NICE, France -- TM Forum Live! -- Nine of the world's biggest service providers have thrown their collective weight behind the TM Forum's Open APIs initiative as they look to minimize the complexity of their back-office systems and tap into partnership opportunities.
Axiata Group Berhad , Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL), China Unicom Ltd. (NYSE: CHU), NTT Group (NYSE: NTT), Orange (NYSE: FTE), Telefónica and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) will adopt the APIs developed under the TM Forum program as part of their IT strategies, it was revealed earlier today at the TM Forum Live! event in Nice, France.
According to Joann O'Brien, VP of Industry Collaboration for the TM Forum, support for Open APIs will be something all service providers backing the initiative include in requests for proposal (RFPs) from January 2017.
"We started 18 months ago with simple APIs and now have a suite of 18," said O'Brien at a press conference in Nice today. "Our target is to get 200 service providers across the globe adopting these by 2018 and we are confident we can gain support to meet that."
In principle, the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) that are open and standardized should simplify the process of developing different service and IT platforms, allowing operators to reuse a set of common "catalog-based" components.
"APIs are a way of globalizing the company," said Chris Boyd, the director digital architecture and transformation for Spain's Telefónica, during the TM Forum's press conference. "If I’m delivering direct to bill for 320 million customers I don't want to have to do things numerous times or spend money on integration."
Executives from BT, Orange and Vodafone also noted the "internal" benefits of an approach based on Open APIs, with BT claiming to have reduced the number of IT systems it uses from 4,500 to 1,800 over the past few years by adopting similar principles.
"I used to see horrible things going in the organization," said George Glass, the chief systems architect for BT, the UK telecom incumbent. "When we had an alteration to the value-added tax regime, for example, we had to change 47 different systems and go through three months of testing to ensure it was correctly applied to bills, but there is a better way of developing software -- design it and write it once and use it multiple times."
Even so, while keen to note the efficiency benefits they expect to realize through Open APIs, operators are more excited about the revenue-generating potential of the initiative. By sharing APIs externally, they hope to attract new business partners and spur the development of new digital offerings.
"More and more we are doing digital partnerships, crossing boundaries and dealing with other companies, and we have to organize ourselves and present APIs they can use in those industries," said Laurent Leboucher, the vice president of APIs and ecosystems for France's Orange.
Operators would not provide concrete examples of third parties they are already working with on Open APIs, but Lester Thomas, the chief systems architect for Vodafone, said a number of MVNO and dealer partners were using the same APIs as the UK operator. Leboucher, meanwhile, indicated the approach would be critical to Orange's Internet of Things and mobile banking strategies.
Analyzing the entire approach during morning presentation at the TM Forum Live! conference, Thomas told attendees the initiative would leave plenty of scope for "vendor and operator-specific innovation" within the platforms the Open APIs support.
"The reason for doing this is all about new revenue streams," he added. "The future digital operator is about helping other verticals to be successful in creating new solutions."
The initiative has been cautiously welcomed in the analyst community. "I think it's quite sensible," says Caroline Chappell, practice leader of cloud and NFV at Heavy Reading . "You have to have a common understanding of data you are transferring between systems if you want to automate -- otherwise you have to do manual entry and you'll have every operator writing their own APIs."
Nevertheless, Chappell says the TM Forum is "arguably" not the right organization to pioneer Open APIs on the networks side and might need to involve other groups, such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the Open Networking Foundation , when developing APIs in that area.
Bengt Nordström, the CEO of consulting company Northstream , describes Open APIs as a "logical way for the industry to address the situation it is in," but is doubtful it will ultimately be more transformative than similar initiatives in the past.
"What I’m trying to understand is whether developments like SDN and NFV and cloudification and digitalization are really going to prevent operators from just being connectivity providers," he told Light Reading. "I see a good initiative but I'm not sure it will change the overall direction."
During today's press conference, operators were asked to explain why the Open APIs initiative would be more successful than earlier schemes.
"The world has moved on, technology is more standardized and we're much clearer about aims, so there is more opportunity to be successful," said Telefónica's Boyd.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading