MWC: “It’s the network, stupid!”

If there is one broad theme that sums up this year’s Mobile World Congress for me it is the idea of ‘the network as asset’, and the perception that CSPs could and should be doing a great deal more to leverage what is their main resource.

Customer experience also figured highly in the briefings and presentations I attended, but by contrast with last year’s heavy CEM-software product focus, this year customer experience was discussed just as much in the context of network performance and the need to make more effective use of network intelligence.

The network as asset
The launch of NSN’s Liquid Applications provides a good starting point for my MWC overview as it illustrates how central network and IT assets are not just to delivering operational efficiencies and good customer experience but also to generating new services.

NSN CEO Rajeev Suri made a point of emphasising the untapped value of the network when discussing Liquid Applications: “we need to leverage the value of the network, it is a massive asset.”

A complement to NSN’s Liquid Net portfolio, Liquid Applications pushes processing capabilities from the core out to the network edge, caching content locally at the base station in order to improve network performance and customer experience.

Some initial reactions to Liquid Applications have pointed out that there are existing tools such as Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) that can be used to reduce transmission costs and maintain good user experience. But I think what is particularly interesting about Liquid Applications is not just how it provides processing and storage capabilities at the BTS but also how it can work closely with IBM Big Data-driven analytics technology to enable new services.

At the heart of Liquid Applications is NSN’s Radio Application Cloud Server (RACS) and this, together with IBM’s WebSphere Application Service Platform for Networks (ASPN) platform, delivers service creation capabilities. Liquid Applications both gathers real-time network data – about radio conditions, subscriber location, direction of travel, etc – and turns the data into context-relevant services.

Both NSN and IBM stands at the show had a demo of a ‘City in Motion’ solution which analyzes radio data to help identify population flow and so configure city’s transport network in real-time, and this was quoted as an example of the type of service that could be enabled by Liquid Applications.

This emphasis on making better use of the network ties in neatly with some of the managed services network optimisation and network opportunities discussions I had at MWC. The managed services market is changing because CSPs are increasingly looking to partner with someone who understands their business well enough to add real value, and because vendors are being more selective with their services businesses, focusing on managed services or SI projects which deliver business benefits rather than just reduced costs. In this context, planning and optimization services can be expected to play a key role in supporting solutions such as NSN’s Liquid Applications.

Continuing the same theme, Ericsson also chose MWC to highlight its new ‘Experience Centric Managed Services’ engagement model, where it seeks to align the management and operation of the network and IT environment to operator’s business objectives, including risk- and reward-related pricing.

Interestingly when quizzed about R&D investment levels, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg pointed out that the vendor has been investing heavily in developing new processes but that this type of investment in the services business does not show up in R&D figures. You can see why a CEO might be motivated to make that kind of remark but nevertheless it’s true to say that vendor innovativeness will increasingly need to be measured not just on investment in R&D but also in new processes.

Finally, with respect to the network as asset and customer experience themes, it’s worth mentioning Software Defined Networks (SDNs). SDNs were a hot topic at this year’s MWC and one that Dimitris Mavrakis covers in more detail in his MWC blog. It is enough to emphasise here that SDN strategies will be as much about providing advanced QoE for end users as about delivering improved functionality and network control. QoE measurement, advanced traffic analysis and analytics, service assurance, as well as application-level optimization are all aspects of the customer experience that can be better supported by SDNs.

Customer experience
The joint GSMA and Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance conference stream on the last day of MWC is always a good place to get a flavour of what is coming next on the network technology front, but interestingly this year’s topic focus was as much on enhanced customer experience as it was on more obvious technology evolution topics such as converged network operations and SDNs.

The session kicked off with SKT CEO and NGMN Alliance chairman Jae Byun looking at how user experience would be managed in an environment characterized by heavy data traffic and asserting that “the stars are now aligned for quality mobile service”. According to Byun the NGMN Alliance will be increasingly focusing on customer experience in addition to the more traditional areas it has looked at in the past.

Topics addressed during this particular session included edge caching, mobile video and mobile content delivery optimisation, transcoding, network-aware adaptation, just-in-time delivery and load balancing. However, the question of how operators could monetize good customer experience – the elephant in the room – was left unaddressed.

The same conference stream also included a plea from Tele2 CTIO Joachim Horn for improved vendor solutions, more functionality and better standardization to support QoS in shared networks. He also suggested a smarter network edge to enable better user experience. Tele2 is an early and consistent proponent of network sharing, so Horn’s concerns about the problem with how QoS is addressed in shared networks clearly carry weight.

The customer experience focus was also picked up in some of the MWC keynotes, including comments by Telefonica CEO Cesar Alierta around the need for operators to focus more on offering “enhanced customer experience”.

Peter Dykes’ MWC blog covers OSS/BSS announcements in more detail but I just wanted to briefly mention here some of the customer experience-related topics OSS/BSS vendors spoke to me about in Barcelona.

Process automation cropped up in various guises, with the consultancies and big IT companies typically giving it a stronger business process automation twist. Service assurance, order and service management tools, inventory management and order-to-activation systems, and self-service all figured highly.

Many of the OSS/BSS vendors I spoke to also stressed the importance of linking product implementations to business processes in order to deliver more value to their customers. Amdocs for example when talking about transformational managed services talked about the need for ‘value process alignment’ to help link order-to-activation process with key business indicators.

This was not unusual as several vendors voiced concerns about CSPs continuing to be hampered by their siloed structures and unable to align their organizations adequately around key business objectives. I sense that continuing vendor focus on offering professional services is driven as much by frustration that investment in the necessary tools to support customer experience will not happen if CSPs are left to do it themselves.

More generally, network vendors such as NSN, Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent continued their CEM-product push and Huawei demonstrated some interesting CEM and customer experience assurance additions to its SmartCare portfolio.

Customer experience may adopt a different guise each year but will continue to dominate MWC discussions in years to come.

Finally, some travel advice for those planning to attend #MWC14
Whatever you do next year don’t attempt to travel by train from the Fira to the airport via Gornal/Bellvitge. I thought I was being clever avoiding the taxi queues by taking what looked like a short FGC ride to the airport but ended up on a rain-swept railway platform somewhere in the outer suburbs in the company of half a dozen equally lost-looking MWC delegates, a solitary security guard and a wet Alsatian. A hand-painted “esta estación es del tercer mundo” protest sign hanging outside the station entrance pretty much summed up the experience. Clearly it’s not just the telecoms sector that is grappling with infrastructure and customer experience issues.