ip.access is coming up to fifteen years old , and like any difficult teenager is prone to throw a strop or two. One of my favourite rants is on the doubletalk that goes on around interoperability. People who ought to know better will profess interoperability from one side of their mouths, while promoting private interfaces with the other. Drives me mad.
Last week I had the opportunity to present to the Cambridge Wireless Small Cell SIG. They were running a meeting on the specific issue of interoperability, and it was gratifying to see some common purpose and common understanding expressed across the great telco-vendor divide. For companies like ip.access, interoperability is not just a nice-to-have. History is littered with the skeletons of companies who thought they could work through OEM private or unfeasibly complex non-interoperable public interfaces. They died, as ip.access nearly did, still hoping. Fortunately for us, the telecom winter of 2001 froze out our early OEM relationships and forced us to talk directly to our operator customers using publicly standardised, interoperable interfaces. What we thought was a near-death experience was actually the luckiest break of our infancy. Since then, the life-or-death importance of interoperability has formed a cornerstone of our existence.
So to hear Alessandro Bovone of EE say more-or-less the same thing – that EE can’t afford to work with private interfaces either – was immensely gratifying. And yet, the pressures towards proprietary interfaces remain strong. Smaller operators may choose to simplify their procurement and integration processes by working with single vendors and are able to compromise on network price/performance and feature flexibility. OEMs will use interoperability as a tool to attack new markets, but once incumbent will promote private interfaces as the route to improved performance as a sound defensive strategy. And cloud-RAN, remote radio-head and virtualisation threatens to introduce another layer of private interfaces into the RAN.
No wonder we’re all confused.
But things are brightening. Operators – as Alessandro and EE showed at the SIG, and many other operators have shown outside it – see the benefits of interoperability. The industry recognises the cost of interoperability test and is working through fora such as the Small Cell Forum to draw its sting. Vendors, even the large ones, are delivering to standard interoperable interfaces. A world where small innovative companies can find a direct route to the widest possible market might be just within our grasp.