In this episode of The Broadband Bunch, recorded at the Broadband World Forum 2019, we speak with Robin Mersh, CEO of the Broadband Forum. Broadband Forum is focused on accelerating broadband innovation, standards, and ecosystem development.
Robin shares the Broadband Forum’s vision, his observations on the state of collaboration in the industry and marketplace trends.
Robin Mersh: I’ve been in telecoms for about 25 years, working for operators and vendors in hardware and software. I was approached 13 years ago to join the Broadband Forum. Interesting enough, they were looking to not just have kind of operational management of the forum, because it’s a nonprofit. It’s an organization of its members, but we have a team of staff. It needed more of a full-time strategic leadership. I don’t want to kind of make that sound sort of too grand because it’s also … Obviously comes from the membership itself, but it needs some organizing and sort of focus.
I took the job and it’s gradually become not just that operational role, but the strategic role. Because as the industry has been changing so radically, you can’t do all of the work in an organization like this kind of … You can’t do it all bottom up. Traditionally speaking, that’s how standards work. It’s contribution driven by members, but you can’t do it all that way. And of course there’s lots of relationships you need with other organizations. You need to attract new members as sectors converge, you need to reach out from telecoms to other verticals. So that takes some organizing and staffing.
Pete Pizzutillo: And it needs a neutral perspective, one that can see holistically what’s going on as an industry, rather than as the specific sub industries. Having somebody that’s looking at all the stakeholders and potential stakeholders and able to say, “Hey, here’s how we become more inclusive and collaborative.”
Robin Mersh: Particularly when you get to issues like the relationship between operators and vendors there’s … I mean, at times there can be some tension. It’s is a partnership, but also a commercial relationship and so that’s area sometimes needs neutrality. The other area that needs neutrality is that the vendors have got to work together to produce interoperable systems. And of course they have to compete with … I mean, they should compete with each other. We need them to. But on the other hand, we need them to cooperate when it’s necessary.
Pete Pizzutillo: How would you characterize the Broadband forum’s mission as it stands today?
Robin Mersh: Frankly, it hasn’t changed since we were formed 25 years ago. The original purpose was to bring standards to market. So people like the ITU, SE, they’ve all been very good at developing standards for technologies.
What was missing though was that standards didn’t do much of a job taking back to a global market. So that’s what the old DSL Forum, that was our old name, that’s what we were invented to do – market the technology and to understand what barriers there were either commercial or regulatory or technical, and to try and address those issue.
Over time, it has become increasingly more technical issues. So around interoperability, that ended up being one of the big issues and management as well was another one. So our real aim is to drive the mass market.
Pete Pizzutillo: It’s interesting also, over the same time period software’s taking a larger role in every industry. But I think there’s a greater appetite from the software industry to be collaborative and open. To cooperate versus compete, but still have a proprietary capitalistic view protected. So having somebody that can facilitate and be the catalyst for that for this industry is a pretty important role.
Robin Mersh: I definitely agree. Software has been around for a very long time in Telcom. Broadband was driven by software. It was the algorithms that developed DSL technologies and all the other broadband technologies. But there’s no doubt that as we’ve looked more and more at maybe making the telecom operation be more maybe efficient and agile. People have wanted it to look maybe more like the way a data center’s developed. That’s where the original ideas came about virtualization.
That’s become increasingly important, but of course everyone’s very interested in the possibilities. There is a lot of potential, but how do you actually do it? I mean, is it just a question of throwing a bunch of software together, coding it, put it on GitHub, and hey presto, it all works?
That’s where the Broadband Forum has been interested. How do you do it particularly in a legacy environment? Maybe legacy isn’t the best way of putting it because it makes it sound like it’s just old. There’s a billion subscribers and you sort of think, what does that billion subscribers generate annually? Globally? It’s a very rich market. And I’m sure CFOs would a resonate with this and CEOs. It’s you don’t want to cannibalize that revenue.
