'Network APIs is just one piece,' says a top telecom executive at AWS, drawing attention to the company's vast resources and huge developer community.

Iain Morris, International Editor

February 23, 2024

5 Min Read
Amazon's headquarters
Outside Amazon's headquarters in Seattle.(Source: Amazon)

Ericsson justified splurging about $6.2 billion on Vonage in 2022 with bullish talk about APIs, the keys that would unlock a box of new 5G network features for application developers. Vonage, like Twilio, was well known in the older market for communication APIs and already used by more than a million developers. Ericsson could, it said, build on that expertise.

But a much bigger player in APIs, known mainly for other things, is AWS. Never likely to be a takeover target for Ericsson, it began talking to operators about network APIs back in 2019, according to Ishwar Parulkar, its chief technology officer for telecom and edge cloud. That's well before Ericsson disclosed plans to buy Vonage. Since then, as described in a new blog, it has shown off several applications that use network APIs on AWS Marketplace, which today boasts 15,000 "transactable listings" and 2.5 million active subscriptions. One of them, Unmanned Life, incorporates a "quality on demand" API to prevent autonomous drones from crash landing on pedestrians' heads.

A battle of the network API platforms now looms, and it will pit tech giants like AWS against telecom players such as Ericsson and Nokia. Telcos in numerous countries are coordinating their network API launches, but they are doing it on platforms built by third-party middlemen. Facilitated by Vonage, a launch by Germany's operators is imminent. In Sri Lanka, operators are rolling out on AWS. "We will be playing a major role in this in collaboration with telcos to expose these APIs to our developers," Parulkar told Light Reading.

A mushrooming of platforms clearly brings a risk of fragmentation. On the technical side, stakeholders are confident this can be avoided if everyone adheres to standardized APIs defined by CAMARA, a library overseen by the Linux Foundation. "We are counting on that, and we will actually be participating with the GSMA and other bodies to ensure there is that level of standardization and abstraction to make this successful across operators as well as platforms," said Parulkar.

One-stop shop

Yet there could be a lot of business at stake for the CAMARA-compliant platform providers. And Ericsson, now boasting 1.6 million Vonage developers, was sounding pugnacious at a recent press briefing in London. "If you go to any generic platform on the web, you may not get that knowledge about how to connect networks," said Erik Ekudden, Ericsson's chief technology officer. "They are great at what they are doing but, frankly, I think we know a little bit more about the networks."

How much that will matter in this world of standardized APIs is unclear today. And Ericsson will struggle to match AWS elsewhere. "Network APIs is just one piece," said Parulkar. "You need compute, you need storage, you need databases, you need machine-learning services. And we have all of that. And developers are using and building apps on these today, so this just becomes an additional capability." As a kind of one-stop shop, AWS looks hard to beat.

It also undoubtedly has a much larger developer community than Vonage does, although AWS does not attach a number to that in the same way as Ericsson. "Other API aggregators have their own developer communities and have built a growing business with communication APIs around those communities," said Parulkar, noting that AWS caters to "millions of customers," from startups to large enterprises and government agencies. “The cloud has a very large developer footprint because it offers a much broader set of other services, along with a global infrastructure for hosting applications."

Nevertheless, if AWS has the upper hand with people who write code, Ericsson is still a more familiar face to most telcos. It is also regarded as a whizz at the 5G core, the relevant part of the network in the discussion about more valuable network APIs. Ericsson is off to a quick start, striking deals with individual operators and powering a Spanish platform for multiple telcos, as it will also do in Germany.

Ericsson also has been more upfront about revenue sharing, promising to split sales with telcos. While the company has not revealed precise details, it has an obvious interest in the financial wellbeing of the companies that spend money on its network products. Parulkar declined to share details about the AWS approach.

The money flows

Big operators, though, will not want to see money flow mainly into the pockets of middlemen, and one has already been outspoken on the issue. "What I really want to understand is where is the money going – into which part of this – because the last thing you want is the aggregation piece taking too much of a percentage of the overall value chain," said Howard Watson, BT's chief security and networks officer, at a recent press briefing.

For that reason, operators may welcome competition between platforms they do not themselves control, provided it does not become a turn-off for developers. The single-operator storefront, at the opposite end of the scale to having one clearinghouse for the whole industry, is not ideal, as far as Watson is concerned. "[The] complexity of a developer having to pay every single operator will be a big deterrent to consumption and adoption," he said.

The worry for anyone in telecom is the industry's miserable track record against Big Tech. Ericsson notably abandoned Edge Gravity, its attempt to build a global edge cloud platform, in 2020. Nokia last year gave up on developing its own containers-as-a-service technology, offloading staff and assets to IBM-owned Red Hat. Telco efforts to compete as cloud service providers dismally failed.

While Parulkar believes the market has room for multiple platforms without fragmenting, he also thinks it is "difficult to say" how many platforms will exist in each country, and what form they will take. But AWS will look formidable to any local rival. "We are a global infrastructure provider and have a presence pretty much across the globe, which telcos don't have," he said. "They are bound by countries." The contest begins.

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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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