APIs are the building blocks of how the world of technology works: Used to integrate applications with each other, API calls make up the majority of global internet traffic these days. Now, telecoms carriers, often cut out of the march of tech but now looking for more ways to monetize next-generation networks like 5G, want to get in on the act.
Today the GSMA -- the association representing the world's major mobile operators -- announced a new initiative with 21 carriers called Open Gateway, a framework to provide universal, open source-based APIs into carrier networks for developers to access and use a variety of mobile network services like location or identity verification and carrier billing, which previously would have been more complicated or more expensive (if not impossible) to integrate and use. The plan is to be able to kick off more development using APIs in applications like immersive mixed-reality experiences and web3 applications that will in turn give more 5G business to the mobile carriers.
Timed with the kick-off of GSMA's big industry show, MWC in Barcelona, Amazon's AWS and Microsoft's Azure were named as the first two big cloud providers working with carriers to provide access to APIs to developers.
Initial carriers that have signed up to Open Gateway are América Móvil, AT&T, Axiata, Bharti Airtel, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, e& Group, KDDI, KT, Liberty Global, MTN, Orange, Singtel, Swisscom, STC, Telefónica, Telenor, Telstra, TIM, Verizon and Vodafone. These carriers have signed a memorandum of understanding, and the plan is to build and work on these APIs by way of CAMARA, an open source project co-developed by the Linux Foundation and the GSMA for this purpose: to help developers access "enhanced" network capabilities.
The carriers have invested billions in new networking technology, but they don't really have a lot of usage on those networks. This move is being driven in part by them trying to kick-start activity on them.
“GSMA Open Gateway will enable single points of access to ultra-broadband networks and provide a catalyst for immersive technologies and web3 -- giving them the ability to fulfill their potential and reach critical mass," said José María Álvarez-Pallete López, the chairman of the GSMA as well as the CEO and chairman of Telefónica. "Telcos have come a long way in developing a global platform to connect everyone and everything. And now, by federating open network APIs and applying the roaming concept of interoperability, mobile operators and cloud services will be truly integrated to enable a new world of opportunity. Collaboration amongst telecom operators and cloud providers is crucial in this new digital ecosystem.”
No details have been given about which services we might see rolled out first. Open Gateway is launching initially with API specifications for eight services: SIM swap (eSIMs to change carriers more easily; "quality on demand"; device status (to let users know if they are connected to a home or roaming network); number verify; edge site selection and routing; number verification (SMS 2FA); carrier billing or check out; and device location (when a service needs a location verfiied). There will be more APIs added this year, it said. Perhaps some of the names might also get tweaked. SIM swap, for example, already has a more nefarious connotation. The MWC event will feature a number of demos showing off how the APIs could be used.
The news is an interesting development given the history of mobile carriers and the role they've played particularly since the boom in smartphone usage.
Mobile carriers have long had a fear of becoming a "bit pipe" -- a commodity with services sold at increasingly competitive (aka low margin) prices. That was a fate that seemed inevitable when smartphones and apps came along. New content was delivered over the top of mobile networks (not by the networks themselves). App stores controlled by phone makers (not the carriers) distributed that content, and charged for it. And companies like Apple and Google increasingly call the shots with how even network services themselves were getting provisioned.
Carriers have thought they could stave off bit-pipe relegation, though, by way of their advantages: they have the main relationship with users when it comes to getting basic services like voice and data, and their mobile networks have built into them a lot of different functionality on top of that basic provisioning that they've thought would give them openings to build their own app stores and more.
Various efforts however have had very mixed success. Now, the shift to opening up those mobile networks by creating APIs for third parties to use those tools more easily can either be in two ways: as revolutionary -- telcos have always been very guarded about their networks, and now they are realizing that there is a value to thinking in a more modern way about this to bring more evolution and progress into the industry, giving developers a less fragmented, more scalable option by building APIs that work everywhere, in line with how people can roam easily between networks when travelling. Or, it could be read as a kind of defeat: if they can't beat tech giants, join them.
Amazon and Microsoft have been building out a longer-term relationship with carriers, in part to create more trust with them after years of being seen as a threat. (Both have in the past posed their own competitive profiles to telcos, although Microsoft has a longer and more complicated history here, banked around its disastrous acquisition of Nokia.) Last week, as a precursor to today's news, AWS announced a raft of new products to work with carriers to build and run mobile networks; and last night Microsoft released new services of its own for telcos.
The tech partners are, predictably for a GSMA event, singing the praises and potential of the deal.
"At Microsoft, we are focused on extending a distributed computing fabric from the cloud to the edge, together with our operator partners," said Satya Nadella, chairman and CEO, Microsoft, in a statement. "We look forward to bringing the GSMA Open Gateway initiative to Microsoft Azure, to empower developers and help operators monetise the value of their 5G investments."
Ishwar Parulkar, chief technologist for AWS's telco business, likened the step being taken here as the next one in the progress started not by telcos but by tech companies, specifically Twilio with its groundbreaking APIs years ago to access SMS capabilities among developers.
"Its about network as a service," he said in an interview. AWS has been working on 5G and cloud services for it back in 2019, and "One of the thoughts [even then] was that we could change the experience if we could add APIs into it." It's taken nearly four years, but that seems to be here.
There are, as with payments, location services and more these days, always going to be software solutions that will work around whatever the carriers do, so it's a matter of who can do it first and most easily for developers and ultimately users to adopt.
"They know there is a lot of work to do and not a lot of guaranteed success but they have got to try," Simon Buckingham, founder of 5G consultants Nonvoice, said in an interview. "With something like edge compute, if you can start charging for quality as a service, for telcos that have spent millions on infrastructure, if you can charge a premium for that, it can be a game changer. The question is are they going to be able to do it quickly and well enough than the hyper scalers," as he calls the tech giants and startups of the world, "or will Google and Microsoft and the rest beat them to the punch?"