Telco application programming interfaces (APIs) have been heralded as the key to monetizing 5G by operators and industry groups alike. But for all the hype, APIs have thus far failed to deliver meaningful results. And there are two key reasons why: The APIs themselves are – to put it kindly – a hot mess, and, crucially, hyperscalers aren’t really hyped about them.

The latter is a huge problem. Why? It’s true that traditional vendors Ericsson (via Vonage) and Nokia as well as Infobip have been hustling to make network APIs available to developers. But telcos need hyperscalers to really reach developers at scale and give them the quality of experience they’re used to.

“The ultimate impact of this sector-wide API strategy relies on the participation of scaled distribution partners, most importantly hyperscalers and Open Gateway aggregators – companies that connect multiple operators to multiple developers,” industry association GSMA wrote in a report released last week. GSMA has been leading the API charge with its Open Gateway initiative, which currently has 17 live APIs and another 11 defined as part of its CAMARA project.

The report celebrated the fact that 49 operators have now signed on to use Open Gateway APIs, up from 30 in June 2023. Further down, though, the same report noted that of the big three cloud companies, only AWS offers commercial access to Open Gateway APIs, and even then, it’s only really offering Vonage’s software on its marketplace. (The report was presumably written before Google Cloud and Nokia inked their API pact, but still.)

Operator adoption is great. But the aggregators – the hyperscalers plus Ericsson, Nokia and Infobip – are the ones with the best developer resources. And zooming in even further, cloud hyperscalers have the biggest built in developer audience. Let’s be real: Nokia, for instance, does not have the same level of developer community that Amazon does.

So, why have hyperscalers taken a back seat? Part of the problem could be that the cloud titans are having trouble seeing the value of telco APIs.

“I think the confusion that we all have is that the APIs are magic,” AvidThink Founder Roy Chua told Fierce. “The value is not the API. The value is the services enabled by the API.” And the services telcos have been droning on about the most like SIM swap and identity verification, are – at least from a cloud perspective – underwhelming, he said.

“The only thing that’s useful is QOD, quality on demand, but that’s hard. And that’s why they never talk about it, because it’s hard,” Chua continued. “Fundamentally underneath the QOD is a full orchestration resource modernization. They need to figure that out, they have to.”

Chua acknowledged that operators have to walk before they run when it comes to APIs, but said “we’re barely crawling at this point in time.”

He continued that it’s not a question of whether or not hyperscalers are committed to the telco market. But for cloud players to really get on board, they need to see that telcos have embraced and are capable of delivering APIs. And that hasn’t really happened yet, Chua said.  

Patchwork playground

For all that industry groups have tried to organize the telco API push, it still seems to be rather … disorganized.

TM Forum CEO Nik Willetts was the latest to hail the “revolutionary” potential of telcos APIs during his keynote address at the DTW conference last week. But he was almost immediately followed on stage by a panel of CTOs who blew holes in the theory that APIs are ready for prime time.

Deutsche Telekom CTO Abdu Mudesir, for instance, noted that telcos need to get on the same page when it comes to actually implementing their APIs if they want to woo developers.

“If I’m a developer … and I get one API to call for certain functionality and if I now, when I go to the U.S., need to do a completely new development because AT&T uses a completely different API, nobody is going to buy from us. They’ll need an abstraction layer,” he said.

In an interview with Fierce, AT&T SVP and Network CTO Yigal Elbaz explained that part of the problem is that “not all networks have the same level of ability to expose APIs.”

Quality on Demand is a 5G standalone API, but not all operators have deployed a standalone core yet. In contrast, SIM swap doesn’t require a standalone core.

“So, the timing of deploying some of the capabilities may vary between operators. How scaled it is can vary between operators. How much of your network is open and can be exposable to APIs is not equal to everyone,” he said.

Elbaz added that while the industry has done a good job identifying a common goal and working together toward standardization, there’s still work to be done.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working the supply,” he concluded. “Now we need to work demand … working with developers and enterprises and system integrators.”

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