Mobile operators: How can they fail when they have so much liquid gold to drill into?

Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications

Venezuela needs a make-over doesn’t it? Perhaps the socialist utopia should be re-branded as a great metaphor for the modern mobile operator.

Mobile operators are the Venezuelas of the machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) sectors.

A typical operator, let’s call it Mobazuela, has much in common with the culture cultivated by Hugo Chavez. It has the world’s greatest inheritance of natural assets but lacks the expertise to exploit them. All those subscribers are like liquid gold and the base stations are extraction platforms – if only the value can be extracted from them, says Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer.

Many of the IoT’s Mobazuelas have seen the value of their assets drop.

Just as oil prices were driven down to $50(€42.30) a barrel by competition, the Mobazuelas have seen their pipelines exploited by aggressive interlopers. Like riggers, these over the top prospectors are quite unedifying sometimes – rather vulgar ‘loadsamoney’ types – but nobody can deny their work ethic. They beaver like crazy for six months, then go on spending splurges and end up fighting each other over ridiculous jealousies and turf disputes. But they make fortunes.

Venezuela has the world’s largest natural reserves of crude oil – more even than the Saudis – but it doesn’t have the tankers or the expertise to make it work. And since it doesn’t allow gringos in, it lacks the partners.

Similarly, many mobile operators have technology strategies that could have been devised by Hugo Chavez. Though they invest in modern technology like a next-generation NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation) infrastructure they can never quite develop the right culture to keep with the pace. Meanwhile, the developers in one department don’t seem to like dealing with the operations office.

Telcos have historically taken the attitude that ‘if IT ain’t broke they won’t fix it’. This is because they have a commitment to 99.999% uptime to their clients, which in turn makes them averse to disrupting their IT. Who can blame them?

But they need to be constantly evolving. According to many Darwinistic devotees of OpenStack, it is technically feasible to create a complete virtualisation of the entire set of functions of a mobile operator. However, risk-averse mobile operators rarely keep pace with the revisions of open source software and end up losing the threads. This means they can’t move forward any more because they can’t follow the plot that everyone else is up to date with. Canonical has dubbed this phenomenon StuckStack.

In order to avoid rigor mortis setting into the body politic of the modern mobile operator, they have to develop a DevOps culture in which new systems are constantly being created. But that means the humans in the organisation have to be as fluid and flexible as the software. And humans have far more variables – a whole gamut of social and psychological problems – and that creates far more moving parts that can stop talking to each other, for political reasons.

Canonical provides a system called Juju, which models the relationships between all the different services in an OpenStack and automatically rolls them over into any subsequent upgrade. There is no human equivalent for human relationships.

Which is probably why smaller nations on the IoT world stage are taking over. They have fewer human relationships to deal with. The virtual mobile operators, for example, have a much simpler set of objectives and enjoy complete social mobility.

Systems integrators, by necessity, are much more adept at socialising and fitting in. They have never been able to dictate to others through intransigence and have spent their whole lives meeting and uniting others on their terms. Which gives them the ideal skills for the IoT. Truly, the meek are about to inherit the earth.

What’s the future for the mobile operators then?

Some can offer some IoT services, depending on their scale and resources, partnership skills and willingness to invest, says Dean Bubley of telecoms watcher Disruptive Analysis.

Most telcos will develop select verticals like automotive and health. But they will struggle when there is a lot of on-site and in-building networking needed. “I wouldn’t expect them to be running the process-control system in an oil refinery,” says Bubley.

We’re back to Venezuela again. They really did squander their assets, didn’t they?

The author of this blog is Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow OR @jcIoTnow


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