Pete Pizzutillo: So maybe we’ll look at it as before SDN and after SDN.
Robin Mersh: Maybe. I think it’s only going to be true though if SDN really leads to new services. We can’t just do the same old – even if we did it sort of faster and cheaper, does that really sort of get us to where we want to sort of be? Because we all know about the ARPU argument and data rates going up and ARPU going the way. Do you really arrest that by doing things faster and cheaper? I don’t think so. I think new services are what marks it out. So maybe if we moved to truly new 5G services or things in IOT. Or if driverless vehicles take off, then you could see new revenue stream. But then you might sort of say, “Yes, this was the point that it changed.”
Pete Pizzutillo: We talk about the difference between value innovation and technical innovation. One of the concerns I have around SDN, software defined network, is it is conceived as a technical innovation, a new way of implementing things. But I think what you’re pointing at is we can’t rest on that technical innovation as an efficiency play or cost reduction play. We need to appeal to the business side, to the competitive side and come at it from a value innovation. So this becomes an enabling capability or platform to do all the other things that we’ve been thinking about. Do you see that mentality with the folks that are involved with the Broadband Forum now?
Robin Mersh: There’s sometimes, and I still think it’s … And I think that’s kind of what you’re hinting at, is there can be a disconnect between the technologists and the business guys. I’m not saying there’s a magic bullet. I think there is a lot of very active discussion about potential for new services. So when people are talking for 5G and what fixed mobile convergence could still be … Because obviously there’s a big play for fixed. It’s what kind of services can we imagine happening? Because I don’t think we’re at the point of saying what really is a converged service. Can we say there is one today? No.
Unless you build the platform, of course, you’re never going to get to that point. It’s a bit of chicken and egg, but people will say things like, “What’s the killer app?” I don’t know. It’s like, you can sort of say that IOT is an interesting area. We know that there’s some interesting business applications. There’s no doubt that the technologies we’re developing are creating some real potential. And I don’t want to kind of downplay the idea of kind of doing things faster and cheaper. No one’s going to argue that … Doing these things is a good thing. I think maybe in the long run it’s just not enough.
Pete Pizzutillo: What is your strategy in recruiting members? Are they coming to you? Are you actively going after beach heads within the different sub domains to try to get to a critical mass or the right combination of folks to help the supply chain really kind of buy into this thinking?
Robin Mersh: It’s a little bit of both. We certainly do reach out, but certainly we also have companies coming to us that are interesting and innovative. But maybe I should sort of take a step back and say, so who traditionally are the members? Standards traditionally are driven by tier one operators and their supply chain. It’d be the chip vendors, the system vendors, CPU vendors and test labs and test equipment, manufacturers.
But that has sort of changing because as you’re sort of seeing the potential around some of the open source activities and software defined access, all those kinds of areas that are potentially opening the market. We’ve had quite a lot of startups join the forum and we try to be startup friendly because we know that it’s a tough world as a startup. We tried to make it as inexpensive as possible, make it easy to engage. We have collaborative tools and a well-thought out policy towards intellectual property. So we’re a RAND organization with our standards, but we also have a lot of open source projects that are related to our RAND zero.
We try to adapt to what is ever kind of correct for a project. Very often the bigger operators will point back to standards and say, “Your idea sounds great. I think you need to engage in the Broadband Forum.”
Pete Pizzutillo: Help our audience understand the nuances between the different open standards out there. How should they think about Broadband Forum in regard to other organizations?
Robin Mersh: We have a lot of good relationships in the opensource communities. So we’ve done work with ONAP. We’ve got a project ongoing with them and one with prpl Foundation, which are active in the residential gateway. We had lots of discussions with the ONF, looking at sort of how we relate what we’re doing within software to find access and obviously what they’re doing.
We are trying to marry open standards and opensource because we think you can’t really have one without the other. You can’t just code, and code, and code, and produced new releases and just throw it over the wall. It needs a standard structure.
