scheduled this week in Barcelona to prove there are real-world use cases, and not just graphics and slideware. An "immersive music concert" orchestrated by Axiata is promised, taking advantage of APIs for number verification, device billing and device location. Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Vodafone will apparently team up with Ericsson and Vonage to showcase cloud gaming facilitated by a "quality on demand" API.

Skeptics may wonder about overlap with other API initiatives, the most prominent of which is the TM Forum's long-running Open APIs one. But Calvert says the GSMA and Camara are not trying to replicate those efforts, pointing out that the TM Forum is more about operational management of systems and back-office IT.

Camara also looks much better than the 3GPP, the main mobile standards body, when it comes to generating APIs for the network exposure function (NEF) in the 5G core, says Crawshaw. In a recent LinkedIn post, he wrote that "the 3GPP APIs that NEF exposes are hard for developers to work with. Camara solves that by turning them into more abstract service APIs."

The involvement of Ericsson and Vonage in demos is more intriguing, because Open Gateway does look like a potential threat to Ericsson's APIs strategy. The Swedish vendor's hope is that developers can be unleashed on the 5G business market using Vonage APIs. It seems keen to reinvent itself as a platform company, a kind of fulcrum for the telco and developer communities. Yet many telcos want to cut reliance on single-vendor platforms, not increase it. They might prefer a more collaborative GSMA-led affair.

Calvert acknowledges the APIs space is already "highly competitive" but evidently thinks there is a question mark over the adaptability of some players. "Vonage's history is in voice. Can it transfer into other services? I don't know. Twilio's history is in SMS. Can it go further?" he said.

Just because developers can take better advantage of network features when writing applications does not guarantee revenue growth for telcos. But making the opportunity more attractive for developers seems like a necessary starting point. The concern may be that industry-wide APIs limit the scope for differentiation between telcos. You can't have everything.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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