AT&T moves forward with open network APIs as industry grapples with standards

AT&T has been a leader in the software-defined networking movement among telcos. And now, it’s forging its own path to create application programming interfaces (APIs) on its wired and wireless networks so that developers can tap those networks to develop cool, new apps.

APIs can be found in many places within the company of AT&T. Stephanie Ormston, AT&T assistant vice president of digital services integration, said APIs are simply connections between two apps or two systems.

But for purposes of this story, we’re talking about network APIs.

Telecom engineers say it’s important to have a cloud-native, standalone (SA) 5G network before a carrier can think about opening up its network with APIs for developers.

Earlier this year, Erlend Prestgard, CEO of the startup WG2, said when he was working at the Norwegian operator Telenor, the company created a group to build some small applications on top of Telenor’s core. Although the applications it wanted to build were not complex, the group found it nearly impossible to build the apps because the core network was proprietary and extremely complex.

WG2 was comprised of a group of Telenor engineers who broke away from the operator and set out to create a cloud-native mobile core. The startup has since been purchased by Cisco.

AT&T says it is enabling thousands of customers for its 5G SA network every day and will continue to ramp as new 5G devices are introduced. Currently, the Samsung S21 and the iPhone 13 and newer are 5G SA capable on the AT&T network. Its fixed wireless access home internet service, AT&T Internet Air, also runs on 5G SA. 

Stephanie Ormston
Stephanie Ormston (AT&T)

But Ormston noted that at AT&T it’s not just about wireless. “We operate a converged network: a scaled multi-gig fiber network and a scaled 5G network,” she said. “We try to look at it as a broader opportunity for network APIs.”

Fierce asked where exactly any new network APIs would run. Would they run on the AT&T Integrated Cloud?

Ormston said, “I don’t want to tie it to a physical location. We would describe it as a software layer that rides on top of our network that is cloud-native, distributed, uses industry standards and software development best practices.”

Dish also does open APIs

About a year ago, Dish Wireless announced that it had set up a new developer’s website, and would expose its network function APIs to developers, allowing them to experiment on its 5G network platform.

But at the time, S&P Global Market Intelligence analyst Lynnette Luna noted on LinkedIn that Dish’s announcement wasn’t that impactful because there aren’t yet that many subscribers on its network. She said what the telecom industry really needed was all the mobile carriers to get together and agree on standards so that developers could create applications that would run on all networks.

Network API standards

In fact, progress has since been made for that to happen.

Earlier this year, the GSMA announced Open Gateway, a project to create a framework of universal APIs. And at MWC Las Vegas last week, the GSMA said Open Gateway is now supported by 35 mobile operators, representing about 60% of all mobile subscribers in the world. AT&T is part of the Open Gateway project.

In a research note in March Luna wrote, “The GSMA attempted something similar in 2012 with the OneAPI Exchange. It failed, primarily because 4G networks had too many proprietary network elements and not enough carriers backed the initiative — viewing their networks as proprietary assets.”

But today Luna said, “At least at Open Gateway they have a big ecosystem, rather than just one carrier doing it a certain way. Developers want that scale. I like the GSMA initiative.”

The TM Forum is also working on open APIs. Igal Elbaz, network CTO with AT&T, said at the September TM Forum Ignite event in Copenhagen that there’s a lot of unpredictability in the developer’s mind about networks. “What we’re asking here is: what if we can expose network insights and capabilities in such a way that we can remove some of that unpredictability,” said Elbaz.

Ormston said AT&T was involved in proofs of concept at the TM Forum event. One of those PoCs looked at how an operator might expose network APIs through a hyperscaler portal. She said that PoC won a TM Forum Catalyst Award.

But although AT&T is involved with both the TM Forum and the GSMA’s Open Gateway project, it’s not waiting around for standards to be settled before it moves forward with its own API work.

AT&T forges ahead

“The way we see it at AT&T, there are going to be multiple development communities,” said Ormston. She said in some cases, app developers might want to focus on AT&T customers. But in many cases, app developers will want to build consumer apps that run across all mobile networks, so they only have to build that app once.

“We need to have the industry and forums to assign a set of standards of what those APIs need to look like,” she said. “And in some cases you’re seeing aggregators pop up to bring APIs to the market so developers can access one platform."

In terms of API aggregators those might be hyperscalers such as AWS or Microsoft Azure or perhaps another private marketplace that would provide APIs from multiples operators in a standardized way.

But while AT&T is participating in standards work, it’s also simultaneously forging ahead on its own. “We have a strategy for building out a best-in-class, programmable, distributed open network across wireless and wireline,” said Ormston. “We see that opens up a lot of opportunities for us for accelerating product innovation.”

In terms of the standards work she said, “There are some big questions we are still working to answer. But at a company level we are on track with our strategy.”

She couldn’t make any specific commitments about timelines in terms of when AT&T might open its network to developers. “But we are in active conversations to find the best way to do that,” she said.

What apps will be developed?

Asked what types of applications developers might want to create on top of carrier networks, Ormston cited security, saying it’s a “huge priority.”

Luna said the carriers will be especially interested in security applications because right now everyone is dealing with so many inconvenient security measures with layers of passwords and third-party authentication. “I think the hope is that will become more seamless with APIs,” said Luna.

She also thinks applications that serve enterprises will drive the network API movement forward.

Light Reading recently reported that Dish seems to be making some progress with its open APIs in the enterprise space.

For instance, an app might help Dish's enterprise customers to segment their users in a way that allows them to group customers by their communication habits, such as frequent callers, data-heavy users, or occasional users, enabling targeted marketing and personalized service offerings.