The reshaping of the telecommunications landscape is proving a painful process. VoIP and broadband TV are forcing service providers to innovate at unfamiliar speeds.
Part of the problem is dealing with inflexible operations support systems (OSS), the “back office” software used by carriers to manage their networks and the services they deliver to customers.
Often, OSS have been hand-built in house and even commercial products require massive customisation.
“It’s like buying a suit off the rack and having a tailor take it apart and reassemble it,” says Jim Warner, president of the TeleManagement Forum, an OSS industry group. “Operators spend more than $10bn a year gluing this stuff together.”
This annoys Paul Grantham, software and systems vice-president at US broadband provider Covad Communications.
“We are wasting resources on back office integration rather than investing in innovation that makes us stand out,” he laments.
Open source software can greatly reduce this “integration tax”, they both agree.
Covad makes all the interfaces it develops freely available to other carriers and OSS vendors.
“It’s a benefit to Covad if these interfaces get better and are maintained by a community of users,” says Mr Grantham.
For now, open source is used primarily for “glueware” interfaces that link systems together.
But proponents believe generic applications that do not confer competitive advantages on their own, such as trouble ticketing, are also good candidates for open source.
“It’s what you do with those systems that’s important,” says Mr Warner. Mr Grantham believes 70 per cent of OSS applications used by telcos are generic and should therefore move to open source.
Viatel, a pan-European operator, already uses open source network monitoring and provisioning tools.
“We use open source when the quality is the same or exceeds that of other available software. We think the best network monitoring tools are open source,” says Roberto Bonanzinga, senior vice-president of business development.
Still, open source OSS has its sceptics.
Lorien Pratt, an analyst at Stratecast Partners, does not see momentum behind open source OSS. “We do more than 100 briefings a year with operators and vendors. But nobody is talking to me about open source,” she says.
Vonage, the VoIP provider, is cautious. Kerry Ritz, UK managing director, says: “We use a fair bit of open source but are not introducing stuff that’s esoteric. Our call processing software is proprietary.”
Industry observers agree it is unlikely that big telcos will ever download entire OSS systems such as billing platforms from the web.