We are very good at deployment models, architecture, and documentation. All the things you expect in a standard, but you also just can’t have standards on their own because that’s just too slow. You’ve got to produce software and you’ve got to also, I think produce something which is easily digestible by the industry.
One benefits of open source is that it’s agile and a very fast way of developing things that are just plumbing. It’s not really where the innovation is directly, but it’s what enables the next level of innovation. This week we had a workshop of operators and they were making interesting points about where they thought things should go. So they weren’t saying everything has to be opensource.
We got into this discussion where it was like, “Okay, if it’s not 100% opensource, what should it be? What do you think is the right balance?” And they were sort of saying, 60/40, 70/30 because there’s got to be room for the vendor to make money and innovate.
Pete Pizzutillo: Is there a cultural bias that you’re dealing with because openness is not organically something that we all were brought up with? If you were talking to a younger community, do you think they’d have a different view on cooperation versus competition?
Robin Mersh: It’s a great question, but I would say that this goes back to the point, I made earlier, we’ve been around for 25 years and some of the aims of the organization actually haven’t changed. What has changed is technology. Our original aim in terms of developing the mass market, standardizing so you can do interop and drive complexity down, that’s always the euphemistic way we put it. Drive complexity down. Is not really any sort of differently than opensource.
Open source, you could say is a logical extension of open standards. If you see it in those terms, then I would say the most interesting thing from a Broadband Forum perspective and our developers, our kind of participants is, it is true to sort of say that probably in the more traditional areas of where broadband has been most active. Access does tend to sort of be … Because it’s been around a longer time, you’ll see may be a difference in age.
I’m trying to be delicate here when I say this, but there’s no doubt. If you look at the connected home, which is the area that’s developing sort of like probably … We’ve been doing that for quite a while, but it’s still developing very actively.
If you look at the sort of companies and the participants in that area, tend to be a lot younger. And they are very much software guys. They’re very excited about sort of developing systems that sit on the end of an access network, but they allow the user to get a higher quality of experience where they’re getting their kind of gaming activities in a sort of seamless way. That your taking advantage of all that bandwidth that we’re giving to them.
I don’t sort of think it’s the two worlds have to exist separately. I mean, maybe we need to do a better job in the broadband industry as sort of saying this stuff is critical for the future of ICT more sort of genuinely because, how do you deliver all of these great services? You need the broadband network, this stuff shouldn’t be undersold. Sometimes people sort of say things like, it’s the plumbing. But plumbing is really important. If you have blocked plumbing, it doesn’t lead to good things.
Pete Pizzutillo: What are your takeaways from this event?
Robin Mersh: I think that the discussion is getting very real about software defined access. That’s probably the most important sort of thing. But second, I’d also sort of say is getting very serious about truly kind of more smart home IOT kind of related sort of services as well. That it’s moving beyond some of the, isn’t this stuff great and there’s really good potential. You’re starting to see a lot more real things. The two projects we’re doing, one’s on software defined access and the other one is User Services Platform (USP). Is about delivering next generation services. The demonstrations are really, really good. But we’re also sort of like … We know that there’s real deployments that are starting to sort of happen. I think we’re getting to more of that kind of realization. Is there enough of that yet? No, I’d like to see a lot more. But I think you can definitely sort of see some progress.
Pete Pizzutillo: A lot of it’s all consumer oriented and I guess that’s because of the clientele that we’re dealing with. But some of the productionized IOT in the industrial side is interesting. You’re right, there’s way more comfort level in terms of domestic IOT solutions and thinking,
Pete Pizzutillo: How can people find out more about you and your organization?
Robin Mersh: We have a very extensive public website. It’s www.broadband/forum.org. Go there. You can get anything you sort of want. We’re totally an open organization, so you not only can get all of our produced materials, but you can also very easily get a window into what we’re doing. As I say, we’re totally, totally open. We’re there for the whole community. So anyone interested in broadband, get involved.