This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Mikko Jarva, Head of Portfolio & Architecture, Network Monetization Platform at Nokia
With 5G deployments now widespread in many markets, telecom network providers are ushering in a new era to enable the building of new and improved software applications that enrich the network experience of business customers and consumers while generating new revenue streams.
This development is known as telecom, or network, application program interfaces (APIs) and refers to how application developers can access powerful capabilities within modern 5G-era networks through programmable software interfaces.
The broad goal is to create an ecosystem where the more network providers and application developers participate, the greater the benefit to all. Developers benefit by accessing many network providers with a single programming effort which helps their objectives to reach different geographies and end users at scale. Network providers benefit by having more developers able to reach their networks.
However, unlocking the power of telecom APIs poses multiple challenges to overcome.
Historically, telecom networks have been opaque clouds providing best-efforts services. The internal capabilities of networks have only been accessible to the network providers to build and operate their networks.
Moving toward opening the networks, the telecom industry needs to evangelize how these complex network capabilities can be useful to developers and then, in many cases, help the developers to stitch their applications together.
The industry movement toward more simplified APIs through initiatives like the Linux foundation CAMARA program and the GSMA Open Gateway Initiative is extremely helpful toward addressing this challenge.
These initiatives are aimed at making it easier for developers to use APIs, with all that implies for having open access to and writing applications for operator networks.
To be successful at scale, this open access to APIs and operator networks needs to be done through a digital relationship with the developers, and there is precedent to follow here.
Application developers have indicated that they would need help to make this work. They are familiar with completely digital experiences to obtain other resources for their work including cloud compute and storage.
In those cases, the developers know what they need and what to ask for. However, in the case of network capabilities that have traditionally not been accessible to them, telcos must explain what is possible and how to use it. A recent survey by Analysys Mason indicated that 49% of application developers consider networks APIs complex to work with.
For this to be successful, the developer’s digital journey must be served with a seamless portal offering education, tips, guides, documentation and software development kits (SDKs).
As they create innovative applications that will utilize network capabilities, developers will need network environments to actually test their programs against. Just like new car models need road testing to assess how different parts of a vehicle work in different conditions, software applications applied to networks also require stress testing to see how they perform in different network environments.
But currently, application developers don’t have network environments readily available on which to test their applications.
The network capabilities application developers will work with include things like the ability to change network service quality on demand and the ability to identify specific devices on a network, along with their model and precise location.
As a first step toward enabling test environments, developers will need to incorporate API calls into their applications – which they can now do easily using SDKs – and run unit tests that their applications perform to their specifications. Developers will also need to run integration tests with the networks to confirm that their applications meet the required specifications.
Additionally, they should ensure that the intended information is returned from the networks and that their application uses the information properly. All told, the issue of testing network applications requires something more than just an API gateway.
Developers need a platform that offers a comprehensive set of services including sandboxes, user aids, use-case examples and network access to perform component testing, integration testing and end-to-end application testing. Without this, application developers will be ill-equipped to benefit from these new capabilities.
For developers, a significant benefit is the ability to run applications globally, regardless of where a network provider is located. However, if they were tasked with ensuring global compatibility, they’d be faced with the time-consuming task of forming individual partnerships with countless network operators.
The aggregator model, referenced by the GSMA Open Gateway Initiative, is a solution to that. It offers a platform that aggregates access from various underlying networks, connecting seamlessly to developers. This approach is a far more efficient alternative than developers directly engaging with each network provider. Embracing standardized interfaces within the telecom industry eases integration. Additionally, the aggregator platform equips developers with the resources they need, facilitating “any-to-any” connections between their applications and various networks.
Practical steps forward
In late September, the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress event in Las Vegas turned its spotlight on telecom APIs, fostering a meeting ground for application developers and communication service providers.
This gathering emphasized collaboration and integration. A central feature was GSMA’s ‘Developer Challenge,’ where developers were invited to a test platform, guiding them in designing and testing applications that harness the capabilities of underlying networks through APIs.
Come February 2024, the best of these will be celebrated at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
As the industry looks to make advanced 5G services more attainable, it continues to take steps to bring together network operators and application developers to enhance cooperation and deepen the shared interest of making telecom APIs a reality.
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