Telecom Ecosystem Group wants startups to bring telco innovation

An influential group of telecom executives has published a document that’s the result of two years of collaboration. It recommends best practices to boost telecom innovation.

Don Clarke, who was with BT for 40 years and became well-known in Silicon Valley for his work with virtualized networks, told Fierce Wireless that it’s still quite difficult for startups to gain traction in the telecom ecosystem because of the entrenched cultures.

“I think there’s a problem with start-up innovation,” said Clarke. “We formed a small informal group in late 2019.” The group’s name is Telecom Ecosystem Group (TEG). Yesterday, it published its paper “A Best Practices Framework for the Telecom Ecosystem” directly on LinkedIn.

Clarke said the best-practices document is the culmination of TEG’s conversations over the last couple of years.

One of the executives who’s been involved with TEG is Andrew Coward, currently general manager of Software Defined Networking with IBM. Prior to IBM, Coward ran his own startup for a few years, called Lumina Networks. He shared with TEG some of the things that made it hard to survive as a startup in the telecom world. One thing is that operators request, but don’t pay for, proofs of concept.

This practice benefits the large incumbent vendors, including Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei, said Clarke. "When I was with BT, whatever I wanted, they [Huawei] delivered and pretty quickly,” he said.

Others have tried to solve the innovation problem

There are already a number of initiatives to make the telecom vendor ecosystem more competitive. For instance, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) comes first to mind. TIP was established by Facebook in 2016 with the admirable goal of making telecom infrastructure more generic and consistent and therefore easier for companies to bring broadband to unserved places around the globe. But after a short time, some major telecom operators in Europe, such as Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, began to lead the group.

That’s not to say TIP hasn’t made great strides. But Clarke said, “TIP was pretty exciting when I saw it first come out with Facebook acting as a neutral host with deep pockets. But they got telcos involved. The way it then went, the telcos took over and the same mindset with their problem-space was transferred into TIP, in my opinion.”

The Open RAN Alliance has been another group whose mission was to bring start-up innovation into the radio access network (RAN). This group, like TIP, has also progressed toward its goal.

But Clarke pointed out that the Open RAN Alliance has “essentially been absorbed into TIP.”

Goal of TEG

Asked what TEG hopes to achieve, Clarke said that, first, it wanted to publish an easy-to-digest document enumerating the obstacles that any startup, hoping to work in the telecom sector, is likely to encounter.

The second thing is to get the document into the hands of employees at the telcos in many different departments from engineering, to R&D, to operations, to procurement.

Others involved with TEG include Analysis Mason Research Director Caroline Chappell, Diego Lopez, senior technology expert with Telefonica, and Klaus Martiny, a former senior executive with Deutsche Telekom.

Chappell said in a statement, “Our research suggests that even the most advanced telcos struggle with the pace of innovation in an increasingly cloud and software-led world. As the TEG Best Practices Framework paper points out, start-ups provide the seed corn for innovation in the telecom sector, most recently around new, disaggregated and cloud-based network architectures.  The health of such start-ups is intimately linked to telcos’ ability to harness innovation. So the TEG paper is timely in provoking industry debate around the relationship between telcos and start-up innovators and offers a welcome set of recommendations.”