Innovative services or bust

If you've been reading my columns with any regularity, you'll know that even though I've been in the communications business longer than I might care to admit, I'd like to think I'm still pretty connected when it comes to new technologies, new services and new ways of doing business.

I like nothing more than to see and experience the latest and greatest trends in the industry like 3DTV or the newest 4G handset. One really interesting type of service we're starting to hear is about is a space called "augmented reality," which is an inspired amalgamation of capabilities you find on smartphones where you might point your camera at something like the Empire State Building, and the GPS in your phone knows where you are, searches through what you're likely looking at through your camera lens and then offers you all kinds of results like a Wikipedia entry on the historic building, information on tickets to get to the top of the building or where's the nearest McDonald's. Cool and not actually any breakthrough technology, just an inspired orchestration of what is already there.

In a way, I think that's a lesson for CSPs facing a growing disparity between the demands of the market for more bandwidth coupled with its unwillingness to actually pay for it. One solution is to endlessly search for new novel services to deliver, but another is to do more of the same in new creative ways.

Some new services like IPTV are quietly becoming pretty successful for some operators; others are working in partnership with different suppliers in the value chain on areas like mobile money. Cloud services may be another growth area, but all of these are very "network heavy" services.

Contrast that with app stores, content and advertising where CSPs seem to be losing momentum compared to the "over the top" players, and the old Michael Porter dictum of sticking to your core competencies starts to show through. So other network-based services like hi-fi voice are an obvious play even if they are unlikely to drive much in the way of new revenues, but they will go a long way to keeping existing customers happy.

Another interesting area in new services based on "old" stuff has to do with "smart" utilities such as smart electricity, gas and water grids. For example, Vodafone has recently won a contract in the UK to supply – at least initially – about 1 million SIM cards to deliver wireless connectivity for smart electricity meters. This is the first wave to replace all electricity and gas meters in the UK with smart meters. That's right; they've run out of people to sell mobile phones to, so they've started giving them out to inanimate objects! (By the way, that's why the fax machine got invented!)

All kidding aside, with 25 million households in the UK and many more in the U.S. and other countries experiencing so-called "saturation" of mobile markets, that's a lot of potential new network users reutilizing and repurposing existing technologies and investment.

None of these are the "killer app," but then I don't think there is a killer app out there — I think its lots and lots of new angles on fairly ordinary infrastructure, just done better, smarter and cheaper. And rather than being traditional telecom services, where the provider buys it, installs it, activates it and then charges and bills for it, the new wave of communications services generally involve partnerships and a lot of things — money, orders and more — flowing among parties in the value chain. And then of course we have the whole management issue as well.

That's why TM Forum has created its Enabling New Services initiative to get a handle on this B2B trading environment and take a close look at what appropriate standards are needed here. This isn't our first outing in this space by a long shot; we've been working on service delivery platforms, value chains and other components, albeit in a more isolated manner.

Now we're looking to bring it all together into a more structured environment to help our members address all of the issues that come up with new services that involve a lot of piece parts and, in some cases, a lot of different partners.

CSPs know they are so far from the days when voice was king and nothing stood between them and their customers. And unless they adapt to today's world of new services, they'll really lose out on a lot of potential business and may never be able to catch up again.

Keith Willets is chairman and CEO of TM Forum

This article originally appeared on TM Forum’s Inside Leadership newsletter